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Showing posts from June, 2016

Are We One?

Last week Glastonbury, the biggest festival in the UK, took place. This week everyone has now got back to larger supplies of running water and is busy posting about how "we are one". Foolishly, I thought "we" referred to "people living in the UK" rather than "people who went to Glastonbury". If it's referring to the latter, well, I wasn't there but fair enough - glad you enjoyed yourselves.

If it's referring to the former, I know we should be focusing on uniting rather than dividing the country; I'm usually one of the first people trying to build a grand coalition and decrying infighting. But no - I don't feel like we are one. Getting to Glastonbury isn't easy for a multitude of reasons - ticket availability, ticket pricing (seriously, for the price of a ticket and booking fee I could spend a week in Germany not getting rained on), actually getting there, additional expenses...I feel more than a little patronised being to…

Down with National Myths!

Facebook is a wonderful place; I get to see lots of people being vocally liberal, lots of people being vocally right-wing and lots of people liking cat pictures or posting photos of their children. That's also why I tend to stay away from Facebook; discussing politics on social media is bad enough without having people you vaguely remember from school getting embroiled in arguments.

Thanks to right-wing acquaintances, I came across this piece in The Daily Beast by Todd Buchholz, whose title presents an epic clash between American history and the phantom of political correctness. I have to doff my hat to the sub-editors; while the actual article is a lot more muted and nuanced, they're masters of clickbait. The title is also evocative of rhetoric used in the UK; a couple of years ago, when Michael Gove was still merrily screwing up everyone's education, there was talk of distorting teaching of World War I such that Britain would be presented as the "good guys" and…

Leaving the Country

Last Thursday, the UK voted to leave the EU by a perilously narrow margin. The economy utterly tanked, the prime minister resigned, throwing the country into chaos, and now the country is split down the middle with hate and bitterness.

I am not confident of being able to do good research in a country whose government has consistently voted to cut science funding, without EU funding and with a lot of barriers to international co-operation. Science is international and so I'm seriously considering doing my PhD and research abroad. Even if I don't do a PhD, I can probably find better jobs out of the UK than I can in it. A tanked economy will do that for you.

There has been a lot of crying over the past couple of days about how leaving the country is somehow "weak". I'm not entirely sure I understand this argument.

The world is far smaller than it was a century ago. Planes, trains, ships and cars will take you from country to country - and they will do this at reason…

Science and Discourse

Our public discourse about science is terrible and awful. In general, it falls into these two highly exaggerated camps:

Camp #1: "Science is the only route to solving all of our problems and is going to show us enlightenment!"

Camp #2: "Science is rife with institutional bigotry! It is nothing more than a language white men use to make themselves seem smart and logical! Scientists don't understand the humanities and their thinking about oppressive structures!"

Before launching into critiques of these camps and my own ideas about science, there are a couple of points I want to make:

Regardless of how ethical science as a whole may be, it works (well, sort of works, maybe - I will get to this later). The reason we can disseminate and discuss ideas about how science is awesome or problematic is because we have electricity, semiconductor physics, the internet and a whole lot more, which is down to science rather than people commenting on science. Remember that.

I hav…

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…

Why is mathematics interesting?

Recently I started readingWhat 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 tr…

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; buil…

Betrayal

I have writtenbefore 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 (altho…

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 st…

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 punishment…

Down with Quantum Woo!

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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…

How to stop the apocalypse

Humans are obsessed with the idea of the End Times, the apocalypse, the concept that we are teetering on the edge of a catastrophe. Most major world religions describe some kind of "end time" or debased age, and I'd argue that this has seeped through into modern Western culture; though the specifics change (these days politics, climate change or nuclear weapons herald the end of the world as we know it rather than, say, comets), each generation is always perverting the work of the last and the world as we know it is always definitely on the verge of ending.

At the moment, we have two separate Apocalypses of the Month: the US presidential election and the EU referendum. In the US, the two frontrunners are a corrupt neoliberal and a creepy orange fascist. In the EU, the perpetually sulky and disruptive UK is calling a referendum as to whether to stay in an admittedly corrupt and labyrinthine institution with many a failing but lots of positives for education, research and …

What grinds my gears...

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I was originally going to write a long post about how this quote is bad and wrong on all sorts of levels.

Then I discovered that this quote was not actually by Voltaire, but a bastardised misquote of "To determine the true rulers of any society, all you must do is ask yourself this question: Who is it that I am not permitted to criticize?"

Whew, that's a mouthful. I can see why it was shortened.

It also originated not with the venerable Voltaire, but a man called Kevin Alfred Strom, who is undistinguished apart from being a neo-Nazi who was imprisoned for possession of child pornography. Nice piece of work, isn't he? Definitely the guy you want to be taking advice from.

A number of you will be pointing out that - as detestable as Strom is - his repulsive actions don't necessarily make his statement logically wrong. I happen to agree with this.

His statement is still bad and wrong anyway.

If you consider yourself a brave freedom fighter, valiantly standing your …