Monday, September 7, 2009

Random - and irreverent - thoughts on the British Science Festival

 John McCririck: missed his vocation as an SC (see below)?

Uh, uh.  It's that time of year again.  With the first chill nip of autumnal air, and the sight of new back-to-school satchels, or their modern-day equivalent, the UK press should now be going cold turkey on its silly season reporting.  But our esteemed MSM eases itself back into "business as usual" mode gently.  Temporary methadone maintenance is provided by the annual September shop-window for that charming if somewhat quirky organization - the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Oops, I'm showing my age. It's abandoned that 19th century name,  conveying as it did an earnest desire to improve the scientific literacy of the muddled masses - and so cruelly satirized by Charles Dickens as "The Mudfog Society for the Advancement of Everything".

It now wishes to be known simply as the British Science Association.

I see that BBC correspondent  Sue Nelson is on the spot in Guildford for this year's jamboree - it's using the University of Surrey campus - and  is being suitably non-overawed by the occasion. Here's a delightful tongue-in-cheek equation she has "derived"  by which she rates  SC, the colourful "Science Communicators" she encounters:

H = the number of hand gestures
J = the brightness of a jacket
A = the number of times someone says "amazing"
F = the amount of facial hair
Well, we've had some quite memorable and sometimes colourful characters in front of our TV screens -  Sir Patrick Moore, Magnus Pyke,  James Burke. Maybe John McCririck should be drafted in, if only for his stratospheric SC rating (see graphic :-)

So what kind of science will be on offer this year?  Is science still capable of capturing the modern imagination?  Can we safely assume there will always be another "big idea" along soon, comparable to the DNA double helix,  genetic engineering, stem cells, plate tectonics, superstring theory etc etc. Or has science become so infected with quantum uncertainty that it is now dismissed as telling us more and more about less and less?  Will this year's Science Festival give us a taste of new insights, or is it a forlorn exercise in window-dressing, concealing an increasingly bare cupboard and shelves?

  (I choose my words carefully, having scanned the list of honorary members and sponsors, discovering names of people whom it would not be wise to offend, including an ex-employer who is now Something Big in Science Policy-Making.)

Religion seems to be flavour of the year at this year's Science Festival,  if the Telegraph Science page is reliable as a straw in the wind.

Well, it makes a change from  "Why future Moon colonists may keep bees" or similar  (OK, so I made that one up, but you get my drift).

Speaking of the Telegraph,  it seems to be on a religious kick at the moment. It's even spilled over onto its so-called Science Page. See the recent article by Christopher Howse:  "Do you Believe in Angels?"

 That "angels" feature incidentally provoked a quick riposte from your sciencebod   ;-)

"And to think this is the latest post in the DT's Science section! Is nothing sacred?"

One "getagrip" responded to this and similar sentiments with:

"The word angel occurs 194 times in the Bible.  My challenge to all those who have written sceptic comments is to go and read it for yourselves or just remain ignorant bigots."

Well, I guess that's  progress of sorts - the bible-quoters are now fighting fire with fire - quantitative data no less!

Incidentally: there are 64 occasions on which miracle(s) appears in the Bible. There's even a website for the benefit of the new breed of  Biblical number cruncher.  The most commonly used word,  not surprisingly, is "and"...

Update:  Scientist Lord May attacks BBC rejection of Planet Earth day

Thus reads the headline in the Times. It also needs to be read in conjunction with Lord May's somewhat  whimsical advocacy in today's Telegraph for a return to a God-fearing society (tongue-in-cheek methinks because he himself is described as a non-believer). Why? Because nothing less than religious commitment is likely to make people see sense on the need for urgent steps to prevent AGW.

Hmmm. There are some real characters in the upper echelons of the UK Government science establishment. Lord May, an ecologist, with wide-ranging interests and expertise in biodiversity etc,  was Chief Scientific advisor in the Blair government, and was President of the Royal Society for 5 years.  

My response to the Times:
"If I were religious, which I'm not, I'd be somewhat offended by the sight of a non-religious person (described elsewhere as an "atheist"), no matter how distinguished, telling me that my God was maybe a Good Thing after all, provided He is perceived as waving a big stick at climate change sceptics, bringing them to order.

I personally am slowly coming to accept at least some of the AGW arguments, but that's not because of politicians preaching about a so-called "scientific consensus" but in spite of them. Nothing is better guaranteed to turn off the enquiring mind than the claim that the time for debating is over, and that one must now obediently accept the nanny state's medicine like a good obedient citizen."

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