Archive for April, 2015

Explanations are not always possible.

April 28, 2015
I asked Google how to get from NPL to Richmond and it assumed I meant Richmond Virginia instead of Richmond upon Thames which is 5 kilometres away.

I asked Google how to get from NPL to Richmond and it assumed I meant Richmond, Virginia, USA instead of Richmond upon Thames which is 5 kilometres away. 

I have spent a fair amount of time in my life trying to explain things to people. But I think now – in all but the most basic of cases – explanations are impossible.

The reason I feel this is because I think that giving an explanation is like giving directions. And most people will acknowledge that unless you know where someone is ‘starting from’, it is impossible to give general directions to a given ‘destination’.

But while we accept that every set of directions should start with the question: “Where are you now?“, people are reluctant to acknowledge that logically every explanation should start with the question: “What do you know now?”.

Instead there seems to be a widespread belief that explanations can exist ‘by themselves’.

Of course we can draw maps and then explain how to navigate the map. And if someone can follow this, then they can learn the route to a particular ‘destination’. Or someone might already be familiar with the ‘landscape’. In these cases explanations are possible.

But many people find maps difficult. However:

  • Getting someone to drive you to a destination does not in general teach you the route.
  • And programming a ‘sat-nav’ to take someone to a particular location will also – in general – fail to teach them the route. They may have ‘arrived’ but they will be ‘lost’.
  • Travelling by tube to a location teaches them nothing about where they are!

Similarly, by sophistry, or by entertaining imagery, it is possible to give people the illusion that they understand something. But unless they can link this new state of insight to their previous understanding, they will still be ‘lost’.

I thought I would illustrate the general idea with a picture of a route on a Google map. But when I tried to generate a route from Teddington to nearby Richmond (upon Thames), Google assumed that the word ‘Richmond’ referred to the much more populous Richmond, Virginia!

And the impossibility of explanations is clear in this video of Dave Allen ‘explaining’ how to tell the time. It features the classic lines:

“There are three hands on a clock. The first hand is the hour hand, the second hand is the minute hand, and the third hand is the second hand.”


NPL Laboratory Doors

April 23, 2015
Just one of several hundred signs on NPL Laboratory Doors. The movie below has them all!

Just one of several hundred signs on NPL Laboratory Doors. The movie below has them all!

I am currently in Lisbon attending the ANIMMA 2015 conference.

  • Advancements in Nuclear Instrumentation Measurement Methods and their Applications

I gave my talk yesterday which means I can relax a bit more now.

The talk included a live demonstration of a new type of thermometer which I hope will prove useful to someone here.

The talk went well. By this I mean that the talk was followed by many questions rather than deadly silence.

And the demonstration worked! The thermometer is an acoustic thermometer consisting of a tube with a tiny microphone and speaker at one end.

I used the microphone/loudspeaker connection on my laptop to ping sound along a tube and measure the echo.

And using clever software written by colleagues I could work out the temperature.

I think the simplicity of the demonstration convinced people that the technique was real rather than just another idea.

I hope so because many people worked very hard for years to make it that simple!

NPL Doors

While I am away, I hope you enjoy the movie at the head of the page.

I made it a few months ago by walking up and down every corridor in NPL taking a picture of the title of each lab door.

It took more than two hours just to take the pictures! But the movie takes only a little over 4 minutes.

My aim was to try to capture the diversity of activities at NPL.

I hope you enjoy it and find at least one lab door with an intriguing title.





My Election Suggestions

April 20, 2015
The fraction of my salary that I paid in tax and national insurance since 1987. Despite my salary increasing, the fraction of income paid to the government has fallen by 6.4% which currently amounts to about £3,400.

Data collected from my pay-slips showing the fraction of my salary that I paid in tax and national insurance since 1987. Since 2005, the fraction of my income paid directly to the government has fallen by 6.4% which currently amounts to about £3,400 per year.

As the election approaches I have been disappointed to find no political party proposing policies that make sense to me.

So just to get them off my chest, here are three policy proposals concerning the deficit, climate change and education.

The deficit.

Over the last 10 years the fraction of my gross income that I pay in income tax and national insurance has fallen from 28.8% to 22.3%, which currently amounts to £3,400 per year (See the graph at the head of the page).

During that period my salary (adjusted for inflation to the value of 2015 pounds) has stayed roughly constant at around £50,000.

To reduce the deficit to zero will take extreme cuts in government spending, or the raising of two or three thousand pounds a year from each working person.

It seems obvious to me that the optimum response should include some rises in general taxation, but no political party seems to even dare suggest this.

My proposal would be to:

  •  Increase taxes on people like me.

Nobody likes paying tax, but I could afford quite big tax increases and it would affect me relatively little.  I know this because 10 years ago I used to pay additional tax and life was just fine.

Climate Change.

Changing our way of living so that so that we can maintain decent lifestyles but reduce our negative impact on the climate is – to me – the greatest challenge facing us all.

But even the Green Party barely mentions Climate Change!

My proposal would be

  • To make the target of reducing emissions by 80% by 2050 into a series of yearly targets,

So that we would know what we needed to do now to achieve our 2050 goal.


If I could choose an educational system, it would be different from what we have now. But actually, probably not too different.

The most precious thing a child can encounter is an enthused teacher – but these gentle life-enhancing creatures are becoming rarer.

Their habitat and way of life has been attacked from all sides. The constant ‘reform’ of education means that after a year or two mauling, these sensitive teachers leave the profession. One third don’t even last a year.

My proposal would be:

  • To do nothing about education for 5 years 

Just to give everyone a break

Would I get your vote?

OK, I’ll stick to the day job and hope it doesn’t get cut after the election!

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