Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

Summer Science

May 26, 2018

Video Capture 2

For some months now I have been preparing for the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition.

We have been working with the fabulous team at Science Projects on developing seven demonstration experiments – one for each of the seven SI base units.

Being so distracted, the deadline for submitting a video almost passed me by. In fact my colleague Andrew Hanson and I remembered with just one day to go!

So after a necessarily short planning phase, Andrew and I shot the video below on Andrew’s iPhone.

The background noise on some of the sections was problematic and Andrew had to do a great deal of filtering to get anything close to intelligible.

But given that everything was shot in’one take’, we were pretty happy with it, even if it came out a bit long (5’20”)

The end of the film was forced on us because my colleagues from the ‘length team’ were both absent when the end of the film was shot at about 7:30 p.m.!

After feedback from the team at the Royal Society we were asked to shorten the video and we took that opportunity to re-shoot the start and end of the movie with a proper microphone.

And here is the final shortened version (2’34”) which should be on the Royal Society site next week.

I hope you enjoy it.


Thanks to everyone who helped: Andrew Hanson, Brian Madzima, Rachel Godun, Stuart Davidson, Robin Underwood, Teresa Goodman, Lucy Culleton, Masaya Kataoka and Jonathan Fletcher


1001 grams: Film Review

March 19, 2016

Scene from the film ‘1001 grams’ showing delegates to the BIPM ‘Kilo Seminar’ holding their respective national kilograms.

It has been one year, 5 months and  23 days  since I posted a trailer for the Bent Hamer movie “1001 grams”. And this week I finally saw the film.

I had sought it out many times with no success, but a couple of weeks ago I managed to obtain a DVD encrypted as DVD Region 1. And so when the DVD arrived, I then needed to buy a new multi-region DVD player just to watch the film!

The story follows Marie, who works at the Norwegian National Measurement Institute, her relationship with her metrologist father, her trip to Paris with the Norwegian prototype of the kilogram, her adventures with the kilogram and her relationship with Pi, a scientist who is now a gardener.

Sadly I have to report that although I enjoyed the film, I was disappointed.

The whimsy and insightful observation that characterise Hamer’s films is certainly there. But whereas it is concentrated in the trailer, it is diluted in the film itself.

The film has many great features:

For this metrologist as least – it had many many laugh-out-loud moments. The casting and characterisation (caricaturisation?) of the delegates to the BIPM meeting (i.e. people like me and my colleagues) is shockingly perfect; the scene in which the camera fleetingly captures two delegates asleep in a seminar is also true to life.

The metrologist’s obsession with minutiae and attention to detail is well-captured, both in Marie’s day-to-day work calibrating ski-slopes and petrol pumps – and in relationship to the kilogram. The moment that the delegates peer in to see the ‘Mother of all kilograms’ is exquisite.

And the cinematography is beautiful. The filming of the metrological artefacts and activities is delightful, and the depiction of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) is charming.

And I have to admit that tears did fill my eyes at the point where the meaning of the film’s title is revealed.

But overall I felt the film was just a little light on content, in both the storyline and dialogue. This may be because I lack Hamer’s Norwegian perspective. Or perhaps silence is a bigger part of personal interactions between Norwegians than it is between English people.

The lingering shots at the start and end of scenes that establish a sense of continuing stillness can eventually become irksome for the non-auteur. After a while I got the sense that these were simply padding to get the film past the 90 minute mark.

But overall, I do not regret the £62 I spent to see the film!

Back in 2014 I wrote:

Bent Hamer’s films about IKEA researchers and retired railwaymen were not really about IKEA researchers or retired railwaymen. And I am sure this film is not really about the kilogram.

It is probably about the same thing that every other Bent Hamer film is about: the weirdness of other people’s ‘normal’ lives, and by implication, the weirdness of our own lives. And how important it is to nonetheless grab whatever happiness we can from the passing moments.

I was right.

You can catch a more detailed review with spoilers here


Still hopeful about the Daily Mail

July 23, 2015
Daily Mail Despair 2

The Daily Mail still thinks that the Earth’s changing climate is a point-scoring game.

On Tuesday I expressed some hope that the Daily Mail had begun reporting climate change developments as ‘straight news’.

I didn’t have to wait long to have my hope apparently dashed by the Daily Mail leader comment on Wednesday (quoted in full below).

But in fact I am still hopeful. This is not because I am a dullard but because there are genuinely reasons to be hopeful about the Daily Mail’s attitude. Read on for my reasons.

Daily Mail Leader Comment Wednesday 22 July 2015

In a major report last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave a grave assessment of how man-made global warming was rapidly destroying the Arctic ice cap.

Steadily increasing temperatures had made the pack ice contract by up to 12 per cent between 1979 and 2012, leading to rising sea levels which threatened to swamp coastal regions – not to mention endangering stranded polar bears.

By the middle of the century ‘a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean’ was likely for a large part of the year, the report predicted.

How interesting then, that the latest analysis of 88 million measurements from the European Space Agency’s Cryosat satellite show the northern ice-cap INCREASED by a staggering 41 per cent in 2013 and, despite a modest shortage last year, is bigger than at any time for decades.

Of course, the climatologists will come up with explanations – as they did for the fact that global temperatures have barely changed since the year 2000.

They’ll say 2013 was a freak year, that in spite of temporary fluctuations long-term trends remain the same, that cooling ‘episodes’ are as much a feature of climate change as warming and so on.

But the more they juggle their theories to fit the inconvenient truths, the more the public will question whether these prophesies of global doom are based on genuine science, or guesswork.

And they will rightly wonder whether solemnly committing to climate change targets while saddling ordinary people with a raft of spurious green taxes serves any real purpose – other than being an expensive exercise in gesture politics.

The sheer perniciousness of this article offends me. I feel as though the Daily Mail has spat in the face of truth.

I have three responses: two graphs and comment

Here are two graphs that genuinely summarise the situation we all face.

First of all here is the data on which the Daily Mail are reporting. This is a graph of arctic sea-ice volume – the product of the area of sea-ice, and its thickness.

Notice that it goes up in 2013 – that’s the ‘staggering’ 41 per cent increase to which the Daily Mail refers. This is what the Daily Mail report as an ‘an inconvenient truth’.

Arctic Sea Ice Volume

And to the best we can understand it is ‘true’. But it is not so much ‘inconvenient’ as ‘irrelevant’.

The graph below shows arctic sea-ice area – a much simpler thing to measure and something for which we have data stretching back to 1979.

Arctic Sea Ice Extent

It is clear that since roughly 1995 sea ice has been disappearing. Whereas we used to have around 7 million square kilometres of sea ice in September at the end of the annual melt, we now have only around 4 million square kilometres. That’s 3 MILLION square kilometers of missing sea ice!

In this context, the increase in Sea Ice extent and volume in 2013 can be seen for what it is: a blip on a downward trend.


There appears to be a power struggle at the Daily Mail

While the Leader Comment on Wednesday was the usual pernicious material one expects, since Tuesday there have been no less than four ‘straight’ stories about Climate Change.

When institutions change their position there is inevitably a period of flux in which the  institution cannot ‘speak’ coherently.

Despite ample cause for despair, I am still hopeful that the Daily Mail’s powerful influence over Middle England can be a force for good.

If Darth Vader can abandon the Dark Side, then so can the Daily Mail.


July 21, 2015
Map of the world showing regions that in June 2015  were warmer or cooler than they 'normally' are. Dark red shows record warm regions. Source NCDC - see text for link. Click image for a larger version.

Map of the world showing regions that in June 2015 were warmer or cooler than they ‘normally’ are. Dark red shows record warm regions. Most of the Earth is warmer than it has been historically. Remember that June is the height of Southern Hemisphere winter. Source NCDC – see text for link. Click image for a larger version.

Sometimes it is difficult to stay hopeful.

And the NCDC ‘State of the Climate’ report for June 2015 is so shocking that I really should feel no hope at all.

What does it say to put me in such a mood? Well it is authoritative and detailed, but here’s a taster.

June 2015 also marks the fourth month this year that has broken its monthly temperature record, along with February, March, and May. The other months of 2015 were not far behind: January was second warmest for its respective month and April was third warmest. These six warm months combined with the previous six months (four of which were also record warm) to make the period July 2014–June 2015 the warmest 12-month period in the 136-year period of record, surpassing the previous record set just last month (June 2014–May 2015). … the 10 warmest 12-month periods have all been marked in the past 10 months.

In short, the surface temperature of the Earth is dramatically warm and it looks likely that the calendar year 2015 will be the hottest ever.

And yet I feel hopeful. Why?

Because this is how the Daily Mail reported this news (Link)

June warmest EVER recorded globally as forecasters warn 2015 set to be a record breaking year

That’s right, the Daily Mail reported this as a completely straight news story. It is not spun. It is not used to imply that Climate Scientists are corrupt or left-wing. No jokes are made about hiatuses or the growth of arctic sea ice.

I honestly never thought I would live to see the day that the Daily Mail reported serious climate change news as serious climate change news. And yet here it is.

If newspapers such as the Daily Mail can really break their links with climate change deniers then the fear, uncertainty and doubt that they spread will begin to dissipate. And then we can all get busy actually solving problems rather than arguing.

It’s one reason to be hopeful. And for now, that’ll do.


The Figure is from NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information, State of the Climate: Global Analysis for June 2015, published online July 2015, retrieved on July 20, 2015 from

Did 28,000 people die from air pollution in 2012? Part 3

May 28, 2015


COMEAP needed to estimate how many percent excess mortality would be caused by 10 micrograms per cubic metre of PM2.5 air pollution. To do this they just asked themselves what they thought the answer was. The details of this 'elicitation' process are described below.

The Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants (COMEAP) needed to estimate how many percent excess mortality would be caused by 10 micrograms per cubic metre of PM2.5 air pollution. To do this they just asked themselves what they thought the answer was. Their answers range from -1% (i.e. air pollution prolonged life) to 17% excess mortality. The details of this ‘elicitation’ process and the meaning of excess mortality are described in the text.  This graph represents their consensus view: individual estimates are shown at the end of the article. (SOURCE COMEAP 2009 Page 160.)

Continued from PART 2

In Part 1 we saw that is untrue that air pollution annually causes 28,000* deaths of otherwise healthy people.

In Part 2 we described the qualitative effects of air pollution.

We now look at how the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants  (COMEAP) estimate the effects of air pollutants, and how they have chosen to communicate their estimates.

What I have written below is the result of staring at reading two extremely technical documents, an activity which I invite you to share:

The factual basis…

The COMEAP studied hundreds of scientific papers but singled out one for special mention: the American Cancer Study (ACS) [COMEAP 2009 Page 2: Point vii]

The ACS uses measurements of soot particles called PM2.5 as a ‘proxy’ for all the other forms of air pollution.

It does this because PM2.5 s are easy to count and the concentration of the other air pollutants is more difficult to quantify, but they are typically correlated with PM2.5s.

So we don’t know which part of the pollution is actually the active cause of any effect – a shortcoming the experts consider exhaustively in their 2009 report.

The ACS finds a correlation such that there is a 6% rise in all-cause mortality for a 10 microgram per cubic metre increase in PM2.5 concentration.

I haven’t been able to read the ACS but extraordinarily, COMEAP report no uncertainty in this 6% figure.

Perhaps it is because of this that they decide to make their own estimate. And to do this they used a procedure called elicitation.

What is elicitation?

Wikipedia defines elicitation as:

the synthesis of opinions of authorities of a subject where there is uncertainty due to insufficient data or when such data is unattainable because of physical constraints or lack of resources. Expert elicitation is essentially a scientific consensus methodology… [it] allows for … an “educated guess”.

Each expert on the committee was asked:

  • “What do you think is the chance that the correlation is not a 6% increase in mortality for a 10 microgram per cubic metre increase in PM2.5 concentration, but some other figure?

The experts were asked in turn:

  • What do you think is the chance that the true figure is greater than 0%?
  • What do you think is the chance that the true figure is greater than 1%?
  • What do you think is the chance that the true figure is greater than 2%?
  • etc. until they arrived at the figure of 17%, beyond which possible correlations were discounted as highly improbable.

The results are shown in the chart at the head of this article and in the chart at the end of the article.

And the results…

The results of this elicitation form the basis of all the mortality estimates that you have read in the previous two articles.

The results are literally, an educated guess. None of the fancy maths changes this.

The average estimate was 6% and experts considered that the true answer was ‘95% likely’ to be in the range between 0% and 15%

Since the level of PM2.5s in the UK is typically just under 10  microgram per cubic metre, it is this figure of 6% of the roughly 500,000 deaths per year that directly links to the estimate of 28,000* deaths per year.

The range of expert opinion is that the true figure could lie between 0 and 55,000: every one of the seven experts considered it marginally possible that there was no effect of pollution i.e. that the excess mortality was 0% or less.

Although the experts considered a plethora of studies – and their report is exhaustive and exhausting – in the end, this is just their opinion.

How to express their results?

COMEAP consider at length how to express the results of their elicitations. Mostly they considered that the effect on life-expectancy (a few months for most people in the UK) is clearest.

However they do specifically endorse the use of mortality to express the effect of air pollution. But they note:

… the result expressed in terms of attributable deaths or additional deaths may easily be misunderstood or misrepresented. This calculation is not [their emphasis] an estimate of the number of people whose untimely death is caused entirely by air pollution, but a way of representing the effect across the whole population when considered as a contributory factor to many more additional deaths.

...consequently we consider it unrealistic to view air pollution as the sole cause of death in a number of cases equal to the population attributable deaths.” [COMEAP 2010 Page 3]

Regarding the actual estimates COMEAP explicitly recommend that the excess mortality estimates should always include the full uncertainty estimate – i.e. including the possibility that the excess mortality may be zero.[COMEAP 2009 Page 3 Point xiii]

And my conclusion…

I agree with COMEAP that the expression of the effects of air pollution as excess deaths per year can be “easily misunderstood”. In fact I think it is nearly universally misunderstood.

And given that their recommendation that the full limits of uncertainty – which include the possibility of no effect – are generally not quoted – I think this gives quite the wrong impression.

The possibility that air pollution – mainly from traffic – might be killing 28,000* people a year – 17 times more than are killed in car accidents – is horrific.

But in fact it appears that air pollution of itself kills nobody.

Rather, when we are near the end of lives – which are now longer than they have ever been in human history – our lungs do not function as well as they might otherwise have done.

As a result, our demise – from whatever cause – is hastened.

Somehow this reality is not quite as scary as COMEAPs vision.

Other Figure

The graph as the top of the page was compiled from the responses of 7 experts. These graphs show the cumulative probabilities ascribed to a particular sensitivity coefficient by the each of the 7 experts.

The graph as the top of the page was compiled from the responses of 7 experts ‘A to G’. These graphs show the cumulative probabilities ascribed to a particular sensitivity coefficient by each of the 7 experts. Looking at any particular line, the graph tells you, in the opinion of that expert, the likelihood that the coefficient exceeds any particular % value. (SOURCE COMEAP 2009 Page 159)


* COMEAP 2010: Page 5: Point 18 estimate 29,000 deaths per year, but this is sometimes reported as 28,000. Given the large uncertainty in the figure, I have taken the lower estimate throughout.



Did 28,000 people die from air pollution in 2012? Part 2

May 27, 2015


Complicated graphic showing the correlation between 'excess mortality' and a pollution event in New York in 1962. The excess mortality is shaded in red and reduced mortality in following days is shaded in blue. Click for larger image - see text for details.

Complicated graphic showing the correlation between ‘excess mortality’ and a pollution event in New York in 1962. The excess mortality is shaded in red and reduced mortality in following days is shaded in blue. Click for larger image – see text for details.

 Continued from PART 1.

In Part 1 we saw that it is untrue that air pollution causes 28,000 deaths each year in otherwise healthy people.

But could these deaths be ‘linked to’ air pollution? Let’s look at the adverse effects of air pollution.

DEFRA list the effects of very high levels of some key pollutants (link):

  • NO2, SO2, O3 (Ozone): These gases irritate the airways of the lungs, increasing the symptoms of those suffering from lung diseases
  • Particles: Fine particles can be carried deep into the lungs where they can cause inflammation and a worsening of heart and lung diseases
  • CO (Carbon Monoxide):This gas prevents the uptake of oxygen by the blood. This can lead to a significant reduction in the supply of oxygen to the heart, particularly in people suffering from heart disease

So all these pollutants can be expected to harm us. But how much harm they do? This question – the quantitative expression of the harm caused by air pollution – is at the heart of this issue.

Broadly speaking, we can expect short-term and long-term effects. However, it is possible for air pollution to have both kinds of effects in the same person.

Short Term Effects

The US National Institute of Health (NIH) host this 1966 paper by McCarroll and Bradley looking for excess mortality coincident with air pollution events in New York City in 1962.The paper is notable for its readability.

McCarroll & Bradley analysed 3 pollution ‘events’ and the figure at the top of the page summarises the general nature of their analysis: they note excess mortality coincident with air pollution events, and a reduction in mortality for subsequent days. They note specifically that the drop is “…never of sufficient degree to compensate for the excess of deaths on the preceding day.”

So the general mechanism in action here is that air pollution has ‘brought forward’ people’s deaths: some by just a day or so, but others by unknown periods of time – probably weeks to months. These would be people with an underlying medical condition which itself may possibly be a long term effect of air pollution

Long Term Effects

Long-term effects are more difficult to assess since we do not have identical healthy populations that differ only in their long-term exposure to pollutants. However such effects can be estimated by so-called cohort studies.

So by analyses similar to McCarroll & Bradley and by cohort studies we can begin to estimate how much air pollution causes how much excess mortality.

Combined Effects

Short-term exposure to air pollution appears to bring forward some deaths – the actual number is unknown.

Long-term exposure to air pollution also appears to also shorten life.

For the UK population, a committee (COMEAP) estimates this to amount to 350,000 person years per year. What?

  • For a population of 60 million this amounts to about 2.1 days per person, per year of life.
  • So if the ‘natural lifetime’ of a person born now is 80 years, then exposure to typical air pollution for their lifetime is estimated to shorten their lives.
  • The shortening is calculated to be 80 years x 2..1 days ≈ 6 months less than they might otherwise have lived.

So now I think I understand the nature of this excess mortality. There are three components

  • Air pollution has adverse physiological effects,
  • People susceptible to heart attacks or with respiratory diseases (from other causes) can be brought into a cycle of distress which brings forward their death.
  • Additionally chronic prolonged exposure to air pollution can induce respiratory complaints that may make people susceptible to acute air pollution events.

Estimating and Communicating these effects

In PART 3 we will see how that estimate is made, and you can judge for yourself whether to be alarmed.






Bent Hamer and the Kilogram

September 25, 2014

Tonight I find myself a thousand miles from home in a hotel in Espoo, on the outskirts of Helsinki. Outside it is raining and the temperature is just 10 °C.

I am here to discuss with colleagues from around Europe some of the minutiae associated with a new definition of the units of temperature: the kelvin and the degree Celsius.

You really don’t want to know the details: we worry about them so that you don’t have to. 🙂

And the day is auspicious. Thursday 25th September marks the 125th anniversary of the adoption of the kilogram as the international standard of mass. You can read NPL’s commentary on the anniversary here, And there is a new film release ‘about metrology’

The movie at the top of the page is a trailer for a film by Bent Hamer which appears to use the kilogram as a metaphor for… well I haven’t seen the movie yet.

But the mere existence of the movie does indicate that the ‘kilogram problem’ has entered popular culture – at least to some limited extent – and that is >fantastic<.

My wife and I have admired Bent Hamer’s previous films and sought them out at out-of-the-way cinemas. And we shall probably have to do the same with this one.

Bent Hamer’s films about IKEA researchers and retired railwaymen were not really about IKEA researchers or retired railwaymen. And I am sure this film is not really about the kilogram.

It is probably about the same thing that every other Bent Hamer film is about: the weirdness of other people’s ‘normal’ lives, and by implication, the weirdness of our own lives. And how important it is to nonetheless grab whatever happiness we can from the passing moments.

But I am filled with excitement at the prospect of this film. Parts of it are definitely shot at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) which is a thrill for us ‘insiders’ to see.

And he has certainly caught something of the obsessive personality disorder that  – if not actually required – tends to accompany an interest in metrology.

I suspect that Hamer’s fondness for humanity would probably lead him to sympathise with a statement such as

Man is measure of all things 

And if I met him I would probably have to disagree.

The fact that I can type this article on a computer in Finland and have it appear on a server hosted in the United States, and be viewed wherever you are viewing this, rests on agreed measurement standards that are not amenable to different people’s opinions.

And the whole purpose of almost everything I do in my work – including this meeting – is to move beyond situations where correct answers are ‘a matter of opinion’.

But nonetheless, to see metrology dramatised in this way brings a smile to my face, and yields a frisson of simple pleasure.

I can’t wait for ‘1001 kelvin’.


Live Fish; Live Music; The importance of being there.

August 1, 2014
This picture shows a gigantic tank of jellyfish with people silhouetted in the foreground. Picture taken at teh MOnterey Aquarium, California.

A gigantic tank of jellyfish with people silhouetted in the foreground. Picture taken at the Monterey Aquarium, California.

I hope you like the picture above. As you look at the picture you probably can’t tell if the vivid colours are on a screen or whether I took the picture of people in front of  a real tank of jellyfish

But I was there. And the jelly fish were very real.

I gazed in open-mouthed wonder at the delicacy of the structure of their bodies. And I desperately wanted to capture something of the experience.

Now when I look at the picture I recall that feeling of wonder but I don’t really know what you feel.

Two musicians playing Jazz at 'The Melt' a small cafe on Columbus AVenue, San Francisco.

Two musicians playing Jazz at ‘The Melt’ a small cafe on Columbus AVenue, San Francisco.

The picture above shows two musicians who happened to start playing at ‘The Melt’ on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco just after we stopped in for a snack. As you look at the picture you probably wonder what they were playing or if they were good.

But I was there. I remember being so happy that we had chanced upon this place.

And I remember my son’s happiness when we all recognised the beginning of ‘So What’ by Miles Davis. I left a $5 tip for them.

I mention these two occasions because  as I looked at the photographs I realised that the photographs did not capture my happiness or wonder.

And I just thought I would make a note – largely for myself – about how pictures communicate something – but what they communicate is not always the experience of the photographer.

And that there is really no substitute for ‘being there’.

Why headlines matter

July 22, 2014

Consider the following:

  • Imagine a hypothetical country in which the president made a decision to change the rules by which medication for heart disease was prescribed.
  • And suppose that in this country a woman died from a heart-related problem and her grieving son blamed his mother’s death on the President’s decision.
  • And further suppose that a reporter interviewed the son who said: “I feel as though the President has stabbed my mother through the heart”.
  • And finally imagine that a newspaper ran this reporter’s story with the headline at the start of this article:

President stabs woman through heart

Now if I read that headline I would assume that it was an assertion of a fact. But in fact it isn’t. And once I read the article and discovered that this was a quote from a grieving individual I would ask:

  • How did that headline, with its misleading and negative view get written?
  • If the newspaper wanted to highlight this important issue, why did they pick this misleading headline which undermines their own credibility?

So back to reality, and a letter from Thom Davis (reproduced in full at the end of this article) who thinks that I have been unfair in my comments on his article in The Independent.

I called attention to the fact that the article’s headline asserted that as a result of the Chernobyl disaster there were ‘cemeteries the size of cities’. This is completely untrue. And to me it raised the same two questions I highlighted above.

I am not sure of the timeline, but as I recall it, when I tweeted the author for more details he went quiet and when I looked again at the article, the headline had changed to something which was not an untruth. It may have been as a result of my questioning that the headline was changed. The newspaper made no record that the article had been changed.

Months later Thom wrote to me arguing at length that I should conclude nothing from the fact that a misleading headline was placed above his article: that it was just an editing mistake. I beg to differ.

Reading the article itself, without the misleading steer of its headline one can hear Thom’s genuine concern for the plight of these refugees. And I am happy to accept that the headline was indeed not of his choosing.

But in what Universe could a junior editor claim the existence of hundreds of thousands of dead people? The answer is: only in a Universe where nonsense is believed and propagated as easily as in a school playground. And I find it hard to believe that anyone in that profession could be unaware of its potential impact on UK readers.

The point of my article was to highlight this misleading headline and the fact it was changed without any record of the change. And that The Independent has a history of doing this.

The Independent did Thom a disservice in choosing a headline which exposed their own editorial prejudice and undermined his article’s credibility.

The headline of an article sets the tone and expectation for an article. And it matters.

P.S. (A blog is not a newspaper article, but for the sake of accuracy, I edited the text in red on Tuesday 5th August 2014)


  • My original article is here
  • Thom’s article – with its modified headline – is here
  • Thom’s reply to my article is reproduced in full below

Dear Protons for Breakfast,

I am the author of this article.

I did not choose the original title. As I believe I pointed out in a following tweet (not shown above).

As Vanessa rightly suggests, it is standard practice in journalism for the titles and taglines to be the choice of the editor. As soon as I read the title, I immediately emailed the editor to get it changed. Which he promptly did, within minutes. I agree with you, to put “cemeteries the size of cities” in the title like this is obviously misleading, as this is not what the article is saying – and precisely why I had the title changed immediately. It seems in your critique of the article you have focussed upon this.

For what it is worth I do not think the editor did this on purpose as some kind of anti-nuclear (or in your words ‘Nuclear Nonsense’) agenda – but was merely the consequence of a misreading and rushed deadline. As Vanessa suggests:

“An alternative approach might be to acknowledge the possible devaluing of an otherwise informative article from a specialist author by a flawed editorial process – and perhaps even to credit the editors for the fact they changed the headline quickly.”

As is quite clear is you read the text, the cemeteries quote comes from an interview with a research participant who was stressing how Evacuation and forced displacement has killed more people, in his opinion, than living with the constant threat of radiation. Like many others who live near the Exclusion Zone, he believes more people have been killed through forced evacuation than from staying to live with the radiated landscape.

It is a widely held opinion that the stress of becoming an environmental refugee has negatively impacted the lives and health of the hundreds of thousands who were forced to abandon their homes. Something supported by other academic research on other disasters, and from many interviews I have conducted with evacuees.

The revised title, made minutes after I emailed the editor now reads:

“Ukraine’s other crisis: Living in the shadow of Chernobyl – where victims receive just 9p a month and are left to fend for themselves”

This is something I stand by 100%. And I am grateful for The Independent’s swift action on this.

I am guessing your following critique is based on the briefly shown original erroneous title:
“by making unjustified and hyperbolic claims, the whole article becomes discredited: which parts should we believe?”

It is clear (from reading the main text) that the original title is an editorial error. If you believe other parts of the article are in anyway hyperbolic or unjustified I would very much like to hear, as this is a topic I take incredibly seriously. I very strongly dispute for example that what I have written counts as ‘Nuclear Nonsense’. It is based on three years of in-depth ethnographic research with communities throughout Ukraine.

Your assumption that the point of the article was “to cause people to think twice about nuclear power in the UK” is also unfounded. As the author of this article, I can tell you that the point – would you believe it – was to draw attention to the plight of people I have spent years getting to know in Ukraine, who are continuing to suffer from nuclear disaster. Something I believe this article achieves.

You say that the “article [is] seeking to conjure a horrific vision, which is just nonsense, and not true.” I would love to know on what basis you think what I have written is both ‘nonsense’ and ‘not true’?

I am glad this article, for whatever reason, has caused a discussion, as I believe it is an important subject, especially for those involved.

If you are interested further in my research on this subject, I can suggest reading this peer reviewed academic article:

Best wishes,

Thom Davies

Feedback: Listen with words not numbers

April 16, 2014
Feedback affects us

Feedback affects us (Image from Wikipedia)

Feedback is a modern word describing the process of assessing whether an enterprise (a business, a car or a country) is in some sense ‘on course’.

  • Negative feedback is the most valuable feedback – but rarely the easiest to deal with.
  • Positive feedback is always pleasant – like being stroked – but is often difficult to distinguish from politeness.

But whether it is positive or negative, genuine feedback is like gold-dust.

So at Protons for Breakfast we take great care to get as much as we can. We take extensive open-format feedback each week and show people that we take it seriously by replying to every note, no matter how apparently trivial.

And at the end of the 6 week course we collect final course feedback.But rather than offer people 5-point tick boxes, we instead create the time and space in which people can write sentences.

I am convinced that people’s choice of words communicates more powerfully than a numerical metric, even if it can’t be easily graphed or expressed as a statistic.

To try to convince you of this I have listed edited highlights below, or you can download the unexpurgated version here.

Like many science communicators, I take what I do ridiculously seriously. And the thought that it touches people’s lives is almost unbearable poignant.

The feedback below moved me to tears. But knowing that “86% of the people were ‘very satisfied or satisfied’” would leave me cold. See what you think.

Feedback from the 19th presentation of Protons for Breakfast

One thing you learned…

  • Generally that atoms and molecules are the key to understanding physics and I hadn’t appreciated that at school – so I didn’t get very far!
  • That global warming is real, actually happening.
  • Electricity is everywhere.
  • How mobile phone signals are transmitted through base stations.
  • I now know what makes up an atom.
  • About how a nuclear power station works.
  • There are atoms everywhere.
  • E-L-E-C-T-R-I-C-I-T-Y.
  • Everything is made up of atoms and electrical fields.
  • That absolutely EVERYTHING is electrical. (and more, but it said ONE thing).
  • I have learned more about how atoms work.
  • How paper is picked up by a balloon.
  • How small we are in the universe. Greater understanding of atoms and various other things.
  • An appreciation of the complexity behind simple things I take for granted.
  • I have learnt that atoms are all around us!
  • Magnetic properties as atoms! Best explanation ever! And I have a 1st class honours in Physics.
  • What nuclear fusion is.
  • Everything you look at is absolutely full of atoms, moving without us realising it!
  • How my phone works and how complicated it is. That we should try to prevent carbon dioxide from getting into the air to stop global warming.
  • WOW so many things. Particles are the basis of all science. To think about stuff I take for granted with more wonder. Not to always believe science in journalism/media.
  • The electric force is to blame for everything!
  • I have learnt my phone produces microwaves.
  • Everything is a wave! That the ‘gap’ between protons neutrons and electrons is just a gap, but an important gap.
  • Fields are everywhere.
  • Everything is made out of something.
  • I have learnt that electricity is essential to live and it is everywhere.
  • There is electricity in sausages.
  • Better understanding of how waves/atoms/electricity all fit together. Even heard about Brownian motion over the weekend and I knew what they were talking about.

One question you still have…

  • If global warming is an imminent disaster, why is big business in control of energy production for profit? (The less energy we use the move we pay per unit?).
  • Nothing I can think of, the excellent option to write feedback each time has answered it!
  • We can adapt to increase in temperature (grow vineyards in Scotland). Don’t fight it, work with it.
  • How does solar power work without direct sunlight (e.g. clouds in the way)?
  • What’s the problem with nuclear fusion?
  • From week 5, how do we know that phones are what may give us cancer, is it maybe something that people who use phones also do?
  • If so many things are ‘a bit’ radioactive what is the defining feature of ‘bad’ radioactivity? Where do gamma rays fit in?
  • Why do we never see the dark side of the moon?
  • Why is the earth’s centre magnetic? (North/South).
  • Who shot Kennedy?
  • What made you want to run a science course like this?

Is there any message you would like to give to the NPL management team…

  • Thank you for the enjoyable evenings.
  • Thank you!
  • Cheers!
  • Thank you – well run, organised, clean and efficient. Really needed tea and the copious quantity of biscuits that you provided.
  • Yes, double this man’s salary and send him on a tour of Britain giving the rest of the country the choice to enjoy and learn.
  • I wanted to submit a question re: this course. I couldn’t find a contact method. I think I sent a message on a blog-thing. (Not sure!).
  • This course is excellent, if Michael is unable or unwilling to continue is there anyone else who could run it? – Loved the course – beautiful surroundings (buildings) and you have truly spoiled us with all of the tea and biscuits.
  • The NPL is the most amazing place – long may it continue!
  • Well done.
  • It is a great resource. I have enjoyed it tremendously.
  • You’re doing well!
  • Keep up the good work – great fun!
  • Well done – more please!
  • Great computering skills.
  • I would like to thank Michael and the team for all their hard work during this course, thank you very much. Very entertaining and boggling every week. J
  • Thank you very much for improving my scientific knowledge.
  • No.
  • Make a sequel e.g. Electrons for Lunch.
  • Thank you!
  • My daughter is looking forward to coming in the autumn with my husband – I know she/they will really enjoy it.
  • Excellent course and facilities. Great enthusiasm from Michael.
  • Thank you for allowing me to attend such an organised and interesting course.
  • Well done, the course is great.
  • Keep doing Protons for Breakfast.
  • Really good job! The technical issues with the powerpoint seems to be fairly frequent in the 1st half of the course though. But Michael dealt with it really well and the flow was maintained.
  • Very well delivered course at such an affordable price. We home educate our daughter and chemistry and physics are subjects that are really hard for her to do. After the session at NPL she was coming home and wanting to learn more and do the experiments. Thank you.
  • This course is a fantastic way to spark an interest in science for young and old alike. Thank you.
  • This is a really good course and it would be a shame if it stops L
  • Thank you.
  • Well done. Very informative. The questions and Michael’s answers – very good!
  • Thank you JJ
  • Thank J
  • Keep doing this!
  • Wonderful staff and helpers. Excellent refreshments!
  • Please have more open access Science courses – they are very inspiring. You have so much here to show people.
  • Wonderful course. I hope when my youngest grandson is old enough it will still be running.
  • Thank you J!
  • Really well organised course. Very helpful and friendly staff. I would love to attend more like this.
  • Please keep offering this course. The presenters and helpers have made an enormous amount of science interesting and accessible for young and old in the audience.
  • This is a fantastic course for parents, children, teachers – everyone – to learn about the physical world. It was also great to see what passion and creativity there is inside NPL.
  • Very inspiring!
  • It is great that NPL provides this course for the interested non-experts to learn from the experts.
  • Well done.
  • Keep up the good work.
  • Well done for running an excellent course, for a wonderful mixture of people.
  • Well done!
  • Well done. Try to make it a bit more interesting for kids.
  • You just need to carry on what you are doing. It is great fun and people learn a lot.
  • Parking an issue – could you make it easier to get from other half of site to here?
  • Many thanks for a super course.
  • Just a fantastic course – I would recommend it to anybody (and do regularly). Thank you to everybody.
  • Thank you it was great. Really enjoyed the biscuits! Especially when there was Jaffa cakes! (my favourite). I don’t think I’d tried a wagon wheel until now and I LOVE THEM!
  • More resources for understanding what NPL does – website, You-tube etc. Great resource for kids to get interested in Science.
  • Well done!
  • THANK YOU!!!! I love it soooo much.
  • Keep up the fun and fantastic way of getting science to us all. Well done to you all and keep it up.
  • Very impressed with the standard of this course in many ways: teaching skills of presenter; super balance of theory and demo/ very large amount of info communicated/ high standard of visual/demo/experiments/really impressive experts in the last half of the course deployed well.


Children OnlyAside from the biscuits, ice cream and jelly babies, what did you like best?

  • I enjoyed the debates.
  • The experiments – both doing and watching (+ jelly babies and ice cream).
  • Hovercrafts and wands. Live experiments – watching and doing.
  • Hovercraft.
  • I like the exciting demonstrations.
  • Having an advantage in GCSE physics.
  • Learning about nuclear power.
  • The demonstrations that were done.
  • Killing of the egg in the microwave.
  • All of the above.
  • The crazy experiments – egg in microwave, wobbling water in pan, electrocuted gherkin, etc.
  • I loved all the demonstrations and Michael’s enthusiasm!
  • I loved the whole course in general as I felt it has contributed hugely to my confidence and understanding of science in general. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at NPL.
  • I’m not sure, everything is great.
  • All of it! But if I had to choose it would be using the microwave to cook CDs and eggs, that was a lot of fun.
  • The knowledge that I gained.
  • Practical activities.
  • The practical experiments.
  • I like the session covering heat.
  • The experiments!!!
  • Week 2 – light.
  • Watching the demonstrations and experiments, they helped me understand how different chemicals/atoms react.
  • Demonstrations!
  • The demonstrations of the experiments.
  • All the experiments.
  • The exploding egg.
  • Hovercrafts.
  • The egg and the gherkin / everything.
  • The fact I was able to easily broaden my knowledge of science. It had a strong, positive effect on my GCSEs.
  • Learning about mobile phone radiation.
  • The demonstrations.
  • The experiments, more please!
  • Hovercraft and egg.
  • I liked it when the experiment went kind of wrong and the egg exploded.
  • Experiment when ice cream was made.
  • Everything, because science is fun.
  • Environment.
  • The lectures and demonstrations.

Teachers & Trainee Teachers Only Please state one way in which you feel this course has helped you

  • I think it is essential to have a greater knowledge than the children I teach – just in case I get tricky questions, at least I will have the tools for us to find out together. Must download songs!
  • See previous – mainly how to make physics more relatable and easier to understand for the less scientifically minded.
  • Some excellent demonstrations.
  • Mike has a great method of teaching. Lots of passion – however course hasn’t really help, obviously aimed at children.
  • It tackled topics that are relevant to the children, answering questions they normally have in class.
  • Having to teach my daughter subject content I haven’t attended in years is tough. This course helps me have greater understanding and delivery of my daughter’s lessons and questions.
  • To communicate quite complex ideas more simply/better.
  • Experiments to demonstrate particular topics.
  • It explained climate change which I cover as part of Year 5 geography (Science taught by specialist in current school.) Has helped me a lot with some science basics which I was missing before – if I return to primary teaching where I need to teach science I will feel more confident/worthy to do it!



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