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On Voting

I’ll admit, the recent celebrity interest in voting has got me riled. That’s where this comes from.

Last week, I found something strange happening. I found myself agreeing with everything Russell Brand said/wrote, only weeks after the same thing happened (that time tinged slightly with a little self-aware hypocrisy, but still).

I was amazing how well his views matched my own. I am utterly disheartened and disenfranchised with the current democratic system.

There was one significant difference though. I have voted. Only once mind, and I’m never going to do it again.

I voted. I voted for a Party (not a candidate, because who really does that?), a Party whose manifesto had fairly closely matched my views, and, shockingly, that Party (through a quirk of our electoral system) actually won some power. And then immediately set to work doing the exact opposite of everything that they had promised, all in the name of “Coalition Compromise”.

Before this point I had only had one chance to vote in a general election, and I chose not to take it. I wish now that I had spoilt my ballot, if only to have some counter-argument against those that would assess that I had “squandered the liberties that people fought wars for” or some other such guff. In that election I was represented by no candidate, or rather, the only candidate that did in any way represent me had zero chance of winning (how many times do we hear that?) and therefore would be a wasted vote.

My point here is nicely summarised by Aaron Sorkin (or whoever wrote the line) in the West Wing: “Because I’m tired of it: year after year after year after year having to choose between the lesser of who cares.” If my only choice is between several candidates or parties that offer me nothing, that represent nothing that I hold dear, or that (it turns out) only say that they represent these things, why should I choose at all? Why can I not choose to do something different? The mindset here is epitomised, for me, by the fact that it is even vaguely considered that someone would choose to vote in a particular direction to prevent the other candidate or party winning. That is just madness.

I am represented by no-one. Who should I vote for?

The Tories, who are systematically destroying everything that is I believe is good about this country?

New Labour, who have shown nothing but a distinct lack of spine in almost any capacity since they began (and I can offer no better criticism of New Labour than this wonderful article)?

I won’t even mention the other party (because there are only three, right?), since they literally disgust me so much (so much that I actually wrote a letter).

The Greens?

In fact, why does Party politics even exist? The infantile back and forth in the House of Commons during debates makes me question why anyone would think that was a good idea. In some ways it could be good and allow for structured disagreements, which are good. Instead it just homogenises perspectives and gives us (essentially) two groups of people who cannot hope to represent the majority of the populace in one fell swoop. Why do we not just have independent candidates that can actually speak for their constituents instead of having to do political battle with whip counts and party lines? Why do we have a “government” and an “opposition”? There are never just two sides to an argument.

The arguments against voting generally go along the lines that to change the system you should do so from inside. That you have to engage with the process to change it. This is so facile that it makes my face itch. “Democracy” as it stands in our country is an archaic anachronism. You need look no further for a metaphor for the utter banality, contempt, corruption and subservience to money that defines Parliament than the building that our “democracy” works from – the Houses themselves. A crusty, decaying shell surrounding huge gilded chambers where members call each other names from finely upholstered seats across enormous desks of fine wood and even more gilt. An old boy’s club bigger than any other. To hope that this system will change itself from within is foolish when those inside only have things to gain from perpetuating it. I have met and listened to good and true ministers and members of parliament, good people, that do everything they can, that are enthusiastic about the right things and say the right things but can do almost nothing in the face of The System because “that’s just how it works”.

Well I think we need a better system. I think we should demolish the Palace of Westminster (preferably on November 5th, for nothing other than giggles) or at least sell off the contents.I think we should start afresh and let no one near the building who has ever expressed a desire to be a “politician” but rather look for people that want to do good, no matter how they think that might be done. To abandon the ridiculous idea of dividing opinion into discrete units of Political Parties and have real arguments between people that are just trying to do the right thing.

But that’s just me. I don’t know for certain what the better way would look like. And it seems that many people think that’s not ok. Brand’s argument, seemingly to many, including Paxman, is flawed because he doesn’t and can’t describe the Utopia he seeks. But by buying into the current system by engaging with it, we will never get to that point. To even begin to start to see what a better way might look like we need to step away from the old and think differently.

To end, I wanted to pick up on Robert Webb’s snide little comment about Orwell. The whole article is a little snide, but the near-final comment is particular misplaced. Orwell actually wrote remarkably little about voting. He wrote a lot about politics, and I’m sure he would be against Brand’s excessive use of long words (Never use a long word when a short one will do), but I think he would agree with almost all of Brand’s sentiments on Politicians themselves. However, when it came down to it, in 1936, Orwell didn’t vote to send weapons to Spain (not that he could, since national manifestos can only be voted for in a general election or referendum…) or lobby his party to debate in Parliament.  When it really came down to it, Orwell packed his bag and went and did something.

Iceland – Day something – Progress

Those following this may have noticed a brief gap – after our first excursion it was all hands on lab and I have been running microscopy techniques since. With long days in the field, long days in the lab and planning meetings going until 11 every night, fieldwork soon starts to catch up with you.

Not that the last few days have been anything other than productive. Our field team headed out to Heimay, a small island off the south coast of Iceland that experienced a volcanic eruption in 1973. Our other field site, which the field team hit the next day is Landmannalaugar, a much older (but incredibly pretty) site.

The team at the Fimmvörðuháls lava field

The team at the Fimmvörðuháls lava field

After the two excursions, the whole team made the decision to stay at base and consolidate what had been happening so far. It meant we lost a day of sampling, but gave us: a) a well needed lie-in, b) a chance to work through analysing the samples we had collected in the previous days, c) the opportunity for some of the group to make headway evolving the strategy for the rest of the week and d) to really stop and think about our objectives for the expedition.

The ‘work-day’ proved to be a good choice and now we have much clearer goals and sampling strategies. Given that, the field group set off back to Fimmvörðuháls today to take a set of systematic samples that would allow us to begin to answer our science questions, while the lab team went about setting up the analysis protocols that will be used for the rest of the week.

The field lab at Hvolsskoli

The field lab at Hvolsskoli

It was also a special day, one of our group member’s birthday and so there was much rejoicing over a delicious bowl of chilli followed by pudding and cakes.

Landpuddinglaugar

Landpuddinglaugar

Iceland 2013 – Day 2 – Field bound

Now the rest of our team have arrived in Iceland, we began to make our way out to our field base in Hvolsvollur, after picking up our trusty steed, Marmaduke.

Marmaduke

Travelling via a hardware store, world- [Iceland-] famous bakery and a supermarket to pick up provisions, as well as various tourist sites along the way for the few of us that were new to the island, we made our way to the Hotel Hvolsvollur, our base in the south for the next couple of weeks.

Upon arrival we found out that most our field equipment, which had been shipped separately, had met an unfortunate end at the hands of the authorities, with the hotel having to pay several thousand pounds worth of taxes… Oops.

Hotel Hvolsvollur

Then came the most import part – food. Our field lab (when it arrived) would be set up in the chemistry classroom of the local school, but the kitchen at the school was also where we would be having our dinner. Everyone mucked in (with more than one argument in the kitchen arising), but eventually we had a rota of chefs for the week, and a hearty meal to toast our first night in Hvolsvollur with.

Dinner

Rota

Tomorrow, we head out to two of our field sites at Fimmvörðuháls and Heimey.

Iceland 2013 – Day 1 – The troops have arrived

So, the main bulk of our party has arrived. We’re still waiting on a few more, plus the delivery of our fearsome transport, but tomorrow we make our way to first the supermarket for supplies and then onto Hvolsvollur, where we will set up our field lab.

After collecting the new (mostly American) arrivals this evening we strode out into the Reykjavik evening for some nosh and after Wolfing down some pizzas were treated to a wonderful Icelandic sunset on the way home.

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Citizen science

On the back of a short discussion on Twitter following Alice Bell’s great article on Science TV, I’ve been prompted to flesh out my thoughts on the Zooniverse.

Zooniverse is a (growing) repository of projects that aim to involve the general populace in data processing for a diverse range of fields (from galaxies to cyclones to bats).

Let me say, right now, that I don’t want to denigrate Zooniverse. It’s a wonderful idea and has helped to link people to the science that their taxes pay for.

But (and you might have guessed there was a ‘but’ coming), let’s not pretend that it is something that it is not. It’s not, as far as I’m concerned, “citizen science”. It is data crunching, plain and simple, and I think it could be so much more. I’ve had a go at a number of the different projects and they were entertaining for about five minutes, after which I was often left thinking “yes, but what does it mean if that galaxy is elliptical and that one is spiral?” or similar.

Zooniverse often seems to be touted (along with projects like Foldit) as a new paradigm of citizen engagement with science, where non-scientists can really “make a difference”.

The exoplanet hunting part of Zooniverse got a lot of attention last year when it was featured on Stargazing Live and Dara O’Briain and Brian Cox used a lot of very excited adjectives to describe the public response and result of finding (yes, folks!) a whole new planet, which was no doubt exaggerated for televisual effect.

This apparent success clearly meant that this year’s Stargazing Live had to have a new ‘interactive’ element. The result was Planet Four, where people can annotate and categorise orbital pictures of the martian surface, in search of ‘black fans’ that can apparently tell us a lot about what’s going on. Some of my colleagues had some… interesting things to say about the project, but I hate throwing out baseless criticism, so here’s my attempt to be a little constructive.

It was hailed on this year’s Stargazing Live as another huge success (though nothing was said other than “Well done folks, you’ve looked at an awful lots of pictures), in which the UK population had provided a massive help to Mars science. Ignoring the potential issues with the validity of the science behind the whole endeavour, what Planet Four offers is a massive stack of newly categorised HiRise images. We have thousands of these already, thousands still uncategorised, and untold thousands of other images from other Mars missions. There aren’t enough Mars scientists in the world, and the ones there are don’t have enough time, to look at all these images, so yes, the people that take part in Planet Four are performing a valuable service.

These categorised, itemised images, though, are what happens before the science starts. Looking at these images, clicking, sorting, categorising, isn’t the science. The science is in the interpretation that happens afterwards. Connecting people to the science behind their Zooniverse clicks is difficult, and requires careful thought, probably from people cleverer than I, but sometimes it can be something simple.

Planet Four is apparently aiming to map “features [that] indicate wind direction and speed”. So why not ask people to say what they think the wind direction is? Add a button to the side to add an arrow (or more than one) to the picture to show the wind direction. Better yet, let them compare two images and say which one has a stronger/faster wind. Yes, ‘scientists’ might balk and say that people can’t make these kind of inferences without all the necessary information and a background in planetary science, but it would have the potential to provide interesting results and lifts the activity from mere number crunching to people making real inference from real data.

This simple change, I feel, would elevate the whole exercise, making it real science and stopping what I think is somewhat patronising slave labour. I’m sure others could come up with better, more insightful ways of doing this, for the other Zooniverse projects as well, but let’s not lose sight of the aim of really connecting people to the actual science, not just the data collection bit at the beginning.

EDIT: I’ve open this post for comments. I’m interested to hear what you think.

The red ball of rock

Near to us, though not as near as we might like, there is a red ball of rock that looks a bit like our own ball of rock.

It has air around it, but not air like our air. The air there is very light and made of different things than our air.

The ground is like our ground, but not quite. This other ball of rock looks like it should have water all over it, but for some reason it doesn’t. Other than this, the ground looks a lot like ours in some places, in between the round bits made by rocks from the sky.

We have been interested in this other ball of rock for a long time. Really really long ago, people thought the ball of rock was actually a ball of fire, an angry god flying through the sky.

Later on, people looked closer at the red ball of rock and thought they saw things that looked like they were built by people. Everyone got very excited that there might be people on another ball of rock, and wrote exciting stories about the people from the red ball of rock.

Even later, when we managed to send things to the red ball of rock, we saw that there weren’t really any people there. Or things built by people, or any sign of people in the past.

Even though it isn’t as exciting as people from the red ball of rock, we still want to go there and find things out about it. The red ball of rock could tell us many things about our own ball of rock. It could tell us lots about the stories of all the other balls of rock, even the ones very far away, and also about the star in the middle of all of them.

The most exciting thing, though, is that even if there aren’t people on the red ball of rock, there could still be living things there. They would probably be deep down, where it’s safe (not like the ground above them) and might not be like any living things we know. If we could find living things there it would tell us lots about life, about how life may have got started, and about how much life there might be in other balls of rock that are even further away.

Getting to these living things, that live deep down, is really hard though. We have sent things to the red ball of rock that drive around and see exciting things, but they can’t see under the ground. Even if they could see under the ground, the living things there would be so deep they would be hard to see.

To find the living things, then, we have to think different. We have to look for signs of living things rather than the actual living things. I look for things the living things might breathe out or throw away. These could come up from deep down where the living things live until they got into the air, where it’s much easier to see them, from things that we sent to fly around the red ball of rock.

I’m trying to work out what we might be able to see, and what exactly they would look like if we could see them.

School Space Agency

In May last year, I was delighted to win the Space Zone of I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here. The prize was £500 to spend on an engagement project.

I’ve had a plan for a long term project with a school for a while. It would involve designing space missions to give kids an idea of what the engineering process is really like. The prize money gave me a chance to put my plan into action.

The first step was to hold a “Rocket day” at the Radcliffe School in Wolverton. I was connected with the school through IOP, since they funded the Space Zone. Radcliffe is part of the IOP’s Stimulating Physics network. The rocket day was a chance for me to strut my stuff and get to know some of the kids. Some of the prize money helped to buy materials, including a bottle rocket kit, and prizes for the end of the day.

During the day, the kids went into teams to design a mission to Mars. We went through the process of creating a specification, thinking about what such a mission would need. You can see their final designs below.

After a very enjoyable day at the school, it was time to start planning a more long term activity. I specifically wanted to work with a small group of kids over a few weeks. Fortunately, the school has a VLH programme where all their pupils choose an activity to take part in on a Wednesday afternoon. It seemed like a perfect fit.

As part of the VLH, we had two half-term long (7 week) sessions, with an hour each week. The rest of the prize money bought materials, books to do research from, and some tools to make the sessions more exciting. I designed the first session (both times) to be nothing but coming up with ideas – no limitations, anything that the kids came up was fair game. After setting the scene and making clear that the only limits were their imaginations, the first group (of all boys) immediately… stared at me blankly. Still, over the next week fews we managed to get them to think slightly sideways compared to what they were used to, and they came up with some great ideas. The process was democratic, with the group voting for what they thought were the best ideas, whittling it down until we had a manageable number. Eventually the group chose between general outlines – Mars exploration vehicles and supply vehicles. As we went along, they built models and refined their designs. By the end of the time we had together they had a good set of projects.

Then, we did it again, with a different group. This time, the kids worked more cohesively, with a number of groups designing different parts of the same whole. Similar threads ran through both groups, with supply vehicles making an appearance, alongside spaceships sent to colonise other planets.

I had always wanted the project to be have a conclusion that was worth the effort. The idea was for the kids to present their designs to real professionals from the space industry. So, last week, we made the journey to the National Space Centre, where academics from Leicester university chatted to them about their work. The kind people at the space centre also allowed us to wander round the exhibits, meaning the kids got a chance to see the results of real space missions and the hardware involved. We also managed to catch the ‘We Are Astronomers’ planetarium show before heading home. The judges had nothing but praise for the kids and their work, but awarded a special prize to The Tortoise, a colony ship with great safety features.

 

A little evaluation form was passed out at the end of our trip. Although the questions were wholly retrospective (I would hand one out at the beginning of the project next time), they give some idea of the impact of the project. More than half of the kids involved said that their interesting in ‘physics’, ‘space’, and ‘design’ had increased, and nearly all of them said their interest in ‘engineering’ had increased. All but two said they would recommend talking part to their friends. The points that stuck in their heads seemed to be about rocket fuel, the costs of space travel, and the problems of living in space like recycling water and nasty food. To improve, they said the project should have more or more varied practical activities and make better use of computers. These are all things that I also thought while we were going through the project.

I have to thank a number of people for their help, input and patience through this project. Firstly, thanks to the Radcliffe School science department for agreeing to be my guinea pigs and letting me run with my (possibly) crazy ideas. Special thanks to Will Jakeman, Gill Callow, and Stuart Liggins for looking after me and putting up with incessant emails. Thanks to I’m A Scientist for letting me take part, and the IOP for the prize money. Additional funding for our final trip came from the UK Space Agency’s ‘Space For All’ scheme, and Jeremy Curtis from the UKSA put me in touch with Sarah Hill at the National Space Centre, who proved to be an invaluable resource and arranged a brilliant day for the kids, as well as finding some great judges (including herself) without whom the project would not have had such a great climax. Finally, and most importantly, thanks to the kids for keeping an open and making the project great fun and, I hope, a success.

Hopefully my little pilot project might be able to do some more in future…

Coverage

I was recently contacted by a  reporter after JPL’s Curiosity and methane teleconference announcement (or lack thereof). They asked for some comments, meaning that I have now been featured in a national newspaper. Yes, it’s a national Indian newspaper, but still.

The full article is available here: http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/science/significance-of-martian-methane/article4095310.ece

Doctor of Philosophy

I am now officially registered for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, having passed the probation process.

My first year has gone like a whirlwind. I have read hundreds of research papers, books, attended meetings and conferences. In terms of actual research, I have not achieved what I had hoped, but am now in a position to really get cracking in the lab. The focus of my project has changed a little, but in my opinion, for the better. I am extraordinarily happy with my project as it stands.

Here’s to the next two years.

People

People we like
People we don’t
People that click
People that stick
People we want
People we can’t have

Our lives, a summary
A list of people
Those we meet
And those we keep
The ones we lose
And the ones that make us feel…