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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This site is too marvellous for its own good.

That feeling that something you’re involved with is less great than it ought to be is familiar to all of us. But this week I found out the hard way that I had done the precise opposite, creating something a lot more powerful than I had imagined.
This, it turns out, is the reason why this web site has been in and out of use for the past few weeks. It’s a modest enough corner of cyberspace, just a few pages, a few dozen posts, and hundreds rather than millions of visitors. It’s designed for a select readership in the universe I know about: people into journalism, science, higher education, university ranking, media training, futurology and the like, and ideally with a lavish budget for my skills in these areas.
But there’s the rub. While the site is tiny, its footprint is huge. Because of its subject matter, it has links to, and more important, back links from, top universities, government departments, scientific societies, university rankings bodies including QS, the one I work for, media organisations, and other bodies with significant volumes of online gravitas.
Last year I noticed the first signs that all was not well with the site. Larger or smaller areas of white began to appear in this blog, and a look at the maintenance version showed that the spaces were filled with stuff I had not written – miles of links to Canadian pharmacists offering Cialis and Viagra, whatever they are, and, bizarrely, plugs for shoes from a globally-known maker of sports goods.
Shortly after that all the plugins that are used to control vital functions on the site vanished, as did my ability to load any new ones.
Not long after that the site itself went offline, in a denial of service attack presumably facilitated by these changes. In one day it had 27,000 Chinese and 17,000 Ukrainian visits. Aren’t there better things to be getting on with in Ukraine right now?
While my web hosting firm was able to get the site back online on an erratic basis, I realised at this point that I needed some proper help, and here my growing links to the Suffolk business world (see below) came in handy. Green Shoots Learning, a terrific and highly eco-friendly training business with which I hope to be working soon, put me in touch with Lindsey and Simon Trainer, and they know all this backwards. They explained that the authority of the links to this site gets lent to the evildoers who add their own text to it, making it an easy way to bulk up their online credibility. The hackers had also removed my plugins in order to disable the protection that they are meant to provide.
With this knowledge, it proved possible to have an informed discussion with the folk at the hosting company, and this led to the plugins reappearing and the site stabilising, at least thus far. Removing the bogus links will take longer, and there seems to be no simple way of preventing its reappearance. Still, nice to know that my raw cyber power draws admiring glances around the world.

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MPs get it right…… (yes, no joke)

What could be more heartening than a Parliamentary vote that actually gets something right? For me, it might be a Parliamentary vote that also makes clear the limited power of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in the UK.
These two bodies split apart in the reign of Henry VIII (see the work of David Starkey or Hilary Mantel for the full detail). Catholicism was then supressed, but has now become re-established.
In today’s vote on, er, three-parent children, both of these bodies opposed the idea of avoiding mitochondrial disease by putting the fertilised egg nucleus into an egg with DNA that will make healthy mitochondria. They lost.
Now, what’s this about? BBC Online published a story today about Sharon Bernardi, whose seven children all died of mitochondrial disease, some before they were a day old. Unless I have misread the Christian message, this case alone should mean that the Churches support this initiative with all the energy they can muster.
But no. Instead, they managed everything from calls for delay (the whole thing has been discussed and researched for years, you just weren’t listening) to denunciations of slippery slopes to designer babies. In fact, mitochondria have almost no genetic content and don’t hand on characteristics. They really just push energy about. Contributing some to a baby does not make anyone a parent by any rational definition.
Despite this intervention, the “free vote” (one without party whipping, the standard escape clause for alleged issues of conscience) was won 382-128, meaning that 140 MPs were somewhere else at the time.
As well as allowing a terrible disease to be attacked at source, this vote means that world-leading UK bioscience from Newcastle University will be pushed nearer to use. Politicians know that this country is hot at all things bio. This vote helps just a bit to get to get the clever stuff from the lab to the operating theatre.
But this happy result still leaves a question, for me at least. Are the alleged experts in religious ethics who opposed this idea confident that they are in the right business?

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How many words?

I am very fond of the Thirty Million Words initiative. It uses the power of adult-child speech to give kids a better start in life, by encouraging people to speak more to children and build their verbal and other skills. The benefits are proven, for example in later educational attainment.

Why 30 Million? Because of a 1995 paper suggsting that by their 4th birthday, kids from, shall we say, more engaged backgrounds had heard 30 million words more than those at the other end of the caring spectrum. So the idea is to extend these benefits to all.

But I do feel that all these words demand some sums. On your fourth birthday, you’ve been alive four years. So some kids are hearing 7.5 million more words than others in each year of early childhood. That’s 20,548 per day, or 14 per minute, or one every four seconds, assuming that their parents (et al) speak to them non-stop, 24/7. And of course, even the least engaged parents and minders presumably speak to their children a bit. It’s 30 Million more than other kids, not 30 Million total.

No wonder these children go on to do well at school. They are hoping to leave home ASAP and get some relief from all that non-stop jabbering.

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Man swaps Wandle for Gipping…..

One of the reasons for my recent absence from the Blogosphere is that I have been moving house. So far, so ordinary, but it has certainly been educational for me.
So what have I learned by abandoning inner London in favour of Suffolk (in fact, a village just the other side of Ipswich)?
First, the move-to-the-country logic you read in the weekend papers (bigger house with more space for the brood, a garden that is probably eligible for EU subsidies, and maybe even some change left over) is all true. But there’s more to it than that.
I have lived in London most of my life and went native with it years ago. More materially, I have always been an urban dweller, being born and living near Liverpool before college in Newcastle and then shoving off to the (really) big city. Like scousers in general, I love the countryside as a place to visit. But the idea of living there never occurs to us. And I certainly fell on my feet by moving to London. I have watched it turn from a bit of a mess, competing unevenly with cities around Europe, into the global city where everyone wants to be, ahead of New York and out of sight of Paris. There are downsides, like the way even unlovely parts of town are becoming millionaires’ row, but they are far outweighed by the benefits. I could never have had the modest career I have had, met the people I have known, or in general developed as I have, in a different setting.
But all things flow, so…
The first thing you notice in the countryside is that the economy is more visible than in London. Agricultural equipment goes past the house, and builders’ and repairers’ vans seem to be everywhere, along with an unaccountable number of vehicles to do with food and catering. There’s a local incinerator. There’s an egg factory and a lot of industrial estates. So you can see what goes on. If you wander about London, any given building might be full of financial analysts, journalists or medical researchers, but you could never guess which was which.
Next, moving to this underpopulated backwater (one of the least densely inhabited places in the UK) does not get you out of the globalised world. A railway line runs a few hundred metres to the west of the house. It has some passenger trains, including the little rattler that takes my wife to work in Cambridge. But its main use is to shift the thousands of freight containers coming in and out of the big ports at Felixstowe and Harwich. There’s also a main road, the A14, which has the same role, as the big freight artery from the east coast ports to the English midlands. The classic five flows of globalisation are the movement of goods, services money, people and ideas. We can wake at 2am any day and be sure of hearing the first of these flows in full swing.
But for someone with my modest work profile, running a micro-business with global reach from a tiny office, how big a hassle is this rural dwelling thing? It’s certainly true that I can’t just set off to a meeting in London on a whim, like I had grown used to doing. And I need to leave the house about 90 minutes to two hours earlier than I might once have done to get to the airport or to a London railway station.
But the real issue is to do with small journeys, not long ones. If I am going to Taiwan, as I did recently, it’s no hardship to set out a bit earlier than before. But in my recent past, I have also worked regularly in Liverpool, Guildford, Newcastle, Bristol, Swindon and other places in the UK. If you live in London, these are all an easy day trip provided some other organisation is paying for the train. If you start in Suffolk, it gets a lot more complex, and overnight stays get trickier to avoid.
Part of the problem is the sheer amount of thought and effort involved. The village has not got a station, so all sorts of lifts, buses and taxis have to be thought about, putting a time step in the way of any sort of graceful logistics. Dropping off a suit at the dry cleaner, or getting a haircut, become serious planning issues. Both of these, you may be aware, are prime concerns of mine. People who live here regard this as obvious, I daresay, but it’s a learning curve for me. It also shows that while the UK has passed Peak Driving and Peak Car years ago, there is little substitute for the car in wide areas of the countryside.
But what’s it like? First, noisy. Between the A14 and the busy side road outside, the traffic noise is far more non-stop than in Tooting. There too, we saw aircraft on the Heathrow glide path, but never heard them. The Army flyers at nearby Wattisham airbase are far more audible as they pass overhead in their weapons-laden Apache and Lynx helicopters (the three-year-old finds this very interesting).
Next, it’s enjoyable. The bad news is that you have to spend a lot of time driving, but the good news is that doing so is painless. And what about this stuff they apparently call “countryside?” Well, I am becoming quite a fan. The sheer hassle of settling into the house is an endless consumer of energy and time, so we have not had much chance to get about locally on foot just yet. But I am enjoying the walks we have done, the villages we have seen, and the way I can take a lunchtime stroll in the woods. There seems to be some wildlife – foxes are rare, compared to inner London, but geese fly by in vast v-shaped formations and deer are an ever-present road hazard.
I’m also struck by how isolated this place is in some ways, and how connected in others. The village is badly off for shops, perhaps because it is halfway between the better-resourced fleshpots of Ipswich and Needham Market. It has one-vehicle-wide roads with passing places, something I thought you only found in the Highlands of Scotland or the west of Ireland. It has no fibre broadband (copper wire 8Mb/s download, 1.1 upload, since you ask). I am fine with this as I mainly make Word documents, spreadsheets and PowerPoints. If I made video, or did anything else involving serious connectivity, it would not be feasible to work here. On the other hand, the snailmail is lovely. We get our post at 8am. In SW17, we got other people’s post at 3pm.
I also get a very definite sense that I am only starting to work out what the place has to offer. In the past I have thought that the UK consists of two places – London and not London. The first has a huge percentage of the people, the money, the cleverness, the big jobs, and all the other good assets. The latter has all these things too, but on a far lesser scale. However, it turns out that not-London is a variegated place. Here, for instance, we have the sea, and great rivers, but no mountains. The sky is pretty dark, and the nearby Orwell Astronomical Society has a big telescope. There must be local business circles, local fitness setups, and all the other machinery you’d expect, waiting to be tapped into if I concentrate on the region a bit. It certainly has some vigorous local politics, and there is a lot of cycling going on. People seem about as friendly or unfriendly as in London, and the community (despite my initial fears) has at least some ethnic variety. So all in all, it’s a success and looks set to be a yet bigger one in time.
The house? That’s a story, like the giant rat of Sumatra, for which the world is not yet ready.

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Buried treasure in SE14

The theatre is not a regular preoccupation of this blog, but don’t panic. I don’t have an opinion about whether you should see the Aldwych version of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

But who could resist being summoned to the Gordon Wood Theatre at Goldsmiths, University of London (disclosure – clients of mine) to a play commemorating 50 years of the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour? Not I. After all, as the Paris-based researcher who sat next to me said, the AISB is the place to be if you want to see ground-breaking dialogue between engineers and philosophers.

Godfathered among others by Mark Bishop, chair of the society and professor at Goldsmiths, MIL-STD 1815 is a two-hander performed by Stephen Hudson and Julia Jade Duffy. It wanders the centuries with ease. From the 19th century, the actors play the poet Byron, his daughter Ada Lovelace, and computer pioneer Charles Babbage, to whom Ada was muse; then Alan Turing and others from the 20th century; and in the 21st, a lawyer and an academic discussing autonomous weapons. These devices are one of the current age’s most problematic manifestations of the issue of whether machines can think, a debate dating back to Babbage and rendered vivid by Alan Turing’s famous Turing Test.

The play is an astonishing display of acting prowess, with long, complex dialogue (there are even some equations), plus long spells of demanding dance and movement, by both actors, especially Duffy.

Its link to the present reflects Bishop’s interest in weapons systems which can take a decision to shoot on the basis of rules which they are free to interpret. Does such a device take decisions, much as you or I might, and if so is it alive and might it, not its maker or owner, have responsibility for its actions? (By the way, Mark was entitled to be a little out of it last night. He has just organised a major international conference, seen a play onto the stage and become a father. Yes, the baby is Ada, as in Lovelace. Oh, and he is a leading light of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.)

The existence of quandaries such as this illustrates just what the world lost with the death of Alan Turing, who saw these issues with astounding clarity. Today, by contrast, few aspects of current British life are as satisfying

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as Turing’s rehabilitation, and last night I was especially happy about it. Having decided to ask the person sitting next to me how she came to be there, I was delighted to be told that she is his great niece, herself a computing graduate and teacher. At one point in her life, she explained, people looked blank when she told them of her relative who more or less invented modern computing. Now everyone knows who he was.

She enjoyed the play (and laughed a lot at the bit, based in reality, where Turing tries to recall where he buried his life savings). But apparently she, her sister and her mother are even more entranced by the Turing movie, now out, with the inevitable Benedict Cumberbatch. There are some things even Goldsmiths can’t compete with.

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The phlogiston of astrobiology

Are you in the zone? If so, why?

To start at the beginning, you do know what phlogiston is, or was, I hope?
Nowadays we accept that when something burns, it is swallowing oxygen. But before oxygen was discovered, people thought that when material burns, it is giving off something, not absorbing it. That’s why if you burn a piece of wood, the ash weighs less than the wood did to start with. That thing that it loses is phlogiston.

Today we appreciate that while this makes perfect sense, it is also untrue. So instead, let’s take aim at an even simpler target.

Like the origin of the universe, the question of life beyond the Earth is a knotty one that is now becoming a matter of experiment and evidence, not speculation. There’s just one problem. All our knowledge of life comes from one planet, the one you are sitting on. (Unless you are reading this on the International Space Station. In that case, please get in touch.)

Much of what’s written about “astrobiology” (aka exobiology) suffers badly from this drawback. It’s easy to find articles proving that (for example) life would find it tricky to get going on a planet with no Moon, or in a solar system without Jupiter or a comparable giant planet, or without a strong magnetic field, or in a multiple star system. While we are now getting to appreciate the sheer

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variety of exoplanets (planets of stars other than the Sun), the literature is still crammed with anthropomorphic stuff assuming that other life will use DNA, or evolve by natural selection. Certainly there is little material on the idea of life developing elsewhere than on a planetary surface.

To be clear, I don’t know that these ideas are wrong. But I do know that today’s astrobiologists are more or less like people who have only ever spoken Danish but who are now writing books on the world’s languages. As soon as they encounter Japanese, English or Swahili, their current ideas will seem absurdly under-informed.

It may strike you that there is not much we can to clear this miasma until we find some extraterrestrial life. Not so! There is one idiotic concept in astrobiology that we can kill off right now.

This idea is the “habitable zone.” It sounds rational. It’s essentially the region round a star where you might get liquid water and balmy (but not too balmy) conditions on planetary surfaces. In other words, places like Earth. The brighter the star, the farther out this annulus of la dolce vita may be found.

What’s so terrible about this notion? Everything. First, it’s stupidly anthropomorphic, being based on the idea that liquid water is the starting point for habitability. Also, whether a specific planet is in the zone can change over time. Mars has had liquid water, but no more, because it has lost too much of its atmosphere.

But at the risk of falling into the same trap, let’s just think what we know about life on Earth. It works by passing information on building and running creatures down through generations, with slow change over time. It involves raw materials. It needs energy. The rest is detail.

In this context, it’s easy to find places that have energy and raw materials well beyond the definition of the Sun’s habitable zone. What about Io, the volcanic satellite of Jupiter? Even more obvious, how about Europa? Like Io, it’s one of the four big satellites of Jupiter discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610. It has a shiny ice carapace below which there is probably liquid water, kept warm by tidal energy.

The Jovian system is massively beyond any possible definition of the habitable zone,

but is just one place we know of that has all the necessities for life. Indeed, another place that may match the criteria is the interior of Jupiter itself. So can we please get out of this sloppy linguistic

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Humanity among the stars

As usual, Burlington House in London was the place to be on the second Friday of the month, from October to May the scheduled slot for the Royal Astronomical

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Society to gather. This time the theme, at least for me, was the extraordinary numerical precision that the Earth and space sciences are capable of while remaining a distinctly human activity.

Take the first speaker, Nils Olsen of the Technical University of Denmark (the world’s 137th best in the ranking system of which I am part). He’s an expert on the Earth’s magnetic field. You probably don’t appreciate just how feeble the Earth’s magnetism is. The field is about 60 microteslas strong, ie millionths of a Tesla. Your local hospital has an MRI machine with a field of 1 to 7 Tesla.

You may think, like I did, that this magnetism is caused by molten iron in the Earth’s core, which starts about 2900km below your feet. Mostly it is. But 3 per cent of it comes from magnetised rocks in the Earth’s crust, the bit we all stand on. And we even know that 2 nanotesla of the field, two billionths of a Tesla, come from water circulating in the oceans. Because seawater is salty, it conducts electricity, so its movement creates a magnetic force.
OK, how handy is this knowledge? Well, it’s useful for purposes like improving the accuracy of the GPS system. But it also allows Olsen and colleagues to model the Earth’s core and calculate that the iron in it is convecting at about 30km a year. It’s impossible even in principle to design a machine to visit the core, and yet people can find out all about it.

Or if that didn’t do it for you, what about the last speaker, Andrej Prša of Villanova University? You may know that most stars in the sky are not single objects like our Sun, but instead form pairs, or even more ambitious units of several stars. Because you can then observe them orbiting and crossing each other, multiple star systems allow ridiculously exact measurements to be made of their size, light output, mass and other characteristics. On a diagram he showed, there were no errors bars, because they would be smaller than the dots on his chart of the mass and size of the stars viewed by the US Kepler space telescope.
This precision is allowing us to take astronomy, always regarded as one of the “exact sciences,” to a new level at which we can work out, for example, that 0.12 of the mass of the Sun is the smallest size for a functioning star. But Prša himself, an enthusiast with an excessive liking for the term “awesome,” left us in no doubt that it’s human imagination that has given us this new way of getting unprecedentedly familiar with our galactic surroundings.

It’s hard to tell whether Prša was the afternoon’s highlight, or the speaker immediately ahead of him, Steve Fossey of University College London (4 in the Rankings, since you ask). He and his students have become overnight stars, as it were, for discovering a supernova in a nearby galaxy, M82. This was a purely serendipitous discovery that accidentally scooped all the big supernova finding programmes that have sprung up in recent years – including one whose optics were swamped by its sheer brightness. As a result, Fossey and his students are now famous for finding a supernova while eating pizza in North London. But be clear about one thing. Fossey may have had serendipity on his side, but his presentation left me in no doubt that in this case, as Pasteur put it, chance favoured the prepared mind. His students are exceptionally lucky to have had a billion to one chance turn up, but also to have been

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put in a position to grab it. If university education in the UK is worth £9000 a year, Fossey and people like him are the reason why.

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