50 Years and counting….

As the saying goes, It Was 50 Years Ago Today. Everyone who was alive around Merseyside in 1967 has their Sergeant Pepper story. Here’s mine.

Oddly, it relates mainly to my late father Leslie. He was born in 1915 and was 51 when Sergeant Pepper came out.

He worked his whole life for Tate and Lyle in Liverpool. One of the perks was a big annual shindig at the Adelphi Hotel (the one mentioned in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne). In 1961 (probably) his office mate John Dunn was given the huge sum of £100 to hire a band for this gig. He found quite a good one, but the price was £130. John asked for the extra £30 and management told him to clear off. That’s why the Beatles never played my dad’s office party. John found some lesser band to do the set.

When my father was born, Liverpool’s place in world trade made it one of the most important cities on Earth. It had lost that status by the time he died in 2010. But it did do three amazing things in his lifetime. In World War II it was the centre for the Battle of the Atlantic, and the most bombed place in the UK after London. The scars remained for decades. But the other two things it did are less serious. In the 1960s, Liverpool became the world capital of popular music. And in the 1970s and 1980s, it was the world capital of the beautiful game, something of prime importance to him.

So yes, we bought the LP more or less on day 1. I’ve still got my sister’s copy (plus the CD and a version on a hard drive, useful as we haven’t got a deck for vinyl). I played it a lot and worked out how to plant to stylus on side 2 so as to avoid “Within You Without You.” Obviously it’s one of the canonical records. But it could have done without this bit of George, and it could have done with a genuine rocker instead, doing for Sergeant Pepper what Back in the USSR does for the White Album.

Father enjoyed it hugely and could identify pretty well everyone on the cover, including to his pleasure Albert Stubbins, whom he described as the most gentlemanly football player he ever saw (he was later a noted football reporter in NE England). But my best memory is of first hearing Rita. At the line “When it gets dark, I tow your heart away,” my father laughed the biggest laugh I ever heard.

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A more rounded view

Do you ever encounter those maddening people who insist that medieval folk thought the world was flat? There’s really no telling them of the swathe of evidence (eg Columbus’s calculation of the distance from Europe to Asia westbound) that shows different. In fact they were happy with a spherical Earth, albeit one that was rather static for our tastes.

But .. here’s another line, thanks to a talk by Dr James Hannam, whose book God’s Philosophers is the go-to tome on all this.

Speaking at the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge, at the excellent Spring Meeting of the Society for the History of Astronomy, James told us that when the monarch is crowned, in England or in other European nations, a symbol of their Earthly power is placed in their hand. Is it a dinner plate, he asked? No, it’s the orb.

Case closed.

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The Three-Body Problem: a step too far?

I started reading the science fiction of Cixin Liu for a simple if tragic reason. I have always preferred my Iain Banks with added M, and when both of his voices were silenced as inappropriately as they were, I realised I needed a new science fiction habit. Banks and Liu are as different as can be, and nobody would ever confuse Liu’s miserablist epic of the human future with Banks’s amazing invention of The Culture. Banks was better at irony, and was far more of an optimist about the future of the human race. But they both look creatively at massive volumes of time and space, and manage to have some credible people in there, even female ones. For me, the creation of characters I actually care about is the big test for any author vaguely in the world of science fiction.

The other reason I got interested in Liu relates to the time I have spent in East Asia – Japan, Korea, Taiwan and mainland China – in the past decade. Liu’s work is set in the approximate present (it starts in the cultural revolution) and deep into the future. It is placed in a world where China has become more dominant, but where Americans and plenty of others are also present and important. It’s a welcome perspective that someone needed to take. At this point, by the way, wild applause for his translator Ken Liu, himself a novelist.

Liu’s magnum opus so far (he’s only 53) is The Three-Body trilogy, of which volume one is the Three-Body Problem, named after one of the canonical conundrums of celestial mechanics. If there are only two bodies in the universe, maybe a star and a planet, it’s easy(ish) to work out the future movements of the two from their initial starting point. Introduce a third object, and the calculation gets a whole lot trickier.

In contrast to many previous science fiction authors, Liu regards the universe as a place that’s full of life. And unlike Iain M and many others, he portrays most of that life as genocidal or indeed mundicidal, a term I am pleased to see that Word underlines. Slight spoiler alert: in the first two volumes, war breaks out between the naïve but well-intentioned Homo sapiens and the murderous civilisation of the Alpha Centauri system. (Heaven knows what he makes of the recent discovery of a possible Earthlike planet in this star system.) It needs a massively brilliant plot twist for us to avoid extinction. However, it also becomes apparent that the evil Trisolarans of Alpha Centauri are the least of our worries. They actually plan to leave some of us alive. The real problem is the entire universe, which is a “dark forest,” hence the title of volume two, filled with civilisations that would rather obliterate any possible new arrivals in the universe than ask questions about their intentions.

Liu isn’t afraid of turning on a lot of science, and his inventiveness is astounding. He messes with dimensions, with the velocity of light, with time and space travel and many other big themes. And the handy invention of human hibernation means that his leading characters can appear throughout a plot that runs for centuries, and far more in the final volume.

There is apparently a Chinese-language film of Volume One of the trilogy with a 2017 release date, but the second and third books may prove trickier. In the era of movies about Middle Earth, Mars or Hogwarts, you may think anything can be faked on screen. But the challenges here would be far greater. And the real issue is not about technology. The problem is that the film-makers would have to trample the plot very badly to turn up any sort of feelgood ending. Anything resembling a true rendition of the books would make The Hateful Eight look like Disney. On the other hand, it would be a great project for the endlessly ambitious Chinese movie industry.

In the end, was it worth ploughing through three volumes of ingenious but largely spirit-lowering stuff that we must all hope has no prophetic value? For me, yes. But I prefer Liu’s short stories, such as The Wandering Earth and (even more so) The Longest Fall – the same amazing mind, but a lot less “blow your brains out while you still have them” content.



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Sunny at last

As some of you know, I have been droning on hypocritically for years about how other people ought to use renewable energy, while living the life of a mains-connected electricity and gas consumer.

Well, no more. When we all moved to rural England in 2014, we decided to scope out solar power, and it has finally turned up. The delay has cost us money, because the price we get for the power we export is a lot lower than it would have been back then. But there are compensations, such as the improved technology for optimising the output.

One of the most noticeable things about this area of the country is the sheer amount of solar power being gathered in. Many houses have photovoltaic arrays for electricity (you can get a feed-in tariff on up to 4kW worth), while a fair few have solar water heating. Some commercial buildings have far chunkier arrays. Why has the technology taken off here? From our old house in London we could see just one with a PV array. Here I make it ten, plus one with solar water heating.

The reason may relate to an article I read on a trip to California some time back. It said that solar power has taken off in the countryside, but remains rare in San Francisco. The reason? The fitters hate working in the city because the parking is so grim. Their problem would certainly ring bells with anyone wanting building work done in London.

However, I think the real reason is simply that this part of the world has some enthusiastic small businesses that are quite good at selling PV. We ended up going to a firm called Greenscape Energy, recommended by the electrician working in our house.

When they got going, Greenscape gave us a form to fill in for some national scheme intended to root out rogue traders. In fact, they are the least roguish traders I have ever met. Bafflingly, everyone seemed to be called Rob.

The array consists of four panels on a south-facing roof and another 10 on a west-facing kitchen. The roof needed scaffolding – a problem because the building, a former school, is a lot taller than it looks. The house is also old and complex, as is its wiring logic. All these problems got fixed fast, and there was never any suggestion that the price would go up. And it took two days for the installation and less than a month from the first phone call for the whole process – a serious energy policy point given the decade-plus that new nuclear will take to show up, if it does.

Best of all, the array arrives with a new obsession! The software allows us to see how much power the array, and every panel on it, is producing. Each panel, and the array as a whole, is part of the much-discussed Internet of Things. There’s an App, of course. Gottta have a quick look right now! 3.13kW! Daily production nearly 10kWh, and it’s only mid-afternoon!

So far so good, especially on a nice spring day like this one with the panels doing their stuff.  The array has a gratifying feelgood factor, too. I think of it as our addition to the Suffolk energy mix. We already have onshore and offshore wind, offshore gas, the UK’s only Pressurised Water Reactor, and just down the road and rather more to my taste, Suffolk Energy from Waste. As our 4-year-old will tell you, this award-winning project is “The Incinerator which makes electricity.”

But I have one reservation. We spend far more on gas than on electricity. We ruled out solar water heating because we haven’t got a hot water tank and didn’t want the hassle of getting one. But we do have a garden that produces big volumes of biomass. The obvious answer would be a digester, but they don’t seem to make them in a size small enough for domestic use but large enough to be worth it. Heigh ho.








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Massive surge upmarket!

Usually the many attempts to place spam comments in this feed are all advertising that little blue pill. Today, however, I deleted one offering award-winning university essays in  a range of subjects. That’s practically targeted marketing, as these things go.

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Planet 9 (but only for the deserving)

 In 1781, the Anglo-German astronomer William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus, an astonishing addition to the known universe. He became Sir William, and global renown followed. In 1846, Neptune was discovered by astronomers in Berlin. This time there was a lot less trans-European happiness, with angry debates in Parliament about the incompetence of British astronomers in missing out.

In 1930, little controversy attended the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in Arizona. But there was a good media frenzy. The New York Times led on the story and said that Pluto was at least as big as the Earth, with even wilder suggestions (as big as Jupiter?) on the inside pages.

We now know that Pluto is only one of many tiny objects beyond Neptune, and that none of them is anything like as big as the Earth. So the idea that there is a planet out there (Planet 9 in the jargon) with about 10 Earth masses is a big suggestion. To be clear, nobody has “discovered” such an object by seeing it, as Herschel did Uranus. But they have inferred its existence from the orbital patterns of other, smaller objects. If it exists, it is about as massive as Uranus, but a lot farther away.

Given current interest in these matters (piqued by the recent New Horizons flyby of Pluto), it should be obvious to anyone that even this non-discovery has big news value. So how would Caltech, the top university where the scientists concerned are based, announce it? And what about the Institute of Physics, which publishes the venerable Astronomical Journal (founded 1849) which had the paper?

Not too well, really. They took a decision to issue the story on an embargoed basis to a dozen favoured journalists, mainly from US publications, and leave the rest of the media to work it out for themselves when the paper got published. This is plainly unfair to hundreds of professional, hard-working journalists and their millions of readers, viewers and listeners, but it raises other issues too.

The embargo system is intended to help readers (viewers, listeners….) by allowing reporters to talk to their contacts and get the story right. So if you only tell a select group, you are inviting the others to get it wrong. In fact, one of the 12 broke the embargo anyway, so even the elite dozen did not get the inside track they must have hoped for, let alone everyone else who was left scrambling for the story.

What’s the lesson? First, even big, prestigious organisations in publishing and research can get media relations horribly wrong. Next, exclusivity is a risky strategy. There might be very specialist stories which it is right to issue to a friendly scribbler with an established interest, but this was sure not one of them. Finally, astronomy is the most global of subjects. The 12 were mainly from US media, although UK-based Nature was on the list. So the whole endeavour ended up looking jingoistic as well as ill-considered, and this with a story that was reported around the world.

Although the putative Planet 9 is a lot more distant than Uranus, telescopes have got better in the past 235 years, and it is possible to develop strategies for finding it. Caltech will almost certainly be involved. When it happens, let’s hope they choose to tell the world’s media about it on a more level playing field.

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Seveneves: big but worth it.

Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Seveneves, has many obsessions, but it has one feature that British readers in particular will find endearing. Stephenson has an informed interest in the explorer Ernest Shackleton’s astounding 1914/1916 voyage to the Antarctic, which ended in the loss of the ship Endurance and the near-miraculous rescue of everyone on board. The tale is without a doubt the greatest of British polar stories.
In some ways, Seveneves is very like one of the great Imperial voyages of discovery. For one thing, they were conceived on a massive scale, and so is this book. But in addition, these behemoth expeditions could never just leave port and go somewhere. There had to be a band, waving crowds, and ideally a monarch, to send them off. In the same way, Stephenson can’t just publish a book. There is now a Seveneves Community (!) with a web site, online discussion and Lord knows what else. Over-confidence, or insecurity?
Either way, I haven’t read a book in ages that I could talk about for so long. If you thought “hard science fiction” was in the doldrums, try this. For a fraction of the price of attending MIT, you get robotics, genetics, ecology, astronomy (mainly celestial mechanics), nuclear engineering (and all the ways a reactor can kill you), astronautics, and smaller doses of other sciences I can’t think of. The background work must have been killing. The author’s suspiciously well-informed interest in firearms, so dominant in his last outing Reamde, is restrained here but still pops up from time to time.
To avoid too much of a spoiler, let’s just say that the plot is built on about the biggest scale imaginable. It kept me reading despite the fact that for most of the book, almost everything that happens is unpleasant, for the human race as a whole or for individuals. Unlike most writers in his tradition, William Gibson aside, Stephenson can create characters you care about (even female ones, rarer yet). But he does not believe in wasting words on character development that could be used to describe how two pieces of metal are joined together. Nor does he trust the punter to cope with human speech. Jane Austen never had to tell the reader: “Kath Two understood that the woman was just trying to strike up a conversation.”
Stephenson, of course, has one foot in cyberpunk and that means an acute interest in jury-rigged arrays of wiring, ideally involving zip ties or duct tape, and in other feats of informal engineering. The seeker after this stuff will leave Seveneves happy. But there are also some fine sideways-glance jokes about contemporary events and people, and a plentiful supply of twists, turns and big reveals.
You’ve probably decided by now if this is for you. But even if not, let’s hope Stephenson does more like it. He has a talent, and that talent is for writing books. He also has a total untalent for co-authoring books, such as the grim Mongoliad series. Anything with his byline is worth a read. Anything with his name alongside someone else’s is just a doorstop.

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Editing skills “desirable” for editor? Who knew?

British journalists are prone to getting excited about big job opportunities in the US. After all, the major publishers there (NY Times, Bloomberg…) tend to look over here when they want to find top talent. But what if the job is in College Park, Maryland, rather than Manhattan?

I ask because the Association of British Science Writers email discussion list has just gone crazy about this advert for a new editor in chief of Physics Today, the principal publication of the American Institute of Physics.

This job is indisputably one of the world’s top gigs in science journalism, a notch but no more behind running the real boutique publications such as Science or Nature. So the phrasing of the ad has caught the British eye. It calls for candidates who are “editorially talented,” but under “Qualifications” goes on to add that “A PhD in science with 7–10 years of physics-related work experience is required. A physics degree is preferred. Previous management, editorial, and/or writing experience is highly desirable.”

This sense of priorities takes us straight to a key argument. If the AIP advertised for a chief financial officer, would it specify a PhD in physics as mandatory, and awareness of finance as a nice-to-have? I doubt it. So why in a case like this does the employer not start out by asking for an editor who has the skills of an editor? “How much physics do you know?” can always come in as a nice question at the interview, after all.

The splutterings from UK science journalism’s finest have so far been directed at the AIP, which has certainly got it wrong here. But how has this happened? For me, much of the blame attaches to science journalism itself. The ABSW has been going since 1947 and our US equivalent, the National Association of Science Writers, since 1934. It now has over 2000 members. There are university courses, world conferences, codes of conduct and other bits of structure. So why has science journalism still not got to a level of professional esteem that requires major employers hiring senior science journalists to seek out a member of this community? It’s surely our fault as much as anyone else’s.

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Food, glorious food

A rare parade of big numbers was on the march on Monday, at the launch of the Leading Food 4.0 report from the National Centre for Universities and Business. They were almost striking enough to distract me from the astounding view from Altitude, the 29th floor restaurant at Millbank Tower on the Thames.
It’s impossible not to like the NCUB. It has a simple mission that’s hard to get right – making universities and businesses work together better. I have been an editor and writer on various of their projects over time, including Food 4.0, and enjoy it enormously.
This time NCUB put its head into the lion’s mouth by taking on the problems of an industry that in some ways does not even exist. Right now, there is not one food industry but many, including over 200,000 businesses. NCUB characterises this as the Food Economy, a term that deserves wider use. Here come the big numbers: UK food and drink spending £196 billion: 3.7 million jobs: £19 billion of exports. But someone who owns a farm probably does not think that they work in the same industry as a baker or a shop worker. Many of the firms are too small for much planning or introspection, and are driven by keeping demanding customers happy. Even the trade association are a mess – over 40 for different types of food product, let alone anything else.
This means that the industry has some big systemic problems. Students don’t want to go into food jobs, even though there are plenty of great careers there. The environment gets damaged by small-scale thinking. Innovation is slowed by poor understanding between industry and academe – not that many other parts of the UK economy have got that one right. Meanwhile agriculture alone loses 10,000 people a year by retirement. This is damaging for such a labour-intensive business – 1 per cent of the economy, 2 per cent of the workforce. But in the era of climate change, big data, robotics and all the rest, it’s even more of a problem if bright young people aren’t aware of food as a career option.
The report is full of ambitious ideas to improve things across a broad front, including the creation of a new profession of landscape negotiators who would make the diverse users of big land areas see the sense in joint working.
The group that led the charge was fronted by former Sainsbury’s boss Justin King and Quintin McKellar, vice chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, neither of them people who want to write a report that will look great on the shelf. Can the road ahead they set out actually be traveled? Maybe. After all, everyone thought a few years ago that the UK car industry was dying, and now it’s a massive success and a magnet for graduates.

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Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

Although it happened in 2012, I have only just caught up with this astounding footage from Norway in which a skydiver in flight apparently films a meteorite in mid-air. Well worth a look.
It raises some interesting questions. First, what else could it be? I have seen a lot of meteorites and in the frame-by-frame, this one looks right. And how else does a bit of rock get there? The nearest live volcanoes are in Iceland – far too far. So only a pointless bit of fakery could really produce this effect. Sadly, a ground search did not find the rock, but that’s nothing unusual.
Second, given data on the frequency of skydiving with helmet cameras, could we use this sighting to make a statistically dubious constraint on the growth of the solar system?

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