Sex(ism). Murder. Art. And Science.


Trigger warning. If you find that you are unable to respond to criticism of sexism and misogyny without randomly arranging terms such as SJW, white knight, cuck, kill yourself, bitch, whore, rape, professional victims, PC gone mad, First Amendment, feminazi, fuck (and other assorted expletives) into grammatically dubious and arbitrarily capitalised boilerplate then you may find the following post both intellectually and emotionally challenging. A strong and potentially damaging kneejerk response or, indeed, extreme overreaction may result.

You have been warned.

The furore surrounding #TimHunt’s sexist comments continues to rage.

And rightly so.

As my erstwhile colleague, Peter Coles, has pointed out in a typically clear-headed and eloquent piece, what Hunt said was indefensible. In a similarly insightful blog post, Michael Eisen convincingly argues that Hunt’s attempts to defend the indefensible were certainly not due to any lack of awareness of how bad the problem of sexism in science can be,

while both Dorothy Bishop and David Colquhoun, among others, have pointed out just why the Royal Society was correct to ask Prof. Hunt to step down from membership of the Biological Sciences Awards Panel.

I say all of this as someone who has met Prof. Hunt and attended meetings with him (and others) in the context of challenging the damaging focus of the research councils on near-term and near-market socioeconomic impact in science funding. In those discussions, Tim came across as a modest, insightful individual who passionately advocates the value of curiosity-driven science. I found him to be personable, likable, and, indeed, often inspiring, as this BBC4 programme from a few years back amply demonstrates…

But what he said in that conference in Seoul was beyond dumb. It was crass. And immensely damaging.

I don’t want to retread well-worn ground at this point — particularly when (i) Profs. Bishop, Coles, Colquhoun, et al. have done all the legwork, and (ii) the subject of this post isn’t so much the impact of Hunt’s views on academics and researchers as the broader public influence of what he said — but I will note that it is worth considering Tim’s comments in the context of Adrian Sutton’s recent letter to Physics World:


That’s just in physics, but the situation in other scientific disciplines is pretty similar. 1.7% of the postdoctoral research population per year make it through to a full time academic position. That’s how tough it is to get a permanent academic career these days. I know for a fact that what I had in terms of research ‘outputs’ when I got my lectureship in 1997 wouldn’t get me within sniffing distance of a shortlist today.

Prof. Hunt’s comments, regardless of whether they were misjudged 70s-esque ‘humour‘ or not, put the Royal Society in an exceptionally difficult position. The RS is meant to be scrupulously fair in how it distributes its awards and fellowships, the latter being like gold dust and increasingly being the pathway to a permanent lectureship. And yet Tim decides he’ll shout his mouth off — with just possibly, maybe, a smattering of bravado about not being cowed by the “PC Brigade”? — and say that he doesn’t really want women researchers in his lab because they burst out crying if they’re criticised? When he sits on the Biological Sciences Awards Panel? And when, as Eisen points out, he was more than aware of the problems which continue to plague women in science?

And no, the argument that “Well, he’s 72 you know, let’s cut him some slack given his age and the environment he grew up in” just. doesn’t. wash. Over to Colquhoun (78) again:

I should perhaps also note that I’ve been managing research students and postdocs for the past 18 years. It should not need saying — but, depressingly, it does — that Hunt’s remarks certainly do not reflect my experience of supervising female research students and postdocs.

It’s the impact of Tim Hunt’s statements outside the ivory towers/dreaming spires/[insert cliché of choice] of academia, however, that’s the real subject of this post.

I suspect that Prof. Hunt may be oblivious to the shockingly high levels of not only sexism, but deeply ingrained vicious misogyny, which infest the web. Like this. And this. And what’s described here. And, while we’re at it, this.

Hunt’s comments are, of course, a universe away from the absolutely appalling abuse which is meted out online. But the problem is that his statements feed directly into, and are exploited by, that sexist/misogynistic culture. Let’s consider the case of Milo Yiannopoulos, described by The Observer, no less, as “the pit bull of tech media” and a poster boy for many of the more rabid sexists and misogynists out there.

Last week, Yiannopoulos appeared in a debate with Dr. Emily Grossman on the topic of sexism in science, prompted, naturally, by Hunt’s comments. I watched the debate slack-jawed in astonishment. That Yiannopoulos could manage to trot out so much lazy, uninformed, stereotypical misinformation — oh, let’s not mince our words; I mean shite — in such a short space of time was a quite remarkable achievement. After being invited to put his views across, within the first minute or so he managed to follow up a complete non-sequitur of a non-argument with an entirely groundless assertion regarding women’s motivations for doing science. Here’s exactly what he said:

“We hear a lot from scientists. We hear a lot, in particular, from female scientists. But the fact is that there is some reason to suppose that there are…ummm…there is an advantage to being a man in certain subjects.

There’s reason to suppose that gender essentialism, biological determinism, whatever you want to call it…The fact that there are male brains and female brains may indeed have some basis in science.”

Let’s pause there. “May indeed have some basis in science“. I suspect that Yiannopoulos — who, it must be said, is a seasoned media ‘player’ — knows full well that he’s skating on thin ice here. (Here’s a very good article by Tom Stafford, a Lecturer in Psychology and Cognitive Science at Sheffield on the age-old nature vs nurture debate regarding brain differences. Neuroskeptic‘s blog posts (e.g. here and here) on the subject are also highly recommended. I must admit that I was astounded by the prevalence of under-powered statistical ‘analyses’ after spending some time reading papers in this field.)

Anyway, here’s what Yiannopoulos says next:

“This is thrown out of the window completely by feminists and female academics who refuse to accept that there’s any reason whatsoever why there might be a gender imbalance”

Hmmm. “…by feminists and female academics…”. We’ll let that one hang there. Let’s see where Milo is going with his argument…

“Two things on that. One, the science is very much still out on that…”


He’s going precisely nowhere.

Because his argument is totally lacking in any self-consistency:

“May indeed have some basis in science…The science is very much still out on that”.

Cannily, Yiannopoulos plants the seed that the science supports his initial claims about gender differences. Then, less than thirty seconds later, he back-tracks. However, the important thing is that he’s planted the seed — a frustratingly disingenuous debating tactic. (But then, it’s just possible that adopting a principled position isn’t really what Milo is all about…)

But what’s Milo’s second point?

Two, if you look at equality in society, if you look, for example, at Bangladesh vs Norway, what you notice is that the number of women in science and technology subjects actually goes down as societies get more equal because women simply don’t make the same choices as female academics and feminists would like them to.

Women actually don’t want to go into the sciences on the whole…

And the source(s) of Yiannopoulos’ evidence for this astoundingly sweeping claim is…? How credible is that evidence? Does it represent a consensus scientific view?

He doesn’t tell us.

Strange, that.

Shortly after the debate, Yiannopoulos wrote this: Why do feminists cook up stories about misogyny when they lose debates. He, in his usual modest and understated manner, clearly feels that the debate went his way. A link to his post somehow ended up in my Twitter timeline. So I sent Yiannopoulos and his acolytes a number of tweets asking for the evidence — admittedly, in a somewhat, errm, robust manner — to support his claims in the debate, and, in turn, I ended up embroiled in some lengthy Twitter-spats about the reliability (and lack thereof) of the quantitative analysis in papers on gender differences.

What was Milo’s response to being challenged on the matter of data and evidence?

Followed by

[Update June 02 2018 — Tweets no longer available. I deleted my Twitter account for reasons explained elsewhere at this blog. Milo’s account was suspended.]

Not for the first time in the #TimHunt debacle was I reminded of the cartoons here. [Before those of you who have posters of Milo on your wall click on that link, remember the trigger warning…]

OK, let’s now finally get to the rationale behind the title of this post and the associated image above. (Apologies that it’s taken a while, but then context is everything.)

The title of the blog might give it away for some, but I’m a huge fan of heavy metal and all its various sub-genres. (There are, of course, very deep and fundamental links between metal and quantum physics, so my love of metal isn’t entirely non-professional). Metal has, let’s say, had its issues with sexism, as wonderfully lampooned by the brilliant Christopher Guest in this classic scene from This Is…Spinal Tap.(My favourite ever film).

(Shame that the punchline is in the title of the video but if you haven’t seen Spinal Tap yet, you haven’t lived…)

Since the #shirtstorm incident last year — which we covered in a Year 4 undergraduate module at Nottingham called The Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics (see Slides #8 and the set of whiteboard photos at the bottom of that page) — I’ve been struck by some of the parallels between the “PMRC wars” that the metal ‘community’ (for want of a better term) fought in the 80s, and #shirtstorm, #GamerGate, and the entire “Don’t infringe our rights to say whatever the fuck we like” flavour of a lot of the debate surrounding sexism and misogyny.

I was a teenager in the eighties and remember being incensed by the PMRC’s attempts to lock down metal music. Can I understand why a community which feels beleaguered and under attack might kick back against what it sees as threats to its autonomy and creativity? Yes. Do I think that banning words and images is the way to go? No. That would be entirely hypocritical given that I’m a fan of Slayer’s music (well, up to about album #5. Their output has tailed off quite a bit since then). The title of this post and the image are taken from a t-shirt that Tom Araya, the lead vocalist in Slayer, wore on, I believe, the South Of Heaven tour in 1988. (I told you we’d get to an explanation eventually…). Sex. Murder. Art is also the title of a Slayer song. With exceptionally vicious lyrics.

Metal has progressed a great deal over the last few decades when it comes to sexism. I urge you to read this insightful and intelligent article by Dom Lawson on the evolution of metal. Here’s a choice quote:

…heavy music has spent the last few decades steadily edging away from an overriding culture of crass misogyny and making the whole scene a lot more welcoming and palatable to women in the process.

There are also intriguing parallels between the #TimHunt case and what Lawson says in his article above with regard to sexism being explained away as humour:

But no, Dom, I hear you cry, it’s not sexist. It’s funny! Look at those vibrating butt-cheeks! Brilliant. It’s probably ironic or something.

Well, no. It’s still sexist.

The progression away from the “overriding culture of crass misogyny” to which Lawson refers hasn’t happened by banning certain albums, lyrics, or bands. Or infringing freedom of speech. That would be entirely counterproductive. It’s happened by calling out sexism and misogyny when we see it. And via debate and argument.

“But, but, but… Hunt banned…witch hunt riding through…fascists…caused his downfall…freedom of speech. Those feminazis aren’t interested in debate.”

OK, OK. Calm down. Remember the trigger warning.

First, let me direct you back up the page to my tweet in response to Mr. Yiannopoulos blocking me. More importantly, let me repeat that context is everything. Hunt was entirely free to say what he did. And he did. And he was criticised for it. I’ll let the wonderful xkcd explain:

Of course, this would mean that Milo Yiannopoulos, by blocking me, considers me to be an asshole.

You know what? I’m rather proud of that.

What’s wrong with being sexy? Discuss.

When the uncertainty principle goes up to 11…


First published at physicsfocus.

I’m a middle-aged professor of physics and I love heavy metal.

There, I’ve said it.

I know that the mere mention of heavy metal – the music, that is, not one of those dubiously defined toxic elements in the periodic table – is likely to provoke a disdainful wrinkling of the nose among the more, let’s say, cultured readers of physicsfocus. But before you run to the hills, or depart en masse for BBC iPlayer and the more sedate sounds of Radio 3, first let me explain just why I am so heavily into metal and all its myriad sub-genres (including thrash, death, power, progressive, and – forgive me – hair metal), and why the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is fundamentally connected with the ‘crunch’ of a metal guitar riff.

The best metal is incredibly harmonically rich. The music of Black Sabbath and Metallica, to name but two metal giants, echoes and channels the sheer heaviness of the work of classical composers such as Wagner, Rachmaninoff, and Paganini. Indeed, one of the most accomplished metal guitarists there is, Yngwie Malmsteen, frequently cites Paganini’s work as a formative influence on his playing. And a British band who were a major inspiration for the fledgling Metallica, Diamond Head, ripped off paid homage to Holst’s Planets Suite – specifically, Mars: Bringer of War – on their seminal track Am I Evil? Other examples of classical ‘crossover’ abound in the metal oeuvre.

In addition to being harmonically sophisticated, however, particular ‘breeds’ of metal are also rhythmically complex. Thrash metal, and the closely related industrial metal and ‘djent’ sub-genres, in particular, are based around exceptionally tight and syncopated rhythm guitar riffs where extensive use is made of palm muting to damp the strings. The video below includes a few examples of the use of heavy string muting in a number of archetypal metal riffs.

Bands like Meshuggah and Fear Factory have honed the level of syncopation to a very fine art where even the vocals become percussive and are locked in sync with machine-like guitar ‘chugs’ in challenging time signatures. It’s this rhythmic complexity – and the type of guitar style that’s required to produce it – which underpins the link between heavy metal and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.

Unfortunately, the uncertainty principle continues to be explained — at least in many pop sci accounts (see here for example) — in terms of the disturbance that a measurement causes to a quantum system. This rather frustratingly fails to put across the fundamental essence of the uncertainty principle and can be somewhat misleading for students.

The uncertainty principle is simply an unavoidable and natural consequence of imbuing matter with wavelike characteristics. A wave can equally well be described in the time or in the frequency domain. These are conjugate variables and we can switch between the two descriptions of the wave using the wonderfully elegant Fourier transformation process. (An erstwhile colleague at Nottingham described the Fourier transformation of data as “what physicists always do when they can’t think of anything better”. I agree, and am guilty as charged! But there’s a very good reason why physicists fall back on Fourier analysis time and time again…) Any sound engineer or producer is also familiar with the results of Fourier transforming audio waves (although they may not refer to the process in quite those terms): a spectrum analyser provides a visualisation of Fourier components, while a graphic equalizer allows the relative amplitudes of those components to be modified.

The uncertainty principle arises from a very simple relationship between the two different representations of a waveform on the time and frequency axes: the shorter the signal is, the wider its frequency spectrum must be. Put more simply: narrow in time, wide in frequency. The width of the spectrum is simply a ‘proxy’ for our uncertainty in defining a specific frequency for the waveform. This, of course, translates to other pairs of variables including, in particular, position and momentum, giving rise to the standard form of the uncertainty principle which 1st year physics undergraduates are most familiar with.

Metal guitar lends itself rather well to a demonstration of the uncertainty principle in action. An undamped string left to its own devices on a highly amplified guitar produces a distorted note which sustains for some time:

The waveform is shown below on the left. On the right hand side is the frequency spectrum for the fundamental (i.e. first harmonic) of the guitar string. Note that the spectrum is essentially a single spike at the frequency of the fundamental. (Of course, there are many other frequency components but we don’t need to worry about those – I’ve zoomed in on a narrow portion of the spectrum containing just a single harmonic).


If the string is now muted to get the signature ‘crunch’/’chug’ of the metal riff, the waveform dies out on a very much shorter time-scale:

This time-limited signal has a correspondingly wider frequency spectrum, i.e. our effective uncertainty in determining the frequency of the fundamental is much greater. (The intensity of the peak in the frequency spectrum will also decrease but I’ve scaled it up to allow for better comparison of its width with that of the original narrow peak).


This natural broadening of the spectrum of a time-limited signal represents the very essence of the uncertainty principle. And as was also aptly demonstrated by the IOP Schools lectures a few years back, what better way to demonstrate fundamental physics principles than via a heavily distorted guitar dialled all the way up to 11?

As I was finishing this post I found out that New College here in Nottingham will offer a degree in heavy metal from September 2013. It’s of course already attracted more than its fair share of opprobrium, widely mocked as a “Mickey Mouse” degree, but an undergraduate module or two on the physics of heavy metal strikes me as a very good idea indeed. It’d be an intriguing and left-field route into teaching topics such as vibrations and waves, signal processing, Fourier analysis, ordinary and partial differential equations, and feedback (non-linear dynamics).

I wonder if New College Nottingham is in need of an external examiner for its course..?

Image: Sagan/Slayer t-shirt design by Monsters of Grok

15 Responses to When the uncertainty principle goes up to 11…

    1. John Duffield says:

      Interesting stuff, Phil. I suppose you know all about the “Optical Fourier Transform”, like on Steven Lehar’s web page, about half way down. A lens converts an extended-entity wave into dots on a screen, effectively performing a real-time non-mathematical Fourier transform. I can’t help wondering if something similar is going on in the double-slit experiment. A photon goes through both slits, as per Steinberg et al’s plot in In Praise of Weakness. But when you detect it, you get a dot on the screen. And if you detect it at one slit, the photon is transformed into a dot that goes through that slit only.

    1. Firstly – it feels good to finally know I’m not the only physics-loving metalhead (or should that be metal-loving physicshead). I thought you were supposed to appreciate art history and Mahler, so I tend to keep it quiet! Thanks very much for this video, and the novel way of looking at the uncertainty principle.

      Secondly, a thought occured – when palm muting, I often find that if one rests too hard on the string, a noticeable change in frequency can occur, because you’re effectively changing the length of the standing wave. Is that not a possible alternate cause for the effect?

        • Hi, Mike.

          That’s a wonderfully perceptive comment! I worried about this too and made sure that I was not changing the pitch. It’s one of the reasons that I tuned back up from “drop A” tuning in the video. The key thing is that the peak position of the fundamental stays at the same frequency – it just becomes broader.

          All the best,


            • Of course! If you were to change the length, the frequency would have changed. The proof that the wavelength is the same is the unchanging fundamental. Brilliant 🙂

              I wonder if there’s some way to relate the uncertainty in frequency/wavelength to the width of the damper…

              Thanks for the reply,


    1. Ian Liberman says:

      As creator of Pressman`s Rock Trivia and an obsessed metal fan, who is very much into physics and cosmology as a hobby, I can not remember when I have enjoyed a article as much as I have yours. Your use of the guitar string played at its loudest to demonstrate Heisenberg`s Uncertainty Principal,using time and frequency instead of position and momentum to demonstrate the cycle of the waveform. This is demonstrated by the uncertainty residing in “narrow in time, wide in frequency” and also vica versa, when you play the one string along with the illustrating graph and applying it to HUP .You also peaked my interest in how you illustrate how the fourier transformation of data is used for analysis. Thanks for an excellent learning experience with metal overtones.

    1. Kelly says:

      I absolutely loved this post and the analysis of metal from a physics perspective. I am a biologist as well as a very vocal metalhead, and a classically trained percussionist. I have never seen anything remotely strange about my love for metal and classical music and sometimes have a hard time explaining to people why I am the way I am, but this post, as well as some others I’ve seen recently make me feel better that metalheads are getting out there and talking about why we love this technically and lyrically amazing music as much as we do (I write this as I am listening to Swallow the Sun…). Hopefully there will come a day when I don’t get dirty looks for being proud of the death, doom and black metal I listen to, and I will no longer have to explain how I can have Beethoven following Behemoth on my iPod. Thanks again to all metalheads supporting the genre.

    1. Richard Codling says:

      Very interesting article! I got into physics through taking guitars and effects apart and eventually built up to making my own little valve amp so this brings it all back round nicely.

      I attended an interview to become a trainee physics teacher and as part of my interview I had to give a five-minute presentation about an aspect of physics that interested me. I chose the elctric guitar and highlighted what could be cross-referenced to what part of any given course, mostly experiments I wanted to try myself! I got a place on the course but ended up in the health service instead for various reasons.

      I notice you can see the decay envelope of your noise gate on the raw waveform of the ‘crunch’ D too does that affect the frequency composition? DId you try with and without?

      Right better be off, my new band have a gig in 8 weeks and we need some material…

        • Hi, Richard.

          Great comment. The noise gate will indeed affect the overall shape of the frequency spectrum, but the general principle remains – narrow in time, wider in frequency. An exponentially decaying sinusoidal signal (as for the traditional damped, driven oscillator) when Fourier transformed to frequency space, will have a Lorentzian frequency spectrum. (The resonance curve familiar from A-level physics).

          Other types of decay of the signal will change the shape of the frequency spectrum (e.g. an abrupt switch-off of the signal would be the equivalent of the top-hat function known to undergrads, and this would produce a sinc function in Fourier space).

          I was being entirely serious in the last paragraph of the post – metal guitar sounds could be used as a very effective and entertaining way of explaining Fourier transforms.

          I look forward to hearing some MP3s from your band – please post a link when you upload them!

          All the very best,


    1. Great stuff Philip. I never dreamed I’d see the day when Heisenberg and hair metal were mentioned in the same article. On the other hand, Heisenberg would be a great name for a German industrial metal band.

      This reminds me how, when a German researcher developed an algorithm for classifying music according to characteristics such as timbre and rhythmic variation rather than genre, the system couldn’t really distinguish classical music from heavy metal: One can, for example, draw some analogies between the rhythmic tricks of Led Zeppelin and Stravinsky, although the refined audiences to whom I sometimes talk about music cognition don’t always seem to appreciate hearing Black Dog.

      If you’re interested in seeing the two genres (and others) merged (lord, if not Lord, save us from Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra), check out Glenn Branca ( or Towering Inferno. TI’s album Kaddish has been described as a mixture of “East European folk singing, Rabbinical chants, klezmer fiddling, sampled voices (including Hitler’s), heavy metal guitar and industrial synthesizer”. It would be hard to improve on that recipe (which also brings us back to Heisenberg…).

        • Thanks for those fantastic links, Philip. Wonderful to know that a quantitative analysis of timbre and rhythm fails to distinguish reliably between metal and classical music!

          That Branca composition is… disturbing. I thought that Robert Fripp was ‘out there’ but Branca is on an entirely different plane – actually, in an entirely different universe. I can’t say that I enjoyed it but I certainly found it compelling.

          “…lord, if not Lord, save us…” Nice.


    1. What an awesome site those links go to. Shows what I always suspected, which is that Bartok anticipated Slayer.

      This is risking getting off-topic now, but I couldn’t help thinking of one of my favourite YouTube videos:

      I love the way the demure little Japanese girl sits down to delight her audience with a beautiful performance, totally rocks out, then gives a petite little bow to polite applause. She’s even more extraordinary here:

        • It’s absolutely amazing, isn’t it? I watched that many moons ago during a tea-break in a long night of experiments which weren’t going particularly well and it cheered me up immensely!

    1. Mark Fromhold says:


      As you know, I’m also a middle-aged Professor of Physics but I also love folk music. So you see, it could be worse…

        • Hi, Mark.

          A bit of folk now and then is nothing to be ashamed of! Christy Moore, both solo and as a member of Planxty, is certainly lurking on my iPod. I’m also partial to the folk-prog-rock of Jethro Tull.