Friday, May 7, 2010

UK general election - not staying up

Am I staying up all night for the UK general election.  Indeed not. Why would I want to depress myself. 1997 was fun with all the exploding blue towers and Portillo and everything and for one night with the wine flowing we could all pretend to believe socialism had arrived.  
I've already heard talk of an 8% swing to the Tories. That's quite enough for now.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Stephen Hawking says don’t phone ET

The Arecibo radio telescope broadcast
a message to ET, causing a level 8 hazard
Around the end of April Stephen Hawking presented a TV programme on the Discovery Channel. I didn’t see it but it was called Stephen Hawking's Universe: Fear The Aliens, and from reports I've seen it seems he argued that it’s dangerous to send signals into space because if aliens pick them up they are likely to come and get us.

This question of should we or shouldn't we send signals into space is controversial within the SETI community (search for extra-terrestrial intelligence). The astronomer and former BBC science correspondent David Whitehouse said: “The civilisation that blurts out its existence might be like some early hominid descending from the trees and calling ‘here kitty’ to a sabre-toothed tiger.”

Back to Stephen Hawking’s programme, I saw a critique of it along the following lines : Stephen Hawking is a physicist not a SETI expert, so his views should be given no special weight.   This statement must bring a smile to the lips.  What special expertise, pray tell, does a SETI expert possess when it comes to figuring out if we are under threat from hostile aliens?

Ha! they reply.  We have the San Marino Scale – bet you didn’t know that, eh?

Well, no I didn’t know that, so lets look it up.  Here it is :

This scale is used to gauge the risk to humanity of broadcasting messages into space. It was adopted by the International Academy of Astronautics in 2007.  The index runs from 1 for an insignificant potential hazard to 10 for an extraordinary hazard. The number is based on intensity of the signal (on a logarithmic scale no less), its duration and information content.  For example, in 1974 the Arecibo radio telescope broadcast a message which included depictions of a man and woman, and the DNA double helix, all encoded in binary.  On the San Marino Scale this would score an 8, meaning that the potential hazard is far reaching.  9 on the San Marino Scale is an outstanding hazard, and 10 is as bad as it gets : an extraordinary hazard.

Am I wrong to poke fun at this stuff?

I'm working on a lecture to give to Cork Astronomy Club sometime within the next year or so called “Just because we can does that mean we should?” and I'm going to include this question,  as light relief mainly.  The main focus will be on colonising Mars, (on which I have a separate post if you're interested), and on crewed as opposed to robotic space exploration.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

My favourite podcasts

Following a worldwide search, I can confidently assert that the BBC’s In Our Time is the best podcast in English.  Its remit in the history if ideas - science, philosophy, history, religion.  What gives In Our Time its edge is that it’s broadcast live (9am Thursdays) without editing.  There’s a newsletter and a listeners debate page, sometimes very illuminating.
You can access a substantial archive of past episodes, but you can't download, you can only “listen again” online. Downloading must be done within 7 days of the episode being broadcast. This rule applies to all the BBC’s output so far as I know, but doesn’t seem to apply to other broadcasters.
I often make notes of In Our Time episodes, including extracts from listeners’ comments and the newsletter. Available on request.
My best 3 - The Translation Movement, The History of Optics, The Nicene Creed
Other BBC favourites are The Forum (World Service), Start the Week, and Woman’s Hour, also two programmes dedicated to religion: Sunday, and Beyond Belief.
Next a few words about science podcasts. There’s a strong field, and I like that all of them touch on the philosophy of science, including science and religion issues. Top of my list is The Guardian’s Science Weekly, with the Nature podcast next.
The SETI institute’s Are We Alone needs a mention. You may wonder if this is a restricted zone for ET enthusiasts. Not so!  It's good science, often lacking any obvious connection with the Mekon. If the presenter Seth Shostak ever tires of physics he could make a living in comedy.
Also worth a look : Science and the City (New York Academy of Sciences), and the CBC’s Quirks and Quarks
That’s all I want to say about science.
Next, RTÉ.  Here is the list of podcasts.   My No 1 is Off The Shelf
There's a separate page for past series of which my best 3 are: Icons of Irish Science, Judging Dev, and Our War (Ireland and the First World War)
I also need to mention:- 
Words at Large (books), and Ideas (politics and philosophy) are top class.  I've already mentioned the CBC science programme Quirks and Quarks,
In 2008 or thereabouts the CBC produced a 24-part series called "How to Think About Science"  Top class. My favourite Best of Ideas episode: Living on Oxford Time, 21/7/08.  It includes Roger Penrose and his notion that time may not exist, it's all bound up with consciousness.
Top here is The Diane Rehm Show (daily, politics, current affairs), and Fresh Air (extended interviews on almost anything. I sample the site from time to time rather than subscribing to the podcast)
NPR Shuffle is a daily sampler from various mainly current affairs broadcasts. Also try It’s All Politics (weekly, takes a narrow view of “politics”, but informed and entertaining) and The Talk of the Nation Opinion Page (daily interview and phone-in with the writer of a controversial op-ed). NPR also has a science programme called Radiolab which I haven’t heard but it has won an award.
1. Background Briefing. Episodes worth mention :
2008-03-30  The three trillion dollar war - Joseph Stilglitz on the Iraq war
2008-04-06  The climate engineers - the politics and ethics of global climate control is even more interesting than the science.  Transcripts available.
2. Late Night Live – daily - politics, history, philosophy, current affairs, sometimes excellent, sometimes annoying.
3. The Ark is no longer broadcast but the archive is still available on the website. History of religion, taken in a broad sense - for example one episode was devoted to the claim that an Arab astronomer anticipated Copernicus by 200 years. This little programme used to pack a lot into 20-minute episodes. Transcripts available.
4. The Philosophers Zone and All in the Mind.

Love your home!

My late mother was brought up in Luleå in the north of Sweden. I've only once visited Luleå in winter, and that was for my grandfather’s funeral which was around 3rd January, some years ago. On the morning of the funeral the temperature was –40C. My uncle Sture scandalised his sisters by standing around not wearing a hat; but Sture is a physicist and knew that the stillness of the air caused his head not to feel the full force of the cold.

Afterwards my uncles and aunts were walking along the street, with me following close behind listening.  Now it happens that with the exception of my aunt Kerstin they have long ago all migrated to regions of Sweden much further south; and this was the tenor of their conversation: “In winter 40 degrees of frost and no sunlight, and in summer sun all night and no sleep. Who can possibly live in this inhuman climate?”  Wrong, wrong, wrong I thought to myself, this is wrong. Whatever the climate home is home and you should love it. I said so, but my words cut no ice with them.

The truth is I love the light nights of summer and can't see how anyone could possibly disagree. Once I played a game of Pontoon with my cousins round our grandmother's kitchen table, we sat down at about 11 pm and got up from our game at about 2 am, by which time the sun was streaming in. At no point during the night had anyone thought to get up and switch on the kitchen light.

For a photo see Midnight in Luleå