“The surface was invented by the devil” Nanoscience@Surfaces 2018


The title of this post is taken from an (in)famous statement from Wolfgang Pauli:

God made solids, but surfaces were the work of the devil!

That diabolical nature of surfaces is, however, exactly what makes them so intriguing, so fascinating, and so rich in physics and chemistry. And it’s also why surface science plays such an integral and ubiquitous role in so many areas of condensed matter physics and nanoscience. That ubiquity is reflected in the name of a UK summer school for PhD students, nanoscience@Surfaces 2018, held at the famed Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge last week, and at which I had the immense pleasure of speaking. More on that soon. Let’s first dig below the surface of surfaces just a little.

(In passing, it would be remiss of me not to note that the Cavendish houses a treasure trove of classic experimental “kit” and apparatus that underpinned many of the greatest discoveries in physics and chemistry. Make sure that you venture upstairs if you ever visit the lab. (Thanks for the advice to do just that, Giovanni!))


Although I could classify myself, in terms of research background, as a nanoscientist, a chemical physicist, or (whisper it) even a physical chemist at times, my first allegiance is, and always will be, with surface science. I’m fundamentally a surface scientist. For one thing, the title of my PhD thesis (from, gulp, 1994) nails my colours to the mast: A Scanning Tunnelling Microscopy Investigation of the Interaction of Sulphur with Semiconductor Surfaces. [1]

(There. I said it. For quite some time, surface science was targetted by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) as an area of funding whose slice of the public purse should be reduced, so not only was it unfashionable to admit to being a surface scientist, it could be downright damaging to one’s career. Thankfully we live in slightly more enlightened times. For now.)

Pauli’s damning indictment of surfaces stems fundamentally from the broken symmetry that the truncation of a solid represents. In the bulk, each atom is happily coordinated with its neighbours and, if we’re considering crystals (as we so very often do in condensed matter physics and chemistry), there’s a very well-defined periodicity and pattern established by the combination of the unit cell, the basis, and the lattice vectors. But all of that gets scrambled at the surface. Cut through a crystal to expose a particular surface — and not all surfaces are created equal by any means — and the symmetry of the bulk is broken; those atoms at the surface have lost their neighbours.

Atoms tend to be rather gregarious beasties so they end up in an agitated, high energy state when they lose their neighbours. Or, in slightly more technical (and rather less anthropomorphic) terms, creation of a surface is associated with a thermodynamic free energy cost; we have to put in work to break bonds. (If this wasn’t the case, objects all around us would spontaneously cleave to form surfaces. I’m writing (some of) this on a train back from London (after a fun evening at the LIYSF), having tremendous difficulty trying to drink coffee as the train rocks back and forth. A spontaneously cleaving cup would add to my difficulties quite substantially…)

In their drive to reduce that free energy, atoms and molecules at surfaces will form a bewildering array of different patterns and phases [2]. The classic example is the (7×7) reconstruction of the Si(111) surface, one of the more complicated atomic rearrangements there is. I’ve already lapsed into the surface science vernacular there, but don’t let the nomenclature put you off if you’re not used to it. “Reconstruction” is the rearranging of atoms at a surface to reduce its free energy; the (111) defines the direction in which we cut through the bulk crystal to expose the surface; and the (7×7) simply refers to the size of the unit cell (i.e. the basic repeating unit or “tile”) of the reconstructed surface as compared to the arrangement on the unreconstructed (111) plane. Here’s a schematic of the (7×7) unit cell [3] to give you an idea of the complexity involved…


The arrangements and behaviour of atoms and molecules at surfaces are very tricky indeed to understand and predict. There has thus been a vast effort over many decades, using ever more precise techniques (both experimental and theoretical), to pin down just how adsorbed atoms and molecules bond, vibrate, move, and desorb. And although surface science is now a rather mature area, it certainly isn’t free of surprises and remains a vibrant field of study. One reason for this vibrancy is that as we make particles smaller and smaller — a core activity in nanoscience — their surface-to-volume ratio increases substantially. The devilish behaviour of surfaces is thus at the very heart of nanoscience, as reflected time and again in the presentations at the nanoscience@Surfaces 2018 summer school.

Unfortunately, I could only attend the Wednesday and Thursday morning of the summer school. It was an honour to be invited to talk and I’d like to take this opportunity to repeat my thanks to the organising committee including, in particular, Andy Jardine (Cambridge), Andrew (Tom) Thomas (Manchester), Karen Syres and Joe Smerdon (UCLAN) who were the frontline organisers in terms of organising my accomodation, providing the necessary A/V requirements, and sorting out the scheduling logistics. My lecture, Scanning Probes Under The Microscope, was on the Wednesday morning and, alongside the technical details of the science, covered themes I’ve previously ranted about at this blog, including the pitfalls of image interpretation and the limitations of the peer review process.

Much more important, however, were the other talks during the school. I regretfully missed Monday’s and Tuesday’s presentations (including my Nottingham colleague Rob Jones’ intriguingly named “Getting it off and getting it on“) which had a theory and photoemission flavour, respectively. Wednesday, however, was devoted to my first love in research: scanning probe microscopy, and it was great to catch up on recent developments in the field from the perspective of colleagues who work on different materials systems to those we tend to study at Nottingham.

Thursday morning’s plenary lecture/tutorial was from Phil Woodruff (Warwick), one of not only the UK’s, but the world’s, foremost (surface) scientists and someone who has pioneered a number of  elegant techniques and tools for surface analysis (including, along with Rob Jones and other co-workers, the X-ray standing wave method described in the video at the foot of this post.)

Following Phil’s talk, there was a session dedicated to careers. Although I was not quite in the target demographic for this session, I nonetheless hung around for the introductions from those involved because I was keen to get an insight into just how the “careers outside academia” issue would be addressed. Academia is of course not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to careers. Of the 48 PhD researchers I counted — an impressive turn-out given that 50 were registered for the summer school — only 10 raised their hand when asked if they were planning on pursuing a career in academia.

Thirteen years ago, I was a member of the organising committee for an EPSRC-funded summer school in surface science held at the University of Nottingham. We also held a careers-related session during the school and, if memory serves (…and that’s definitely not a given), when a similar question was asked of the PhD researchers in attendance, a slightly higher percentage (maybe ~ 33%) were keen on the academic pathway. While academia certainly does not want to lose the brightest and the best, it’s encouraging that there’s a movement away from the archaic notion that to not secure a permanent academic post/tenure somehow represents failure.

It was also fun for me to compare and contrast the Nottingham and Cambridge summer schools from the comfortable perspective of a delegate rather than an organiser. Here’s the poster for the Nottingham school thirteen years ago…


…and here’s an overview of the talks and sessions that were held back in 2005:


A key advance in probe microscopy in the intervening thirteen year period has been the ultrahigh resolution force microscopy pioneered by the IBM Zurich research team (Leo Gross et al), as described here. This has revolutionised imaging, spectroscopy, and manipulation of matter at the atomic and (sub)molecular levels.

Another key difference between UK surface science back in 2005 and its 2018 counterpart is that the Diamond synchrotron produced “first light” (well, first user beam) in 2007. The Diamond Light Source is an exceptionally impressive facility. (The decision to construct DLS at the Harwell Campus outside Oxford was underscored by a great deal of bitter political debate back in the late nineties, but that’s a story for a whole other blog post. Or, indeed, series of blog posts.) The UK surface science (and nanoscience, and magnetism, and protein crystallography, and X-ray scattering, and…) community is rightly extremely proud of the facility. Chris Nicklin (DLS), Georg Held (Reading), Wendy Flavell (Manchester) and the aforementioned Prof. Woodruff (among others) each focussed on the exciting surface science that is made possible only via access to tunable synchrotron radiation of the type provided by DLS.

I was gutted to have missed Stephen Jenkins‘ review and tutorial on the application of density functional theory to surfaces. DFT is another area that has progressed quite considerably over the last thirteen years, with a particular evolution of methods to treat dispersion interactions (i.e. van der Waals/London forces). It’s not always the case that DFT calculations/predictions are treated with the type of healthy skepticism that is befitting a computational technique whereby the choice of functional makes all the difference but, again, that’s a topic for another day…

Having helped organise a PhD summer school myself, I know just how much effort is involved in running a successful event. I hope that all members of the organising committee — Tom, Joe, Andy, Karen, Neil, Holly, Kieran, and Giovanni — can now have a relaxing summer break, safe in the knowledge that they have helped to foster links and, indeed, friendships, among the next generation of surface scientists and nanoscientists.


[1](a) Sulphur. S.u.l.p.h.u.r. Not the frankly offensive sulfur that I had to use in the papers submitted to US journals. That made for painful proof-reading. (b) I have no idea why I didn’t include mention of photoemission in the title of the thesis, given that it forms the guts of Chapter 5. I have very fond memories of carrying out those experiments at the (now defunct) Daresbury Synchrotron Radiation Source (SRS) just outside Warrington in the UK. Daresbury was superseded by the Diamond Light Source (DLS), discussed in this Sixty Symbols video.

[2] Assuming that there’s enough thermal energy to go around and that they’re not kinetically trapped in a particular state.

[3] Schematic taken from the PhD thesis of Mick Phillips, University of Nottingham (2004).

LIYSF 2018: Science Without Borders*

Better the pride that resides
In a citizen of the world
Than the pride that divides
When a colourful rag is unfurled

From Territories. Track 5 of Rush’s Power Windows (1985). Lyrics: Neil Peart.


Last night I had the immense pleasure and privilege of giving a plenary lecture for the London International Youth Science Forum. 2018 marks the 60th annual forum, a two-week event that brings together 500 students (aged 16 – 21) from, this year, seventy different countries…


The history of the forum is fascinating. Embarrassingly, until I received the invitation to speak I was unaware of the LIYSF’s impressive and exciting efforts over many decades to foster and promote, in parallel, science education and international connections. The “science is global” message is at the core of the Forum’s ethos, as described at the LIYSF website:

The London International Youth Science Forum was the brainchild of the late Philip S Green. In the aftermath of the Second World War an organisation was founded in Europe by representatives from Denmark, Czech Republic, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom in an effort to overcome the animosity resulting from the war. Plans were made to set up group home-to-home exchanges between schools and communities in European countries. This functioned with considerable success and in 1959 Philip Green decided to provide a coordinated programme for groups from half a dozen European countries and, following the belief that ‘out of like interests the strongest friendships grow.’ He based the programme on science.

The printed programme for LIYSF 2018 includes a message from the Prime Minster…


It’s a great shame that the PM’s message above doesn’t mention at all LIYSF’s work in breaking down borders and barriers between scientists in different countries since its inception in 1959. But given that her government and her political party have been responsible for driving the appalling isolationism and, in its worst excesses, xenophobia of Brexit, it’s not at all surprising that she might want to gloss over that aspect of the Forum…

The other slightly irksome aspect of May’s message, and something I attempted to counter during the lecture last night, is the focus on “demand for STEM skills”, as if non-STEM subjects were somehow of intrinsically less value. Yes, I appreciate that it’s a science forum, and, yes, I appreciate that the LIYSF students are largely focussed on careers in science and engineering. But we need to encourage a greater appreciation of the value of non-STEM subjects. I, for one, was torn between opting to do an English or a physics degree at university. As I’ve banged on about previously, the A-level system frustratingly tends to exacerbate this artificial “two cultures” divide between STEM subjects and the arts and humanities. We need science and maths. And we need economics, philosophy, sociology, English lit, history, geography, modern (and not-so-modern) languages…

The arrogance of a certain breed of STEM student (or researcher or lecturer) who thinks that the ability to do complicated maths is the pinnacle of intellectual achievement also helps to drive this wedge between the disciplines. And yet those particular students, accomplished though they may well be in vector calculus, contour integration, and/or solving partial differential equations, often flounder completely when asked to write five-hundred words that are reasonably engaging and/or entertaining.

Borders and boundaries, be they national or disciplinary, encourage small-minded, insular thinking. Encouragingly, there was none of that on display last night. After the hour-long lecture, I was blown away, time and again, by the intelligent, perceptive, and, at times, provocative (in a very good way!) questions from the LIYSF students. After an hour and half of questions, security had to kick us out of the theatre because it was time to lock up.

Clare Elwell, who visited Nottingham last year to give a fascinating and inspirational Masterclass lecture on her ground-breaking research for our Physics & Astronomy students, is the President of the LIYSF. It’s no exaggeration to say that the impact of the LIYSF on Clare’s future, when she attended as a student, was immense. I’ll let Clare explain:

 I know how impactful and inspiring these experiences can be, as I attended the Forum myself as a student over thirty years ago. It was here that I was first introduced to Medical Physics – an area of science which I have pursued as a career ever since. Importantly, the Forum also opened my eyes to the power of collaboration and communication across scientific disciplines and national borders to address global challenges — something which has formed a key element of my journey in science, and which the world needs now more than ever.

(That quote is also taken from the LIYSF 2018 Programme.)

My lecture was entitled “Bit from It: Manipulating matter bond by bond”“. A number of students asked whether I’d make the slides available, which, of course, is my pleasure (via that preceding link). In addition, some students asked about the physics underpinning the “atomic force macroscope [1]” (and the parallels with its atomic force microscope counterpart) that I used as a demonstration in the talk:


(Yes, the coffee is indeed an integral component of the experimental set-up [2]).

Unfortunately, due to the size of the theatre only a small number of the students could really see the ‘guts’ of the “macroscope”. I’m therefore going to write a dedicated post in the not-too-distant future on just how it works, its connections to atomic force microscopy, and its much more advanced sibling the LEGOscope (the result of a third year undergraduate project carried out by two very talented students).

The LIYSF is a huge undertaking and it’s driven by the hard work and dedication of a wonderful team of people. I’ve got to say a big thank you to those of that team I met last night and who made my time at LIYSF so very memorable: Director Richard Myhill for the invitation (and Clare (Elwell) for the recommendation) and for sorting out all of the logistics of my visit; Sam Thomas and Simran Mohnani, Programme Liaison; Rhia Patel and Vilius Uksas, Engagement Manager and Videographer, respectively. (It’s Vilius you can see with the camera pointed in my direction in the photo at the top there.); Victoria Sciandro (Deputy Host. Victoria also had the task of summarising my characteristically rambling lecture before the Q&A session started and did an exceptional job, given the incoherence of the source material); and James, whose surname I’ve embarrassingly forgotten but who was responsible for all of the audio-video requirements, the sound and the lighting. He did an exceptional job. Thank you, James. (I really hope I’ve not forgotten anyone. If I have, my sincere apologies.)

Although this was my first time at the LIYSF, I sincerely hope it won’t be my last. It was a genuinely inspiring experience to spend time with such enthusiastic and engaging students. The future of science is in safe hands.

We opened the post with Rush. So let’s bring things full circle and close with that Toronto trio… [3]

* “Science Without Borders” is also the name of the agency that funds the PhD research of Filipe Junquiera in the Nottingham Nanoscience Group. As this blog post on Filipe’s journey to Nottingham describes, he’s certainly crossed borders.

[1] Thanks to my colleague Chris Mellor for coining the “atomic force macroscope” term.

[2] It’s not. (The tiresome literal-mindedness of some online never ceases to amaze me. Best to be safe than sorry.)

[3] Great to be asked a question from the floor by a fellow Rush fan last night. And he was Canadian to boot!

“Think Graham Norton meets the Broom Cupboard. In space.”


It’s not every day you get to sit down and have a chat with someone who hacked their way into space…

…but I had the immense pleasure of doing just that yesterday. Pictured above, very helpfully holding a copy of that book I’ve been (head)banging on about a little of late (see “Other Scribblings” in the sidebar to the right or here if you’re reading on a mobile device), is the powerhouse of science communication — no, let’s make that science entertainment — that is the inimitable Jon Spooner. To whet your appetite, here’s a one minute clip of Jon — and his colleagues, Flight Dynamics Officer Simon Perkins and astronaut Little Jon — in action at the Manchester Science Festival last year. (Jon told me that he and Simon have had a pretty hectic schedule over the last year, having done eight festivals in twelve months).

The quote from a parent included in that video,

It was amazing, brilliantly educational. It brought a tear to my eye.

neatly sums up exactly the reaction that my fourteen year old daughter, Niamh, and I had to Jon’s “How I Hacked My Way Into Space” tour de force at the Blue Dot Festival at Jodrell Bank this weekend. (You’re not getting any spoilers here, however. If you want to know just how Jon hacked his way off our pale blue dot, you’re going to have to go along and experience the adventures of the Unlimited Space Agency for yourself. There’s a list of tour dates here.)


Before Jon’s high octane performance at 2 pm yesterday afternoon, I was delighted to be one of the guests for his Space Shed interview series. The title of the blog post you’re reading is the description Jon gave me yesterday of the Space Shed: “Think Graham Norton meets the Broom Cupboard. In space.” (Those of you who are Irish or British are likely to be fairly familiar with both of those cultural references. For those elsewhere in the world — and since its reboot, Symptoms… has attracted readers from 70 countries — here’s a brief introduction to Graham Norton. Despite his incredibly successful career as a chat show host and presenter, however, this performance remains for me his finest hour:

And here’s The Broom Cupboard.)

Before I reveal just what we nattered about yesterday — and as a convivial, clever and charming host, Jon could certainly give Mr. Norton a run for his money — I guess I should explain what I was doing at Blue Dot in the first place.

…all the way to The ‘Bank

The eagle-eyed Sixty Symbols viewers among you — and I know that at least some of those who read Symptoms… posts have watched a Sixty Symbols video or two — may have noticed that the schedule for the Space Shed also included my colleagues Tony Padilla and Clare Burrage, both of whom have contributed to Brady Haran‘s YouTube channels. (As I write this, Clare is in the middle of her Space Shed interview. If you’re having even an infinitesimal amount of the fun I had yesterday, Clare, you’ll be having a blast!) Tony, Clare, and myself weren’t the only Sixty Symbols people involved: Meghan (Gray) and Becky (Smethurst) were also at Blue Dot. Indeed, it was Meghan who was not only responsible for our invitation to Blue Dot but who communicated with the “powers that be” in terms of sorting out the logistics (including travel) related to not only the Space Shed appearances but a Sixty Symbols panel discussion in the Star Pavillion on Friday evening. More on that soon. But, first, some thanks.

I jumped (over-)enthusiastically at the chance to contribute to Blue Dot because its innovative blend of music and science really presses all my buttons (or, errrm, turns my dials to 11. I’ll get me coat…). That book (y’know the one…over there…sidebar to the right) and this rather noisy ‘math metal’ song  are two examples of my love of music-physics-maths crossover, but there are others, including this rather more sedate approach to merging numbers and music and this discussion of correlations and fluctuations in drum beats. It turns out that Meghan also has a long-standing interest in music-science crossover: as a high school student she wrote a computer program to produce music in the style of Bach. (Mr. Haran, if you’re reading, I, for one, would be really keen to see a video on this…)

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Meghan publicly and profusely for sorting out the invitation to Blue Dot. (Well, as public as it gets when it comes to the audience for Symptoms… I appreciate you both tuning in again). To say I thoroughly enjoyed myself at the festival would be a massive understatement. In addition to the wonderful atmosphere, the great music, and the incredible range of science, I got to wear one of these “passes”:



As a failed and now-follicularly-challenged musician, this made me ridiculously happy, not least because sitting across the way from Niamh and me at lunch yesterday was Gary Numan. Gary f**king Numan. This guy. An inspiration for so many musicians and bands across a wide range of genres, Numan was playing the Lovell Stage at Blue Dot 2018.)

OK, back to that Sixty Symbols panel I mentioned. Here’s how it looked mid-event…

…and this is how we felt directly afterwards:

The panel was great fun, with the Q&A session (following our five minute presentations) being a real highlight. A thoroughly engaged, and engaging, audience asked us a range of questions on topics including, but certainly not limited to, the science we do, the music we like, the YouTube videos with Brady, and women in science. (There’s a certain contingent online who get very, very cross indeed at even the briefest mention of sexism and related issues. If you’re one of those who feels the red mist descending already, this trigger warning may prove helpful. (Having said that, they tend not to read too deeply so almost certainly won’t have got this far into the post.)) As a dyed-in-the-wool experimentalist and a lowly squalid state physicist, I especially enjoyed the light-hearted spat between Clare and Tony on the current state of string theory towards the end of our session.


My Space Shed interview/Q&A the following day similarly touched on a wide variety of themes, with many perceptive and brilliant questions from both Jon and the audience. (Another big thank you at this point to UNSA’s Flight Commander Alison McIntyre for making sure that the flight was a success and for all of her behind the scenes organisation. Thank you, Alison!)

Jon and I had decided beforehand that we’d give a prize of a free copy of the book — yes, I know, the plugs are getting tedious now. That was the last one. Promise. — to those who asked the best questions. In the end, all eight of those who asked a question got a copy because it was impossible to pick winners. Two that stuck with me were from Evie (aged 7), “Where do the atoms go when there’s an earthquake?” and Oliver, a slightly older (i.e. age > 7) and rather more hirsute PhD student: “If the Schrodinger equation were a riff, what riff would it be?” How much more metal could that question get? None. None more metal.

(By the way, Evie, if you ever read this, I’m so very, very sorry for not concentrating when I wrote on your book so that what I’d written made no sense (because I’d left out a word.) I don’t multi-task well — talking and writing at the same time overtaxes my brain! Thank you for pointing out the mistake to me and giving me the opportunity to fix it. And thanks, of course, for your brilliant question!)

After the Space Shed Q&A, I asked Niamh how it went; did I embarrass her? “No, Dad, you didn’t embarrass me. Well, not entirely.”

What greater accolade can a father expect from his teenage daughter?

“Not entirely embarrassed”.

I’ll take that.

Nano Does Nottingham Does Comics

Yesterday evening I spent a fun few hours at the Nottingham Writers’ Studio with my colleagues and friends Brigitte Nerlich, Shey Hargreaves, and Charli Vince. We were invited to a bimonthly event called Nottingham Does Comics. This does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a forum, and I quote, “by and for anybody interested in reading, creating, publishing, selling or studying new work and new horizons in the comics medium.”

My knowledge of graphic novels and comics unfortunately petered out quite some time ago but I was a huge 2000 AD fan when I was growing up (and well beyond when I stopped growing up). I have stacks and stacks of issues of 2000 AD in the attic, and a number of graphic novels on my book shelves at home. My favourite of the genre is the Dredd classic, America. A number of the Sláine volumes run a close (joint) second, however.

Given my lack of graphic novel expertise, you might ask why I was attending — and, indeed, speaking at — Nottingham Does Comics? All is revealed in the flyer below…


The script for Open Day is finished and Charli, who joined the team quite recently, is now relishing the challenge of bringing Shey’s engaging (and amusing) characters to life via her fantastic artwork. (There’ll be regular updates at Charli’s website). Shey and Charli described to the NDC audience just how they’re translating the research we do to the graphic novel format (in their own inimitable style). Brigitte, who has a long-standing interest in nano images, is documenting the process at the Making Science Public blog.

In addition to having the opportunity to plug Open Day we also got to hear about James Walker‘s fascinatingly innovative Dawn Of The Unread project. (That title alone was all it took for me to shell out for a copy of the …Unread compilation you can see pictured at the bottom of the flyer above). James’ talk was a thoroughly absorbing, and very funny, discussion of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the Dawn Of The Unread project. He touched on his concerns about the extent to which books (and libraries) are being pushed aside in favour of rather more immediate — and, too often, significantly more shallow — online sources. Let’s just say that James’ arguments on this theme resonated with me just a little. (I’ll expand on this in a future post).

We owe a big debt of thanks to both John “Brick” Clark for the invitation to speak about Open Day at the NDC event and to our host, Jessica Cormack, who made us feel right at home (despite some of us having a shocking lack of knowledge of the comics scene!). Thanks also to all at NDC for the hospitality. Oh, and the mince pies.

And I should of course thank those who have generously funded the Open Day project: the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (via the grant described in this post) and I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here.

Politics. Perception. Philosophy. And Physics.

Today is the start of the new academic year at the University of Nottingham (UoN) and, as ever, it crept up on me and then leapt out with a fulsome “Gotcha”. Summer flies by so very quickly. I’ll be meeting my new 1st year tutees this afternoon to sort out when we’re going to have tutorials and, of course, to get to know them. One of the great things about the academic life is watching tutees progress over the course of their degree from that first “getting to know each other” meeting to when they graduate.

The UoN has introduced a considerable number of changes to the “student experience” of late via its Project Transform process. I’ve vented my spleen about this previously but it’s a subject to which I’ll be returning in the coming weeks because Transform says an awful lot about the state of modern universities.

For now, I’m preparing for a module entitled “The Politics, Perception and Philosophy of Physics” (F34PPP) that I run in the autumn semester. This is a somewhat untraditional physics module because, for one thing, it’s almost entirely devoid of mathematics. I thoroughly enjoy  F34PPP each year (despite this amathematical heresy) because of the engagement and enthusiasm of the students. The module is very much based on their contributions — I am more of a mediator than a lecturer.

STEM students are sometimes criticised (usually by Simon Jenkins) for having poorly developed communication skills. This is an especially irritating stereotype in the context of the PPP module, where I have been deeply impressed by the quality of the writing the students submit. As I discuss in the video below (an  overview of the module), I’m not alone in recognising this: articles submitted as F34PPP coursework have been published in Physics World, the flagship magazine of the Institute of Physics.


In the video I note that my intention is to upload a weekly video for each session of the module. I’m going to do my utmost to keep this promise and, moreover, to accompany each of those videos with a short(ish) blog post. (But, to cover my back, I’ll just note in advance that the best laid schemes gang aft agley…)

How to sociably debate social justice

or Why We Should Feed The Trolls.

The following is a fascinating guest post by Hugh Dingwall. Hugh, aka “Objective Reality”, has posted a number of intelligent, perceptive, and compellingly-argued comments under previous posts at “Symptoms…”. I was very impressed by the quality of his writing, and by the careful manner in which he laid out his arguments, so I invited him to write a guest post. That post is below. I have never been happier to be told I’m wrong.  

[Note that (i) the title (and sub-title) above are due to me, not Hugh, so any criticism about the titling of the piece should be directed to me; (ii) Hugh’s points about safe spaces and no platforming are particularly timely in the context of this recent debate in academia: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/chicago-academics-hit-back-safe-spaces %5D

First off, thanks to Phil for inviting me to do this guest post, which I intend to begin by disagreeing with him about a couple of things.

Phil’s made it clear in a couple of different places, that he doesn’t agree with the idea of no-platforming (or blocking people), or with safe spaces. I get his reasons (and I think they come from a good place) but I think he’s wrong.

To deal with safe spaces first, this concept is usually portrayed by “SJW-slayers” as a way for a person to avoid concepts that challenge them, and this is, I think, what Phil (rightly) disagrees with. The problem is that that’s not what they are, at least in the forms that I’ve encountered them. The “safe spaces” I’ve come across have been areas, particularly on a university campus, where a marginalised group can go and (quite literally) be safe. The best example of this is the Women’s Room at my old university, which was established because there were a number of behaviours that male students engaged in that made female students feel quite (justifiably) unsafe. Since it was one room, with some paper resources if you needed them and a free phone (I know because my girlfriend of the time called me from there on a number of occasions) you could hardly use it to shelter your precious worldview. You could however, use it to call your boyfriend to come and pick you up when you’d had a distressing encounter with an arsehole at the student pub. This kind of safe space is, in my opinion, quite hard to argue against unless you’re the aforementioned pub arsehole – and is more commonly what defenders of safe spaces have in mind.

As regards no-platforming (the practice of preventing people from speaking on campuses because of their views), and relatedly blocking people you can’t be bothered with on social media, I again see Phil’s point. On the other hand, I remember how angry I was when my university played host to an Intelligent Design proponent. The issue wasn’t that my ideas were being challenged, or even that I thought this guy would convince anyone. I was angry that money (MY money – we have to pay for university in New Zealand (which this guy hadn’t when he attended but that’s another angry story)) had been spent paying him to lecture, when it could have been given to someone, even someone just as controversial, whose views weren’t provably false. It was an hour of my life I wasn’t going to get back, and the man had been paid for wasting it. He wasn’t going to convince anyone who wasn’t a closet-Creationist, and most infuriatingly, he didn’t even understand the theory of evolution that he claimed to debunk. (I should mention at this point that I dropped out of university, and while I was attending I was a Classics major – and I still had a clearer understanding of the theory than this guy who purported to be able to prove it wrong.)

To extend this logic to blocking people on social media, I think it’s important to know when a conversation has reached its useful end. I understand the principle that it’s good to be exposed to views you disagree with, but firstly, there’s no amount of David Icke I can read that will convince me that giant reptilians are a real non-metaphorical problem in the world. There’s a point past which a conversation with an Icke-believer stops being useful as a result. (The reader is invited to extend the logic to situations where political or philosophical disagreement devolves into mere fountains of bile). Moreover, I think that people whose goal is to harass or bully their intellectual opponents often use this idea (that you should always be open to defending your ideas from opposing views) as a way to try and argue that you owe them a continued conversation (even once they’ve begun abusing you or bringing in their followers to try for a dogpile) and that refusing them that conversation is a sign of cowardice. Which is bullshit – especially if you’re someone whose fame and/or status as a member of a despised group makes you a target for nastier-than-usual or literally-dangerous attacks, or if your opponent is a well-established internet presence who can call on a literal horde of faceless howling zealots to shout you down.

Finally, I’m not that keen on Rush. Though I acknowledge their technical skill, I’ve always been more of a psychedelia guy, and I have a special place in my heart for the British folk-rock explosion of the 70s (go look up Joe Boyd, and listen to basically everyone he produced, then work sideways from there, also the Grateful Dead, and Tom Waits).

[Editor’s note: Hugh’s criticism of Rush here is clearly an uncharacteristic lapse of judgement. He redeems himself by mentioning Tom Waits (whose, um, unique music I got to know via the fantastic Primus), so, much as it pains me, I’m willing to overlook the lack of enthusiasm for Rush. I’m sure Hugh will come round to their unique charms in the end.]

As you can see from the above, it’s entirely possible to disagree with people while remaining entirely civil. More importantly, it’s possible to disagree with people while acknowledging that they make good points, or have good reasons for the views they hold. (Reasons can be good even if you think they’re incorrect.) In philosophy, this is called “the principle of charity”. The idea is that to avoid strawmanning, you should ensure that you’re engaging with the strongest possible form of your opponent’s argument, given the things they’ve actually said. I find that it also helps to ask what people mean if you’re not sure, so you don’t end up talking at cross purposes.

Which brings me to the various discussions I had in the comments of Phil’s blog post “The Faith And Fables of Thunderfoot”.

The style of discussion I’ve indulged in above (and attempted to explain thereafter) is the way I talk on the internet if I’m interested in getting to the bottom of what people think, or making a genuine point. I’ll talk about the points that got discussed in that comments section in a bit, but first I want to talk about this style of discourse as opposed to trolling. See, I agree with Phil that trolling, while inherently somewhat mean-spirited, can be an art in and of itself (and some examples can be truly transcendent). However, the purpose of trolling is to keep your victim(s) expending energy for your amusement (and that of any onlookers). It’s not a form of argumentation, and if you put more energy into it than your victims do, you are a very ineffective troll. This is why I call bullshit on the likes of Thunderfoot and Sargon of Akkad when they claim to be “just trolling” as a way to avoid defending their arguments and/or actions. If they are trolls, then firstly we have no reason to accept their arguments as anything other than deliberately vexatious nonsense, and secondly (given the average length of their videos) they are very bad trolls indeed.

Pleasingly, there wasn’t much of that kind of conversation in the comments at Phil’s blog. Instead, two major points seemed to come up:

  1. People wanted to know how we could be sure that sexual dimorphism wasn’t to blame for the lack of women in STEM fields (this was the initial disagreement between Phil and Thunderfoot which led to the email exchange reproduced in the blogpost – I recommend going and reading it if you haven’t (otherwise some of this post may be quite confusing).
  2. People seemed nervous of adopting what might be seen as “feminist” positions, for fear that this might somehow be seen as implicating all men in a mass act of malice against all women, or that it might lead to them inadvertently endorsing some position that they deeply disagreed with.

To deal with the first point first (a novel idea, I know), the short answer is that we can’t. We can know very little for sure. On the other hand, it seems very unlikely that sexual dimorphism is to blame for women’s career and study choices. Phil goes into this in detail in this post here, but I’m not an academic (I’m a sound technician) and I want to talk about some other stuff as well, so I’ll just summarise the main points.

First off, I need to acknowledge that it’s not an inherently silly idea that sexual dimorphism might be to blame, as humans are a moderately sexually dimorphic species. Men* tend to be bigger, stronger, and hairier than women, who tend in turn to outlive them. It’s not totally outlandish to suggest that there may be brain differences as well. However, the evidence doesn’t bear this out, and as Phil points out in both the blogposts I’ve linked to, it’s very very difficult to decouple social factors from purely biological ones in humans. The evidence for social factors influencing women’s choices, on the other hand, seems to be pretty strong. It’s easily provable that society used to be much more sexist than it is right now. Most antifeminists would even agree with this proposition. I think it’s quite reasonable to argue that the recent (as in, last 50 years or so) influx of women into traditionally male fields is more likely to stem from an increased acceptance of women doing these kinds of jobs and studying in these fields than it is to be a result of evolution.

Which brings me to another point – there were a good number of appeals in the pro-sexual-dimorphism camp to what we might call “naturalistic” explanations, including a good deal of recourse to evolutionary psychology. Now, my good friend Daniel Copeland is convinced that there’s some merit in evopsych, and he is a very intelligent guy and makes a good case for the bits he supports. However, evopsych is probably one of the most abused theories I’ve ever seen. If you’re not familiar with it, the idea is that you can find explanations for bits of human behaviour in our evolutionary past, and sometimes you can discover those bits of evolutionary past by, for example, observing other primates. There are two problems with this – the first is that people who don’t fully understand it tend to just point to an aspect of human behaviour they wish to claim is immutable, and then invent an “evolutionary-sounding” reason for it. The more fundamental problem is that we’re not other primates, and even if we were, the world of animal sexual dynamics is hugely diverse.

There was a tendency in the early days of biology to assume that most animals would follow the family/relationship structure that those early biologists considered “natural” – dominant males, submissive females, and so on. The actual picture is much more complicated, and as I noted, we’re not other primates – we’re humans. Our whole thing is using technologies (including social technologies) to overcome our natural limits. That’s how come my wife can see, and my mother can hear. That’s how come we developed hugely complex social structures that let us live stacked on top of each other in cities without all killing each other (most of the time). There’s no reason to assume that even if there were a natural predisposition that led women to shun certain fields, we would allow ourselves to be bound by that. It’s not how we work. (Daniel Copeland wrote a nice blog post that goes into this in more detail.) We can also look at evidence (detailed in Phil’s post that I already linked) that shows that the steady decline of sexism globally correlates with a steady increase in women going into traditionally male fields both in science and the arts (there are far more female-fronted rock bands than their used to be, for one thing.) Obviously correlation is not causation, but it’s telling that these changes are far quicker than the sort of effect we’d expect from evolution, giventhe length of human generations.

And now to point number two. Again, I have some sympathy for this position. It’s completely wrong, but I get it. The issue is that while feminism is becoming quite broadly discussed (online at least), it’s not as broadly understood. This means that many people think that they are (or need to be) anti-feminist or non-feminist, when their views actually align with the majority of feminist theory. This is certainly the position I was in to begin with**. Then a very patient feminist lady on Facebook took the time to actually unpack what we were talking about, and I realised precisely how badly I had the wrong end of the stick.

The first issue I want to talk about here is terminology. Feminists use a number of words in ways which differ from a naive dictionary definition. This is (contrary to to what anti-SJWs would have you believe) not actually uncommon. In my own field as a sound engineer for a radio station, I use a number of terms which would be incomprehensible to someone who isn’t versed in sound tech, and a number of common words (for example “wet/dry”, “trim”, “bright/dark” and “dead/alive”) have quite specific meanings within that field. I’m sure Philip talks differently about physics to advanced students than he does to laypeople for the same reason. The advantage Phil and I have over feminists is that no-one misunderstands or willfully misuses our terminology against us. The terms that suffer the most abuse in discussions about feminism are, I think, “patriarchy” and “privilege”.

Again, since I’m not an academic, and I have already used a significant amount of virtual ink in this post, I’m going to summarise here. If you want really detailed discussions of exactly how these terms function, I suggest you go and check out people like Garrett, Chrisiousity, or Kristi Winters on Youtube. Patriarchy, as I understand it, refers to a social order which assumes that a specific sort of masculinity is the “default” gender identity, and judges all other in comparison (usually negatively). Privilege refers to the advantages (often small, at least when taken individually) that individuals accrue by being close to that default. In the Anglosphere*** the patriarchal ideal is rich, white, physically and emotionally dominant, heterosexual, and male – the more like that you are, the more privilege you have. The tendency is for one’s own privilege to be invisible (ie it just feels “normal”) so you tend to assume everyone can freely do what you can, unless you stop and think about it.

For example, I live in New Zealand. It is a small and fairly egalitarian country (we were among the first to give votes to women, and signed a treaty with our indigenous people rather than just murdering them all and taking their stuff, for example****) and seems reasonably enlightened on the surface. However, when I got married to a Samoan woman, I found that I was now conducting a field test into latent community racism. My wife and I can go into the same store within minutes of each other and get hugely different reactions from staff, because she is brown. When I am out alone with our daughters, I get approving noises from mums about how good it is that I as a Dad spend time with my girls, my wife gets asked if those little blonde girls are really hers. This was entirely invisible to me until that relationship opened a window for me into her world – in other words, a portion of my own privilege became visible to me in a way it hadn’t been. Here’s another example, in New Zealand, the majority of voters want decriminalisation or outright legalisation of cannabis. Our (Tory) prime minister has ruled this out, relying instead on “police discretion” to institute a sort of “de-facto decriminalisation”. The problem is that because people tend to use their discretion in slightly racist ways, this has led to disproportionately terrible outcomes for our Pacific Island and Maori minorities.

This is the result of an organic accretion of values over time – not a conspiracy. (White, straight) men have not conspired to create this system, though some men do work to preserve it because (presumably) they’re afraid of losing what power they have. This system also negatively affects some men – we are expected to be physically dominant and prepared to fight for family or country, and failure to do so can lead to terrible personal consequences. We are not generally assumed to have as deep an emotional life as women (because this is not patriarchally desirable) and this leads to terrible outcomes in mental health. We are expected to be hale and hearty and this leads to horrible outcomes in physical health. This is not a state of affairs that benefits us overall.

I use a pseudonym in lots of places on the internet because when I started out online (in the total wild west of pre-internet dial-up bulletin boards) that was just what people did, and I never thought deeply enough about the habit to change it. I don’t do it because I am afraid that people may harm me or my family because of my opinions. Anecdotally, my female friends are. Moreover, because I exist in a fairly privileged position (I am after all, a straight white dude from the wider Anglosphere) I don’t have to constantly justify my presence online, and my right to an opinion. Anecdotally, my female friends do. This means that I can get into arguments about feminism or other social justice causes on the internet without bringing the fatigue that results from a life of fighting sealions along with me, and I can be polite if the situation seems to merit it. (Also I am a pedantic and argumentative bugger.) While I think that it can be counterproductive to snap at people, I can totally understand why many women, POC, transpeople and so on do not have my level of patience with dudes***** who barge into conversations and restate very basic arguments very incoherently. This is because I have a privilege in terms of online discussion, which they do not.

Since you’re granted privilege by society on the basis of factors you can’t control, you can’t really get rid of it. All you can do is attempt to use it responsibly. One of the ways I try to do this, is by patiently and politely asking questions of antifeminists on the internet until they either make themselves look silly, or become more reasonable. That is, after all, what worked for me.


*I’m going to stick with the terms “men” and “women” here because a) I don’t think trans people are a big enough population to seriously throw out the averages as far as size and weight distributions, and b) the exact configurations of people’s genitals are largely none of my business. I’ll worry about my own genitals, and my wife’s, and that’ll do me.

**I had a deeply tiresome “pendulum” theory about how power moved from group to group in society, and it tied into the death of prog and the rise of punk and it was awful. I had a bit of an embarrassment-shudder just typing that.

***It strikes me as a better shorthand for “mostly-white, mostly-English-speaking countries” than “The West”.

****If any of my readers are Maori and about to get cross with me for oversimplifying and making it seem like NZ’s racial history is just peachy-keen – stop. I know it’s more complicated than that and that the government did plenty of murdering and nicking of stuff (sometimes by stealthy law-making) and that the situation is far from resolved. It’s also a better deal than many colonised indigenous peoples got (which is totally shameful, I know).

*****Let’s face it dudes, it’s usually us. Like, 95% of the time, at least.