Archive for December, 2014

The Royal Institution at Christmas

December 26, 2014

The Royal Institution have a fantastic video resource: the RI Channel.

It features a range of videos – from the archived Christmas Lectures, to simple demos, to their own favourites harvested from across the internet.

I picked my top three below – but the channel has loads more!

1. How Wings Work. A non-magical explanation!

2. Prince Rupert’s Drops. Truly astounding! (Warning: its preceded by adverts, but it’s worth it)

3. A Year in the LIfe of Earth’s CO2. A transfixingly beautiful supercomputer simulation. It almost made me cry.

Anyway – what are you still doing here? Off you go!

Theories and Facts about Santa Claus

December 21, 2014

My friend Alom Shaha recently scripted the video above to try to explain the concept of ‘a scientific theory’.

I like the video, but I feel one point gets lost. And that is that  ‘theories’ are like ‘plot lines’ in a TV detective programme – they link together ‘the facts’ to tell ‘a story’.

Example#1: Café Mimmo

  • I am observed at 10:15 a.m. leaving my house on Church Road
  • I am observed at 10:21 a.m. at the junction of Church Road and Walpole St.
  • I am observed at 10:27 a.m. near to Café Mimmo on Broad Street.
  • I am observed at 10:28 a.m. in Café Mimmo on Broad Street.
  • I am observed at 10:58 a.m. walking North on Church Road.

These are ‘the facts’. But what is really going on? Is there a ‘story’ that links all these facts together? Let me propose a theory:

  • Theory: Michael goes for coffee every day at Café Mimmo

This theory links all these facts i.e. it explains how they relate to each other.

If this is a good theory, it ought to be able to predict new facts – and these predictions could then be checked.

Notice that the theory doesn’t specify the route I take to the Café. So even though the theory explains why I was seen on Church Road, it doesn’t predict that I always will be.

But the theory does predict that I will go to Café Mimmo every day. This could be easily tested. And if I didn’t visit every day, the theory could either be invalidated, or it might need to be revised to state Michael goes for coffee most days at Café Mimmo

I am sure you get the idea. But notice how the theory is simpler and more meaningful than a large number of facts. Facts tells us ‘what happened’, but theories tell us ‘what’s going on’.

Example#2: Santa Claus

  • On Christmas Day (usually, but sometimes on Christmas Eve) children all around the world receive presents.
  • On Christmas Eve parents leave out gifts – typically whisky (please) and a carrot – and these gifts are at least partly consumed by the morning.

These are ‘the facts’. But is there a theory that links these facts together? In fact there are two theories.

The traditional theory is that a mysterious being known as ‘Santa Claus’ delivers the presents on a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer and filled with an improbably large bag of toys.

Alternatively, some people contend that there is a vast conspiracy in operation in which otherwise honest and rational parents consistently lie to their children, year after year. According to this theory, it is in fact parents that buy all the presents, and fabricate forensic evidence of a visit by the fictional being ‘Santa Claus’.

The traditional theory has been heavily criticised, largely due to the unknown identity and quasi-magical abilities of the ‘Santa Claus’ figure.

However, I have never been a fan of conspiracy theories – they always seem rather unlikely to me. In particular I am sceptical that millions upon millions of parents would systematically lie to their children. I would never do such a thing.

So I will leave it up to you to imagine experiments that you could perform that would help to decide which theory is in fact correct.

One obvious experiment is to stay up late on Christmas Eve and watch for the arrival of ‘Santa Claus’.

But can I please ask you to be careful: Santa Claus is known never to bring gifts to boys and girls that don’t go to sleep at night. So use a webcam.

But whatever you believe: I hope you have a Happy Christmas 🙂

Protons for Breakfast

December 14, 2014
The last few moments of the 20th presentation of Protons for BReakfast. (Picture by Lindsay Chapman)

The last few moments of the 20th presentation of Protons for Breakfast. (Picture by Lindsay Chapman)

Last Thursday I finished the twentieth and final presentation of Protons for Breakfast and this weekend I am busy trying to do nothing. Mainly sleeping, but in turn feeling sad, happy, proud and relieved.

I am lost for words. However, despite being lost for words, I want to say three things.

Thing one: Thank you

I have loved putting on the course and learned so much in so many ways in doing so. So the first words are simple:

  • Thank You.

To whom?

  • To ‘the helpers’ without whom the course would not be possible: it is rare to have such great colleagues and friends.
  • To the expert helpers – especially those who travelled to take part.
  • To my wife and children who have put up with 12 weeks of psychological absence each year for the last 10 years.
  • To NPL management, especially Fiona Auty, who has supported this kind of thoroughly non-corporate outreach.
  • To everyone who attended, because fundamentally the course was for, and about, you rather than me.

And finally to Jorge Ramirez who – just when I thought I had been given the ultimate gift (a framed triple-point of water cell!) topped that with the Protons for Breakfast Song!

Thing two: So why am I stopping?

Protons for Breakfast is a very personal course: and it needs to be presented by me.

That is part of what has made it successful – that I am genuinely present and not reading from any kind of script – but ultimately that makes it unsustainable.

This wasn’t what I thought originally. I had hoped that members of the team of helpers would take over parts of the course and that gradually it would become more of ‘a production’.

However, making that shift would have involved much more work – and since I wasn’t able to make that change, it seemed better to just keep on doing what we had been doing.

The immediate reason for stopping now doesn’t really matter. But the more profound reason is that this kind of activity – relatively free-form and focussed on a particular individual – does not sit easily in any kind of modern corporate structure.

So despite the good will and support from many individuals, ending the course while it was popular and successful was probably best for all concerned.

And hopefully NPL or someone else will ‘pick the bones’ of the course and create a replacement that is sustainable.

Thing three: What Next?

I don’t know. And at this point, I don’t want to think about it.

But I do have a few ideas! And if I ever catch my breath and get my energy back, perhaps I will actually make them real. Because:

Protons for Breakfast… is what you need…
Protons for Breakfast… will get you thinking…

 


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