Science Friction in the moshpit

I had such a great time chatting with Natasha Mitchell, host of the Australian Broadcasting Company’s wonderful Science Friction programme, about metal, moshers, and mechanics (of the quantum variety)[1]…

Wonderful choice of an enthusiastically headbanging L7 for Natasha’s tweet there. L7 may not have been metal but they rocked a hell of a lot harder than some metal bands whose gigs I’ve attended. (In case the link in the tweet doesn’t work, the podcast of the interview is here.)

Also not metal — but one of my favourite bands nonetheless — is the quintessentially British XTC. Science friction burns my fingers

[1] Dammit. Now kicking myself not to have worked a suitably strained reference to quantum mechanix into the interview…


Bullshit and Beyond: From Chopra to Peterson

Harry G Frankfurt‘s On Bullshit is a modern classic. He highlights the style-over-substance tenor of the most fragrant and flagrant bullshit, arguing that

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says
only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye
is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

In other words, the bullshitter doesn’t care about the validity or rigour of their arguments. They are much more concerned with being persuasive. One aspect of BS that doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves in Frankfurt’s essay, however, is that special blend of obscurantism and vacuity that is the hallmark of three world-leading bullshitters of our time:  Deepak Chopra, Karen Barad (see my colleague Brigitte Nerlich’s important discussion of Barad’s wilfully impenetrable language here), and Jordan Peterson. In a talk for the University of Nottingham Agnostic, Secularist, and Humanist Society last night (see here for the blurb/advert), I focussed on the intriguing parallels between their writing and oratory. Here’s the video of the talk.

Thanks to UNASH for the invitation. I’ve not included the lengthy Q&A that followed (because I stupidly didn’t ask for permission to film audience members’ questions). I’m hoping that some discussion and debate might ensue in the comments section below. If you do dive in, try not to bullshit too much…



A Night (of entanglement) At The Opera


I’m looking forward immensely to participating in the entangled arts-science event described below. (Thanks to Harry Moriarty (no relation), Impact Officer for the Faculty of Science, for the press release.)

Entanglement! An Entropic Tale is described as “the Romeo and Juliet of particle physics”. Join us at 7pm on the 27th November for this exciting and unusual performance representing physics (including Parallel Universes, Black Holes and Hawking Radiation) through an opera exploring life and death, creation and destruction, and the importance of living life in the present.

First performed at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire’s Opening Festival earlier in the year, this is a one-off performance at The University of Nottingham Lakeside Arts.

The event begins with a an introduction by Gerardo Adesso of the Quantum Correlations Group in Mathematical Sciences and followed by a Q&A panel session with Gerardo Adesso, Philip Moriarty (School of Physics and Astronomy), and Roxanne Korda and Daniel Blanco (Infinite Opera).

Tickets are priced at £8 for students and can be booked via Lakeside Arts.

A graphic depiction of nanotech

Far back in the mists of time — well, towards the tail end of 2015 — I wrote a post for the Making Science Public (MSciP) blog on just why I had done a rather embarrassing U-turn regarding the “Pathways To Impact” [1] statement that is required for every grant proposal submitted to the UK research councils. You can read the full confession here but, in a nutshell, I was very happy to eat humble pie in this case: a grant application for which the Pathways… statement focused exclusively on public engagement (with nary a whiff of commercial appeal or application) was funded.

A major component of that particular Pathways To Impact statement is the commitment to produce a graphic novel stemming from our research. Over at MSciP, my colleague and friend Brigitte Nerlich has been tracking the development of the graphic novel in question, Open Day — the result of a collaboration between Brigitte, the Nottingham Nanoscience Group, and the exceptionally talented duo of Charli Vince and Shey Hargreaves. (I’ve got to stress that the collaboration is very uneven indeed, with Charli and Shey providing both 99% of the inspiration and 99% of the hard graft necessary to bring Open Day to fruition.)

If you want to find out more about how Charli brought Kim, Radhika, and the fluorescent feline below to life (and death…), take a look at the fascinating Open Day: Planning, Talking, and Inking over at Charli’s blog.


[1] Follow that link and you’ll see that the research councils’ primary criterion is “research excellence”. Of course it is.

When is a skeptic not a skeptic?

I’m looking forward to giving this talk for the UoN Agnostic, Secularist and Humanist (UNASH) society (“Think Rationally, Act Compassionately“) on Wednesday…


The ‘blurb’ is as follows…

Everyone is a sceptic these days. The death of expertise, as described so compellingly by Tom Nicholls in his recent book, has unleashed a tsunami of wilfully uninformed ‘critiques’ of everything from the shape of the Earth to the ability of women to do physics. This toxic blend of ignorance, arrogance, and unblinking credulity now fuels a very significant fraction of internet bandwidth. A little learning is indeed a dangerous thing.

In this talk, I’ll focus on the thorny problem of just how we counter the type of scepticism that brought the world Pizzagate, the ‘truth’ about 9-11, and an ever-expanding set of ever-more-ludicrous conspiracy theories. On the way, we’ll consider the style-over-substance rhetoric and pseudo-scepticism that internet gurus like Deepak Chopra and Jordan B Peterson exploit to woo uncritical audiences (of self-proclaimed sceptics.)

I’m hoping that some robust discussion and debate will ensue…

Doctor Who- The Woman Who Fell to Earth

I’m a big Dr. Who fan…

but my Whovian credentials pale into insignificance against those of Alex Allen, a final year PhD student in the Nanoscience Group here at Nottingham. (I recommend Alex’s blog for not only much more on Dr. Who but a series of entertaining reviews of classic albums, spanning many genres.) I was going to write a review of the first episode of the new Dr. Who series, which broadcast last Sunday, but Alex is much better qualified for this job. For what it’s worth, I loved the episode. Alex is a little more equivocal. No more spoilers, however. Over to you, Alex…


This review will be split into two sections. Before and after.


We’re all geeks. It’s just a fact that, at some level, every person has a knowledge (an enthusiasm) for a subject that goes beyond the common standard. I know people that can wax lyrical about Manchester United, Shakespeare, science, philosophy, and one particularly tedious person (he knows who he is) that spent long car journeys with his parents memorising the major A-roads in the UK. I’ve been labelled a geek before, a moniker I neither love nor loathe, because I have knowledge of Doctor Who (both classic series and modern) that is a bit beyond most people’s… tolerance.

I’ve decided that before the episode airs I will share my concerns and hopes. Firstly — and we might as well mention the metaphorical pachyderm — yes, The Doctor is a woman now. I don’t have any problem with this in a vacuum but it does lead me to nerves from the perspective of writing. Let’s take last series as an example, in the introducing of Bill Potts. She was a great character with a brilliant interplay with The Doctor. She was also, as an aside, a lesbian. Again fine, no problem, moving on… Except we couldn’t quite manage that… It was mentioned far more than it should have been and served to drag back the character, just a tad, into having to crowbar in a reference to this fact. Don’t be ham-fisted. Gender and sexuality are not character traits… I think we’re safe with this one though I still remember having this exchange:

“I just think it’s funny that the first thing that she did when becoming a woman forgetting how to drive the TARDIS.”

“Yes but David Tennant, Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi all did the same thing.”

“Yeah but this time a woman did it.”

Sigh from me and move on.

The other thing I should mention is that the show is indeed about a time travelling alien who can go anywhere in time and space. That gives a very deep well to draw from and so just remember – I’m talking to you, Series 11 – just remember that a supposed landmark change is not license to erase everything. I still want to see a TARDIS. By all means forget all of the monsters and villains we’ve seen before for a series but don’t erase them from history. You have very deep roots. I think this is my paranoia and thankfully Whittaker has basically placated me in one sentence just by saying something along the lines of: “it’s a celebration of the old and the new”. I am kind of looking forward to the post-regeneration blur, the picking out of a new outfit etc.

Yes, I’m a Doctor Who geek. I spent enough of my formative teenage years delving into the back catalogues of episodes to the point that I have a mild tendency to emulate the mannerisms of the first four Doctors a lot. I hold my lapels when I wear a jacket. I rub my hands and bumble a little. I’m a fan of a bit of pomp and ceremony. And let’s not forget that little manic grin when getting excited.

Well… What have you got for me this time?


Oh ok – well my opinion matters, doesn’t it?! I just spent 500 words-ish talking about my taste in Doctor Who. I’m going to make this count and I am going to show you why I know!

I’m going to say this right now. Whittaker was wonderful, and I genuinely think that we are holding onto something very powerful here. Some of the scenes with her forging a new sonic… excellent stuff. Shall we talk through the episode? I think I’m obliged to – but should I use classic or modern episodes as a reference? Hey I’ve got free rein! I’ll do what I want!

The TARDIS crew has roughly consisted of one to three people and in the beginning that was fine due to the format but soon it became clear that sometimes the TARDIS was overcrowded. Peter Davison inherited three companions from Tom Baker: Adric, Nyssa and Tegan. It didn’t work and it soon became clear that they sapped development time from each other – for God’s sake Nyssa spent an episode bedridden at one point and by that I mean: didn’t appear.


It’s a big question as to why we have three companions introduced in one episode especially as we have to introduce a brand new Doctor and I have to admit it’s a detriment to the episode. It’s kind of obvious but I think you have to make sure to give the Doctor the most time to develop. With the episode focussing on the Doctor, three companions, one character of the week, one character so fated to die they could be wearing a T-shirt reading “I kicked the Grim Reaper’s puppy” and one villain, the focus was blurred.

So, anyway. Some of the characters get attacked on the train by a metal tentacle monster when the Doctor falls from the sky and starts taking a handle on the situation, Whittaker grabs the presence, and, with everyone now on screen, they investigate a few set-up plot threads. I did enjoy the Doctor making her new screwdriver and the continued chase. Then, of course, we meet the villain, Tsim Sha, who the Doctor refers to as Tim Shaw, something that I will admit continued to tickle me. He’s creepy isn’t he? With those teeth stuck in his face…

So anyway – they get to this big confrontation and our leading lady takes out the chap by taking advantage of his hubris[1], turning his whole plan against him. But, of course, Grace (the character with the metaphorical “I like standing on train tracks” T-shirt) happens to fall to her death and the characters wrap up an admittedly sad situation. Finally the Doctor changes her clothes, first announcing “It’s been a while since I bought women’s clothes.” You know what went through my head at that line? (Yes, it’s geeky. Shut up.) “TARDIS wardrobe, Susan, Barbara, Vicki, Katarina, Sara[2], Dodo, Polly, Victoria, Zoe, Liz, Jo, Sarah-Jane, Leela, Romana, Nyssa, Tegan, Peri, Mel, Ace, Rose, Martha, Donna, Amy, Clara, Bill.” There are always loads of clothes on the TARDIS but I’m fine with the outfit being taken from the charity shop.

Oh… the TARDIS?!

It didn’t appear and it broke my heart a little. Yes, they get teleported into space right at the end in the search for it but you better show it soon or I’m going to get very grumpy and the same goes for the opening theme.

So final thoughts? Cinematography was gorgeous and the music was really sharp, the little sting that played as Whittaker first appeared was so satisfying. The pace was so sub-par seemingly trying to cater a bit too much for everyone, not in the stupid “Doctor Who can’t be a woman” sense, but rather in the “Doctor Who should work for those who won’t like Doctor Who” sense. Have some strength of mind Chris Chibnal and keep the essence around or else risk looking like you’re writing like Gromit plans model rail design…

That new theme music that we got to hear in the closing credits was masterful. A cross between the original theme from the radiophonic workshop and STOMP. Yes! Every time. The companions are strong but should not dissolve into stereotypes like I mentioned (the dyspraxia idea flirted with it.)

Chibnal, prove to me you can write and don’t let your characters eat each other. Give me more Doctor, loads more. Give me my TARDIS. Give me comedy, drama, camp and powerful and we’ll be fine. For now – I don’t know how much I like you but I’m hardly about to go am I.

So that’s my opinion and please don’t let my opinion be a dictatorship of truth. I’m not leading an army and none of us are. I’m just talking about a show I love and will stick with. My obsession doesn’t give me the power to make the subjective into truth. I don’t want hoards fighting over this show in any sense stating it is trying to drive down an alley. For God’s sake, if you’re about to tell me how brilliant or how ghastly it was AND you call yourself a Doctor Who fan then make yourself more like the Doctor. Quote from Doctor 12 … Take it from here, Doctor 13. Alex out.



[1] Word of the day calendar [3]

[2] Don’t argue with me, on this now.

[3] On this blog, I feel obliged to use a footnote or two.



Debunking sexist pseudoscience: A masterclass

OK, Mr. Young. Here you go. Every single one of Strumia’s breathtakingly vacuous and faux-scientific arguments categorically dissected and demolished: 

Now, how about you return the favour? The next time you start clutching your pearls and feverishly scribbling some tired, cliched, uninformed, hyberbolic shite about how “leftists”/”cultural Marxists”/”the PC brigade” are taking over our universities and indoctrinating our children — “Won’t someone think of the children?!”  — why not do a modicum of homework? Don’t credulously believe every piece of bad science you’re told just because it neatly aligns with your ideological prejudices.