Archive for culture

Dark Horizons for Blue Skies

Posted in physics, science with tags , , , , on September 11, 2008 by Philonous

I read and listened today to David King, Chief Scientific advisor to the British government from 2000-2007 saying that there is no space in scientific funding for so called ‘blue skies research’.

Blue skies research is essentially research for curiosity’s sake, trying to gain greater understanding of some part of the nature of reality. As such, it generally has no immediate applications at its conception, although it is responsible for the theories that lie as the bedrock supporting applied science, engineering and economics.

One example of blue skies research is into discovering the very nature of physical interaction in the universe, be it on the grand scale of cosmology or the minute scale of particle physics. The Large Hadron Collider which was switched on yesterday at CERN is a good example of the blue sky. David King bemoaned the spending of 500m pounds on the LHC, saying

“It’s all very well to demonstrate that we can land a craft on Mars, it’s all very well to discover whether or not there is a Higgs boson (a potential mass mechanism); but I would just suggest that we need to pull people towards perhaps the bigger challenges where the outcome for our civilisation is really crucial.”

Coming from a leading scientist, this comes across as patently ridiculous and rather confusing. Ok, so I might be a little biased being a pure mathematician (how much more blue sky can you get?) and feeling as if we’re getting very little funding already. This application driven point of view seems ridiculously closed minded and incredibly short sighted. Particle physics has so far produced such (presumably useless according to DK) devices as the transistor, the computer display, radiotherapy, x-rays… In fact, most of the major advances that characterise the 20th century are due in no small part to spin-offs of particle physics experiments.

Science in the UK seems hopelessly doomed when Chief scientific advisers can be so incredibly anti-science. Given this, it was incredibly gratifying to see David King (above right) berated by Brian Cox (above left), the poster boy of UK particle physics (and a Professor in the High Energy Physics department at Manchester) on Newsnight last night. He put forward the remark that on the one day in which fundamental scientific research is actually covered in the media, it was ridiculous for the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science to be pouring cold water on the achievement.

If you’re reading this Prof King (haha!), I suggest that you quit your job as chief scientific advisor to UBS and spend all of your time tackling climate change before suggesting that blue sky researchers should change their focus and jeopardise modern science in the process.

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Posted in academina, culture, maths with tags , on August 31, 2008 by Philonous
Paul Baum (USA) giving a seminar

For those of you that didn’t know, I’m a grad student in mathematics these days. My two advisors are from the Russian school of mathematics, specifically Moscow State University back in the Soviet days. It seems that the culture of mathematics in Russia and the Soviet Union is/was completely different to that in the west. There is a much greater emphasis placed on examples and simplicity of exposition as well as a much smaller divide between pure and applied mathematics.

Nowhere is this difference more apparent than in seminars in Russia and in the UK. British seminars normally last for an hour and consist of a speaker talking about some part of their current research to an audience of academics who are invited at the end, if there is some time left, to pose some questions relating to the talk. Because of the time constraints, it is rather difficult to ask questions throughout the talk for fear of putting the speaker under time pressure towards the end. Perhaps as a result, there is a terrible risk at any given seminar of being completely lost before the seminar has begun. For instance, suppose the seminar begins

‘Let S be a category fibred in groupoids over a topological space X…’

If you are not familiar with one or more of these words, there is a good chance that the remainder of the seminar will be spent counting water stains on the ceiling, doodling and trying not to fall asleep.

In contrast, my impression of Russian seminars is that they have no fixed end-time. This means that foolish questions from people not completely acquainted with the specifics of the topic at hand are welcome. It seems that these seminars may last up to four or five hours, with tea and snacks served throughout. There is therefore an expectation that attending a Russian seminar, one will understand something or other by the end.

Of course this leads to difficulties when Russian and western mathematicians meet at seminars. Russian mathematicians expect to have learned something by the end while western ones are content with the possibility of being bored witless by a string of incomprehensible phrases, knowing however that it will be over in an hour.

No seminar I have attended has resulted in the following chaos, taken I think from a (sociology?) seminar in the US.  I think sitting through this would be much more excruciating, if less soporific than an hour of incomprehensible maths.

Urban Nomad

Posted in culture, internet, Manchester with tags , on August 21, 2008 by Philonous

Cruising the internet as I’m apt to do, I just came across a Mancunian Generation X of a blog about the joys and emptiness of living in the city centre. RenterGirl lives in Dovecot Towers and writes of a fairly lonely, natureless existence pockmarked by the odd Eastern European gang murder and a constant barrage of early morning wake-up shouting courtesy of students returning from some club or other. Is this the legacy of Manchester’s recent building boom? Block after block of ‘prestigious’ (?!) new developments going up unfeasibly fast only to be filled with twenty-something serial tenants, paying off student loans and rattling around their open plan living spaces bedroom mezzanines. It smacks of a souless distopia.

Perhaps I’m being pessimistic in my sudden horror that indeed, all city centres might be like this and those of us somehow drawn to city living are doomed to the RenterGirl experience.

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Giant dog turd wreaks havoc at Swiss museum

Posted in art, culture with tags , on August 13, 2008 by Philonous

No comment necessary, but here’s a quote (to read, click on the title).

A giant inflatable dog turd created by the American artist Paul McCarthy was blown from its moorings at a Swiss museum, bringing down a power line and breaking a window before landing in the grounds of a children’s home.

Philonous: Here’s a picture of the offending installation:

Man on Wire

Posted in art, culture, film, movie with tags , , on August 7, 2008 by Philonous

Le Fox and I on Monday went to see Man on Wire, the story of Phillipe Petit who today in 1974 walked a tightrope strung between the then newly built World Trade Center towers. The film tells the story of the meticulous planning involved, the setbacks, the triumphs. It is a sort of documentary mixed with an action adventure movie with some original footage and other parts acted out with interviews with the main protagonists in the background.

Petit is a French nutcase of the highest order, endowed with the classic one-slice-short-of-a-loaf eyes and the odd maniacal twitch. The footage of him on the wire is truly breathtaking and incredibly beautiful. He even comes across as rather eloquently poetic, if a little bat-shit crazy. Tying the whole thing together are his partners in crime; it was after all illegal as is made clear at every possible opportunity. Ever present is his long suffering and slightly obsessed lover who he seems to have plucked from a life more ordinary aided by his incurable zaniness. With Alistair Darling like hair/eyebrow colour disparity is his rather more sensible friend whose role it was to provide the sanity, though I would argue he fell somewhat short.

It promised to be a gripping and breathtaking thrill ride. It wasn’t. The film felt bloated, self obsessed, melodramatic and completely overdone with a ridiculous soundtrack of pretentious semi-ethereal music for which Michael Neimann presumably went to the considerable effort of taping Smooth Classics at Seven. Rather than wasting the cartilage in my fingers, I think I’ll leave it to the following scathing review posted on IMDB.

Utterly Pathetic, 3 August 2008,

Author: nickclarkel99 from Ireland

I went into this movie with an open mind but fascinated to find a character who so completely encapsulated everything that i hate. Phillipe Petite and sycophantic friends disgorged their version of events as if they had discovered a cure for aids/cancer/death. I found their admiration of this glorified clown confusing in the extreme, only surpassed in intensity by Phillipe’s admiration for himself. Petite manages not only to blow his own trumpet but also the horn, tuba and saxophone. This event seemed primarily concerned in stroking the ego of Phillipe and his desperate aching and repulsive need for approval, probably motivated by a childhood lack from his military father. I eventually felt sorry for Phillipe, though he seemed perfectly happy continuing on, riding even now the wave on his perceived greatness. Though this is like pity for a dog one thinks has a boring life – pointless, Petite is bizarrely fulfilled and to reveal to him the irrelevance of his deed would surely crush his fragile and childlike mind. 1/10

Philonous’ verdict: Man on Wire = Crap on Film

Check out the following links if you must:

Note: This post may or may not have been deliberately provocative. Let’s just say that Le Fox seems to enjoy this movie.

Magnetic Movie

Posted in art, culture, film, physics, science with tags , , , on July 28, 2008 by Philonous

This video is a project from NASA’s artists in residence, Semiconductor. As you may imagine (although it took me a little while to realise) all of the magnetic fields drawn in the picture are computer generated rather than physical streams of particles. Having something of an interest in science myself, I wonder what the aim of this artwork is supposed to be, if indeed it has one. There can be no doubt that these magnetic phenomena are incredibly beautiful in many ways, as is most of physics, but is producing such a movie slightly underselling the real science behind these pretty images? Perhaps not. I must admit being a cynic of the first water, but in my mind, this reminded me very much of videos I’d been shown at school in physics lessons or perhaps on BBC2 as part of Open University programmes. There’s no doubt that this film is diverting, but in this light, it seems slightly odd for Semiconductor to have been elevated to the status of ‘artist’. But then I’m a cynic.

The Poles and Catholicism

Posted in culture, religion with tags on July 25, 2008 by Philonous

One of the most unbelievable sights to greet me in Warsaw was that of the devout Catholics at all times of the day and night. The churches are so full of the faithful that despite their cavernous interiors, that a significant proportion of those attending services spill outside onto the street, often hearing (and saying) mass after dark bathed in the sodium yellow of street lamps. Christmas and Easter services often fill British churches to capacity with casual believers and those craving tradition, but never have I seen anything quite like this. The congregation peer in through the open door, straining to see over those on the steps and kneel on the cobbles at the appropriate moments. The priest’s singing is piped outside through loudspeakers.
Poland seems to have acquired something of a reputation as a religious country. Certainly from what I’ve seen over the last couple of days this is certainly true. Wandering along some street or other, I noticed a cyclist who crossed himself as he passed a church. People in restaurants regularly say grace. If this wasn’t enough, at around midnight in Warsaw airport, the departure lounge was filled by what looked like a school party. Having moved the furniture to suit their purposes, I supposed that they would either catch a flight or bed down for the night. In fact their unrolling of sleeping mats was to construct a makeshift altar.I was eyed with a certain degree of suspicion so decided to take a photo somewhat incognito (and therefore badly framed) – check out the massive golden cross on the left. I must say, I was slightly taken aback by the whole thing. I’d never seen so much devotion in a public place before and I was impressed.