Planet 9 (but only for the deserving)

 In 1781, the Anglo-German astronomer William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus, an astonishing addition to the known universe. He became Sir William, and global renown followed. In 1846, Neptune was discovered by astronomers in Berlin. This time there was a lot less trans-European happiness, with angry debates in Parliament about the incompetence of British astronomers in missing out.

In 1930, little controversy attended the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh in Arizona. But there was a good media frenzy. The New York Times led on the story and said that Pluto was at least as big as the Earth, with even wilder suggestions (as big as Jupiter?) on the inside pages.

We now know that Pluto is only one of many tiny objects beyond Neptune, and that none of them is anything like as big as the Earth. So the idea that there is a planet out there (Planet 9 in the jargon) with about 10 Earth masses is a big suggestion. To be clear, nobody has “discovered” such an object by seeing it, as Herschel did Uranus. But they have inferred its existence from the orbital patterns of other, smaller objects. If it exists, it is about as massive as Uranus, but a lot farther away.

Given current interest in these matters (piqued by the recent New Horizons flyby of Pluto), it should be obvious to anyone that even this non-discovery has big news value. So how would Caltech, the top university where the scientists concerned are based, announce it? And what about the Institute of Physics, which publishes the venerable Astronomical Journal (founded 1849) which had the paper?

Not too well, really. They took a decision to issue the story on an embargoed basis to a dozen favoured journalists, mainly from US publications, and leave the rest of the media to work it out for themselves when the paper got published. This is plainly unfair to hundreds of professional, hard-working journalists and their millions of readers, viewers and listeners, but it raises other issues too.

The embargo system is intended to help readers (viewers, listeners….) by allowing reporters to talk to their contacts and get the story right. So if you only tell a select group, you are inviting the others to get it wrong. In fact, one of the 12 broke the embargo anyway, so even the elite dozen did not get the inside track they must have hoped for, let alone everyone else who was left scrambling for the story.

What’s the lesson? First, even big, prestigious organisations in publishing and research can get media relations horribly wrong. Next, exclusivity is a risky strategy. There might be very specialist stories which it is right to issue to a friendly scribbler with an established interest, but this was sure not one of them. Finally, astronomy is the most global of subjects. The 12 were mainly from US media, although UK-based Nature was on the list. So the whole endeavour ended up looking jingoistic as well as ill-considered, and this with a story that was reported around the world.

Although the putative Planet 9 is a lot more distant than Uranus, telescopes have got better in the past 235 years, and it is possible to develop strategies for finding it. Caltech will almost certainly be involved. When it happens, let’s hope they choose to tell the world’s media about it on a more level playing field.

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Seveneves: big but worth it.

Neal Stephenson’s new novel, Seveneves, has many obsessions, but it has one feature that British readers in particular will find endearing. Stephenson has an informed interest in the explorer Ernest Shackleton’s astounding 1914/1916 voyage to the Antarctic, which ended in the loss of the ship Endurance and the near-miraculous rescue of everyone on board. The tale is without a doubt the greatest of British polar stories.
In some ways, Seveneves is very like one of the great Imperial voyages of discovery. For one thing, they were conceived on a massive scale, and so is this book. But in addition, these behemoth expeditions could never just leave port and go somewhere. There had to be a band, waving crowds, and ideally a monarch, to send them off. In the same way, Stephenson can’t just publish a book. There is now a Seveneves Community (!) with a web site, online discussion and Lord knows what else. Over-confidence, or insecurity?
Either way, I haven’t read a book in ages that I could talk about for so long. If you thought “hard science fiction” was in the doldrums, try this. For a fraction of the price of attending MIT, you get robotics, genetics, ecology, astronomy (mainly celestial mechanics), nuclear engineering (and all the ways a reactor can kill you), astronautics, and smaller doses of other sciences I can’t think of. The background work must have been killing. The author’s suspiciously well-informed interest in firearms, so dominant in his last outing Reamde, is restrained here but still pops up from time to time.
To avoid too much of a spoiler, let’s just say that the plot is built on about the biggest scale imaginable. It kept me reading despite the fact that for most of the book, almost everything that happens is unpleasant, for the human race as a whole or for individuals. Unlike most writers in his tradition, William Gibson aside, Stephenson can create characters you care about (even female ones, rarer yet). But he does not believe in wasting words on character development that could be used to describe how two pieces of metal are joined together. Nor does he trust the punter to cope with human speech. Jane Austen never had to tell the reader: “Kath Two understood that the woman was just trying to strike up a conversation.”
Stephenson, of course, has one foot in cyberpunk and that means an acute interest in jury-rigged arrays of wiring, ideally involving zip ties or duct tape, and in other feats of informal engineering. The seeker after this stuff will leave Seveneves happy. But there are also some fine sideways-glance jokes about contemporary events and people, and a plentiful supply of twists, turns and big reveals.
You’ve probably decided by now if this is for you. But even if not, let’s hope Stephenson does more like it. He has a talent, and that talent is for writing books. He also has a total untalent for co-authoring books, such as the grim Mongoliad series. Anything with his byline is worth a read. Anything with his name alongside someone else’s is just a doorstop.

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Editing skills “desirable” for editor? Who knew?

British journalists are prone to getting excited about big job opportunities in the US. After all, the major publishers there (NY Times, Bloomberg…) tend to look over here when they want to find top talent. But what if the job is in College Park, Maryland, rather than Manhattan?

I ask because the Association of British Science Writers email discussion list has just gone crazy about this advert for a new editor in chief of Physics Today, the principal publication of the American Institute of Physics.

This job is indisputably one of the world’s top gigs in science journalism, a notch but no more behind running the real boutique publications such as Science or Nature. So the phrasing of the ad has caught the British eye. It calls for candidates who are “editorially talented,” but under “Qualifications” goes on to add that “A PhD in science with 7–10 years of physics-related work experience is required. A physics degree is preferred. Previous management, editorial, and/or writing experience is highly desirable.”

This sense of priorities takes us straight to a key argument. If the AIP advertised for a chief financial officer, would it specify a PhD in physics as mandatory, and awareness of finance as a nice-to-have? I doubt it. So why in a case like this does the employer not start out by asking for an editor who has the skills of an editor? “How much physics do you know?” can always come in as a nice question at the interview, after all.

The splutterings from UK science journalism’s finest have so far been directed at the AIP, which has certainly got it wrong here. But how has this happened? For me, much of the blame attaches to science journalism itself. The ABSW has been going since 1947 and our US equivalent, the National Association of Science Writers, since 1934. It now has over 2000 members. There are university courses, world conferences, codes of conduct and other bits of structure. So why has science journalism still not got to a level of professional esteem that requires major employers hiring senior science journalists to seek out a member of this community? It’s surely our fault as much as anyone else’s.

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Food, glorious food

A rare parade of big numbers was on the march on Monday, at the launch of the Leading Food 4.0 report from the National Centre for Universities and Business. They were almost striking enough to distract me from the astounding view from Altitude, the 29th floor restaurant at Millbank Tower on the Thames.
It’s impossible not to like the NCUB. It has a simple mission that’s hard to get right – making universities and businesses work together better. I have been an editor and writer on various of their projects over time, including Food 4.0, and enjoy it enormously.
This time NCUB put its head into the lion’s mouth by taking on the problems of an industry that in some ways does not even exist. Right now, there is not one food industry but many, including over 200,000 businesses. NCUB characterises this as the Food Economy, a term that deserves wider use. Here come the big numbers: UK food and drink spending £196 billion: 3.7 million jobs: £19 billion of exports. But someone who owns a farm probably does not think that they work in the same industry as a baker or a shop worker. Many of the firms are too small for much planning or introspection, and are driven by keeping demanding customers happy. Even the trade association are a mess – over 40 for different types of food product, let alone anything else.
This means that the industry has some big systemic problems. Students don’t want to go into food jobs, even though there are plenty of great careers there. The environment gets damaged by small-scale thinking. Innovation is slowed by poor understanding between industry and academe – not that many other parts of the UK economy have got that one right. Meanwhile agriculture alone loses 10,000 people a year by retirement. This is damaging for such a labour-intensive business – 1 per cent of the economy, 2 per cent of the workforce. But in the era of climate change, big data, robotics and all the rest, it’s even more of a problem if bright young people aren’t aware of food as a career option.
The report is full of ambitious ideas to improve things across a broad front, including the creation of a new profession of landscape negotiators who would make the diverse users of big land areas see the sense in joint working.
The group that led the charge was fronted by former Sainsbury’s boss Justin King and Quintin McKellar, vice chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire, neither of them people who want to write a report that will look great on the shelf. Can the road ahead they set out actually be traveled? Maybe. After all, everyone thought a few years ago that the UK car industry was dying, and now it’s a massive success and a magnet for graduates.

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Is it a bird? Is it a plane?

Although it happened in 2012, I have only just caught up with this astounding footage from Norway in which a skydiver in flight apparently films a meteorite in mid-air. Well worth a look.
It raises some interesting questions. First, what else could it be? I have seen a lot of meteorites and in the frame-by-frame, this one looks right. And how else does a bit of rock get there? The nearest live volcanoes are in Iceland – far too far. So only a pointless bit of fakery could really produce this effect. Sadly, a ground search did not find the rock, but that’s nothing unusual.
Second, given data on the frequency of skydiving with helmet cameras, could we use this sighting to make a statistically dubious constraint on the growth of the solar system?

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This site is too marvellous for its own good.

That feeling that something you’re involved with is less great than it ought to be is familiar to all of us. But this week I found out the hard way that I had done the precise opposite, creating something a lot more powerful than I had imagined.
This, it turns out, is the reason why this web site has been in and out of use for the past few weeks. It’s a modest enough corner of cyberspace, just a few pages, a few dozen posts, and hundreds rather than millions of visitors. It’s designed for a select readership in the universe I know about: people into journalism, science, higher education, university ranking, media training, futurology and the like, and ideally with a lavish budget for my skills in these areas.
But there’s the rub. While the site is tiny, its footprint is huge. Because of its subject matter, it has links to, and more important, back links from, top universities, government departments, scientific societies, university rankings bodies including QS, the one I work for, media organisations, and other bodies with significant volumes of online gravitas.
Last year I noticed the first signs that all was not well with the site. Larger or smaller areas of white began to appear in this blog, and a look at the maintenance version showed that the spaces were filled with stuff I had not written – miles of links to Canadian pharmacists offering Cialis and Viagra, whatever they are, and, bizarrely, plugs for shoes from a globally-known maker of sports goods.
Shortly after that all the plugins that are used to control vital functions on the site vanished, as did my ability to load any new ones.
Not long after that the site itself went offline, in a denial of service attack presumably facilitated by these changes. In one day it had 27,000 Chinese and 17,000 Ukrainian visits. Aren’t there better things to be getting on with in Ukraine right now?
While my web hosting firm was able to get the site back online on an erratic basis, I realised at this point that I needed some proper help, and here my growing links to the Suffolk business world (see below) came in handy. Green Shoots Learning, a terrific and highly eco-friendly training business with which I hope to be working soon, put me in touch with Lindsey and Simon Trainer, and they know all this backwards. They explained that the authority of the links to this site gets lent to the evildoers who add their own text to it, making it an easy way to bulk up their online credibility. The hackers had also removed my plugins in order to disable the protection that they are meant to provide.
With this knowledge, it proved possible to have an informed discussion with the folk at the hosting company, and this led to the plugins reappearing and the site stabilising, at least thus far. Removing the bogus links will take longer, and there seems to be no simple way of preventing its reappearance. Still, nice to know that my raw cyber power draws admiring glances around the world.

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MPs get it right…… (yes, no joke)

What could be more heartening than a Parliamentary vote that actually gets something right? For me, it might be a Parliamentary vote that also makes clear the limited power of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church in the UK.
These two bodies split apart in the reign of Henry VIII (see the work of David Starkey or Hilary Mantel for the full detail). Catholicism was then supressed, but has now become re-established.
In today’s vote on, er, three-parent children, both of these bodies opposed the idea of avoiding mitochondrial disease by putting the fertilised egg nucleus into an egg with DNA that will make healthy mitochondria. They lost.
Now, what’s this about? BBC Online published a story today about Sharon Bernardi, whose seven children all died of mitochondrial disease, some before they were a day old. Unless I have misread the Christian message, this case alone should mean that the Churches support this initiative with all the energy they can muster.
But no. Instead, they managed everything from calls for delay (the whole thing has been discussed and researched for years, you just weren’t listening) to denunciations of slippery slopes to designer babies. In fact, mitochondria have almost no genetic content and don’t hand on characteristics. They really just push energy about. Contributing some to a baby does not make anyone a parent by any rational definition.
Despite this intervention, the “free vote” (one without party whipping, the standard escape clause for alleged issues of conscience) was won 382-128, meaning that 140 MPs were somewhere else at the time.
As well as allowing a terrible disease to be attacked at source, this vote means that world-leading UK bioscience from Newcastle University will be pushed nearer to use. Politicians know that this country is hot at all things bio. This vote helps just a bit to get to get the clever stuff from the lab to the operating theatre.
But this happy result still leaves a question, for me at least. Are the alleged experts in religious ethics who opposed this idea confident that they are in the right business?

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How many words?

I am very fond of the Thirty Million Words initiative. It uses the power of adult-child speech to give kids a better start in life, by encouraging people to speak more to children and build their verbal and other skills. The benefits are proven, for example in later educational attainment.

Why 30 Million? Because of a 1995 paper suggsting that by their 4th birthday, kids from, shall we say, more engaged backgrounds had heard 30 million words more than those at the other end of the caring spectrum. So the idea is to extend these benefits to all.

But I do feel that all these words demand some sums. On your fourth birthday, you’ve been alive four years. So some kids are hearing 7.5 million more words than others in each year of early childhood. That’s 20,548 per day, or 14 per minute, or one every four seconds, assuming that their parents (et al) speak to them non-stop, 24/7. And of course, even the least engaged parents and minders presumably speak to their children a bit. It’s 30 Million more than other kids, not 30 Million total.

No wonder these children go on to do well at school. They are hoping to leave home ASAP and get some relief from all that non-stop jabbering.

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Man swaps Wandle for Gipping…..

One of the reasons for my recent absence from the Blogosphere is that I have been moving house. So far, so ordinary, but it has certainly been educational for me.
So what have I learned by abandoning inner London in favour of Suffolk (in fact, a village just the other side of Ipswich)?
First, the move-to-the-country logic you read in the weekend papers (bigger house with more space for the brood, a garden that is probably eligible for EU subsidies, and maybe even some change left over) is all true. But there’s more to it than that.
I have lived in London most of my life and went native with it years ago. More materially, I have always been an urban dweller, being born and living near Liverpool before college in Newcastle and then shoving off to the (really) big city. Like scousers in general, I love the countryside as a place to visit. But the idea of living there never occurs to us. And I certainly fell on my feet by moving to London. I have watched it turn from a bit of a mess, competing unevenly with cities around Europe, into the global city where everyone wants to be, ahead of New York and out of sight of Paris. There are downsides, like the way even unlovely parts of town are becoming millionaires’ row, but they are far outweighed by the benefits. I could never have had the modest career I have had, met the people I have known, or in general developed as I have, in a different setting.
But all things flow, so…
The first thing you notice in the countryside is that the economy is more visible than in London. Agricultural equipment goes past the house, and builders’ and repairers’ vans seem to be everywhere, along with an unaccountable number of vehicles to do with food and catering. There’s a local incinerator. There’s an egg factory and a lot of industrial estates. So you can see what goes on. If you wander about London, any given building might be full of financial analysts, journalists or medical researchers, but you could never guess which was which.
Next, moving to this underpopulated backwater (one of the least densely inhabited places in the UK) does not get you out of the globalised world. A railway line runs a few hundred metres to the west of the house. It has some passenger trains, including the little rattler that takes my wife to work in Cambridge. But its main use is to shift the thousands of freight containers coming in and out of the big ports at Felixstowe and Harwich. There’s also a main road, the A14, which has the same role, as the big freight artery from the east coast ports to the English midlands. The classic five flows of globalisation are the movement of goods, services money, people and ideas. We can wake at 2am any day and be sure of hearing the first of these flows in full swing.
But for someone with my modest work profile, running a micro-business with global reach from a tiny office, how big a hassle is this rural dwelling thing? It’s certainly true that I can’t just set off to a meeting in London on a whim, like I had grown used to doing. And I need to leave the house about 90 minutes to two hours earlier than I might once have done to get to the airport or to a London railway station.
But the real issue is to do with small journeys, not long ones. If I am going to Taiwan, as I did recently, it’s no hardship to set out a bit earlier than before. But in my recent past, I have also worked regularly in Liverpool, Guildford, Newcastle, Bristol, Swindon and other places in the UK. If you live in London, these are all an easy day trip provided some other organisation is paying for the train. If you start in Suffolk, it gets a lot more complex, and overnight stays get trickier to avoid.
Part of the problem is the sheer amount of thought and effort involved. The village has not got a station, so all sorts of lifts, buses and taxis have to be thought about, putting a time step in the way of any sort of graceful logistics. Dropping off a suit at the dry cleaner, or getting a haircut, become serious planning issues. Both of these, you may be aware, are prime concerns of mine. People who live here regard this as obvious, I daresay, but it’s a learning curve for me. It also shows that while the UK has passed Peak Driving and Peak Car years ago, there is little substitute for the car in wide areas of the countryside.
But what’s it like? First, noisy. Between the A14 and the busy side road outside, the traffic noise is far more non-stop than in Tooting. There too, we saw aircraft on the Heathrow glide path, but never heard them. The Army flyers at nearby Wattisham airbase are far more audible as they pass overhead in their weapons-laden Apache and Lynx helicopters (the three-year-old finds this very interesting).
Next, it’s enjoyable. The bad news is that you have to spend a lot of time driving, but the good news is that doing so is painless. And what about this stuff they apparently call “countryside?” Well, I am becoming quite a fan. The sheer hassle of settling into the house is an endless consumer of energy and time, so we have not had much chance to get about locally on foot just yet. But I am enjoying the walks we have done, the villages we have seen, and the way I can take a lunchtime stroll in the woods. There seems to be some wildlife – foxes are rare, compared to inner London, but geese fly by in vast v-shaped formations and deer are an ever-present road hazard.
I’m also struck by how isolated this place is in some ways, and how connected in others. The village is badly off for shops, perhaps because it is halfway between the better-resourced fleshpots of Ipswich and Needham Market. It has one-vehicle-wide roads with passing places, something I thought you only found in the Highlands of Scotland or the west of Ireland. It has no fibre broadband (copper wire 8Mb/s download, 1.1 upload, since you ask). I am fine with this as I mainly make Word documents, spreadsheets and PowerPoints. If I made video, or did anything else involving serious connectivity, it would not be feasible to work here. On the other hand, the snailmail is lovely. We get our post at 8am. In SW17, we got other people’s post at 3pm.
I also get a very definite sense that I am only starting to work out what the place has to offer. In the past I have thought that the UK consists of two places – London and not London. The first has a huge percentage of the people, the money, the cleverness, the big jobs, and all the other good assets. The latter has all these things too, but on a far lesser scale. However, it turns out that not-London is a variegated place. Here, for instance, we have the sea, and great rivers, but no mountains. The sky is pretty dark, and the nearby Orwell Astronomical Society has a big telescope. There must be local business circles, local fitness setups, and all the other machinery you’d expect, waiting to be tapped into if I concentrate on the region a bit. It certainly has some vigorous local politics, and there is a lot of cycling going on. People seem about as friendly or unfriendly as in London, and the community (despite my initial fears) has at least some ethnic variety. So all in all, it’s a success and looks set to be a yet bigger one in time.
The house? That’s a story, like the giant rat of Sumatra, for which the world is not yet ready.

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Buried treasure in SE14

The theatre is not a regular preoccupation of this blog, but don’t panic. I don’t have an opinion about whether you should see the Aldwych version of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

But who could resist being summoned to the Gordon Wood Theatre at Goldsmiths, University of London (disclosure – clients of mine) to a play commemorating 50 years of the Society for the Study of Artificial Intelligence and the Simulation of Behaviour? Not I. After all, as the Paris-based researcher who sat next to me said, the AISB is the place to be if you want to see ground-breaking dialogue between engineers and philosophers.

Godfathered among others by Mark Bishop, chair of the society and professor at Goldsmiths, MIL-STD 1815 is a two-hander performed by Stephen Hudson and Julia Jade Duffy. It wanders the centuries with ease. From the 19th century, the actors play the poet Byron, his daughter Ada Lovelace, and computer pioneer Charles Babbage, to whom Ada was muse; then Alan Turing and others from the 20th century; and in the 21st, a lawyer and an academic discussing autonomous weapons. These devices are one of the current age’s most problematic manifestations of the issue of whether machines can think, a debate dating back to Babbage and rendered vivid by Alan Turing’s famous Turing Test.

The play is an astonishing display of acting prowess, with long, complex dialogue (there are even some equations), plus long spells of demanding dance and movement, by both actors, especially Duffy.

Its link to the present reflects Bishop’s interest in weapons systems which can take a decision to shoot on the basis of rules which they are free to interpret. Does such a device take decisions, much as you or I might, and if so is it alive and might it, not its maker or owner, have responsibility for its actions? (By the way, Mark was entitled to be a little out of it last night. He has just organised a major international conference, seen a play onto the stage and become a father. Yes, the baby is Ada, as in Lovelace. Oh, and he is a leading light of the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots.)

The existence of quandaries such as this illustrates just what the world lost with the death of Alan Turing, who saw these issues with astounding clarity. Today, by contrast, few aspects of current British life are as satisfying

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as Turing’s rehabilitation, and last night I was especially happy about it. Having decided to ask the person sitting next to me how she came to be there, I was delighted to be told that she is his great niece, herself a computing graduate and teacher. At one point in her life, she explained, people looked blank when she told them of her relative who more or less invented modern computing. Now everyone knows who he was.

She enjoyed the play (and laughed a lot at the bit, based in reality, where Turing tries to recall where he buried his life savings). But apparently she, her sister and her mother are even more entranced by the Turing movie, now out, with the inevitable Benedict Cumberbatch. There are some things even Goldsmiths can’t compete with.

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