Posts Tagged With: Science

Stumbling Backwards into the Future

I’m angry.

Scratch that. I’m furious.

An axe is about to crunch into the lives and careers of people whose work I value more than almost any in the world.

Australia is my home. Our society clings to the edges of a vast continent, one of sharp contrasts and harsh beauty. The wide land affords us riches, through agriculture and mining. Our very borders are defined and shaped by three mighty oceans. Water, and its scarcity, regulates life in Australia, human, plant and animal. And our atmosphere – that thin varnish that separates us from the cold vacuum of space – carries the mighty storms that sweep across the south and the drama of El Nino with its drought and fire.

Sunset Mountain

We have an almost miraculous network of publicly-accessible tools for finding and forecasting what we need to know about our weather, climate and oceans. Even with all the work that’s brought us to this point, those models and forecasts can still be spectacularly wrong. This is hard science.

That’s why I’m speechless to read that the CSIRO is cutting 300 jobs in those very scientific divisions – Oceans and Atmosphere, and Land and Water – leaving a barely-functional skeleton of staff.

The official explanation points to a shift from basic climate science toward climate adaptation and alternative research areas – cybersecurity and robotics (with our internet? Ha). The CSIRO has seen its budget slashed under the Abbott, and now Turnbull, governments, and I pity those having to make hard decisions about what gets the chop.

This smacks of a small-minded and short-sighted vision of the world, and disrespect for Australia’s trajectory into the future. Earth is the only home we have. Humanity wields more technology, more power, more population, than ever before, and we know that systems we rely on planet-wide are teetering toward collapse. We must do better, know more, and damage less. The notion that we have ‘done enough’ to understand our climate – Australia, of all countries, after Paris, of all times – is a humourless joke.

At an individual level, lives and livelihoods are at stake. A grim picture faces Aussie farmers, already a community under incredible strain. For a generation of aspiring scientists, hearts and minds ready to reach out to the world around them, news like this dashes their hopes, and they dejectedly apply to institutions on the other side of the planet. I cannot imagine the morale of the hard-working CSIRO experts whose jobs have been pulled from under them; the collective knowledge they’ve earned, the projects that will be abandoned, unfinished. My heart goes out to them.

Most of us walk backwards into the future – our past visible, unable to see what’s coming next. Our basic scientists are a tiny few who point their headlights outward and forward into the huge expanse of the unknown, not for profit, but to understand what is there and, perhaps, help us choose our path. These cuts dim those lights and blind our society as we hurtle into a long, dark future.

A Storm Is Coming

A gathering storm. Would you turn your back?

Categories: environmentalism, Politics, Problems, Science, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

We need substitutes, not extras

I check my phone. “Already inside, some good ales on.” I quickly flick my wallet open to see a £20 note, then open the door to my local pub. A wave of warm air, infused with familiar and somewhat questionable odours, washes over me. An evening of chatter and drinking with friends awaits. Unexpectedly, the pub has a promotion running, and I’m handed a voucher for a free drink as I walk in.

Here’s the question: over the course of the evening, will I now drink the same amount, or more, than I otherwise would have?

How much is our behaviour influenced by the actual and perceived cost of what we consume?

It’s a simple question. Let’s say I intended to get three pints of beer. Will I now get a free extra drink, and thus consume four pints, or substitute the free drink for one I’d buy?

I’m sure you can think of ways of answering this kind of question in a scientific way. Perhaps we could give a random selection of people vouchers and compare how many drinks they buy, on average, to people without vouchers. Understanding why they behave that way is much more complicated. Without asking why, though, we can’t begin to generalise and predict what might happen in other promotions, in other situations, with other resources.

Two recent studies have tried to answer a question like the one I posed, but at a much bigger scale. Candice Moy, in Geographical Research, examined whether owning a rainwater tank changes how people react to water becoming more scarce during a drought. More recently, Richard York, in Nature Climate Change, analysed whether development of renewable energy displaces fossil fuel energy, or simply adds to it. In other words, do rainwater tanks and renewable energy supplies function as extra resources, or substitute for resources in our existing systems?

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Categories: environmentalism, Politics, Problems, Science, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , | 3 Comments

Smoke, mirrors and mazes

Let’s start with eye candy.

Atmosphere gallery Science Museum London

This is an image looking over the balcony from the top floor of the Science Museum’s Wellcome Wing. The seemingly perfect positioning of the security guard caught my eye.

But enough with the photo frivolity, friends, there’s important things afoot! Today, a story broke about leaked internal documents from notorious denial institute Heartland. It’s one of those ‘oh, OK’ stories, in that it shows the direct link between funding from large organisations with vested interests, and the opinion columnists, ‘skeptical scientists’ and bloggers who champion anti-science perspectives.

There’s a couple of things that strike me, most of which are detailed in the post I’ve linked above. One is that they are keen to stifle opposing voices in outlets they feel they control, like Forbes – unsurprisingly, a hypocritical viewpoint, considering how much they whinge about their viewpoint being sidelined and stifled.

The second is that it’s a relatively small amount of money, overall, but it shows the strength of the strategy of sowing doubt, which plays into media norms and also the hands of politicians, who can make a living by doing not much because public apathy continues on the issue of climate change.

Anyway, it remains to be seen how much this goes through the media, because it’s kind of like many of the normal climate change stories – bad things are happening, which we already kind of knew about, but now we know more details!

EDIT: This is funny, from a prepared response by the Institute:

The individuals who have commented so far on these documents did not wait for Heartland to confirm or deny the authenticity of the documents. We believe their actions constitute civil and possibly criminal offenses for which we plan to pursue charges and collect payment for damages, including damages to our reputation. We ask them in particular to immediately remove these documents and all statements about them from the blogs, Web sites, and publications, and to publish retractions.

They’re bonkers. Their response to their error (one of their staff sent these in an email) is to ask people to delete all reference to it, and threaten legal action? Then there’s this:

But honest disagreement should never be used to justify the criminal acts and fraud that occurred in the past 24 hours. As a matter of common decency and journalistic ethics, we ask everyone in the climate change debate to sit back and think about what just happened.

Yes. Because when YOUR documents get leaked, we should all sit back and think about the badness of the act. When the CRU emails were stolen and leaked, you told everyone to stop and think about the content, without ever mentioning the ethics of how they were obtained. And strangely, all of their news content from the dates surrounding that hack are now… gone? It’s almost like Heartland don’t want a record of their Climategate claims being dredged up again!

Hypocritical bastards.

Categories: communication, environmentalism, Problems, Science | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Today’s Youtube Empires, Tomorrow’s Hollywood Ashes

Charlie’s a star.

Here’s Charlie, talking about stars.

A million people, roughly, have seen Charlie talking about stars. He’s got two-thirds as many followers on Twitter as Brian Cox, the physicist star of BBC doc Wonders of the Solar System, which topped out ratings around 3 million viewers. That’s impressive. And Charlie’s video cost a tiny fraction as much to make.

3 million is, incidentally, about a billion billion times less than the number of stars in the universe. Hmm, let’s stop using the word ‘star’ now. It’s starting (AH! There it is again!) to throw into stark (no!) relief how… I’m going to cut that sentence off before it becomes any more silly.

Throw into the mix the frank insight of a Hollywood hack, courtesy of The Benshi:

Its like, there are so many stories out there that could go a thousand different ways, mostly they turn into a boring bio pics. that lose money. So to invest the money studios do, they want someone who they know can deliver (aaron Sorkin and David Fincher) and even then they tend to want it to be about Steve Jobs, which is the hot assignment right now or in the prior case Facebook.

If you have a lights out script that blows people’s mind, that isn’t about a subject with a failing track record(IE the middle east wars.) you may have a shot there too, but people better totally flip.

127 hours btw only grossed $60mil world wide. Not a lot for a global release
grossed $50 mil world wide. Even less.

Its fine and well people in LA and NY like to talk about these movies over cocktails but in a world where it costs a mint just to market these pictures, they financially are damn tough.

If they are getting into something like that, they want it to be Social network that did $225M WW.

I shit you not, baring guys like [James] Cameron of which there are about 5-10 people with anywhere near that juice, almost every project is freaking existing IP driven stuff. Meaning Robocop remake, Fast and the furious 6, Transformers 4, Ouiji (based on the board game), Battleship (also based on the board game), Highlander remake, 2 snow white movies, Cinderella, a 300 sequel about Xerses, The Man from Uncle remake, Cannon ball run remake, The secret life of walter mitty remake. You would fucking laugh and then never try again in Hollywood if you saw the grid list of stuff out there, sometimes we just laugh.

We are along way from the 70′s and Chinatown. A long long way.

He may sound like a cynical bastard (stop it!), but it’s clear: Hollywood’s a non starter (that wasn’t even intentional!) for all us budding science communicators. Contagion‘s probably the closest we’ll get for a while.

So rather than staring (I give up) at the glass ceiling of commercial backing, I plan to have a crack at the Youtube market. It will probably end up floating in the void, languishing with a lazy triple digit hit count and dwindling into obscurity after being shared by friends and a few friends of friends… but who knows, maybe I’ll find the right formula (that would be startling) and win the hearts, minds and subscribe buttons of the fickle Youtube populace.

Of course, this isn’t just something I am going to whip up in a week. I just thought that announcing it would make me more likely to start.

I give up, it's me, under the stars.

What I need, though, are topics. I want to be answering the burning little questions we rarely bother to ask. What’s something that bugs you, in your everyday life, that you might want to know more about? What’s a thing you see that puzzles you, or a bodily function that confuses you, or a trick of the mind that catches you out? What do you want me to find out for you?

Categories: communication, Thoughts, Videos | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

The White Knight

Leading the charge!

One of the good things about my new job is the sheer broadness of the projects I’m helping with. This one is about sight and touch, and their relationship with aesthetics and making.

People are asked to sculpt with a bit of plasticine for 10 minutes, either with their eyes open, or eyes shut. We’ve collected about 50 each of the results so far, so there’s a table full of little bits and bobs in the space, waiting to be analysed. This one caught my eye – I think someone was cheating, because they’re only supposed to use white or black, not both!

Categories: art, Science, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , | 3 Comments

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