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Hamish Johnston: December 2008 Archives

By Hamish Johnston

On Thursday mornings I drop my children off at school and walk to work listening to the BBC Radio 4 programme “In Our Time”, presented by Baron Bragg of Wigton — or Melvyn as he likes to be known.

Bragg is one of those rare intellectuals who seems completely at ease as a broadcaster and every week he somehow manages to get a panel of three academics into a lively discussion about just about anything from “St Hilda - the life and times of the Abbess of Whitby”, to “The Multiverse - the universe is not enough”.

This morning the subject was “The Physics of Time”, and the panel was Jim Al-Khalili, Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey; Monica Grady, Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University; and Ian Stewart, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Warwick.

You can listen to the programme here and you can find an archive of all programmes here.

By Hamish Johnston

Anyone who has lived in the UK for more than a few months knows that the British are obsessed with exams.

Indeed, this morning one of the lead items on the news was the resignation of “exam watchdog chief” Ken Boston (yes, the UK has an exam watchdog!) over the chaos that ensued earlier this year when many national tests called Sats were incorrectly marked and the results returned late.

A common theme in the discussion of exams is the “dumbing down” of the tests that some allege has occurred over the years — an allegation that often comes across as a variant of the familiar “youngsters have it so easy today”.

Now Cambridge Assessment, a firm that was set up 150 years ago to administer exams, has shed some light on this crucial national debate by releasing a study of physics exams for 16-year olds from 1867 to 2007.

Interestingly, there actually was no “physics” paper before 1927 — up until then a candidate’s knowledge of physics was covered in tests on topics such as “natural philosophy” and “mechanics”.

I wonder if the new topic “physics” was greeted with the same derision that “media studies” garners today?

By Hamish Johnston

I was trained as a physicist, many of my friends are scientists and I believe that science has made the world a much better place.

But, would I trust my economic well being to “a group of good scientists…some who know a lot about economics and finance, and others, who have proved themselves in other areas of science..”

Probably not…

I suppose I’m old fashioned in the sense that if water is pouring from my ceiling, I would call a plumber, not a physicist — even though the physicist would probably have a better understanding of how gravity and fluid dynamics had conspired to ruin my day.

The above quotation comes from the introduction of an article called Can science help solve the economic crisis? that has been published on a website called Edge, where clever people expound on various topics of general interest to society.

The article is written by four intellectuals — including the physicist Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute — who argue that scientists should be given chance at “developing a scientific conceptualization of economic theory and modeling that is reliable enough to be called a science”.

The article goes on to identify several failures of neoclassical economics, which has been the guiding philosophy for markets and economies worldwide. Many of these criticisms seem to deal with how principles of science — such as the concept of equilibrium — have been naively applied to economics with dire consequences.

Then, it suggests a way forward — applying the concept of self-organized critical systems to economics.

Hmm, better call for that plumber!


By Hamish Johnston

Imagine my surprise when I turned on the radio this morning to be told by the BBC that astronomers have “found” a supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way…

Didn’t we know this already, I thought?

A quick trawl through the archives revealed that yes, we have long known about this black hole, roughly where it is, its mass, and that it is probably spinning.

I pointed this out to the BBC, which has since changed the headline from “Black hole found in Milky Way” to ” Black hole confirmed in Milky Way”. However, the home page still carries a supermassive banner using the word “found”.

I find it slightly worrying that one of the world’s most respected news outlets has decided that the most important thing we should know about today, is something that has been accepted by many physicists and astronomers for some years.

By Hamish Johnston

No, at least according to a paper published yesterday in Nature Nanotechnology by researchers in the US and Singapore.

The team discovered that people who live in countries with a relatively high level of “religiosity” are less likely to agree that “nanotechnology is morally acceptable”.

Their study on public attitudes towards nanotechnology involved surveys of over 30,000 people in the US and 12 European countries. Americans topped the religiosity scale with a score of about 9 out of a possible 10, and also had the highest percentage of respondents (25%) who did not agree that nanotechnology is morally acceptable.

At the other end of the scale were countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden (5 and 4 on religiosity respectively) where far fewer respondents had negative moral issues with nanotechnology.

On the surface, this study seems to go against the popular notion of Europeans as Luddites, and Americans being keen to embrace new technologies.

The study is also interesting in relation to another paper published in the same issue of the journal but by a different team. This concludes that, “people who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe”.

In terms of national stereotypes, that sounds more like your average American than your average Swede. Indeed, the UK and Ireland — which are usually thought of as individualistic and pro-commerce — also tended to be less morally accepting of nanotechnology than many of their more “socialist” neighbours.

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