“Science on Saturday” Goes to 11

This weekend I had the honour and privilege of being the first speaker for the 2019 Ronald E Hatcher Science on Saturday series of lectures held at, and organised by, Princeton’s PPL (Plasma Physics Laboratory).  I’ll let PPPL themselves explain what Science On Saturday is all about:

Science on Saturday is a series of lectures given by scientists, engineers, and other professionals involved in cutting-edge research. Held on Saturday mornings throughout winter, the lectures are geared toward high school students. The program draws more than 300 students, teachers, parents, and community members. Topics are selected from a variety of disciplines.

Named after the late Ronald E Hatcher, who ran and hosted the series for many years, Science on Saturday is a fun way to bring physics (and other lesser sciences) to the general public(s) and other scientists alike. I was bowled over by the enthusiasm and engagement of the audience, who braved a bracing Saturday morning to hear about the connections between Sabbath, Stryper, and Schrödinger.  (The free bagels and coffee before the talk were, I’m sure, not entirely incidental in attracting the audience. I certainly can vouch for the quality of the pre-lecture consumables.) The Q&A session at the end ran for over an hour, with many insightful questions from the audience, whose age range seemed to span ~ 9 to 90 years young!

A number of those who were in the audience e-mailed me after the talk to ask for a copy of the slides. I’ve uploaded them to SlideShare (sans videos, regrettably) to make them publicly available here:


Andrew Zwicker has been the energetic and entertaining host for Science on Saturday for, if I recall correctly, more years than he cares to remember. In parallel with his career in physics, Andrew has successfully forayed into politics, as outlined at his Wikipedia page. Before the lecture he told me about an exciting scheme to encourage more early career researchers into politics. I thoroughly understand the reticence of many scientists to get involved with the political sphere — my involvement with the Royal Society MP-Scientist pairing scheme a number of years ago was an eye-opener in terms of the mismatch that can exist between political and scientific mindsets — but we need to bite the bullet and dive in*, especially in an era when hard scientific evidence is so readily dismissed as “fake news”. (Apologies. Make that “FAKE NEWS” and add any number of exclamation marks to taste.)

On the day of my Science on Saturday lecture, a white supremacist march had been mooted to be held in Princeton (not the most likely of venues, it fortunately has to be said, for that type of hatemongering.) In the end, the basement dwellers never turned up — they claimed that it was a hoax. But the counter-protesters attended in their heart-warming hundreds…

I’d like to offer a very big thank you both to Andrew for the invitation to speak at “Science on Saturday” and to DeeDee Ortiz, the Program Manager for Science Education at PPPL, for organising the visit. A similarly massive thank you to Lori for all of her help and organisation, including providing the key musical “props” used during the lecture.

*Excuse the mixed metaphor. I love mixed metaphors. This, taken from Leon Lederman’s “The God Particle” as an example of writing by one of his PhD students, is my very favourite: “This field of physics is so virginal that no human eyeball has ever set foot in it.” (That quote tickles me so much that I use it as part of the introduction to the final year Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics  module here at Nottingham.)

Rhapsody in Q

While digging through my e-mail archive to find a completely unrelated e-mail from years ago, I unearthed the following wonderful parody progress report (for the month of January 2012) from Julian Stirling, a PhD student researcher in the Nottingham Nanoscience Group at the time.  I just couldn’t leave it languishing in the archive so have released it into the wild here. Julian’s PhD project was focussed on various aspects of the qPlus variant of atomic force microscopy (described by its originator Franz Giessibl in the video below).

At the time of writing his Jan 2012 monthly report, Julian had been working on an analysis of the tip geometry in qPlus AFM which was later published in the Beilstein Journal of Nanotechnology.

Over to you, Julian…

Is this a real force?
Is this just fantasy?
I am not sure if they
Line up with reality

Open a book,
Look up at the maths and see…

It’s not a good guess, look at condition three.
Tips are, rather big, rather long
Rather like, other prong,
Any way the tip moves, all this matters to me.

To me…

I just solved the math,
Put a pen against board,
left no solution unexplored

Da-dah… This has just begun,
Because now I got to work out what it means

Da-dah woo-hooo,
Didn’t mean to stop and cheer
If I’m right there is work to do tomorrow
Carry on, carry on as if nothing’s really finished

Look now, simulation’s done:
Sends vibrations down the tine
Oscillating all the time
Hey look, ev’rybody, the way it moves,
Gotta see the graph and try to face the truth

Da-dah woo-hooo,
I don’t want to stop,
I sometimes wish I’d never solved this at all

I see a little simulation of a tine,
Look at that! Look at that! Do you see the lateral motion?!
Eigenmodes and vectors, simulate detectors! Gee!
Galileo, Galileo
Galileo, Galileo
Galileo, Figaro – magnifico

Its just a theory, no one believes me
Its just a theory, why should we believe thee?
Just take a look at a this spectroscopy!
In it comes, out it goes, will you watch it go?
Bismilah! No, we will not watch it go
(Watch it go!) Bismilah! We will not watch it go
(Watch it go!) Bismilah! We will not watch it go
(Watch it go) Will not watch it go
(Watch it go)(Never) Never watch it go
(Watch it go) Never watch it go (Watch it go) Ah
No, no, no, no, no, no, no
Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia, watch it go,
Beelzebub had a simulation put aside for me
For meeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!

So you think you can model me and predict how I scan?!?!
So you think you can simulate all that I am?!?!
Oh, Euler- can’t do this to me Euler,
Just gotta derive, just got to derive it in full

All this really matters, Anyone can see,
All this really matters,
All this really matters to me…

Any way the tip moves…

’twas the night before Christmas…

Published at the Times Higher Education website Dec 24 2018.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when, on a paper-strewn desk
A mouse is stirring, a blue-toothed pest…

Dear Santa,

I know I’m well past the deadline to submit this annual report and request, but if you’d seen the sack-full of papers I’ve just finished grading, you’d understand. I’ve been a very good boy over the past twelve months, securing a substantial rise in my Student Evaluation of Excelling in Excellent Performance in Teaching Excellence scores and establishing a new programme of physics-cum-engineering research on a topic of particular interest to your team, viz. Sleighed: Under what loads can reindeer achieve speeds of 100 mph or more? Our sponsor, Mr. Holder, is eagerly awaiting snowfall so we can test the latest developments in our state-of-the-art sleigh technology. The impact component of this case is particularly exciting, and we’re looking forward to rolling out the results in the New Year.         

I very much hope that I make it past the Elf Review Panel this time. As you may recall, the damning report from Relferee #3 was instrumental in my ending up on the Naughty List last Christmas. (Yes, I appreciate that the feedback on that particular piece of student coursework was perhaps less restrained than it could have been. And the relferee was absolutely correct to highlight this. But, in my defence, thirty-nine comma splices in a single paragraph would push anyone over the edge.)

I have followed the sage advice of your elves and have substantially reduced the number of presents requested. While I don’t agree with the elf panel’s suggestion that I was vigorously over-egging the pudding last year, I’ll admit that I was perhaps a little bit too full of Christmas spirit at the time I was writing the letter. (You’ll be pleased to note that the five star doggy hotel holiday for Maxwell, my Maltese, is not on the list this year.)

My 2018 Christmas list is as follows, Santa. Fingers crossed that at least one of these is going to appear below the tree this year. (And no fobbing me off with a subscription to the THE. Again.)

  • 4* Paper Detector. I’ve yet to get a definitive answer from anyone, at any level, in any institution, at any time as to what definitively defines a 4* paper in the Research Excellence Framework. No, it’s not the impact factor of the journal in which it’s published, they’ll say. Nor is it the name of the journal, or its perceived prestige. Nor is it the number of citations. Apparently, it’s all about research quality – the panel members actually read the papers and they know quality when they see it. I need a 4* Paper Detector this year, Santa, so I can see what they see.
  • Corporate-Speak DeBolloxerTMEngaging our stakeholders in innovative synergies, going forward, by expressing our USP in an environment where excellence is paramount ….” Arrrggghh. Make. It. Stop. Please, Santa, I really, really, really need the DeBolloxer this year so that I can translate, into gold old honest-to-goodness English, the torrents of this nonsense that infest and infect my inbox.
  • League Table Legends board game (with all-new Metrics Massager). This is both a fun and educational present, Santa. I’ll be able to learn all about the bells, whistles, tricks, and japes that make university league tables such an exciting part of the higher education landscape. Choose a university and manage it to maximise its league table ranking! No need to bother with all that old school 20th century stuff like trusting staff and providing an environment in which they can flourish. No, just rely on massaging the metrics until they bleed – so much more entertaining.
  • “When I Were A Lad…” box-set. (A total of 48 two hour DVDs, each narrated by Jordan B. Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, in his own inimitable style.) I’ve got to be honest, Santa, this one’s not for me. It’s instead a gift for one of my somewhat more jaded and knackered colleagues who, despite all evidence to the contrary, points to those halcyon days of yore when men were real men, women were real women, and students would rise at dawn to do triple integrals, vector calculus, and eigenvalue problems before breakfast, all the while debating the merits of a Keynesian approach to fiscal policy as they composed their latest symphony.

Yours in anticipation,
Philip (aged 50)
School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham, UK

When I were a lad…

…we’d have to get up for a morning tutorial at ten o’clock at night, half an hour before we went to bed… complete all 171,117 problems in each of Schaum’s Outline series on partial derivatives, fluid mechanics, and vector analysis before breakfast… work twenty-nine hours in the undergraduate lab (and pay the lab organiser nineteen and six for the privilege)… and when we got back to the halls of residence, the Hall Tutor would kill us and dance about on our graves while reciting Chapter 1 of Feynman’s Lectures In Physics, Vol I. 

But you try and tell that to young people today and they won’t believe you…

[With all due credit to Messrs Cleese, Chapman et al.]

There’s yet another one of those irksome hand-wringing “…tsk, kids these days…articles in the Times Higher this week. Here’s a sample:

Even science students seem to struggle with mathematics. During my last few years of teaching in the UK, I was aggressively confronted by science undergraduates because I tried to engage them in an exercise that required them to calculate percentages. I was told that this was unreasonable because they were not, after all, doing a maths degree.

In twenty-one years of undergraduate science teaching (to date) I have not once encountered a student who baulked at the calculation of percentages. Granted, I usually teach physicists, but I’ve also taught chemists, chemical engineers, biomedical scientists, and pharmacy students. (I should note that I’m also not the least cynical academic teaching at a UK university.) The reactionary “eee by gum, they don’t know they’re born” whining is teeth-grindingly frustrating because it does a massive disservice to so many of our students.

Last week (as a Christmas, um, …treat) I decided I’d ask my first year tutorial group to attempt questions from an exam paper from 2001. I have done this for the last four or five years so it’s becoming a bit of a festive tradition. Here are two of the questions:


My tutees tackled these questions, and others, with quite some aplomb, despite the paper having been set when they were still in nappies. You may note that the questions involve mathematical (and physics) reasoning significantly more sophisticated than the calculation of percentages.

Deficiencies in the secondary/high school education system are too often lazily attributed to a lack of engagement or effort from students; that THE article is, of course, only the latest in a long line of Daily Mail-esque “We’re going to hell in a hand-cart” polemics in a wide variety of online and traditional forums [1]. In my experience, student ability or commitment has most definitely not dropped off a cliff at some point during the last two decades. Indeed, students are instead generally much more focused now due to the imposition of the £9250 per year fee regime; too focussed in some cases, many would say.

So let’s put the pearl-clutching to one side for a while and instead highlight the positives in higher education: the talents and tenacity of our students. In the midst of the madness that is Brexit, let’s not succumb to the lazy narratives and sweeping generalisations that characterise so much of public debate right now. After all, don’t we teach our students that critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning are core to their education?

[1] …or fora for those who are particularly pedantic and especially wedded to that fifties idyll of English  Latin as it should be, dammit. (Sorry, “damn it”. (Oops, sorry again, make that deodamnatus.))


Beauty and the Biased

A big thank you to Matin Durrani for the invitation to provide my thoughts on the Strumia saga — see “The Worm That (re)Turned” and “The Natural Order of Things?” for previous posts on this topic — for this month’s issue of Physics World. PW kindly allows me to make the pdf of the Opinion piece available here at Symptoms. The original version (with hyperlinks intact) is also below.

(And while I’m at it, an even bigger thank you to Matin, Tushna, and all at PW for this immensely flattering (and entirely undeserved, given the company I’m in) accolade…

From Physics World, Dec. 2018.

A recent talk at CERN about gender in physics highlights that biases remain widespread, Philip Moriarty says we need to do more to tackle such issues head on

When Physics World asked several physicists to name their favourite books for the magazine’s 30th anniversary issue, I knew immediately what I would choose (see October pp 74-78). My “must-read” pick was Sabine Hossenfelder’s exceptionally important Lost In Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, which was released earlier this year.

Hossenfelder, a physicist based at the Frankfurt Institute of Technology, is an engaging and insightful writer who is funny, self-deprecating, and certainly not afraid to give umbrage. I enjoyed the book immensely, being taken on a journey through modern theoretical physics in which Hossenfelder attempts to make sense of her profession. If there is one chapter of the book that particularly resonated with me it’s the concluding Chapter 10, “Knowledge is Power”. This is a powerful closing statement that deserves to be widely read by all scientists, but especially by that especially irksome breed of physicist who believes — when all evidence points to the contrary — that they are somehow immune to the social and cognitive biases that affect every other human.

In “Knowledge is Power”, Hossenfelder adeptly outlines the primary biases that all good scientists have striven to avoid ever since the English philosopher Francis Bacon identified his “idols of the tribe” – i.e. the tendency of human nature to prefer certain types of incorrect conclusions. Her pithy single-line summary at the start of the chapter captures the key issue: “In which I conclude the world would be a better place if everyone listened to me”.

Lost in bias

Along with my colleague Omar Almaini from the University of Nottingham, I teach a final-year module entitled “The Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics”. I say teach, but in fact, most of the module consists of seminars that introduce a topic for students to then debate, discuss and argue for the remaining time. We dissect Richard Feynman’s oft-quoted definition of science: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”.  Disagreeing with Feynman is never a comfortable position to adopt, but I think he does science quite a disservice here. The ignorance, and sometimes even the knowledge, of experts underpins the entire scientific effort. After all, collaboration, competition and peer review are the lifeblood of what we do. With each of these come complex social interactions and dynamics and — no matter how hard we try — bias. For this and many other reasons, Lost In Math is now firmly on the module reading list.

At a CERN workshop on high-energy theory and gender at the end of September, theoretical physicist Alessandro Strumia from the University of Pisa claimed that women with fewer citations were being hired over men with greater numbers of citations. Following the talk, Strumia faced an immediate backlash in which CERN suspended him pending an investigation, while some 4000 scientists signed a letter that called his talk “disgraceful”. Strumia’s talk was poorly researched, ideologically-driven, and an all-round embarrassingly biased tirade against women in physics. I suggest that Strumia needs to take a page — or many — out of Hossenfelder’s book. I was reminded of her final chapter time and time again when I read through Strumia’s cliché-ridden and credulous arguments, his reactionary pearl-clutching palpable from almost every slide of his presentation.

One criticism that has been levelled at Hossenfelder’s analysis is that it does not offer solutions to counter the type of biases that she argues are prevalent in the theoretical-physics community and beyond. Yet Hossenfelder does devote an appendix — admittedly rather short — to listing some pragmatic suggestions for tackling the issues discussed in the book. These include learning about, and thus tackling, social and cognitive biases.

This is all well and good, except that there are none so blind as those that will not see. The type of bias that Strumia’s presentation exemplified is deeply engrained. In my experience, his views are hardly fringe, either within or outside the physics community — one need only look to the social media furore over James Damore’s similarly pseudoscientific ‘analysis’ of gender differences in the context of his overwrought “Google Manifesto” last year. Just like Damore, Strumia is being held up by the usual suspects as the ever-so-courageous rational scientist speaking “The Truth”, when, of course, he’s entirely wedded to a glaringly obvious ideology and unscientifically cherry-picks his data accordingly. In a masterfully acerbic and exceptionally timely blog post published soon after the Strumia storm broke (“The Strumion. And On”), his fellow particle physicist Jon Butterworth (UCL) highlighted a number of the many fundamental flaws at the core of Strumia’s over-emotional polemic.   .

Returning to Hossenfelder’s closing chapter, she highlights there that the “mother of all biases” is the “bias blind spot”, or the insistence that we certainly are not biased:

“It’s the reason my colleagues only laugh when I tell them biases are a problem, and why they dismiss my ‘social arguments’, believing they are not relevant to scientific discourse,” she writes. “But the existence of those biases has been confirmed in countless studies. And there is no indication whatsoever that intelligence protects against them; research studies have found no links between cognitive ability and thinking biases.”

Strumia’s diatribe is the perfect example of this bias blind spot in action. His presentation is also a case study in confirmation bias. If only he had taken the time to read and absorb Hossenfelder’s writing, Strumia might well have saved himself the embarrassment of attempting to pass off pseudoscientific guff as credible analysis.

While the beauty of maths leads physics astray, it is ugly bias that will keep us in the dark.