Stray Thoughts

Life, REF, and the half-loaf principle

One of my favourite writers is the Russian-born Englishman S.J. "Skid" Simon. Unless you are a bridge player, you have probably never heard of him, although he wrote many murder mysteries in the period before the Second World War, the best-known being "A Bullet in the...

Let’s share the thrill and exhilaration of discovery!

A piece recorded for ABC Radio National after the death of Billy Graham, evangelist for Christianity, but before the death of Stephen Hawking, evangelist for science. What more can we scientists do to share the thrill and exhilaration of discovery?...

Communicating science: a slightly jaundiced view

After 25 years communicating science to different audiences, I finally put it all together in a talk delivered to staff and students at the University of Bristol's physics department. It covers Stephen Hawking's role, talking to politicians, dealing with the media,...

A scientist looks at philosophy

My first (and only) genuine philosophy article published in a genuine philosophy journal. Twenty-five years on, I am still quite proud of it! All about models and what they really mean (and don't mean). A scientist looks at philosophy IMAGE: Wikimedia...

The logical way to cut a round Christmas cake

Sir Francis Galton was a Victorian explorer, statistician, student of intelligence and heredity, and all round polymath. In his role as a statistician he came up with a way to analyze the power of prayer by arguing that royalty, being prayed for so frequently in the...

Let’s invite Sarah Palin to present the Nobel Prizes

My opinion piece in the San Francisco Chronicle (http://www.sfchronicle.com/opinion/openforum/article/Sarah-Palin-should-hand-out-the-Nobel-medals-12256755.php). OK, it’s tongue-in-cheek, but there is a serious point here for communicating about science. Too often...

Units of measurement

The calving of a huge iceberg from Antarctica is a serious issue in the context of global warming, but has also sparked an ongoing debate on the best unit of measurement to describe its size. "The size of Delaware" screamed the initial, U.S.-based news sources. "Well,...

What is a jerk?

Even some physicists are surprised to learn that "jerk" is a scientific measure. That's right! A "jerk" is the time rate of change of acceleration, or (equivalently) the third derivative of distance with respect to time. Which reminds me of a nice story by my friend...

My recent radio broadcasts

I live a divided life, spending half the year in Australia and the other half in the UK. While in Australia, I recorded several programmes for ABC Radio National on various aspects of the science in our lives. They are now all available on podcast. Enjoy! 1. Science...

My career in poetry

I am stimulated to write this post by the news that the “celebrated American poet Joseph Charles McKenzie” has composed a poem to celebrate Donald Trump’s inauguration. The poem contains the immortal lines “With purpose and strength he came down from his tower To...

Awkward Objects

If ever I had combined my interest in science with that in mediaeval history, this wonderful-sounding conference, taking place in Helsinki this April, would have provided the ideal vehicle. Its topic is “awkward objects” associated with the body; “including, but not...

Vale Leonard Cohen: that’s how it goes.

Leonard Cohen has died. Perhaps he should have received a Nobel Prize, or shared one with Bob Dylan, because he certainly produced some of the most memorable descriptions of the human condition to be found anywhere. The one that sticks in my mind is this: Everybody...

Rosetta and Bali: Coincidence or conspiracy?

Dateline: November 2nd, 2016. Staying on Bali, and idly glancing at the right-hand NASA topographic map of Bali from space, the similarity to the left-hand image of comet P67 taken from the Rosetta spacecraft suddenly struck me. Yes, I know that I have reflected...

IgNobel or Nobel – which has more value?

It may sound ridiculous to argue that a spoof IgNobel Prize could ever have more value than an actual Nobel. Of course, when it comes to real science, the Nobels are still the pinnacle. But perhaps, as I pointed out in this interview on the BBC World Service recorded...

Are you over-exerting your brain?

In the days when I was an enthusiast for competition bridge, I read a book by the British writer Victor Mollo which featured a character called The Hideous Hog. One sentence from that book, describing the Hog’s excuse for making a mistake, has always stuck in my mind...

Rabelais in the modern world

Rabelais's rumbustious romp with the brief title  The Heroic Deeds of Gargantua and Pantagruel was written in the sixteenth century, with the first part being written in 1532. I am lucky enough to own a limited edition illustrated by the Australia artist Francis J....

What Nepal really needs to do about landslip disasters

July, 2016 After hearing a well-informed talk by the experienced Nepal road engineer Bleddyn Griffiths about his experience of the Nepal earthquake disaster, I suggested that we write a joint letter about both the science and the realities, which are linked in a more...

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