Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Bones and Balloons

If the last post was about scientists behaving inappropriately, then this one is surely the exact opposite. Here's what scientists are supposed to look like. Why every scientist isn't given a lab coat on graduating is something I'll never understand.

Every part of the scientific garb is deeply symbolic. White coats represent scientific purity, while torches remind us that the search for truth can often take us into dark places. Hard hats protect us from the slings and arrows of our less worthy colleagues.
The list of unexpected things I've done in the name of science is getting fairly long at this stage. There was that terrible, terrible dance video, the awful epic poetry, the rather nice epic doodles, the time an imaginary monkey helped me to measure hydrogen, my appearance in the Scottish Sun (while still in Puerto Rico) because my student discovered a galaxy that looks like the Loch Ness Monster, and of course writing The Story of Princess Olivia and the Magical Moose Whose Name No-one Could Quite Remember. Even so, I still think I'm struggling to outdo photographing a potato for NASA... though if things pan out, that one will soon get some satisfying closure. I can say no more.

The Czechs, it must be said, are a very reserved bunch. I doubt anyone would dispute that - when giving talks, it's tough to imagine a greater contrast than between Czech and Anglo-American audiences. But it would be a terrible, terrible mistake to confuse a certain natural caution and generally measured approach with a lack of enthusiasm, sense of humour and fun. Oh no. Far from it.

Our head of department turned 65 recently. A lunchtime discussion briefly considered the notion of a present, before someone suggested we put on some kind of performance.
"What, you mean like, 'Star formation through the medium of interpretative dance ?' ", said I.
"Yes." was the immediate and quite deadpan response.

And that's exactly what we did.

In a few hours we had the basic routine worked out. We'd act out the theory of the formation of a globular cluster. There'd be dry ice (for the interstellar medium), hairdryers and confetti (for the stellar winds), ribbons (because stars form in filaments), flashlights (because, you know, stars shine), costumes (different coloured mantles for different spectral types, hats with equations for black holes and Bonner-Ebert spheres), balloons filled with foil (because stars produce metals) that we'd burst to generate supernovae... in short, it would be a no-singing, all-dancing affair. I was immediately appointed narrator due to my suave and sophisticated British accent, a.k.a. being the token native English speaker.

Despite the truly frightening end result, the Arecibo Anthem genuinely did involve a lot of practise. It had zero props, it's just that none of us were any good at singing or dancing. In contrast, Star Formation Wars had dozens of props, only two practise sessions, and the dry ice turned up not six hours before (like it was supposed to), but 30 minutes. And yet it basically works.

OK, sometimes people missed their cues. My narration has a charismatic delivery that only Ed Milliband could envy. The music track decided to stop working FOR NO REASON !!! about 2 minutes in, and half the time I was too busy watching the participants to bother changing slides (I was also using a camera flash when the supernovae went off - there was a surprising amount of multi-tasking here). Did any of that matter ? Nope.

You probably can't see just how much material was injected into the interstellar medium by the stars and supernovae, but it was a lot. Bits of foil are still appearing randomly all over the institute. Like the drawing of "Dr Rhysy Baby" that's still in my old Cardiff office, I suspect bits of foil will still be turning up long after I've left. I hope so.

Anyway, to return to the picture at the start, the reason we're all dressed like that is because we're all going down a silver mine. The admission fee for Star Formation Wars didn't generate the massive revenue we were hoping for, so the search for funding has become desperate - so desperate that the postdocs have given up applying for grants and are now sent deep into the bowels of the Earth to hack small pieces of silver out of the dirt. Well... not quite. In fact, that's hardly true at all. Actually it's a lie.

Apparently, medieval miners used to wear white cloth because it was cheap. There are medieval depictions of them dressed up like that, although methinks the artist to have been a trifle naive if they really thought those clothes stayed white enough to pass the prestigious Daz Doorstep Challenge for very long. Still, the miners weren't likely to have drawn naked ladies all over their jackets. Presumably.

The pretty town of Kutna Hora is about an hour and a half away from Prague by bus. Back in medieval days it grew fat off the proceeds of its famed silver mines - literally, it was history's first obesity crisis. OK, that's another lie, but it did get stinkin' rich from the silver mines - the deepest of which was called the Donkey Mine and was over 600 metres deep. Amazingly that's not a lie, apparently it was called "Donkey" because that was the owner's name, for some reason. I blame a rather sordid personal history and some very lonely nights.

The tour of the mines is very good, even though you can now only go down to 35 metres. The lower levels are flooded and anyway the rocks contain arsenic (as our guide explained with the black humour typical of the Czechs : "It was good to be a miner's wife. You'd get rich and probably have at least three different husbands"). The mines are narrow, so fun to explore but don't photograph well. All this silver helped pay for two fine cathedrals, and they're more photogenic.

St Barbara's, above, is very much a typical cathedral. I always like visiting them, but they're all basically the same. The other one, with the more grandiose name of the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady and Saint John the Baptist (described as a fine example of "architechtonic heritage" in a translated sign), is in some ways more interesting. The interior having been gutted at some point in its long history, it's been restored... after a fashion. It sort of looks like the mid-stage of a "pimp my church" reality show; a cathedral without any of the trimmings - which is about 90% of what a cathedral needs in order to be... well, a cathedral.

The most interesting bit was going up in the rafters, because they hardly ever let you do that. Suddenly the whole interior made a lot more sense. I have no idea what I was expecting, but somehow it wasn't that.

Anyway, neither the silver mines nor the cathedrals nor the excellent food from the Pavince Dacicky ('c' is pronounced 'ts' in Czech, they tell me) restaurant is why anyone visits Kutna Hora these days. No, it's something altogether stranger - the Sedlec Ossuary, more commonly known as the Bone Church. From the outside it's an unremarkable place.

The interior is another matter entirely. It's just one medium-sized room, but what a room. The great Uzbekistani conqueror Tamerlane, once known as the Scourge of God and the Fear and Terror of the World (now quite forgotten by Western society), was, in his day, famous for not merely razing cities but for so utterly annihilating them that he planted fields of barely in the ruins. His more macabre signature was to also leave behind great towers built of the skulls of the city's former inhabitants. Well, Tamerlane never made it this far, but the ossuary is one place where you can get a very good idea of what said towers may have looked like.

Remember that scene in Return of the King where rivers of skulls burst out of the mountain ? I instantly started to take that a lot more seriously. Most of these bones are apparently from the remains of over 40,000 people buried here who died from plague and wars. Given the number of leg and arm bones on display, a figure of thousands is not implausible.

The room contains four such "pyramids", each about three or four metres high.
Yet the whole place doesn't feel like a house of horrors. It doesn't feel reverential like a tomb, either, it just feels surreal. There's the bone coat of arms, complete with skeletal raven pecking at a skull...

... and, though one hesitates to speculate as to why, little statues of naked children playing trumpets. Best to leave that one well alone.

In any other crypt, hanging strings of skulls from the ceiling like tinsel would be talking point enough, but here they barely register. The designer of this place would probably have laughed in Tamerlane's face, or at least chuckled quietly to himself when safely out of earshot.

If memory serves, legend says that the pyramids were constructed by some half-blind medieval monk, while the more complicated "decorations" were added in the 19th century by a sculptor. Somehow it didn't seem to matter. The whole thing was so arrestingly strange that reading the history of the place would have been like - to borrow a previous observation - using the free wi-fi in a gentlemen's establishment.

Oh, and one more thing. The times, they are a changing, and even places like Sedlec have to stay relevant to our modern, capitalist, consumerist world. Most importantly, they've got to stay interesting to the young people. It isn't enough to have a chandelier made of bones any more, you've got to have something people can really engage with. At least, that's my explanation as to why there's also an alternate version of the ossuary available in Lego form.

Conclusion ? Beneath the cool Czech exterior beats the heart of an artist. An artist with a knife. And a big box of Lego.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Don't Fear the Feminists

I've always thought of feminism as a rather simple thing : the idea that men and women be treated equally. Yet in recent weeks there seems to have been a growing influx of anti-feminist rhetoric flitting about my Google+ stream, and it's time to do something about that. Much like those of the evangelical atheist ilk that treat all religions as morally equivalent to the mass human sacrifices of Aztec Mexico, so certain people seem to think that feminism is an idea that's really quite different to what it actually is.

This is a large, three-part article. It has to be, because this is a complex subject. In this first section I'll look at feminism and why it is - perhaps surprisingly - not actually incompatible with objectifying women; in the second part I'll examine what this means in practise; and in the third part will be a case study of the trigger for this article : shirtstorm.

1) What the heck is this "feminism", anyway ?

There are definitely mixed messages coming from the feminists. That's because feminism is an ideology, not a religion or political movement. Still, sometimes I can sympathise with Principle Skinner :

Don't worry, Seymour, there's an easy way out of this quagmire. In my view, "treated equally" really means with "equal respect". People are individuals and generally want to be treated differently from one another (perhaps less a case of "do unto others as you would have them do unto you", and more a case of "do unto others as they would have you do unto them"*), but no-one wants to be treated like dirt. Everyone want to be valued equally, like-for-like. Treat people as individuals and don't generalise based on their gender - it's that simple.

* Well within reason. Just because someone wants a bribe doesn't entitle them to one.

"Equal respect" directly implies a meritocracy where everyone is allowed to compete equally based solely on ability. All other things being equal, everyone's opinion is equally important. But that's really all it says. It doesn't directly say anything about cheerleading, fashion modelling, the pornography industry, or heck, even the virtues of prostitution as a career choice. Rather what it says is quite simply that if these things are deemed acceptable for one gender, they must also be acceptable for the other. It does not actually say whether or not they are acceptable for any gender in the first place - that's society's choice. Feminism, as some wise individual wrote, is about elevating women, not taking men down.

Incidentally, this doesn't imply that we must demand equal numbers of men and women in the same jobs (though it most certainly does dictate equal pay for the same work). I strongly suspect that when we eventually do establish a society of truly equal respect, this is what will happen, even in careers where men and women are each currently tiny minorities - but I don't actually care about whether we have a precise 50-50 balance in all vocations. It's the opportunity that matters to me, not the end result.

Now, I sincerely hope that anyone reading this will have agreed that equal opportunities and equal pay for men and women are fundamentally Good Things (if we can't agree on that, I don't think we can be friends). It doesn't matter whether you look like Brad Pitt, Scarlett Johansson, or the back end of a bus - or whether you're a raging heterosexual, as gay as Dale Winton or as liberal as Captain Jack Harkness : your success in life should be determined by ability. Nothing else matters, except of course whether or not you treat others with the same amount of respect that they treat you.

Does this mean everyone should be treated in exactly the same way in all situations by everyone else ? Of course not, any more than you would go around assuming that everyone is an expert in neuroscience or has the same passionate hatred of elephants. And that leads us on to the area where so many people, both men and women, seem frightfully confused about feminism : sexuality.

Few people, if any at all, would complain about the following set of images :

Yet people most assuredly do complain about images like these :

Why is that ? Is there anything intrinsically different about the two sets of images beyond the genders displayed ? I would argue "no". I never heard anyone complain that the first images are in any way demeaning or that they treat men like objects for female gratification. Nor does it in any way disturb me that such images exist and that women enjoy them (indeed, certain female friends of mine have described, with consummate tact, the man in the first image as inducing a "lady boner"). Why should it ? Men and women find members of the opposite sex attractive, and as a short, scrawny yet slightly flabby nerd I don't feel in any way diminished by the use of uber-muscular young men as sex objects for women. More on that in part two.

Yet these are precisely the sort of complaints that are made about the second set of images. But it's not the images themselves that makes these complaints valid (for that, we must take a wider view). Image for image, it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, to say whether one is treating one gender more respectfully than the other. Remember, if we're assuming "equality" to mean "equal respect", the actual way in which we treat the genders is not important : the only thing that matters is that if we objectify one gender, we also allow objectification of the other*.

* I suppose in principle "equal respect" could mean "zero respect for both genders", but this trivial to dismiss. No-one wants to live in a world where the only thing that matters is how attractive everyone is... well probably not, anyway.

Now I have to make a very important point before we proceed any further. I am going to use the term "objectify" to mean, "to ignore all other qualities besides physical attractiveness". This is not the same as the way some people use the term, which is more like "to assume that a person has no other qualities besides physical attractiveness". Unfortunately the difference between the two is considered so subtle there isn't even a good alternative English word, but in fact it isn't subtle at all - it's critical. That should become more obvious as we go on, if it isn't already. But please, dear reader, do keep this in mind - otherwise you may think I'm saying something completely different to what I actually mean.

Right, so, do those above images objectify genders ? You betcha. Is this a problem in and of itself ? Arguably, no. Is this a problem in society more generally ? Hell yes - and it's only a problem for women. I'll return to this more in part two, but first I want to say a little bit more about objectification.

People are sexy, deal with it

I don't have a problem with objectification per se. A woman who chooses to objectify herself for male gratification is no more immoral than a man who does the same for women, and nor are men who enjoy objectifying images of women any more immoral than women enjoying those of men. The problems are twofold, and related : 1) the much, much greater extent to which society objectifies women than men; 2) the fact that many men seem to extrapolate wildly from the women in these images that all women exist solely for their own enjoyment. This extrapolation is absurd as saying that because Chris Hadfield can play the guitar, he cannot also be an astronaut. It's as mad as a bag of clams, but that's the world we live in.

Put simply, the objectification of women (partly due to the sheer amount of it) has led many men not to conclude merely that women are attractive (which is all an image of an attractive woman intrinsically says), but to conclude that women are attractive and that's all they are. In fact, reducing one individual to their physical characteristics for the enjoyment of the opposite gender does not, in and of itself, imply that all members of that gender have no other value. It does not mean that the particular person on display has no other value either, only that they have chosen, temporarily, to ignore their other qualities - not eliminate then. They're not toys, for crying out loud.

Speaking of which, a pretty close analogy would be the similarly-decried video games. The notion that video games are a direct cause of violent behaviour is patently absurd. I play (or used to, a lot) Total War games, in which battle casualties can often run into the thousands. I don't know the total number of casualties I've inflicted, but it's certainly in the tens of thousands, probably in the hundreds of thousands, and very possibly in excess of a million. As for more up-close-and-personal games, I haven't the foggiest idea how many people I've immolated, punched, beheaded, riddled with bullets (and in one case with high-velocity gnomes), hacked with a sword, and brutally beaten to death with assorted blunt instruments. These things are fun to do in games because they're not real. They no more induce me to go on an orgy of death and destruction than they make me want to start the world's first floating circus and start wearing a tutu : there is precisely zero correlation here. Zero. Nada. Zilcho.

Similarly, objectification in principle does not lead to sexism (it doesn't when women objectify men, after all). If you can differentiate between the fantasy world of gameplay and reality, you damn well ought to be able to tell the difference between a woman posing for a photograph and the idea that women are somehow subordinate to men. There ought to exist the same vast chasm between enjoying killing thousands in a video game and wanting to massacre people in reality, as between enjoying a photograph of the opposite gender (or indeed any form of adult entertainment) and assuming they're all somehow inferior to you. You ought to possess the modicum of intellect needed to realise that people aren't toys because they chose to dress (or undress) in a certain way - yes, even (especially) when they're deliberately doing it so that you can enjoy them.

You can't tell me that watching elephants trample people to death in a video game isn't fun. You also can't tell me that it is fun in reality. Granted, the analogy isn't perfect - attractive people are, so I'm told, also a lot of fun in reality. But in reality, killing thousands of people isn't fun because people aren't toys - exactly the same goes for disrespecting women.
Now one could argue that we shouldn't objectify people at all. A debatable point, certainly, but I don't see this working. If people find the opposite gender attractive, there will always be people willing to exploit that and happy to be exploited by it. For the sake of the extremely important reason of the survival of the species, people generally want the opposite gender to find them attractive. It is simply too small a step, too slippery a slope, from this basic truth to people making money from this.

Moreover - if (note the maximum possible emphasis here) people treat "sexploitation" images in the same way they treat video games (i.e. they don't let them influence their real-world actions), then I fail to see anything immoral here. Far better - and frankly more fun for everyone - to simply demand equal levels of sexploitation of men and women. That could either mean much less objectification of women than at present, or much more of men, or something in between.

In short, objectification (by the definition I'm using) is scarcely intrinsically worse than simply finding someone attractive. Few people could honestly say they'd don't assess someone's physical attractiveness at all if presented with no more than a photograph. No-one thinks, "I must make a detailed inquiry into the personal habits and moral values of this person before judging their attractiveness." No-one. That is nonetheless a form of objectification - a part of human nature, which, like aggression, is only dangerous if not properly controlled.

So that's the theory covered. In summary, people can be hot. Judging them on this, and even ignoring their other qualities, is not damaging in and of itself - women happily do this to men with little harm done. But assuming that they don't actually have any other qualities, to treat them like a toy... this is immensely harmful. This level of objectification is far worse, but as we'll see in the next section, in practise even just ignoring their other values can be seriously degrading if it's allowed to run rampant. We'll also examine the ways in which things are much worse for women, and why when women objectify men this isn't damaging for men.

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Tuesday, 11 November 2014


Six weeks or more without a blog post is long enough that I started to wonder if I'd disappeared. Maybe I'd decided to go off the grid and live the dream of being a reclusive hermit in Antarctica, or something. Imagine my delight when I discovered I hadn't disappeared at all ! I was here the whole time, just not posting anything. Well, that was a relief, I can tell you. Time to remedy this prolonged absence by clearing a backlog of "things I meant to post but just didn't".

July saw a visit to Vienna. Nice place, but too expensive. Difficult to find anywhere you could get a decent meal for less than €30 (yes, the European Union is still calling its currency "Euros" despite the fact I told them not to). Vienna also scores poorly as having one of the most outrageously expensive conference dinners of all time. For €65 (!) we got a tasteless meal on top of a hill. Sure, it was a nice hill, but the food was basically reconstituted cardboard.

Vienna from above is OK, but it ain't Prague.
The city itself is rather better. The Stephansdom cathedral is certainly impressive. It's taller than Prague's St Vitus and less crowded. It's also got a roof. Admittedly, most cathedrals have roofs, but not usually anything worth mentioning.

In fact it must be acknowledged that Vienna is a far nicer place from the ground.

As usual I went without doing a single piece of research into the city, on the grounds that surprises generally make everything much better, About the only famous building I was aware of beforehand was the Schonbruun Palace. I'm sure this is a interesting place if you have a) decent footwear and b) sunglasses. I had neither. Seriously, the grounds were designed by Bloody Stupid Johnson. In summer sunlight I found it physically impossible (actually painful) to even see anything, on account of the blinding white gravel arena stretching maybe six thousand miles in all directions. Only after trudging on my blistered feet across the burning wasteland into the shade of a hedge was I able to realize that in fact, it was quite a nice palace I'd been standing next to.

I therefore conclude that the Hapsburg Emperors wore dark glasses at all times, something sadly lacking in portraits. The palace also has 1400 rooms, mostly for sitting down in and looking at portraits. This made the tour's claims that the Emperor Josef lived a modest lifestyle somewhat... stretched ? Yeah, that'd be the one. You can't say the grounds aren't nice though, because they are.

Some of the statues in Vienna are also worth mentioning, because they were clearly designed by the time-honoured method of pick-and-mix. I can't think of any other reason you'd want a ten-foot tall statue of a legless Roman with shields for arms and a plant for a head.

The animals are even better, for instance, the mer-horse must surely be the most unfortunate creature that never existed. The head and forelegs of a horse... with the tail of a fish. It could neither swim very well, on account of its great clunky legs, nor walk on land any better than an overgrown mudskipper.

The unfortunate rider of this unfortunate beast also has fins for feet, unfortunately.
Then of course there was a creature I immediately christened the porno-sphinx, for obvious reasons.

One more statue must be mentioned. I cannot think of a witty retort that's funnier than the statue itself, so I won't bother writing one.

The best bit about Vienna were the tombs of said Hapsburgs. It's not quite Tutankahmun, but they were certainly in the running for "most epic coffin", and they easily take the "most gothic" title. Apparently there was simply no-one to tell them basic things like, "no, you can't have a coffin large enough to hold a dinner party in, that's a bloody waste of money, you twit". So the coffins start small enough - ostentatious, certainly, but not remarkably so...

... then they get more ornate...

Yes, the pedestals are armoured skulls.

... and then they get enormous.

Believe me, this is bigger than it looks. You could easily seat at least four people inside it.
The Prater funfair provided a less morbid diversion. Vienna may be chock-full of sophisticated cultural icons, and this is definitely not one of them. It is as tacky a place as you'll find anywhere. Rides are disguised as giant plastic snakes. Some of the buildings are adorned with what are probably the least scary-looking monsters since Sesame Street. I loved it, but by this point, I was beginning to wonder if Vienna's reputation as the beating cultural heart of Europe was really all that well-deserved.

Some of the rides were pretty good though. The highlight was definitely this impressively-tall spinning tower. Not quite as tall as the Arecibo platform, but then, the maximum rotation speed of the Arecibo platform cannot reasonably be measured in rotations per minute, let alone rotations per second.

Obviously I didn't take any photos from the top - I'd probably have killed some unfortunate tourist far below, and worse lost my camera - but later a Ferris wheel provided a similar view at a more leisurely pace.

Somehow I always find it particularly amusing being with other scientists in unexpected locations like this (especially more senior, well-known ones who shall remain nameless). I guess it's largely a case of having endured reading their incredibly dry and uninteresting papers* and discovering that they're a diverse and largely affable bunch. Some more than others, of course... some will discuss complex technical details late into the night while others can be found... indulging themselves. But for more on scientists behaving unexpectedly, as well as a tourist attraction that makes the Habsburg's coffins look positively sane, tune in next time. Unless the next time is a science post, which it might be, in which case tune in the time after that.

* This, as readers will by now be aware, is largely a product of the godforsaken reviewers more than the authors.