“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.)

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: https://www.particlesforjustice.org/ 

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.

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…)

Lilian Greenwood explains why she resigned from Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet

I should have posted the link before now, but rather late than never. Lilian Greenwood is my MP and is someone for whom I have a huge amount of respect. Lilian’s speech to the Nottingham South Labour Party membership was honest, passionate (in the true sense of the word), and compellingly reasoned.

As I’ve noted previously, I’ve been bitterly disappointed in Jeremy Corbyn’s performance as Labour leader (and I’m saying that as someone who joined the Labour party to vote for Corbyn). That someone with the credibility and commitment of Lilian Greenwood was among the first to resign from the Shadow Cabinet speaks volumes.

 

Left in the lurch? On Corbyn, comedy and credibility

This arrived in the post at the beginning of July:

labourmembershipcard2.png

Yep, I signed up to vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the upcoming Labour leadership elections. (Here’s how to join, if you’re interested. It’s a quick and entirely painless process.) If you’re a UK resident, and unless you’ve been living in an alternate reality for the past month — in, for example, a parallel universe whose inhabitants still give a toss about Tony Blair’s proclamations — you’ll know that Corbyn has had a meteoric rise to the top of the Labour leaders’ board. Yesterday he was named as the bookies’ favourite, at 5-4 odds; six weeks ago he was a 100-1 outsider. This is the “biggest price fall in political betting history” according to William Hill.

This eloquent and compelling piece lays out many of the reasons why I’m voting for Corbyn. (It doesn’t, however, mention that he’s a staunch republican, having petitioned Blair to remove the Royal family from Buckingham Palace and place them in “more modest” accomodation. For that alone he’d get my vote. (And, yes, before you ask, I know about the homeopathy thing. Bear with me, I’ll get to it in a future post.)).

But according to a slew of articles in The Guardian and The Observer over the last few weeks, I’m a narcissistic, deluded, reactionary, dogmatic, immature, head-in-sand (and foot-in-sandal), tribal, ideologically-driven, confused lefty dinosaur for even beginning to entertain the slightest inkling of an idea that Corbyn’s leadership challenge might possibly be a good thing for not only the Labour party but for the entire country.

I’ve got used to reading those articles over my bowl of muesli in the mornings but Wednesday’s Guardian upped the ante just that little bit too far. In a piece claiming that Corbyn was humourless for having the temerity to say that, should he win, he’d like Lennon’s Imagine played at his victory rally, Jason Sinclair — yeah, me neither — made the truly remarkable claim that “We demand our politicians can display their common sense by telling good jokes“.

Errmm, what?

No, really. What?

It turns out that Sinclair, a copywriter, is responsible for the @corbynjokes Twitter feed, the focus of the article he wrote for The Guardian. To be fair to Sinclair, his feed generated one OK joke. This one:

Sinclair must have been spending quite some time in his own peculiar parallel universe, however, if he thinks that politicians tell good jokes. Either that or his threshold for what he considers good comedy is startlingly low. (Perhaps he moonlights as a Radio 4 sitcom writer?)

I’m going with the latter explanation. Here’s why. Another line from Sinclair’s article…

“Boris Johnson is a major political force in part because he has passable comic delivery.”

Hmmm. No politician, including Johnson, has ever made me laugh as a result of their comic delivery. And I’m not talking about gut-busting, tears rolling down cheeks, rolling on the floor laughter. Nor a hearty chuckle. Or even a knowing, spontaneous giggle. Indeed, I’d be more than happy if a politician’s joke could coerce even a weak smile from me every now and again. Instead, politicians’ attempts at humour are invariably so arse-clenchingly, toe-curlingly, cringe-makingly, gob-smackingly embarrassing that my natural reaction is to die a little inside on their behalf.

Now, the explanation for my lack of appreciation of, as Sinclair would have it, the natural comedic flair of our political class could be, of course, that I’m a dour, humourless, bearded lefty gobshite who is genetically incapable of cracking a smile occasionally. While I’d freely admit that grumpiness is not exactly a stranger to me, there are quite a few exceptionally talented writers out there whose well-observed, intelligent, witty, and original insights regularly crack me up. One of these is Charlie Brooker, who has written a wonderfully acerbic weekly column for the Guardian for many years. Here’s what Brooker had to say about a certain tousle-haired toss..  politician back in 2008:

On May 1 London chooses its mayor, and I’ve got a horrible feeling it might pick Boris Johnson for similar reasons. Johnson – or to give him his full name, Boris LOL!!!! what a legernd!! Johnson!!! – is a TV character loved by millions for his cheeky, bumbling persona. Unlike the cartoon MP, he’s magnetically prone to scandal, but this somehow only makes him more adorable each time. Tee hee! Boris has had an affair! Arf! Now he’s offended the whole of Liverpool! Crumbs! He used the word “picaninnies”! Yuk yuk! He’s been caught on tape agreeing to give the address of a reporter to a friend who wants him beaten up! Ho ho! Look at his funny blond hair! HA HA BORIS LOL!!!! WHAT A LEGERND!!!!!!

Copywriters are not exactly renowned for their originality. Like many of their colleagues in marketing and advertising, they have a reputation for churning out retreads of bland boilerplate with little or no creative copy. (See Private Eye, passim). This might help explain why Sinclair’s expectations when it comes to insightful and intelligent comedy are so low – he’s working in a field where wit is the exception rather than the norm.

Marketing, advertising, and copywriting are too often the living dead embodiment of style over substance, responsible for the type of banal bollocks designed to appeal to those who are entirely at ease with cliched, vacuous tripe, i.e. New Labour’s (and the Blairites’) stock-in-trade.

I prefer some substance to my politics. And to my comedy.

Here’s Bill Hicks on the subject of marketing.