Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Last Defender of Frozen Peaches

A common right-wing talking point is that leftists and liberals like to claim perpetual victimhood. As a young adult, I have rejected this claim a lot - nobody likes being abused, oppressed or discriminated against. These things are not remotely fun.

Now that I am a slightly older young adult, I find myself coming back to this claim and thinking about it harder. I still don't believe that anyone truly enjoys victimhood - being abused, oppressed and discriminated against is still not fun - but if you're good at manipulating narratives, claiming the status of a victim while retaining most or all of your privileges will get you far.

I also believe that this manifests in different ways.

Among circles where privilege theory is used as a foundation for thinking about politics and social justice, we're (supposed to) pay attention to the intersections of these privileges; we're also (supposed to be) aware of our own privileges and how we might use these to talk over other more oppressed people. In practice, it doesn't work that way at all - look at who gets space to write about social justice issues in the Guardian or New Statesman, say, and compare them with who's considered privileged. That is all. But I think this is how the canard that leftists and liberals like to be perpetual victims gains a foothold; see this excellent essay by Andrea Smith.

On the right - well, this is a big generalisation since leftist and liberal elements actually do the same thing - victimhood takes quite a different form.

The general format is this:

Firstly, deliberately stir up controversy or otherwise argue in bad faith. This is great for getting clicks and interaction. After this, sit back and wait, because the internet is a horrible place. Finally, write a lengthy op-ed about how free speech is dead and how you're being horribly victimised by...people being mean on twitter. I've written about this before, but in the context of conspiracy theorists rather than establishment right-wingers holding forth.

The attentive reader might point out that I've been deliberately ignoring a point here: social media is a vitriolic and horrible space known for harassing people to shut them up. In the real world, speech has chilling effects. We are all subject to them.

How do you differentiate between criticism which will not harm people and attacks meant to silence them? A clear and useful line is whether a person's argument is being attacked or the person themselves. I would like to see more people stay on the non-shitty side of this line, and I would like to see more people evaluate comments according to whether they're attacking a person or an argument, as opposed to evaluating comments by the political affiliation of the commenter. (When we like the commenters, it's reasoned criticism; when we don't, it's harassment.)

The point I'm trying to make is that when free speech includes criticism and insults, and you post controversial work where anyone can read it and comment on it in some form, you don't get to call yourself a victim unless people are releasing your personal details or sending you rape and death threats - things clearly designed to silence a person.

Freedom of speech does not imply freedom from criticism. In fact, if anything, freedom of speech implies the freedom to criticise others. I personally think we should have a big critical free-for-all.

The point I'm trying to make is that if you make your living by writing things that are going to be controversial and make you a lot of ad revenue, you're not being victimised by a stranger in the comment section calling you a dickhead. Nor are you the last defender of free speech. You've jumped on the stupid bandwagon where people get paid to try and offend each other, knowing full well that the internet is very easily offended - if it weren't, people like Katie Hopkins or Milo Yiannopoulos would languish in obscurity. If you stir up outrage, you should expect outrage.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Why is mathematics interesting?

Recently I started reading What is Mathematics, Really? by Reuben Hersh, an American mathematician. It's a fascinating first look at the philosophy and practice of mathematics - what mathematicians do and our ways of explaining how we should be doing it. (These often don't match up.)

I value this book for three things: firstly, its clarity. While I have a background in mathematics (well, physics really, but I like pure maths and would study it more in my spare time), my background in philosophy is rudimentary at best. This puts me at a massive disadvantage when thinking about the philosophy of mathematics.

Secondly, it advocates something new and something I've been thinking about for a long time. In mathematics, three philosophies dominate: mathematical Platonism (all mathematical objects exist in an idealised, abstract form independent of time and space), intuitionism/constructivism (mathematics is an activity invented by humans rather than the discovery of fundamental truths about objective reality), and formalism (a meaningless game in which symbol strings are transformed according to certain fixed rules). Platonism and formalism are the big ones, which is weird because Platonism has a mysticism about it which I feel is inappropriate and, as Godel showed, no mathematical formalism is consistent or complete. So I'm closest to intuitionism, which is not really something acceptable due to it being weird and ugly (a classical proof of the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra is half a page; an intuitionist proof is ten pages long).

In his book, Hersh offers a "humanist" philosophy of mathematics existing only as a part of human culture, which is closest to my own position. I guess you could call it a bit of a cop-out, akin to everything trivially being a social construct, but the alternative seems to be an objective mathematics existing out there, independent of time and space. I don't believe such a thing exists.

Thirdly, the book raises more questions than it answers. I value this because it makes me think. Thinking is good. I should do it more often.

One of the first questions it asks is "why is mathematics interesting?". This may seem like a trivial question; we do maths because it's important. But if mathematics is so important to us that we have multiple professions dedicated to applying or studying maths, it must hold some interest.

I'm going to cop out of a proper answer hugely on this one: because I'm not a sociologist or anthropologist, and because I'm too much of a recluse to talk to other people, I'm not going to attempt to answer why mathematics is interesting to societies. I'm going to attempt to answer why mathematics interests me personally and hope that the results have some applicability to other people.

I like mathematics chiefly because it's weird and beautiful.

Mathematics doesn't seem to exist physically in the same way that, say, chairs or tables do. In a naive way one might use mathematics as a descriptor; for example, when I say "there are two apples" I am using "two" to describe qualities of the apples, in the same way as I might describe them as "red" or "green". When I perform mathematical manipulations using numbers, it's as if I were using the redness or the greenness of the apples to do something. Then I can abstract further and concentrate solely on the structures (but diagrams are still useful - I feel like most of my work is just drawing squiggles sometimes). In addition, I have synaesthesia, so I see numbers and letters as colours. This is very...interesting, shall we say, when working with complex numbers. Because it doesn't exist physically, I also think of it as something we invent (like nations or systems of government) rather than something we discover (like planets or stars).

At the same time, mathematics is breathtakingly powerful. We have invented mathematical structures which very accurately describe the universe around us. In fact, I usually think of mathematics as a language describing nature, but one which describes it in a compact and elegant way. Forget pissing around with English or French; everyone on earth has a shared idea of mathematics and how to use it to describe things.

Mathematics transformed my life by transforming my understanding of the world around us and I am forever in debt to this - a language like no other, describing things that do not exist physically, abstruse and powerful and forever asking more questions than it can answer. That is why I find it so interesting.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

How to Burn Morality

Take your morals.

Now burn them to the ground.

You might be wondering what the hell I'd do that for. When I was younger, I used to be very focused on questions of ethics and morality and how one should live. Even most adults believe that trying to do the right thing - whatever that might be - is a worthy goal, even if we're not always actively pursuing it.

A large part of my disappointment and disillusionment comes from not being able to build a perfectly consistent and complete moral framework. In some ways that's a given - not even mathematical systems can be consistent and complete, so there's absolutely no reason why a system based on informal logic should be consistent and complete either - but finding parts of my system which are incommensurable (or rather, having someone else find them because I'm too stupid to do so) is still annoying and upsetting.

That's a rather silly reason for abandoning the pursuit of doing the right thing altogether, though; building a consistent and complete moral framework might be impossible, but an inconsistent and incomplete one might still help one to get by and act morally.

Fortunately for you, dear reader, my reason for being so frustrated and upset is even sillier: I always seem to be doing or being something immoral, no matter how hard I try. From symbolic things like putting brackets around my name or using a filter on my profile picture to serious questions of identity, I always seem to be doing something immoral, justifying oppression or unconsciously oppressing someone else by existing. And I'm fed up.

So what's the point? If I'm always going to fuck up and be a terrible person, why should I even try to pretend otherwise?

You, good moral people that you are, have fun judging people like me who live and breathe evil and I sincerely hope you do good for other people, too. Me, I'm tired of this. I'm done. I intend to concentrate on enjoying my life; if I'm going to be a horrible piece of shit, the least I can do is be a horrible piece of shit who's also happy.

Saturday, 18 June 2016


I have written before about antisemitism in the UK. For the moment everything is calm: Ken Livingstone and his horrible fanbase have shut up, the Chakrabarti inquiry isn't due out yet, and antisemitism in the wake of the recent Tel Aviv shooting is a step too far for all but the most hateful. Besides, the West's attention is on the recent Orlando shootings, and for very good reason. (I have avoided commenting on this latter event, because while my heart breaks just thinking about it, that's not going to bring the victims back or help their loved ones.)

I am quietly proud to be an uppity, vocal Jew in a society which wishes its Jews to be compliant rather than critical. I am happy that I have non-Jewish friends who stand in solidarity with me, and a non-Jewish partner who has stood by it all and who wholeheartedly supports me being uppity and vocal.

Based on the 2011 census, there are probably 250,000-300,000 Jews living in the UK, or a whopping 0.5% of the population (although this might be an undercount). Two-thirds of us live in and around London; most of the rest of us cluster in and around other big cities. By contrast, nearly 60% of British people identify themselves as Christian. I'm not saying that this is a bad thing - I'm saying that Jews make up an absolutely tiny proportion of the British population. To put this in perspective, you're more likely to meet someone identifying themselves as a Jedi (0.7%).

Why is this important, you might ask? Because the upshot of this is that there are probably an awful lot of people, especially outside of London, who might never have met a Jew in their lives, or known them only in passing.

Big whoop. What's so special about meeting Jewish people? After all, plenty of people might never have met a Sikh or a Buddhist, but you don't see an outcry about that.

I actually wish there were more of an outcry about things like this. The sad reality is that if you've never sat down and had a conversation with someone, a part of you is unaware that they're a person with thoughts and feelings. This seems trivial, I know, and I'd like not to keep going over this, but the world doesn't seem like it's going to afford me this luxury any time soon.

If you don't know any Jews, it's far easier to talk about "the Zio-controlled media" or "the Rothschilds". You're not the one who's going to have to console your friend or partner when it gets too much for them. You're not the one who's going to walk around all day thinking "I am a horrible person because I'm Jewish".

There is a trope that the Jews think of ourselves as more chosen or special than anyone else. I'm sure that some people believe that, but you can find people from any religion who think that they're superior simply for believing in a certain deity and you can take offence at anything in a holy book. That doesn't mean all members of a certain religion are terrible, awful people.

The reason I brought this up is because I don't think of myself as chosen or special; I take pride in certain aspects of my culture, but to me it's normal and I'm still a bit shocked when someone treats me as exotic. I'm the least exotic person on the planet - I enjoy lounging around reading books, strolling around nature and boring everyone within earshot by talking about physics. I'm no different from a non-Jew and I think people pick up on this.

That's why it hurts so much when I grow to trust someone and they start to say antisemitic things.

I've talked about this a little before and called it a double standard, which I still think is accurate. It's horrid and painful; someone might like me and respect me one moment, but if I tell them I'm Jewish their whole opinion of me will change. There will be no reason for this, save that my ethnoreligious group apparently marks me out as being an awful excuse for a human being because...um...I'm stuck on that one actually.

These are not neo-Nazis with swastika tattoos or nationalist meatheads I'm talking about - people who could be changed, but with difficulty. The people I am talking about are otherwise friendly progressives, maybe old enough to be my parents, the sort of people who are pillars of their local community (except if you're Jewish, of course, then you'll be excluded). These are the sort of people who like and respect me until they find out I'm Jewish and it's difficult for me to explain how arbitrary and unfair and wrong that feels. I would dearly love to sit down with these people and have a nice chat over a cup of tea, so they could see that we Jews are people too, not just a set of caricatures with big noses. I would dearly love to explain what their rhetoric and their actions do to ordinary Jewish people. I would dearly love for them to realise that they're judging people by their ethnoreligious group and not their actions.

Obviously I can't have tea with everyone, but I'd be more than happy to have a polite conversation. Unfortunately the internet's not very conducive to that; I once had someone threaten to release her own personal details over twitter because apparently, having a real-life Jew telling her that maybe, just maybe, saying that Zionists rule the world is an antisemitic trope was enough to scare this poor woman out of her wits. Still, worth a shot.

Friday, 17 June 2016

Counterfactuals are the best factuals

This is the story of how two things I never thought had anything in common actually helped me.

I'm a science communicator. I think I've earned that title now, after 5 years of giving talks, volunteering with children and writing things that actually get published in reputable magazines. (Okay, I sound better than I actually am, but I have actually done all of those things alongside my studies!)

Recently, I also started writing for a satirical online news outlet. It's still tiny because it started in late April, so it's not famous...yet. I'm also ashamed of how I started writing for it in the first place; it's not because I'm talented, it's because my boyfriend is a co-founder and the sole editor. If the articles I submit are published, it's because he thinks they're funny.

Now, I don't consider myself a particularly funny person, so when I was asked to write an article about black holes being found at the Clinton residences I just sort of stared incredulously at Skype and got to work.

Remarkably, it's a lot easier than I thought! I ended up using a lot of the same skills which I learned writing actual articles - clear explanation of real scientific concepts, editorial style, quotations from scientists involved with the projects and possible future developments.

And puns. So many puns. Seriously, one of my favourite parts of writing the articles is coming up with punny or stupid names for everyone.

It's also given me a chance to let loose. Real scientific practice is often weird and when you have to take everything seriously, it's difficult to reflect that. Humorous writing exaggerates it, but it can sometimes be truer to life; we've probably all felt like our work was futile, like we need a scientific measure of bullshit, or that our calculations look like they're going to become self-aware.

In short, I feel like making things up has made me better at explaining the world around us. It's not something I ever expected - and I never expected to be improving - but I'm happy.

(If you're interested in what we have to say, head over to Terminal Context, the last place you want to go to for your news!)

Thursday, 16 June 2016

I Still Believe

These days, belief in innocence is unfashionable. There are good reasons for this: innocence is associated with a nauseatingly prudish view of the world and with deliberately keeping people ignorant so as not to "corrupt" them. People suffer greatly from this kind of forced ignorance and I'd be very glad to see the back of it.

There are worse reasons for it, too. Holding all members of a large and often unchosen group guilty of or responsible for something is a timeless classic, sometimes justified but mostly - especially when meting out punishments - not.

As you'd expect with collective punishment, the most vulnerable get the worst of it - the young, the poor, or the disabled, for example. Those who are more culpable also probably have the resources to mitigate their punishment, because the world is a horrible place like that.

I feel like one of the reasons that belief in innocence is unfashionable is because it means that these people did not deserve the punishments inflicted on them - that punishing them was morally wrong. If punishing these people is morally wrong, the person inflicting the punishment is wrong to do so.

In another demonstration of the world being a horrible place, the kinds of people who wish lasting collective punishment on millions of people are also the kind of people who consider themselves righteous and upstanding. Those kinds of people can't be wrong, can they? So they make up justifications as to why ordinary people struggling to get by are guilty, their hands steeped in blood.

We've tried moral systems where everyone is guilty. They never work.

So I'm going to stand against them and say: I believe in innocence. I believe that you can be functionally locked into a system that does terrible things, but also not want it, be actively working against it, or simply not have the capacity to understand it. I believe that there is some good in the world, however little of it there may be, and we need to be encouraging that instead of acting like everyone enjoys living under a cruel and exploitative system. I believe in the possibility of change and redemption. I've seen people change. I see no reason why most of us can't change. And I believe in forgiveness. Nobody is big enough to dismantle a complex, chaotic system on their own. We need all the help we can get. So what if someone's not morally pure enough for you? We can't afford to discriminate. Sure, we might not be blameless. I don't believe anybody is. But that in no way equates to everyone being a cackling villain deserving of hell on earth.

I believe in hope! I believe that even if the world is fucked up and people are stupid and cruel, we can get better. That's why things have managed to get better, even if very slowly and only partially, over the past ten thousand years. That's why we keep trying to ban slavery and institute workers' rights. That's why we keep fighting for the rights of anyone who isn't rich, straight, cis, abled, white and a man. That's why every once in a while we win a fight. And to be honest it's been a complete mess, but the progress is there. It's not perfect, but it's a damn sight better than sulking and condemning everyone to collective punishment because things can't be amazing for everyone right now.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Down with Quantum Woo!

Despite the best efforts of science communicators everywhere, quantum woo is still prevalent, mostly peddled by annoying snake oil sellers and very much even on the fringes of pseudoscience. In that regard it's less harmful than, say, anti-vaccination propaganda or GMO scaremongering - which both have a far bigger platform.

Unfortunately, its supporters are no less rabid. To them, quantum mechanics is a mystical tool which can allow you to do anything, and if you don't believe them, you're a fed.

Yes, every practising physicist is now a fed. I was quite surprised by this as well.

Quantum mechanics is actually fairly old and has its roots in the 19th century. Even what we think of as modern quantum mechanics was actually born in the 1920s and is at this point nearly a century old. Still, classical electromagnetism, which is about 150 years old, doesn't really have any accompanying woo (even if electricity and magnetism can be conceptually very difficult until you're confident with vector calculus). So how do we explain this?

1) Quantum mechanics is legitimately weird. This is probably the best starting point. Other established theories also have weird or counterintuitive elements; for example, Newtonian mechanics predicts that in the absence of friction, an object set in motion will keep moving forever. This clearly goes against our everyday experience, but nobody tries to sell Newtonian mechanics as something mystical and deeply profound.

The difference lies in the foundations of quantum mechanics. Unlike other theories, which are relatively neat and logical, the foundations of quantum mechanics are a mess of educated guesses (Ansätze) which fly in the face of previous assumptions about the world and predict incredibly strange things. The practical applications aren't much better; because the Schrodinger equation, which predicts the evolution of the quantum state of a quantum system over time, cannot be solved analytically for anything more complicated than a hydrogen atom, we use elaborate systems of approximations. Still, they work reasonably well: these elaborate systems of approximation govern the insides of your computer or phone and are allowing you to read this right now. Not bad, huh?

In fact, quantum mechanics is so weird that quantum mysticism was seriously entertained by leading physicists like Erwin Schrodinger and Werner Heisenberg up until about the second half of the twentieth century. However, current quantum woo has very little to do with older quantum mysticism.

2) Quantum mechanics is hard. I can't stress this enough. Not only is it conceptually difficult, but even introductory quantum mechanics requires knowledge of linear partial differential equations, integration by parts, classical mechanics and electromagnetism. The mathematics alone is beyond the grasp of people who haven't spent years in continuous study and practice. This is incredibly unfortunate, because we as physics students use the maths as a sort of shortcut to understanding the concepts. In fact, it's probably one of the only ways to understand the concepts without getting caught in the woo.

So what do we as science communicators do?

We've been doing our best, I suppose. It's not an easy topic to explain at all and the fact that it's gotten so popular has a lot to do with the talent and enthusiasm of science writers and scientists themselves. Even the woo-mongers helped to keep quantum physics alive and in the public eye, so for that at least we owe you one.

I suppose the first step now is to challenge the misconceptions. This in itself is not going to be easy, because most misconceptions run on "I don't understand quantum mechanics and I want magic to exist, so quantum mechanics is magic". I suppose what I'm trying to say is that the misconceptions are extremely broad in scope. Happily, they all have one major flaw: all misconceptions operate at macroscopic scales, because that's what people are familiar with.

On a macroscopic scale, particles interact, wavefunctions collapse incredibly easily, and the energies we deal with are huge compared to the energies you might encounter in quantum mechanics. The larger the energy of a particle, the smaller its wavelength and the less likely it will be able to pass through barriers, for example. This is why people cannot diffract through walls and why I am at negligible risk of quantum tunnelling through my bed.

Personally, I find it easier to think of quantum mechanics in terms of what you're not allowed to do rather than what you're allowed to do. Contrary to what woo-peddlers want you to think, quantum mechanics is very restrictive. Instead of energy being allowed to take continuous values, energies are discrete (quantised) and associated with certain eigenvalues (special values which satisfy the particular form of the Schrodinger equation). It is these restrictions which underpin most of physics (and why you don't fall through the floor).

Now, this all makes sense to me but might not necessarily make sense to the average reader. This is because I have something relatively few people do: maths. Lots and lots of maths.

I don't think we're going to get anywhere combatting quantum woo unless we start teaching maths. I suspect most people would agree with me, but in this country most people stop after they take their GCSEs. The most complex mathematics most people in England will ever encounter is quadratic equations with real roots, basic trigonometry and vector arithmetic.

While you need to learn to run before you can walk, there's no calculus in there. Calculus is everywhere in basic quantum mechanics.

I started learning differentiation and integration of real functions when I was 14 or 15. I am now 20 and recently finished a course in complex analysis, including contour integration, finding residues and line integrals of complex functions a few months ago. I am also doing more linear algebra in my spare time, I will have to learn tensor calculus at some point, and there's so much more maths out there I haven't even touched. The point I'm trying to make is that this stuff takes years to learn and there's simply no way to teach it all in a book or an hour-long lecture for the public. At the same time, quantum mechanics relies on it in fundamental ways.

I propose a compromise: take one equation and explain it step by step.
When I was a first-year student, my lecturer drew this on the visualiser and explained that it was the source of all quantum "bullshit". To this day that's probably the only useful thing Brian Cox has ever taught me. (Don't believe the lies. He's a shit lecturer.)

At the same time, this involves expectation values, improper integrals, and complex conjugates. So...still kind of outside GCSE maths territory. But it's one of the simplest "useful" equations in basic quantum mechanics.

So what does it all mean?

Starting from the left, the <x> is the expected position of the particle - the place where you expect it to end up on average. (There are ways to calculate the probability of the expected position, but I'm not going to get into that.)

The integral going from minus infinity to infinity is called an improper integral. What it's telling you is that to find the expected position of the particle, you have to sum up all the infinitesimals over dx from minus infinity to infinity, or everywhere in the universe. That's right - this particle could be everywhere in the universe all at once until something interacts with the universe (say, a photon) and the wavefunction collapses.

Speaking of wavefunctions, ψ(x,t) is the symbol for a wavefunction and describes the quantum state of a system. Fair enough - but what's this ψ*(x,t)?

That's the complex conjugate. Strictly speaking, wavefunctions are complex functions - they involve i. The complex conjugate takes the part with i in it and changes the sign.

That's all very well and good, but why would we need both? Turns out that conjugates are really neat: when you multiply a complex number by its conjugate, you get a real number. This means that we can do real integrals, rather than messing around with the integration of complex functions. (Mostly, it's a pain. You will spend hours drawing squiggles. In general, integrating real functions is much nicer.)

And why is there an x squashed in the middle? Well, in classical mechanics, things like position (x) and momentum (p) are observables which can be determined by a series of physical operations. In quantum mechanics, we replace these with operators which act on the wavefunction in some way. The position operator is nice because it's just x, but other operators involve differentiation, so the order does matter.

To take a step back and stop getting bogged down by all the maths, what this equation basically tells you is that this particle could be anywhere in the universe at all until it interacts with the universe somehow and the wavefunction collapses. The expected value tells you where it's likely to end up on average.

Don't get me wrong, it's still profound and it's still beautiful, but it's also very plain. Everything adheres rigidly to the maths. You will find no quantum woo here, only austere calculus. It's not magic - it's something far better.

I have no doubt that if we step people through the maths, we can drive out quantum woo.