“We don’t need no education…”

(…or Why It Sometimes Might Be Better For Us Academics to Shut The F**k Up Occasionally.)

Boost Public Engagement to Beat Pseudoscience, says Jim Al-Khalili” goes the headline on p.19 of this week’s Times Higher Education, my traditional Saturday teatime read. The brief article, a summary of points Jim made during his talk at the Young Universities Summit, continues…

Universities must provide more opportunities for academics to engage with the public or risk allowing pseudoscience to “fill the vacuum”, according to Jim Al-Khalili.

Prof. Al-Khalili is an exceptionally talented and wonderfully engaging science communicator. I enjoy, and very regularly recommend (to students and science enthusiasts of all stripes), his books and his TV programmes. But the idea that education and academic engagement are enough to counter pseudoscience is, at the very best, misleading and, at worst, a dangerous and counter-productive message to propagate.

The academic mantra of “education, education, education” as the unqualified panacea for every socioeconomic ill, although comforting, is almost always a much too simplistic — and, for some who don’t share our ideological leanings, irritatingly condescending — approach. I’ve written enthusiastically before about Tom Nichols’ powerful “The Death of Expertise”, and I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve referred to David McRaney’s The Backfire Effect in previous posts and articles I’ve written. It does no harm to quote McRaney one more time…

The last time you got into, or sat on the sidelines of, an argument online with someone who thought they knew all there was to know about health care reform, gun control, gay marriage, climate change, sex education, the drug war, Joss Whedon or whether or not 0.9999 repeated to infinity was equal to one – how did it go?

Did you teach the other party a valuable lesson? Did they thank you for edifying them on the intricacies of the issue after cursing their heretofore ignorance, doffing their virtual hat as they parted from the keyboard a better person?

Perhaps you’ve been more fortunate than McRaney (and me.) But somehow I doubt it.

As just one example from McRaney’s list, there is strong and consistent evidence that, in the U.S., Democrats are much more inclined to accept the evidence for anthropogenic climate change than Republicans. That’s bad enough, but the problem of political skew in motivated rejection of science is much broader. A very similar and very distinct right-left asymmetry exists across the board, as discussed in Lewandowsky and Oberauer’s influential paper, Motivated Rejection Of Science. I’ll quote from their abstract, where they make the same argument as McRaney but in rather more academic, though no less compelling, terms [1]:

Rejection of scientific findings is mostly driven by motivated cognition: People tend to reject findings that threaten their core beliefs or worldview. At present, rejection of scientific findings by the U.S. public is more prevalent on the political right than the left. Yet the cognitive mechanisms driving rejection of science, such as the superficial processing of evidence toward the desired interpretation, are found regardless of political orientation. General education and scientific literacy do not mitigate rejection of science but, rather, increase the polarization of opinions along partisan lines.

Let me repeat and bolden that last line for emphasis. It’s exceptionally important.


General education and scientific literacy do not mitigate rejection of science but, rather, increase the polarization of opinions along partisan lines.


If we blithely assume that the rejection of well-accepted scientific findings — and the potential subsequent descent into the cosy embrace of pseudoscience — is simply a matter of a lack of education and engagement, we fail to recognise the complex and multi-facetted sociology and psychology at play here. Yes, we academics need to get out there and talk about the research we and others do — and I’m rather keen on doing this myself (as discussed here, here, and here) — but let’s not make the mistake that there’s always a willing audience waiting with bated breath for the experts to come and correct them on what they’re getting wrong.

I spend a lot of time on public engagement, both online and off — although not, admittedly, as much as Jim — and I’ve encountered the “motivated rejection” effect time and time again over the years. Here’s just one example of what I mean — a comment posted under the most recent Computerphile video I did with Sean Riley:

ZeroCred

The “zero credibility” comment stems not from the science presented in the video but from a reaction to my particular ideological and political leanings. For reasons I’ve discussed at length previously, I’ve been labelled as an “SJW” — a badge I’m happy to wear with quite some pride. (If you’ve not encountered the SJW perjorative previously, lucky you. Here’s a primer.) Because of my SJW leanings, the science I present, regardless of its accuracy (and level of supporting evidence/research), is immediately rejected by a subset of aggrieved individuals who do not share my political outlook. They outright dismiss the credibility or validity of the science not on the basis of the content or the strength of the data/evidence but solely on their ideological, emotional, and knee-jerk reaction to me…

Downvoting

(That screenshot above is taken from the comments section for this video.)

It’s worth noting that the small hardcore of viewers who regularly downvote and leave comments about the ostensible lack of credibility of the science I present are very often precisely those who would claim to be ever-so-rational and whose clarion call is “Facts over feels” [1]. Yet they are so opposed to my “SJW-ism” that they reject everything I say, on any topic, as untrustworthy; they cannot get beyond their gut-level emotional reaction to me.

My dedicated following of haters is a microcosm of the deep political polarisation we’re seeing online, with science caught in the slip-stream and accepted/rejected on the basis of how it appeals to a given worldview, rather than on the strength of the scientific evidence itself. (And it’s always fun to be told exactly how science works by those who have never carried out an experiment, published a paper, been a member of a peer-review panel, reviewed a grant etc.) This then begs the question: Am I, as a left-leaning academic with clearly diabolical SJW tendencies, in any position at all to educate this particular audience on any topic? Of course not. No matter how much scientific data and evidence I provide it will be dismissed out of hand because I am not of their tribe.[3]

Jim Al-Khalili’s argument at the Young Universities Summit that what’s required is ever-more education and academic engagement is, in essence, what sociologists and Science and Technology Studies (STS) experts would describe as the deficit model. The deficit model has been widely discredited because it simply does not accurately describe how we modify our views (or not) in the light of more information. (At the risk of making …And Then There’s Physics  scream, I encourage you to read their informative and entertaining posts on the theme of the deficit model.)

Prof. Al-Khalili is further reported as stating that “…to some extent, you do have to stand up and you do have to bang on about evidence and rationalism, because if we don’t, we will make the same mistakes of the past where the vacuum will be filled with people talking pseudoscience or nonsense.” 

Banging on about evidence and rationalism will have close to zero effect on ideologically opoosed audiences because they already see themselves as rational and driven by evidence [3]; they won’t admit to being biased and irrational because their bias is unconscious. And we are all guilty of succumbing to unconscious bias, to a greater or lesser extent. Force-feeding  more data and evidence to those with whom we disagree is not only unlikely to change their minds, it’s much more likely to entrench them further in their views. (McRaney, passim.)

Let me make a radical suggestion. What if we academics decided to engage rather less sometimes? After all, who is best placed to sway the position — on climate change, vaccination, healthcare, social welfare, or just about any topic — of a deeply anti-establishment Trump supporter who has fallen hook, line, and sinker for the “universities are hotbeds of cultural Marxism” meme? A liberal academic who can trot out chapter and verse from the literature, and present watertight quantitative (and qualitative) arguments ?

Of course not.

We need to connect, somehow, beyond the level of raw data and evidence. We need to appeal to that individual’s biases and psychology. And that means thinking more cannily, and more politically, about how we influence a community. Barking, or even gently reciting, facts and figures is not going to work. This is uncomfortable for any scientist, I know. But you don’t need to take my word for it — review the evidence for yourself.

The strength of the data used to support a scientific argument almost certainly won’t make a damn bit of difference when a worldview or ideology is challenged. And that’s not because our audience is uneducated. Nor are they unintelligent. They are behaving exactly as we do. They are protecting their worldview via the backfire effect.

 


[1] One might credibly argue that the rejection skew could lean the other way on certain topics such as the anti-vaccination debate, where anecdotal, and other, evidence might suggest that there is a stronger liberal/left bias. It turns out that even when it comes to anti-vaxxers, there is quite a considerable amount of data to support that it’s the right that has a higher degree of anti-science bias [2]. Here’s one key example: Trust In Scientists On Climate Change and Vaccines, LC Hamilton, J Hartter, and K Saito,  SAGE Open, July – Sept 2015, 1 – 13. See also Beyond Misinformation, S. Lewandowsky, U. K. H. Ecker, and J. Cook, J. Appl. Res. Memory. Cogn. 6 353 (2017) for a brief review of some of the more important literature on this topic.

[2] …but then it’s all lefty, liberal academics writing these papers, right? They would say that.

[3] Here’s an amusing recent example of numerological nonsense being passed off as scientific reasoning. Note that Peter Coles’ correspondent claims that the science is on his side. How persuasive do you think he’ll find Peter’s watertight, evidence-based reasoning to be? How should he be further persauded? Will more scientific evidence and data do the trick?

 

Does art compute?

A decade ago, a number of physicists and astronomers, an occasional mathematician, and even an interloping engineer or two (shhh…) here at the University of Nottingham started to collaborate with the powerhouse of pop sci (/pop math/pop comp/pop phil…) videography that is Brady Haran. I was among the “early adopters” (after the UoN chemists had kicked everything off with PeriodicVideos) and contributed to the very first Sixty Symbols video, uploaded back in March 2009. This opened with the fresh-faced and ever-engaging Mike Merrifield: Speed of Light.

Since then, I have thoroughly enjoyed working with Brady and colleagues on 60 or so Sixty Symbols videos. (Watching my hairline proceed backwards and upwards at an exponentially increasing rate from video to video has been a somewhat less edifying experience.) More recently, I’ve dipped my toes into Computerphile territory, collaborating with the prolific Sean Riley — whom I first met here, and then subsequently spent a week with in Ethiopia — on a number of videos exploring the links between physics and computing.

It’s this ability to reach out to audiences other than physicists and self-confessed science geeks that keeps me coming back to YouTube, despite its many deficiencies and problems (such as those described here, here, and here. And here, here, and here [1].) Nonetheless, during discussions with my colleagues about the ups and downs of online engagement, I’m always tediously keen to highlight that the medium of YouTube allows us to get beyond preaching to the converted.

Traditional public engagement and outreach events are usually targeted at, and attract, audiences who already have an interest in, or indeed passion for, science (and, more broadly, STEM subjects in general [2].) But with YT,  and despite the best efforts of its hyperactive recommendation algorithms to corral viewers into homogeneous groupings (or direct them towards more and more extreme content), it’s possible to connect with audiences that may well feel that science or math(s) is never going to be for them, i.e. audiences that might never consider attending a traditional science public engagement event. The comment below, kindly left below a Numberphile video that crossed the music-maths divide, is exactly what I’m talking about…

numberphile.png

There’s still a strong tendency for a certain type of viewer, however, to want their content neatly subdivided and packaged in boxes labelled “Physics”, “Chemistry”, “Biology”, “Philosophy”, “Computing”, “Arts and Humanities Stuff I’d Rather Avoid” etc… Over the years, there have been comments (at various levels of tetchiness) left under Sixty Symbols, Periodic Videos, Computerphile etc… uploads telling us that the video should be on a different channel or that the content doesn’t fit. I hesitate to use the lazy echo chamber cliché, but the reluctance to countenance concepts that don’t fit with a blinkered view of a subject is not just frustrating, it narrows the possibilities for truly innovative thinking that redefines — or, at best, removes — those interdisciplinary boundaries.

Some physicists have a reputation for being just a little “sniffy” about other fields of study. This was best captured, as is so often the case, by Randall Munroe:

But this is a problem beyond intellectual arrogance; a little learning is a dangerous thing. As neatly lampooned in that xkcd cartoon, it’s not just physicists who fail to appreciate the bigger picture (although there does seem to be a greater propensity for that attitude in my discipline.) A lack of appreciation for the complexity of fields that are not our own can often lead to an entirely unwarranted hubris that, in turn, tends to foster exceptionally simplistic and flawed thinking. And before you know it, you’re claiming that lobsters hold the secret to life, the universe, and everything…

That’s why it’s not just fun to cut across interdisciplinary divides; it’s essential. It broadens our horizons and opens up new ways of thinking. This is particularly the case when it comes to the arts-science divide, which is why I was keen to work with Sean on this very recent Computerphile video:

The video stems from the Creative Reactions collaboration described in a previous post, but extends the physics-art interface discussed there to encompass computing. [Update 08/06/2019 — It’s been fun reading the comments under that video and noting how many back up exactly the points made above about the unwillingness of some to broaden their horizons.] As the title of this post asks, can art compute? Can a painting or a pattern process information? Can artwork solve a computational problem?

Amazingly, yes.

This type of approach to information processing is generally known as unconventional computing, but arguably a better, although contentious, term is lateral computing (echoing lateral thinking.) The aim is not to “beat” traditional silicon-based devices in terms of processing speed, complexity, or density of bits. Instead, we think about computing in a radically different way — as the “output” of physical and chemical and/or biological processes, rather than as an algorithmic, deterministic, rule-based approach to solving a computational problem. Lateral computing often means extracting the most benefit from analogies rather than algorithms.

Around about the time I started working with Brady on Sixty Symbols, our group was actively collaborating with Natalio Krasnogor and his team — who were then in the School of Computer Science here at Nottingham — on computational methods to classify and characterise scanning probe images. Back then we were using genetic algorithms (see here and here, for example); more recently, deep learning methods have been shown to do a phenomenally good job of interpreting scanning probe images, as discussed in this Computerphile video and this arXiv paper. Nat and I had a common interest, in common with quite a few other physicists and computer scientists out there, in exploring the extent to which self-assembly and self-organisation in nature could be exploited for computing. (Nat moved to Newcastle University not too long afterwards. I miss our long chats over coffee about, for one, just how we might implement Conway’s Game Of Life on a molecule-by-molecule basis…)

It is with considerable guilt and embarrassment that I’ve got to admit that on my shelves I’ve still got one of Nat’s books that he kindly lent to me all of those years ago. (I’m so sorry, Nat. As soon as I finish writing this, I’m going to post the book to you.)

This book, Reaction-Diffusion Computers by Andy Adamatzky, Ben De Lacy Costello, and Tetsuya Asai, is a fascinating and comprehensive discussion of how chemical reactions — in particular, the truly remarkable BZ reaction — can be exploited in computing. I hope that we’ll be able to return to the BZ theme in future Computerphile videos. But it was Chapter 2 of Adamatzky’s book, namely “Geometrical Computation: Voronoi Diagram and Skeleton” — alongside Philip Ball’s timeless classic, The Self-Made Tapestry (which has been essential reading for many researchers in our group over the years, including yours truly) — that directly inspired the Computerphile video embedded above.

The Voronoi diagram (also called the Voronoi tesselation) is a problem in computational geometry that crops up time and again in so very many different disciplines and applications, spanning  areas as diverse as astronomy, cancer treatment, urban planning (including deciding the locations of schools, post offices, and hospital services), and, as discussed in that video above, nanoscience.

We’ve calculated Voronoi tesselations extensively over the years to classify the patterns formed by drying droplets of nanoparticle solutions. (My colleagues Ellie Frampton and Alex Saywell have more recently been classifying and quantifying molecular self-assembly using the Voronoi approach.) But Voronoi tesselations are also regularly used by astronomers to characterise the distribution of galaxies on length scales that are roughly ~ 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (i.e. about 1030) times larger than those explored in nanoscience. I love that the same analysis technique is exploited to analyse our universe on such vastly different scales (and gained a lot from conversations with the astronomer Peter Coles on this topic when he was a colleague here at Nottingham. )

As Cory Simon explains so well in his “Voronoi cookies and the post office problem” post, the Voronoi algorithm is an easy-to-understand method in computational geometry, especially in two dimensions: take a point, join it up to its nearest neighbours, and get the perpendicular bisectors of those lines. The intersections of the bisectors define a Voronoi cell. If the points form an ordered mesh on the plane — as, for example, in the context of the atoms on a crystal plane in solid state physics — then the Voronoi cell is called a Wigner-Seitz unit cell. (As an undergrad, I didn’t realise that the Wigner-Seitz unit cells I studied in my solid state lectures were part of the much broader Voronoi class — another example of limiting thinking due to disciplinary boundaries.)

For less ordered distributions of points, the tesselation becomes a set of polygons…

Tesselation

We can write an algorithm that computes the Voronoi tesselation for those points, or we can stand back and let nature do the job for us. Here’s a Voronoi tesselation based on the distribution of points above which has been “computed” by simply letting the physics and chemistry run their course…

tesselation-2.png

That’s an atomic force microscope image of the Voronoi tesselation produced by gold nanoparticles aggregating during the drying of the solvent in which they’re suspended. Holes appear in the solvent-nanoparticle film via any (or all) of a number of mechanisms including random nucleation (a little like how bubbles form in boiling water), phase separation (of the solid nanoparticles from the liquid solvent, loosely speaking), or instabilities due to heat flow in the solvent. Whatever way those holes appear, the nanoparticles much prefer to stay wet and so are carried on the “tide” of the solvent as it dewets from the surface…

Dewetting-1

(The figure above is taken from a review article written by Andrew Stannard, now at King’s College London. Before his move to London, Andy was a PhD researcher and then research fellow in the Nottingham Nanoscience Group. His PhD thesis focused on the wonderfully rich array of patterns that form as a result of self-assembly in nanostructured and molecular systems. Fittingly, given the scale-independent nature of some of these patterns, Andy’s research career started in astronomy (with the aforementioned Peter Coles.))

As those holes expand, particles aggregate at their edges and ultimately collide, producing a Voronoi tesselation when the solvent has entirely evaporated. What’s particularly neat is that there are many ways for the solvent to dewet, including a fascinating effect called the Benard-Marangoni instability. The physics underpinning this instability has many parallels with the Rayleigh-Taylor instability that helped produce Lynda Jackson’s wonderful painting.

But how do we program our physical computer? [3] To input the positions of the points for which we want compute the tesselation, we need to pattern the substrate so that we can control where (and when) the dewetting process initiates. And, fortunately, with (suitably treated) silicon surfaces, it’s possible to locally oxidise a nanoscale region using an atomic force microscope and draw effectively arbitrary patterns. Matt Blunt, now a lecturer at University College London, got this patterning process down to a very fine art while he was a PhD researcher in the group over a decade ago. The illustration below, taken from Matt’s thesis, explains the patterning process:

afm-patterning.png

Corporate Identity Guidelines™ of course dictate that, when any new lithographic or patterning technique becomes available, the very first pattern drawn is the university logo (as shown on the left below; the linewidth is approximately 100 nm.) The image on the right shows how a 4 micron x 4 micron square of AFM-patterned oxide affects the dewetting of the solvent and dramatically changes the pattern formed by the nanoparticles; for one thing, the characteristic length scale of the pattern on the square is much greater than that in the surrounding region. By patterning the surface in a slightly more precise manner we could, in principle, choose the sites where the solvent dewets and exploit that dewetting to calculate the Voronoi tesselation for effectively an arbitrary set of points in a 2D plane.

tesselation-3.png

There’s a very important class of unconventional computing known as wetware. (Indeed, a massively parallel wetware system is running inside your head as you read these words.) The lateral computing strategy outlined above might perhaps be best described as dewetware.

I very much hope that Sean and I can explore other forms of lateral/unconventional computing in future Computerphile videos. There are a number of influential physicists who have suggested that the fundamental quantity in the universe is not matter, nor energy — it’s information. Patterns, be they compressed and encrypted binary representations of scientific data or striking and affecting pieces of art, embed information on a wide variety of different levels.

And if there’s one thing that connects artists and scientists, it’s our love of patterns…


[1] And that’s just for starters. YouTube has been dragged, kicking and screaming every inch of the way, into a belated and grudging acceptance that it’s been hosting and fostering some truly odious and vile ‘content’.

[2] On a tangential point, it frustrates me immensely that public engagement is now no longer enough by itself. When it comes to securing funding for engaging with the public (who fund our research), we’re increasingly made feel that it’s more important to collect and analyse questionnaire responses than to actually connect with the audience in the first place.

[3] I’ll come clean — the nanoparticle Voronoi tesselation “calculation” shown above is just a tad artificial in that the points were selected “after the event”. The tesselation wasn’t directed/programmed in this case; the holes that opened up in the solvent-nanoparticle film due to dewetting weren’t pre-selected. However, the concept remains valid — the dewetting centres can in principle be “dialled in” by patterning the surface.

“The drum beats out of time…”

Far back in the mists of time, in those halcyon days when the Brexit referendum was still but a comfortably distant blot on the horizon and Trump’s lie tally was a measly sub-five-figures, I had the immense fun of working with Brady Haran and Sean Riley on this…

As that video describes, we tried an experiment in crowd-sourcing data via YouTube for an analysis of the extent to which fluctuations in timing might be a signature characteristic of a particular drummer (or drumming style). Those Sixty Symbols viewers who very kindly sent us samples of their drumming — all 78 of you [1] — have been waiting a very, very long time for this update. My sincere thanks for contributing and my profuse apologies for the exceptionally long delay in letting you know just what happened to the data you sent us. The good news is that a paper, Rushing or Dragging? An Analysis of the “Universality” of Correlated Fluctuations in Hi-hat Timing and Dynamics (which was uploaded to the arXiv last week), has resulted from the drumming fluctuations project. The abstract reads as follows.

A previous analysis of fluctuations in a virtuoso (Jeff Porcaro) drum performance [Räsänen et al., PLoS ONE 10(6): e0127902 (2015)] demonstrated that the rhythmic signal comprised both long range correlations and short range anti-correlations, with a characteristic timescale distinguishing the two regimes. We have extended Räsänen et al.’s approach to a much larger number of drum samples (N=132, provided by a total of 58 participants) and to a different performance (viz., Rush’s Tom Sawyer). A key focus of our study was to test whether the fluctuation dynamics discovered by Räsänen et al. are “universal” in the following sense: is the crossover from short-range to long-range correlated fluctuations a general phenomenon or is it restricted to particular drum patterns and/or specific drummers? We find no compelling evidence to suggest that the short-range to long-range correlation crossover that is characteristic of Porcaro’s performance is a common feature of temporal fluctuations in drum patterns. Moreover, level of experience and/or playing technique surprisingly do not play a role in influencing a short-range to long-range correlation cross-over. Our study also highlights that a great deal of caution needs to be taken when using the detrended fluctuation analysis technique, particularly with regard to anti-correlated signals.

There’s also some bad news. We’ll get to that. First, a few words on the background to the project.

Inspired by a fascinating paper published by Esa Rasanen (of Tampere University) and colleagues back in 2015, a few months before the Sixty Symbols video was uploaded, we were keen to determine whether the correlations observed by Esa et al. in the fluctuations in an iconic drummer’s performance — the late, great Jeff Porcaro — were a common feature of drumming.

Why do we care — and why should you care — about fluctuations in drumming? Surely we physicists should be doing something much more important with our time, like, um, curing cancer…

OK, maybe not.

More seriously, there are very many good reasons why we should study fluctuations (aka noise) in quite some detail. Often, noise is the bane of an experimental physicist’s life. We spend inordinate amounts of time chasing down and attempting to eliminate sources of noise, be they at a specific frequency (e.g. mains “hum” at 50 Hz or 60 Hz [2]) or, sometimes more frustratingly, when the signal contamination is spread across the frequency spectrum, forming what’s known as white noise. (Noise can be of many colours other than white — just as with a spectrum of light it all depends on which frequencies are present.)

But noise is most definitely not always just a nuisance to be avoided/eliminated at all costs; there can be a wealth of information embedded in the apparent messiness. Pink noise, for example, crops up in many weird and wonderful — and, indeed, many not-so-weird-and-not-so-wonderful — places, from climate change, to fluctuations in our heartbeats, to variations in the stock exchange, to current flow in electronic devices, and, indeed, to mutations occurring during the expansion of a cancerous tumour.  An analysis of the character and colour of noise can provide compelling insights into the physics and maths underpinning the behaviour of everything from molecular self-assembly to the influence and impact of social media.

The Porcaro performance that Esa and colleagues analysed for their paper is the impressive single-handed 16th note groove that drives Michael McDonald’s “I Keep Forgettin’…” I wanted to analyse a similar single-handed 16th note pattern, but in a rock rather than pop context, to ascertain whether Procaro’s pattern of fluctuations in interbeat timing were characteristic only of his virtuoso style or if they were a general feature of drumming. I’m also, coincidentally, a massive Rush fan. An iconic and influential track from the Canadian trio with the right type of drum pattern immediately sprang to mind: Tom Sawyer.

So we asked Sixty Symbols viewers to send in audio samples of their drumming along to Tom Sawyer, which we subsequently attempted to evaluate using a technique called detrended fluctuation analysis. When I say “we”, I mean a number of undergraduate students here at the University of Nottingham (who were aided, but more generally abetted, by myself in the analysis.) I’ve set a 3rd year undergraduate project on fluctuations in drumming for the last three years; the first six authors on the arXiv paper were (or are) all undergraduate students.

Unfortunately, the sound quality (and/or the duration) of many of the samples submitted in response to the Sixty Symbols video was just not sufficient for the task. That’s not a criticism, in any way, of the drummers who submitted audio files; it’s entirely my fault for not being more specific in the video. We worked with what we could, but in the end, the lead authors on the arXiv paper, Oli(ver) Gordon and Dom(inic) Coy, adopted a different and much more productive strategy for their version of the project: they invited a number of drummers (twenty-two in total) to play along with Tom Sawyer using only a hi-hat (so as to ensure that each and every beat could be isolated and tracked) and under exactly the same recording conditions.

You can read all of the details of the data acquisition and analysis in the arXiv paper. It also features the lengthiest acknowledgements section I’ve ever had to write. I think I’ve thanked everyone who provided data in there but if you sent me an MP3 or a .wav file (or some other audio format) and you don’t see your name in there, please let me know by leaving a comment below this post. (Assuming, of course, that you’d like to be acknowledged!)

We submitted the paper to the J. New Music Research last year and received some very helpful referees’ comments. I am waiting to get permission from the editor of the journal to make those (anonymous) comments public. If that permission is given, I’ll post the referees’ reports here.

In hindsight, Tom Sawyer was not the best choice of track to analyse. It’s a difficult groove to get right and even Neil Peart himself has said that it’s the song he finds most challenging to play live. In our analysis, we found very little evidence of the type of characteristic “crossover” in the correlations of the drumming fluctuations that emerged from Esa and colleagues’ study of Porcaro’s drumming. Our results are also at odds with the more recent work by Mathias Sogorski, Theo Geisel, Viola Priesemann (of the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization, and the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience, Göttingen, Germany) — a comprehensive and systematic analysis of microtiming variations in jazz and rock recordings spanning a total of over 100 recordings.

The likelihood is that the conditions under which we recorded the tracks — in particular, the rather “unnatural” hi-hat-only performance — may well have washed out the type of correlations observed by others. Nonetheless, this arguably negative result is a useful insight into the extent to which correlated fluctuations are robust (or not) with respect to performance environment and style. It was clear from our results, in line with previous work by Holger Hennig, Theo Geisel and colleagues, that the fluctuations are not so much characteristic of an individual drummer but of a performance; the same drummer could produce different fluctuation distributions and spectra under different performing conditions.

So where do we go from here? What’s the next stage of this research? I’m delighted to say that the Sixty Symbols video was directly responsible for kicking off an exciting collaboration with Esa and colleagues at Tampere that involves a number of students and researchers here at Nottingham. In particular, two final year project students, Ellie Hill and Lucy Edwards, have just returned from a week-long visit to Esa’s group at Tampere University. Their project, which is jointly supervised by my colleague Matt Brookes, Esa, and myself, focuses on going that one step further in the analysis of drumming fluctuations to incorporate brain imaging. Using this wonderful device.

I’m also rather chuffed that another nascent collaboration has stemmed from the Sixty Symbols video (and the subsequent data analysis) — this time from the music side of the so-called “two cultures” divide. The obscenely talented David Domminney Fowler, of Australian Pink Floyd fame, has kindly provided exceptionally high quality mixing desk recordings of “Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)” from concert performances. (Thanks, Dave. [3]) Given the sensitivity of drumming fluctuations to the precise performance environment, the analysis of the same drummer (in this case, Paul Bonney) over multiple performances could prove very informative. We’re also hoping that Bonney will be able to make it to the Sir Peter Mansfield Imaging Centre here in the not-too-distant future so that Matt and colleagues can image his brain as he drums. (Knock yourself out with drummer jokes at this point. Dave certainly has.) I’m also particularly keen to compare results from my instrument of choice at the moment, Aerodrums, with those from a traditional kit.

And finally, the Sixty Symbols video also prompted George Datseris, professional drummer and PhD student  researcher, also at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics & Self-Organisation, to get in touch to let us know about his intriguing work with the Giesel group: Does it Swing? Microtiming Deviations and Swing Feeling in Jazz. Esa and George will both be visiting Nottingham later this year and I am very enthusiastic indeed about the prospects for a European network on drum/rhythm research.

What’s remarkable is that all of this collaborative effort stemmed from Sixty Symbols. Public engagement is very often thought of exclusively in terms of scientists doing the research and then presenting the work as a fait accompli. What I’ve always loved about working with Brady on Sixty Symbols, and with Sean on Computerphile, is that they want to make the communication of science a great deal more open and engaging than that; they want to involve viewers (who are often the taxpayers who fund the work) in the trials and tribulations of the day-to-day research process itself. Brady and I have our spats on occasion, but on this point I am in complete and absolute agreement with him. Here he is, hitting the back of the net in describing the benefits of a warts-and-all approach to science communication…

They don’t engage with one paper every year or two, and a press release. I think if people knew what went into that paper and that press release…and they see the ups and the downs… even when it’s boring… And they see the emotion of it, and the humanity of it…people will become more engaged and more interested…

With the drumming project, Sixty Symbols went one step further and brought the viewers in so they were part of the story — they drove the direction of the science. While YouTube has its many failings, Sixty Symbols and channels like it enable connections with the world outside the lab that were simply unimaginable when I started my PhD back in (gulp…) 1990. And in these days of narrow-minded, naive nationalism, we need all the international connections we can get. Marching to the beat of your own drum ain’t all it’s cracked up to be…

Source of cartoon: https://xkcd.com/1736/


[1] 78. “Seven eight”.

[2] 50 Hz or 60 Hz depending on which side of the pond you fall. Any experimental physicist or electrical/electronic engineer who might be reading will also know full well that mains noise is generally not only present at 50 (or 60) Hz — there are all those wonderful harmonics to consider. (And the strongest peak may well not even be at 50 (60) Hz, but at one of those harmonics. And not all harmonics will contribute equally.  Experimental physics is such a joy at times…)

[3] In the interests of full disclosure I should note that Dave is a friend, a fan of Sixty Symbols, Numberphile, etc.., and an occasional contributor to Computerphile. He and I have spent quite a few tea-fuelled hours setting the world to rights

 

 

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

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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.)

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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”:

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“Artist”.

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.

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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.

Brady Haran, Doctor of Letters

A short blog post to say just how delighted I am that Brady Haran was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Nottingham earlier this week. It’s been my great pleasure to work with Brady on Sixty Symbols (and a number of his other channels) over the past seven years. Despite — no, make that because ofour occasional tête-à-tête on just how to put across a piece of physics for a broad audience, I always look forward immensely to Brady (+ camera + bag of accessories) appearing at my door.

Brady’s work, and his remarkable work ethic, have put Nottingham on the map — and then some — when it comes to public engagement and communicating science. As Mike Merrifield describes in the video below, Brady’s ever-expanding portfolio of videos has topped 400 million views./ That’s nearly 2 billion minutes’ worth of viewing worldwide. All of us at the University of Nottingham owe Brady a huge debt of gratitude and it’s wonderful that this has been formally recognised by the award of Doctor of Letters.

Brady is his usual modest self in his acceptance speech (starting at around the 6 minute mark below), but it’s no exaggeration to say that he has fundamentally and radically changed my approach to explaining science and, by extension, my teaching.

I have learnt so much from him over the years.

Thank you, Brady, and congratulations.

 

 

 

 

 

A team effort

All of us involved in Sixty Symbols are delighted that the project has been awarded this year’s Institute of Physics’ Kelvin Prize for “innovative and effective promotion of the public understanding of physics“.

Unfortunately, however, the IOP’s rules mean that only three people can be named in the award. This is a great shame because Sixty Symbols is, at its core, a team effort, involving many of my colleagues in Physics and Astronomy at Nottingham (and elsewhere).

Although I am one of the named recipients (alongside Brady and Mike (Merrifield)), I’ve got to admit to feeling just a little bit uncomfortable about this. For all of the reasons I discussed in a Physics World article a couple of years back, I love working on Sixty Symbols. A key element of the success of the project, however, is the camaraderie and collaboration between the team members. To recognise this, Brady made the brilliant suggestion of using the prize money to make up replica medals for the entire team. I’ll post a photo of the team with their medals here soon.

Perform or perish? Guilty confessions of a YouTube physicist

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First published at physicsfocus

This week is YouTube’s Geek Week so it seems a particularly (in)opportune moment to come clean about some niggling doubts I’ve been having of late about physics education/edutainment on the web. Before I get started – and just to reassure you that these are not the bitter ramblings of a dusty old academic who, like our current education secretary, is keen to hasten the return of Victorian education values – let me stress that I am extremely enthusiastic about many aspects of online science communication. Indeed, not only have I been almost evangelical at times about the value of web-based learning, I’ve invested quite a bit of effort in helping to make YouTube videos of the type I’m about to criticise (just a little).

Along with a number of my colleagues at the University of Nottingham, since early 2009 I’ve been contributing to videos for Brady Haran’s popular Sixty Symbols and Numberphile channels. I’ve even crossed over to the dark (and smelly) side and made a couple of videos with Brady for Periodic Videos, the chemistry-focussed forerunner of Sixty Symbols. These channels, along with Brady’s many other YouTube projects — Haran has the work ethic of an intensely driven academic — have been extremely successful and have garnered many accolades and awards.

Brady is of course not alone in his efforts to communicate science and maths via YouTube. There is now a small, but intensely dedicated, clique of talented YouTubers, as described in this article in The Independent, whose videos regularly top one million views. (Conspicuous by its absence from that list in The Independent, however, is minutephysics, a staggeringly popular channel with, at the time of writing, 1.6 million subscribers.)

Working with Brady is a fascinating – and frankly quite exhausting – experience: challenging (because there’s no script – and even if there were, Brady would rip it up); unnerving (because the first time we academics see the video is when it’s uploaded to YouTube and it may well have picked up 10,000 views or more before we get round to watching it); and always intensely collaborative (because Brady not only films and edits – his ideas and questions are absolutely central to the direction of each video). Most of all, it’s fun. It is also immensely gratifying for all of us involved with Sixty Symbols to receive e-mails from YouTube viewers across the world who say that Sixty Symbols has (re)ignited their love of physics, and, for example, inspired them to pursue a degree in the subject.

You might quite reasonably say at this point that it sounds like ‘all win’ for everyone involved. What the heck is my problem? What’s the downside? (…and where are those guilty confessions I promised?)

I’m such a scientist. Get over it.

It took me a while to work out just where my nagging uneasiness with the YouTube edutainment business sprang from. It wasn’t until I borrowed a copy of Randy Olson’s book Don’t Be Such a Scientist from a colleague’s bookshelf a few months ago that things began slowly to crystallise. (Coincidentally, Don’t Be Such a Scientist was published back in 2009 – the year my colleagues and I started to work with Brady on Sixty Symbols – and I was somewhat surprised that I hadn’t encountered the book before, given that it’s about outreach and public engagement via film-making). My eyes were drawn immediately to the quote from Jennifer Ouellette on the back cover:

“This book is likely to draw a firestorm of controversy because scientists may not want to hear what Olson has to say. But someone needs to say it; and maybe Olson’s take-no-prisoners approach will get the message through.”

Jennifer Ouellette is an exceptionally talented science writer and blogger, so I was really looking forward to reading Olson’s book; praise from Ouellette is high praise indeed, as far as I’m concerned. She has an unerring knack for explaining complicated concepts in a lucid, engaging, and effortlessly witty way, without resorting to stereotypes or patronising the reader.

I really wish that I could say the same of Olson’s book. But I hated it. Not all of it, grant you, but enough that I often had to leave it to one side and count to ten (or go make yet another coffee) to stem my flow of expletives. In that sense, Ouellette was dead right – I didn’t want to hear what Olson had to say. Here are just a few reasons why:

The relentless stereotyping of scientists as unfathomable, passionless, literal-minded automatons.

To be fair, Olson highlights one or two exceptions to this general type, including the inspirational Carl Sagan. But that’s the point – he discusses Sagan as an exception.

The “us and them” mentality.

Olson argues that scientists are not well-equipped to communicate with the ‘general public’, i.e. the great unwashed who are too intellectually challenged to “get” science without it being brought down to their level (which is apparently generally below the waistline.). I was put in mind of the late Bill Hicks’ intense frustration with TV executives who told him time and time again that although his stand-up comedy routines were creative and funny, they were concerned that his material wouldn’t “play in the midwest”. As Hicks put it, “If the people in the midwest knew the contempt that television holds for them…”.

Reducing science to easy-to-digest content requiring little intellectual effort from the viewer.

In essence, Olson argues that scientists should adopt an approach to science communication which is informed by the strategies used by Hollywood, and the marketing and advertising industries: “Style is the substance”. Although my views on marketing may not be quite as extreme as those of Hicks, the very last thing that science needs to do is to move any closer to the advertising industry.  (A word of warning: Do not click on the preceding link if you are easily offended. Or work in marketing.)

One of the things I love about Sixty Symbols, and Brady Haran’s work in general is that, contrary to Olson’s view that ‘talking heads’ are boring, Haran’s videos humanise scientists by forgoing the bleeding edge graphics, the Ride of the Valkyries-esque backing tracks, and the breathless faux-urgency that have come to characterise so much of science communication in the mass media.  My colleagues who contribute to Sixty Symbols (and Numberphile, Periodic Videos etc.) have the remarkable ability to combine enthusiasm with clear and coherent explanations, each time breaking Olson’s cardinal rule that – and I hope they’ll forgive me for saying this – substance must be translated to style.  (In my case, although enthusiasm is generally not lacking in the videos I make with Brady, clarity and coherence can often take a back seat. Style is also not something that unduly concerns me.)

Although each of those points above certainly irritated me, it was Olson’s closing line, and over-arching theme, that made me realise just where my misgivings about science-by-YouTube came from:

“…you’ll find that making an effective film, in the end, is really not different from conducting an effective scientific study”.

Hmmm, really? The last thing you need for an effective science study is to elevate style over substance. Good science necessitates careful, systematic, and tedious measurements. It couldn’t – or shouldn’t – care less about the need to “arouse and fulfil” an audience. It certainly doesn’t follow a neat story arc.

And if doing science shares little with film-making, what about science education…?

I’m with stupid

I read most of Don’t Be Such a Scientist in one sitting. Shortly after putting it down an e-mail from physicsfocus arrived in my email inbox pointing to this excellent post by Alom Shaha: Explanations are not enough, we need questions.

And there, in a nutshell, were my niggling doubts about YouTube edutainment laid bare.

Education is about so much more than an engaging video and a simple, compelling explanation. Indeed, and rather counter-intuitively, an enthusiastic lecturer apparently plays very little role in students’ ability to grasp the material covered in a lecture.  I have always seen university lectures simply as a way of enthusing students about the material – the real learning takes place outside the lecture theatre. Or after the video has been played.

If YouTube science edutainment is seen in this light – with the focus firmly on entertainment and engagement, rather than education – then my concerns are allayed. But it’s when comments like the following are posted under the videos, or at the Sixty Symbols Facebook page, that I start to get a little ‘twitchy’.

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Watching a five minute (or one minute) video is only the first step in the education process. As Shaha points out, what’s then required are the questions, debate, experiments, problems, and discussion that underpin deep learning.   This may well bring on the yawns, but we need to expose students, at whatever level – and, more broadly, any fan of science – to the hard graft required to grasp difficult concepts.

Moreover, some concepts simply do not lend themselves well to a short, snappy explanation. (Negative temperature is another example.)

I know full well that there’s a famous Einstein quote: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. But he’s also credited with this: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, and no simpler”, and, perhaps more importantly, this: “I do not teach anyone, I only provide the environment in which they can learn.”

I used to be very proud when Sixty Symbols viewers would leave a “Great – I feel smart now!” comment under one of the videos to which I contributed. But then I realised that any substantial leap in my understanding of physics had come not when I felt smart, but when I felt stupid. Really stupid.

Yet again, I discovered that another physicsfocus blogger had been through the same thought process long before me. Suzie Sheey made this wonderful point at her High Heels In The Lab blog: “…there are many arguments to be made that if you’ve stopped feeling stupid then you’ve stopped really doing science”. (I urge you to read the entire post).

Even Feynman, arguably the most gifted physics communicator there has been, clearly felt that the complexity and elegance of some concepts deserved more than just a shallow description and required considerable intellectual effort from the audience.

Sometimes we need to admit that the fabric of the cosmos takes a little more than five minutes to comprehend.

Update: The thoughts above became the theme of a TEDxDerby talk I gave in 2014:

Image: xkcd on teaching physics, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License