Stray Thoughts

Sardonic laughter: a modest proposal

Scientists are often seen as having a sardonic attitude towards ordinary mortals. Seeking an origin for the word "sardonic", I came across this from Vladimir Propp's "Theory and History of Folklore"...

Demise of Lomborg “consensus centre”

May 8, 2015 Bjorn Lomborg's "consensus centre" at the University of Western Australia, intended to provide academic respectability for a preconceived position held by the Australian Government, is dead. I had been involved with other members of the Royal Society of...

Numbers with character

There are all sorts of numbers to which we have attached names that suggest that they have almost-human characters (the correct technical term is personification). So there are perfect numbers, real numbers, complex numbers, and even narcissistic numbers* Narcissistic...

Some thoughts on the importance of good food and good drink

From Douglas Adams in The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: ‘... you know, Beeblebrox. You want to meet the man who rules the Universe.’ ‘Can he cook?’ asked Zaphod. On reflection he added: ‘I doubt if he can. If he could cook a good meal he wouldn’t worry about...

79. Science in society

In my last-but-one post I asked why we should care about scientists think. Looking back, I see that I answered a different question: how can we get people to care how scientists think. But the why is equally important, and it is a question that is by no means easy to...

The Higgs boson of biology

The discovery of the Lokiarchaeota, a new "missing link" phylum lying between the prokaryotes and the eukaryotes (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/fig_tab/nature14522_F1.html) is surely close in importance to biology as was the discovery of the Higgs...

How much wine can you get into a bra?

Some years ago I presented a radio programme for BBC Radio 4 on the design of the perfect sports bra. One of our problems in preparing the programme was to work out the appropriate cup dimensions, which I was doing surreptitiously while talking to my producer by...

Meet Count Rumford I: Rumford’s original bread oven

Count Rumford, aka the American adventurer Benjamin Thompson, is famous in scientific circles for elucidating the nature of heat, and in food circles for his invention of the Rumford stove. But seldom do the twain meet, as I discovered when I entered into...

The essential humanity of science

I see science as one of the humanities. I hate the phrase “science and the arts,” as if they were separate entities, pursuing different objectives. But both need … imagination, the engine that propels science, just as it propels all other creative activity....

Toiling in the shadow of the corkscrew

Does wine enhance the creative spirit? Stephen Fry has no doubts: Wine can be a wiser teacher than ink, and banter is often better than books. Stephen Fry “The Fry Chronicles” (London: Michael Joseph (2010)) p. 122. A notice outside a bar near Bath’s Theatre Royal...

Some thoughts on rejection

Writers get used to rejection, even if it hurts at the time. But a Chinese economics journal found a way of not making it hurt so much: We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any...

Some skeptical thoughts about technology and society

A few skeptical thoughts about our understanding and use of technology: I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies: Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way that the...

Taking a jaundiced view

Herewith a few sceptical quotes to mull over: I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when...

The science of Uri Geller

One of my favourite quotes, from Tim Healey (ed.) “Strange but True: The World’s Weirdest Newspaper Stories”, Octopus Books, London, 1984, p.93. I have been trying to trace the origin of the above story, but so far without success. In the meantime, may I quote my own...

Science quotes I: Piet Hein

Piet Hein was a Danish architect, designer, and polymath. His contribution to this series lies in his "grooks" - short, punchy poems that hit at the heart of a question. The definition of a good after-dinner speaker in Denmark is someone who can talk for half an hour...

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