Category: Science

Science, usually research I have done or topics on which I have lectured

The Peevish Physicist

This post is about the strong possibility of the discovery of the Higgs particle, if you want a more adulatory report on the (nearly) discovery of the Higgs boson you can try here in The Guardian or here, at Nature or just about anywhere else for that matter.

I suspect what has me riled is that it’s frequently said that “physicists” will be very excited about this and it will open up new research – actually it isn’t true: particle physicists will be very excited – many other physicists, not so much. I even heard someone saying on the news that it was ok, there was still more for physicists to do, forgetting the rest of the field entirely. You can see what the rest of physics gets up to in the American Institute of Physics Classification Scheme, PACS. You can see what sort of physicist I am, aside from peevish, here.

It’s also driven by the suspicion that the particle crowd don’t really consider the rest of us to be proper physicists, Rutherford said a long time ago:

All science is either physics or stamp collecting

This attitude maintains, you’ll hear plenty of physicists expressing it, including A Famous One and I can never help thinking that what they really mean by physics is “particle physics”. There are hints of this around the physics departments I know, that feeling of being looked down upon for bringing in industrial funding and working on things which fit in a modest size lab.

The rest of physics will go on entirely as before, we know what the masses of the fundamental particles are and we can make use of them in our calculations, regardless of how we know that mass. The discovery of the Higgs boson would confirm a proposed mechanism as to how particles got their mass.

Impact is a big deal for scientists these days, and CERN pays some lip service to satisfying this demand. The wordwide web is often used as an example, I’ve always been somewhat sceptical of this claim. The web we see has many foundations, some such as the proto-hypertext systems stretching back to the end of the Second World War, network protocols from the seventies and Standard General Markup Language from the eighties. What CERN had was a load of computers on a network with a computer savvy audience who wanted to share quite a lot of information at just the right time. This evening there were slightly wild claims for improved medical imaging and mobile phones…

In truth I suspect CERN is worth the money for the boost it gives to the high tech industries that service its exotic needs, and the PhD students and postdocs it spits out.

Bonus Peeve

“God particle”?!

Science is Vital – careers edition

I thought I would provide some comments on the Science Is Vital report “Careering Out of Control: A crisis in the UK science profession?“.

The report focuses on the career structure for academics with particular reference to postdoctoral workers. Postdoctoral workers are usually funded out of grant applications made by principle investigators (PIs) who are typically university lecturers. The postdoc will have a 2-3 year contract which lasts the length of the project proposed in the grant application. Lecturers typically work in groups which will make some attempt to find another temporary position for a good postdoc, however this is a tricky process which requires grant applications to be won to order. Therefore the postdoctoral position is insecure and can go on for many years until the postdoc becomes too expensive to employ.

I write this as someone who did a PhD in Physical Chemistry at Durham University, a postdoc at the Cavendish Laboratory, followed by an assistant director of research position (like a research fellowship, with the ability to make grant applications) and finally, in academia, a lectureship at UMIST in the Department of Physics. Since 2004 I have worked as a scientist for a large home and personal care company in north west England – the opinions here are my own and do not represent the views of any of my employers, past or present. As such it is a different viewpoint from the core Science Is Vital team but it is personal and based on relatively brief experience of one type of non-university employer over a relatively short period of time.

First I’d like to highlight what I think is good about the report, and indeed the Science Is Vital campaign. The report highlights what is a long-standing and serious problem in the university sector, and it does so on the basis of substantial data set. It makes some proposals to address these shortcomings. More widely I believe that “Science Is Vital” to the UK as a nation, for both its economic and social well-being. I see a UK whose citizens and businesses know more of science and engage more with science as a more successful UK.

The report proposes  a couple of mechanisms for easing the way for postdoctoral workers around creating more permanent posts and opening up grant applications. Although neither of these are unreasonable ideas there are downsides with both. Recruiting and managing permanent staff requires a different approach to making short-term appointments: if you get it wrong you are lumbered with someone and when you take them on you have to be prepared to keep them for the duration. This means that in an organisation with limited income (i.e. any organisation) you will regularly undergo recruitment freezes and you will only recruit if you believe the person you are interviewing is absolutely the right person, if they aren’t you don’t recruit. “Permanence” does help provide a career structure but it isn’t everything, people expect to progress in their careers (typically with a focus on cash) but a company will be looking to get more for more pay – more responsibility for line management, more responsibility for budget and so forth.

As an aside, the academic sector seems to support two populations in position longevity: 2-3 years and life. As a guide I believe my career with my current employer has a half-life of 5 years.

As for the second mechanism: the grant application system is already creaking at the seams with abysmal success rates and controversial measures which block people who have had multiple applications fail from re-applying for a period, so opening it up to a further cohort of potential applicants without increasing the size of the pot would be troublesome.

For me the central problem in the university system is that the numbers of lecturers (teachers), principle investigators, PhD students, postdoctoral workers and available grant funding in the university system are implicitly coupled but I’ve never seen any indication that impacts of changes across these areas are planned i.e. if you decide to increase undergraduate numbers then there is a knock-on effect on applications to funding bodies because you employ more lecturers/principle investigators who will apply for grants. The removal of the distinction between polytechnic and university was another great shift which opened up grants to a wider audience but without necessarily increasing the size of the grant funding pot. I think it’s fair to say that beyond the level of PhD an overwhelming majority of people in the system are looking for a permanent position in the university sector, and there simply aren’t the places to support this.

Perhaps the great unrecognised area is that the key impact of research in the university sector is not the science done but the people that do the science. Scientific papers in the open literature are useful but from a commercial point of view they are less valuable then, for example, a patent or a person who can create proprietary knowledge for a company. PhD students are explicitly being trained to be scientists, they pay fees for that training – the fact they end up producing useful scientific results is in some senses a side-effect. Postdoctoral workers, on the other hand, are being paid to carry out research – they become more valuable as employees by doing this particularly if along with new scientific skills they pick up other skills such as planning a programme of work, organising experiments with intricate dependencies, mentoring and managing other people,  communicating results, writing, procuring equipment and so forth.

As I said at the beginning: I believe in “Science Is Vital” – it is a worthwhile cause that I am pleased to seeing being pushed forward. I want this program to succeed and I’d like to support it from my viewpoint outside the university sector.

Ada Lovelace Day

The 7th October is Ada Lovelace Day, Finding Ada has encouraged me to write a timely post about women in science, technology engineering or mathematics (STEM), specifically it says:

Create content about a woman in STEM that you admire

Ada Lovelace lived 1815-1852, and is sometimes credited as the world’s first programmer for the notes she wrote on Charles Babbages’ analytical engine – a mechanical computing device which was never constructed. She is commemorated in the Ada programming language, developed for the US Department of Defence with reliability in mind.

To be honest I’ve never found scientific inspiration in long dead “heroic” individual scientists. Lately I’ve been reading rather more of the history of science; institutionally the position of women in science until at least the middle of the 20th century was pretty dire: the Royal Society, proud of its internationalism, religious and political intolerance did not admit its first female members until 1945. The first women were admitted to study at Oxford and Cambridge universities in the later half of the 19th century and they did not gain equal formal status with men until the middle of the 20th century. It’s always somewhat bemusing to hear criticisms of other country’s poor record on female education when we weren’t doing so well within living memory.


Shell illustrations by Merian Maria Sibylla

This is not to say there are no women in the history of science, just that they fitted into the social accepted roles of their times. For example, Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze, the wife of Antoine Lavoisier was clearly heavily and expertly involved in the conduct of his scientific experiments in the late 18th century. William’s sister, Caroline Herschel spent many evenings observing the heavens with him (and by herself), discovering several comets and being formally recognised for her work in her later years with medals from the Royal Astronomical Society (1828) and the king of Prussia (1846). In the late 17th century naturalist and artist Maria Sybilla Merian published several books based around her observations, particularly on the metamorphosis of butterflies, and drawings of flowers and insects both in Europe. Later in her life she spent two years in Surinam where she made a study of South American flora and fauna. I’m rather impressed with Merian, travelling and living in South America in the 17th century was pretty challenging stuff regardless of gender.

Sadly I had not got into the habit of posting on my book reading when I read a biography of Marie Curie: with Nobel Prizes in both physics and chemistry, she is outstanding even ignoring the challenges of doing science as a woman at the beginning of the 20th century.

Practically speaking I have been taught science along with many other subjects by women; Ms Pitman who taught me physics (and was sarcastic about the PE teachers), and Mrs Haas who taught me biology. This is not to ignore those whose names I can’t recall, my recall of anything dating back 25 years or so is vague these days! Looking back it seems women made their first impact in science in communication and teaching, see for example Mary Somerville and Émilie du Châtelet.

For me my education, my wonder, was as much to do with my family as my teachers.

Ultimately the woman in STEM who has most influenced me is my mum. She learnt to program on an Elliot 503 in the early sixties: 400 square feet of computer with substantially less processor power than the most lowly of today’s devices. She was later to work for the UK Atomic Energy Authority where she worked on PACE analogue computers, and mechanical calculators. All this is somewhat vague on my part because it is only now I have started to pay an interest in the day to day work she did before I was born.

Forty-one years ago my mum gave up her career when she became pregnant with me and even a few years later, when my brother and I had both started at school, a local employer refused to give her a job application form on the grounds that she was a mother.

As The Inelegant Gardener and I await our first child things are very different.

Book review: The Lunar Men by Jenny Uglow

LunarMenI read “The Lunar Men” by Jenny Uglow a few years ago, this was in a time before blogging so I’d forgotten the contents. I’ve recently reread it, my interest reawakened by my recent reading of the King-Hele biography of Erasmus Darwin. Darwin was a key member of the group of industrialists, inventors, doctors and experimenters based in the West Midlands which finally became the Lunar Society.

Uglow lists the principal Lunar men as John Whitehurst (1713-1788), Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), Josiah Wedgewood (1730-1795), Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), William Small (1734-1775), James Keir (1735-1820), James Watt (1736-1819), William Withering (1741-1799), Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817), Thomas Day (1748-1789), Samuel Galton (1753-1789).

It’s notable how many of the Lunar Men were Scots, in the mid-18th century England had two universities, Scotland had five.

It’s not until 1775 some 15 or so years after the core group had originally met that the Lunar Society is formalised. At the time arranging events to coincide with the full moon was not uncommon. Alongside the Royal Society there were numerous other local “Philosophical Societies” although I’m not clear of the details of these other groups it seems there was nothing exceptional about the Lunar Society in terms of the mix of people but they were rather exceptional people. They were proactive in seeking out new members, for example Withering was recruited on the death of William Small. As gradually the founding members died, the group dissolved in 1813.

Matthew Boulton, owner with John Fothergill of the Soho Manufactory, started as a maker of “toys” (which in this case means any number of small metal items) and non-ceramic ornaments but he collaborated with James Watt to make stream engines. He was later to set up the Soho Mint, which used patented pressing equipment to make high quality coins and medals in bulk.

James Watt made his first breakthrough in the design of steam engines in 1765 but it wasn’t until 1775 that they received a 25 year extension of the key patent and in 1776 they install their first engine in Cornwall. The revenue from these engines came in the form of a fee related to the cost savings on coal which the more efficient design of the Watt engine provided compared to the Newcomen atmospheric engines, introduced in the early 1700s. The protection and creation of patents was an important part of the Watt and Boulton business plan, they even supported Richard Arkwright, with whom they did not see eye to eye, in the protection of his patents for the cotton processing equipment at the heart of his factory. Patents are one route to deriving income from intellectual property, the newly formed Society of Arts offered another route: prizes, or premiums, for named topics which centred around manufacture.

On the face of it the presence of Josiah Wedgewood, a potter, in the group seems odd but reading the book it becomes obvious just how high-tech an industry the potteries were. Clay is not simply dug up from any old patch of ground and flung on a wheel – the correct raw materials must be selected and once this is done they must be processed properly before they can be formed into shapes. Even then it isn’t over: the process of applying glazes and firing the ceramics is far from straightforward. The ceramic industry was one of the high tech industries of its time, an 18th century Silicon Valley.

Boulton and Wedgewood were both in the business of mass producing desirable consumer goods and marketing them to the middle classes. They recruited excellent artists to produce designs, often based on classical themes and objects. Initially selling them to the very wealthy but with a view to mass production and the use of their aristocratic clients as promotional material. For Wedgwood the culmination of this was the creation of replicas of the Portland Vase.

Alongside the factories growing up in the Midlands came the canals with which the Lunar Men were heavily involved. The canals brought freight costs down from 10d per mile to 1.5d per mile. They started to replace the turnpike roads and river navigations, both enabled by acts of parliament which gave rights to maintain roads and rivers to corporation – along with the right to raise tolls. This previous incarnation of transport seems to have been initiated around 1650. By the mid-19th century a full-scale rail network was in place, replacing in turn the canals. The canals meant that raw materials could be moved around more cheaply, and that expensive (and delicate) manufactured goods could be shipped out.

The Lunar Men had a range of political views, although Uglow comments that scientific experimentation was more associated with Whigs than Tories. The manufacturers, Boulton and Wedgwood, were notably less radical most likely with an eye to maintaining the political support required to keep their businesses running, although Boulton in particular was pretty progressive in the treatment of his workforce. Many of the group were supportive of the French Revolution, American independence and the abolition of slavery. Priestley was a Dissenting preacher, and when the backlash against all manner of radical thought came his house was one of 30 or so properties singled out for attack during the 1791 Birmingham Riots, Withering’s house was also attacked.

The scientific context is quite different compared to today: public demonstrations of cutting edge science including electrical demonstrations were common and a group of educated gentlemen could make valuable contributions to science as amateurs doing the work in their spare time. Withering and Darwin fought over the discovery of digitalis as a well-defined medical material. Priestley was probably the most impactful “scientist” of the group being one of several who played a key role in the discovery of oxygen and it’s properties. Darwin was largely a “scientist” who suffered from having ideas before his time particularly with regard to evolution but also his ideas on meteorology were in advance of his time. Others in the group such as Watt and Keir were clearly entirely competent in scientific areas.

Strangely I found the King-Hele biography of Erasmus Darwin pretty much as informative on the Lunar men as this book and more readable – perhaps because it’s more difficult to write a compelling narrative around a, sometimes loose collective, compared to an individual. I am now intrigued about the evolution of factories in the 18th century and, more disturbingly, 18th century intellectual property rights.

Book Review: “Erasmus Darwin: A life of Unequalled Achievement” by Desmond King-Hele

Portrait_of_Erasmus_Darwin_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby_(1792)My next book review is on “Erasmus Darwin: A Life of Unequalled Achievement” by Desmond King-Hele which I reached via my former colleague, Athene Donald, you can read her review here.

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) will always be best known as the grandfather of Charles Darwin. However he was a substantial figure in his own right. He was a doctor in and around Lichfield and Derby for his entire working life. By all accounts he was a good doctor, at a time when the medic’s tool kit was rather bare. Until quite late in his life he preferred not to attach his name to his work outside medicine, for fear of damaging his medical reputation.

In his later years he wrote a translation of Linnaeus’ work on plant classification, a serious academic work – from which many English words describing the anatomy of plants are descended. This was followed by a series of books (The Botanic Garden, Zoonomia, Phytologia and The Temple of Nature) part poetry and part essay on nature and medicine. His poetry directly influenced Coleridge and Wordsworth; his fame, and regard, as a poet lasted into the later part of the 19th century but ultimately his style of poetry fell out of favour and, to a degree he sank into obscurity. I must admit I’m unable to determine the nature of the science / poetry link for Erasmus, poetry has always been something of a closed book to me. I don’t know whether poetry was more pervasive as a communication mechanism at the end of the 18th century or, at the time, poetry was a useful way to communicate science. Or whether simply by chance, both science and poetry fell upon Erasmus as they have done in the case of the author of this biography.

Alongside his work as a doctor Erasmus was at the heart of the Lunar Society, a group of friends and industrialists including James Watt (steam engine inventor), Matthew Boulton (factory owner), Josiah Wedgewood (factory owner) and Joseph Priestley (chemist, preacher and radical). These men were at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. He was also friend, and doctor to, Joseph Wright of Derby – famous for his paintings of industrial and scientific scenes, King-Hele argues that several of the figures in “The Air Pump” are modelled on Erasmus and his family.

Erasmus developed a number of mechanical invention during his life, including the modern scheme for steering in a car (although developed at the time for horse-drawn carriages), a mechanical duplication machine for writing and a windmill with a vertical axis and, towards the end his life, agricultural machinery. There are even intriguing glimpses in his Commonplace Book of what looks like a gas turbine. Although many of these inventions appeared to function they did not catch on at the time, in part it seems because Erasmus was not passionate about their implementation (fearing for his medical reputation). It’s probably worth being a little cautious here: no doubt some of Erasmus’ inventions made it into real life but there is a big difference between a rough sketch in a notebook to a real, commercially viable device.

It’s quite staggering the number of miles travelling Erasmus put in: 10,000 miles a year or nearly 30 miles a day, at a time before motor vehicles and even reasonable roads. Miles travelled in support of his business as a doctor and in communication with his friends in the Lunar Society. This is where his ideas about carriage steering and suspension would have come from – he seems to have used a combination of light carriage and horse to get about.

Alongside medical publications in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Erasmus also presented papers on atmospheric physics, and on the operation of artesian wells (he was friends with the geologist, John Hutton) and as commented above, his poetry was published with lengthy scientific essays. Ultimately Erasmus Darwin’s science has not made it down through the years to us, this is largely because he put some fine thinking into a wide range of scientific areas, and in many cases was shown to be right, but he didn’t follow up those ideas with experiments and a more complete theory. Personal scientific renown is a fickle thing, it’s based on a desire to pull out “great figures” from history, rather than recognising the more collaborative, incremental nature of science. 

The Darwin family form a scientific dynasty: Erasmus, his son Robert (Charles Darwin’s father), three of Charles’ sons and his grandson Charles Galton Darwin were all Fellows of the Royal Society – a total of five generations. This highlights the advantages of birth as much as anything. Erasmus’ father Robert was a lawyer which was no doubt how Erasmus could afford to go to Cambridge and Edinburgh for his medical education. And so to the next generation where Robert (Erasmus’ son) gained entrance to the Royal Society on the basis of a thesis possibly written by his father; next up Charles Darwin who was able to devote his life to science through the wealth generated by his father and marriage into the wealthy Wedgewood family. This is not to reduce their achievements but to highlight that they had both ability and environment on their side.

Politically Erasmus was a bit of a radical: anti-slavery, pro-(French) Revolutionary and supportive of an independent United States of America. He appears also to have been pretty close to being an atheist. King-Hele argues this caused him trouble in his later years when the government-led backlash to pro-revolutionaries struck, reducing his reputation as a poet. His, more radical, friend Priestley’s house was attacked by a mob in and he ultimately fled to the US to avoid persecution.

Charles Darwin took an enormous length of time before publishing “On the Origin of Species”, this wasn’t time wasted but spent in making many detailed experiments. Looking at his family we can perhaps see why he took so long about it: his grandfather, Erasmus suffered considerably opprobrium for his atheism and evolutionary ideas, Robert, Charles’ father, no doubt shared these ideas but kept quiet about them.

In contrast to many of the scientific figures I have read about, Erasmus Darwin sounds like an excellent friend and stimulating dinner guest. King-Hele’s biography is perhaps a little effusive about its topic but its very readable and well-sourced.