Royal Society Winton Book Prize

18/11/2011

Uncategorized

In Praise of Idleness

That was the title of a famous essay by Bertrand Russell. Being myself a lifelong victim of the protestant work ethic, I was impressed at the Royal Society last night when the prize for science books 2011, now sponsored by Winton Capital Management, went to Gavin Pretor-Pinney for The Wavewatcher’s Companion (Bloomsbury).

 

Gavin Pretor-Pinney

Although the book has a beach chair with sea waves on its cover (an icon of idleness) it covers waves of every kind you’d think of, and some you wouldn’t. Given the chance to read a passage from his book during the ceremonies, Pretor-Pinney chose the intricate waves of hungry amoebae. They assemble to make a slug-like object and then build a tower from which they send spores to look for happier hunting grounds.

Salutary point (1) This is only the second book that Pretor-Pinney has written. The previous one was The Cloudspotter’s Guide, which of course I have because of my interest in the Svensmark cloud-seeding connection.

Salutary point (2): Pretor-Pinney was a founder of The Idler magazine. http://idler.co.uk/

Perhaps my only claim to fruitful idleness is that a literary by-product of my family cruising under sail, The English Channel, won the Best Book of the Sea award at the London Boat Show.

Small world note: Gavin Pretor-Pinney also took part in the BBC-TV programme “The Secret Life of Waves”, which was made by David Malone, son of Adrian Malone who produced one of my BBC blockbusters “The Life Game” (1973). That programme took its title, and an important sequence, from a table game with nucleic acids played by biophysicists in Goettingen led by Manfred Eigen. Now Eigen has written the most interesting upcoming book that I know about just now. Due out soon from Oxford UP, it’s called From Strange Simplicity to Complex Familiarity. Oxford asked me for an endorsement and here’s what I’ve offered them.

What a splendid antidote to the swagger of physicists and biologists who think they already understand the living universe! Manfred Eigen pulls back the carpet like a careful housekeeper and brings to light mind-wrenching questions that most scientists brush out of sight. His search for the physical roots of the logic of life is not an easy path to follow, but Eigen helps us all he can with his polymathic skill and lucid style.

I fear it may be too mind-wrenching for the general readers targeted by the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.


What Language on Mars?

02/08/2010

Predictions Revisited

What Language Will They Speak on Mars?

The planet Mars in Chinese script. Credit: About.com: Chinese Culture, written by “js”

Chinese, on present showing. Never mind that seven men – Russian (4) European (2) and Chinese (1) – are now two months into a 520-day isolation trial in Moscow, simulating a manned mission to Mars. That’s for show. Political willpower will settle the issue.

In 1964 the rocket engineer Wernher von Braun forecast a human visit to Mars by 1984. That might well have happened had the US not cancelled its proposed Orion rocket in 1965 – the year after von Braun made his prediction. The trouble was that Orion would have had nuclear propulsion, not merely by nuclear motors, but by nuclear bombs. So it had to be abandoned in the aftermath of the nuclear test-ban treaty, much to the annoyance of Freeman J. Dyson and other enthusiasts.

Orion – the gigantic might-have-been

Here’s a diagram from my book Spaceships of the Mind (1978) which accompanied the BBC-OECA series with the same title, produced by Dick Gilling of BBC-TV. Assembled in Earth orbit, Orion would have carried about 2000 10-kiloton nuclear fission bombs, released at a rate of one a second to explode close behind a large spaceship. With a pusher plate absorbing the shocks, the spacecraft would quickly reach a speed that would take about 20 astronauts around Mars and back to Earth in just six months.

It may seem daft now but Orion was a recognition, at the very start of the Space Age, that if human beings are ever to become serious about space travel, they’ll have to think nuclear. That’s still the case, although nuclear fusion will be preferable, of course, with ignition as far from the Earth as possible.

When von Braun contributed to the New Scientist’s 1964 series on “The World in 1984” he remained mute about Orion although he glanced the nuclear option. At the time he was director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, with the Apollo missions to the Moon at the top of his agenda. Here, for a start, are two early extracts from his article entitled “Exploration to the Farthest Planets”:

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Tradecraft of propaganda

07/06/2010

 

Climate Change: News and Comments

The tradecraft of propaganda

Ritchie Calder. Photo: National Library of Scotland.

Hearing about a story concerning my father  in The Independent, London (2 June), I’ve now seen that the professor of journalism at the University of Kent, Tim Luckhurst, describes him as a “war hero”. That’s for Ritchie Calder’s candid newspaper reports of the chaotic responses to the bombing blitz on London, 1940-41. The article is here:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/media/press/dispatches-from-the-blitz-why-peter-ritchie-calder-was-a-true-war-hero-1989929.html

As Luckhurst says, he faced accusations of “giving comfort to the enemy”. Yes, as a child I heard him telling my mother at the door that he’d be “home by eight if I’m not in Brixton Prison”. But although Luckhurst mentions a later involvement in propaganda, he doesn’t explain that the government silenced Calder’s troublesome reportage of the air raids by shanghai-ing him into the top-secret Political Warfare Executive, formed in August 1941.

 

A pass giving Ritchie Calder access to the plans for the D-Day landings. (P.I.D., Political Intelligence Department, was a cover-name for the Political Warfare Executive.) National Library of Scotland.

My aim in this blog is to stick to science and shun the politics. My Dad was more politically minded and finished up as a Labour peer. But I share his readiness to defy officialdom and, when the facts serve, to cock a snook at bigwigs of any kind.

What Ritchie Calder told me about wartime propaganda against the Nazis has helped me to understand how a few scientists and politicians have persuaded governments and the docile media about a danger from man-made global warming that goes far beyond the real facts.

While not exactly scientific, the tradecraft of propaganda can be considered technical, so I’ve decided to post here the text of a talk I gave on the subject in London 18 months ago. It’s lightly edited to remove one comment about an individual and to correct one historical over-simplification, but I’ve not bothered to update remarks corresponding to the time of delivery of the talk. [On 8 June, I’ve added some pictures, which I didn’t use in the talk, to break up the long-winded text.]

 

Global warming is just propaganda

Talk by Nigel Calder, Savile Club, London, 9 Dec. 2008

© Nigel Calder 2008

Let me start by mentioning two members of your club, my brother Allan here tonight, and our late father, Ritchie Calder. When Allan was six weeks old a damaged German bomber was about to crash in Surrey. It jettisoned its bombs and one hit our family home. There was a kerfuffle in London when it turned out that the German pilot had in his pocket a British propaganda leaflet produced by our Dad. Had there been a breach of security? Had his house been targeted? No, of course not. It was just a grisly coincidence.

Ritchie Calder was an ace science reporter, whose scoops included the splitting of the atom and the structure of DNA. But during the Second World War he was director of plans and campaigns in the Political Warfare Executive of the Foreign Office. In plain words, he was making propaganda. He later told me quite a lot about the wartime tradecraft. And now it dismays me to see the very same techniques being used to propagate the myth that we are in the grip of relentless global warming driven by manmade emissions of carbon dioxide.

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Rebels in the Royal Society

28/05/2010

Climate Change – News and Comments

Rebels in the Royal Society

Let the tempest rage”

Forty-three brave Fellows of the Royal Society of London have challenged the Society’s notoriously uncompromising pronouncements in support of the man-made global warming hypothesis. In breaking this news, the BBC’s Roger Harrabin quotes one of them as saying:

We sent an e-mail round our friends, mainly in physical sciences. Then when we had got 43 names we approached the Council in January asking for the website entry on climate to be re-written. I don’t think they were very pleased. I don’t think this sort of thing has been done before in the history of the Society. But we won the day, and the work is under way to re-write it. I am very hopeful that we will find a form of words on which we can agree.

A panel chaired by nano-materials expert John Pethica, Vice-President of the Royal Society, has two critical sub-groups, each including some doubters. The panel is due to complete a report in July, for publication in September.

Will it moderate the intolerance of the Royal Society towards sceptical climate scientists over the past ten years, under the presidencies of theoretical biologist Lord (Robert) May and astrophysicist Lord (Martin) Rees? It may clear the air a little before the geneticist Sir Paul Nurse becomes the next President in November.

But I note that the panel is supposed to come up with a consensus! That same silly word, out of keeping with the process of scientific discovery, and inevitably bound to protect the vested interests of the climate catastrophists. Why not just a forthright minority report?

The role of the Royal Society in cherishing scientific excellence is in any case at odds with the wish of eminent Fellows to tell governments and the public what to think. For a couple of centuries an “Advertisement” in Philosophical Transactions expressly forbade pronouncements by the Society as a whole on any scientific or practical matter.

... it is an established rule of the Society, to which they will always
adhere, never to give their opinion, as a Body, upon any subject, 
either of Nature or Art, that comes before them.

That sensible “Advertisement” disappeared in the 1960s when a politically ambitious physicist, Patrick Blackett, was the President.

If only the Fellows would all stick to their motto, Nullius in verba. It means roughly “Don’t take anyone’s word for it”, but more picturesquely it derives from an epistle of Horace:

Nullius addictus jurare in verba magistri / Quo me cumque rapit tempestas, deferor hospes.

No master’s words bind me in an oath / Wherever the wind blows me, I’ll be a visitor.

So, Fellows, please let the tempest rage in climate science, and don’t be bound by opinionated Presidents or even by consensual panels.

Consensus is the enemy of surprising discoveries and its goes a long way towards explaining the present slackness of science as a whole, which I discuss under WHY IS SCIENCE SO SloooOW? – see https://calderup.wordpress.com/2010/05/06/why-is-science-so-sloooow/

For Harrabin’s BBC report see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/science_and_environment/10178124.stm