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 26 May 2016

I Quite Like The E.U., Let's Keep It

I don't "heart" the E.U. actually. Neither do I love New York or Prague (though I do love Cardiff) and I rather dislike London and loathe Phoenix. Ghastly place. But this does not mean I don't want any of them to exist, and were it put to the vote I'd actively campaign for all of them to keep existing* - which is pretty much exactly how I feel about the E.U. So, inevitably, here's why I will be voting for Britain to remain in the E.U. despite its many flaws.

* Except possibly Phoenix. If you live in Phoenix, I am sorry for you. If you like living in Phoenix, stop it.

Things I Like About The E.U.

Freedom of Movement

Just look at all the horrors wrought by lack of proper border control. Think of how much better we'd all be with big walls with barbed wire and watchtowers everywhere !
I can go anywhere I want in Europe for whatever reason with nothing but my passport. I don't need a visa or a visa waiver. I compete on equal footing for jobs in different countries with no difficulty imposed on myself or my potential employer because of where I'm from. This is fundamentally a very, very good thing indeed. Instead of harping on about "immigants", we should be dancing about this in the streets. Immigrants are not coming to take your job or your benefits any more than you're coming to take theirs.

The thing I find most revolting and dangerous about the whole Brexit campaign is the way it's given xenophobes and assorted other bigots a racism license. True, their are legitimate concerns about the speed and scale of external migration (and I'll get back to those in the next section), but as far as internal migration within the E.U. goes I have precisely zero respect for the Tory idea that we shouldn't let in poor people or limit benefits even though they're working.

What really winds me up is that xenophobia is currently running rampant just about everywhere. How, exactly, every country seems to think that every other country is full of dangerous criminals/benefit cheats/cheap labour except for themselves is something that makes absolutely no sense. It's like people have never even seen or met a foreigner, or when they have, they complain about their plumber being Polish even while they'll happily pay them to unblock the kitchen sink. If we didn't have the absurdly stupid right wing fascist tabloids lying through their teeth about immigration, no-one naturally would think it's any kind of problem. If immigration posed even a tenth of the threat the Daily Fail thinks it does, the entire Schengen Area would long ago have torn itself into tiny bloody pieces. Britain is not a special snowflake.

Which is not to say, necessarily, that leaving the E.U. would deny us freedom of movement within Europe - that's a whole other issue, which I'll touch on later. I'm simply saying that I support the E.U. because it has made freedom of movement possible.

Human Rights

I have nothing to say that isn't said in the following video.


I'm not an economist but I do know that selling things is important because it makes people richer. Being able to sell lots of things makes people even richer, or, even better, if lots of people can sell things then lots of people get richer. Hurrah ! And without free trade agreements with the E.U. it's very tough for me, naive as I am, to see how our economy could do anything except suffer pretty badly, no matter what we're paying in membership fees.

UKIP and the like have it that we could resurrect the Commonwealth, an idea which, while nice, looks to be about a century out of date (and why is it that the distant Commonwealth would be any better run than the much closer E.U., anyway ?). Just like their half-baked notions that the Germans are trying to conquer us, as though we were all still in the era of empire building. NEWS FLASH : We're not. Get over the empires, already. The European Union is not a German Empire, and no amount of ranting will ever change that.


Many of the big European research facilities - CERN, ESA, ESO, etc., are not directly run by the E.U. itself, but they are certainly influenced by it.
Pretty much any scientist is going to be pro-E.U. for the very simple reason that it gives us lots and lots of lovely funding. Specifically, we give about £5.4 billion to the research programme but get about £8.8 billion back. And that's just the crude financial numbers, to say nothing of the less quantifiable benefits of freedom of movement - no, you can't form the same kind of collaborations over Skype as you can by visiting people in person - or of course the massive societal and economic benefits enabled by scientific research.

The E.U. is by no means essential for every piece of scientific research that happens in the U.K., and if we left we certainly we not stop making major scientific contributions to the world. Just as with most other aspects of the E.U., in principle we could negotiate for the same sort of collaborations which we already have, which means, inevitably, a protracted period of confusion that will harm research and loss of some of the most highly-skilled workers we have : many researchers depend on E.U. funding and it's tough to see a Brexit as being anything other than disastrous for them. Yes, alright, things may stabilise over the long-term, but it looks very unlikely indeed that it would stabilise at a level equal to what we have now, let alone exceeding it.

The Brexiters have it will be easy to re-negotiate all of the benefits we get from the E.U. while we simultaneously snub our noses at it. The rest of the world appears to be saying, "duuuh, if only there was some established organisation you could enter to get those benefits !". Even if it's possible in principle to do all these things without being in the E.U., that looks neither likely nor easy.

Peace in Europe

For most of the last 2,000 years the various tribes and nations of Europe were getting along quite happily kicking the shit out of each other as a pleasant way to while away an afternoon, or indeed the odd century or so. It was all good clean fun : an invasion here, a massacre there... just normal, high-spirited youthful exuberance, really. Then, as with most children's games, things eventually got out of hand - things were said, mistakes were made, a bunch of people got brutally slaughtered.  At which point there was finally a collective agreement that we'd stop beating the crap out of each other and try sharing resources instead.

The E.U. is not the sole or underlying drive for peace in Europe, nor has it prevented war entirely. As usual, there's little point in asking whether the E.U. has ushered in a utopia, because it hasn't - the E.U. is a political union, not Miss Universe and/or a magical wizard.

The right question to ask is whether or not it has made things better than not having it at all, to which the answer can only be hell yes. No E.U. member has ever gone to war with another E.U. member. It's of course true that correlation does not equal causation, but it's also true that causation does usually give rise to a correlation. That is, peace in Europe is one of the primary goals of the E.U., so it's reasonable to suppose that there really is a connection. The aim and the method are one and the same : greater economic integration. Given that parts of Europe remain unstable even now, if the E.U. didn't exist it would surely be necessary to invent it.

Which is not to say that the method of achieving and maintaining peace has been perfect - far from it. More on that soon.

Things That I Do Not Like About The E.U.

Both the "remain" and "leave" Brexit campaigns seem replete with Nirvana fallacies : if we leave/stay we will bring forth the apocalypse; the E.U. doesn't do things absolutely perfectly therefore it's not worth having; leaving the E.U. would somehow solve a bunch of unrelated problems; staying in the E.U. would prevent WWIII and make everyone more attractive to the opposite sex, that sort of thing. In an effort to escape this ridiculous posturing - which only hurts both sides, here's what I don't like about the E.U. and why I think the problems would be best placed by us staying in.

The Euro

It's not really the currency I hate, despite its unbelievably boring name that puts SpaceShipOne to shame. Or even the tedious and dull banknote designs. Money is part of culture, but not a terribly important one, so while losing the pound might be a bit of a shame, it wouldn't be as bad as losing Eurovision and nowhere near the usual "end of civilization" claptrap that William Hague and his muppety friends once claimed.

... and yet, the Euro, or more accurately the fiscal policies (or lack thereof) behind it have undeniably been a dismal failure. It's nice to be able to use the same currency anywhere, and no doubt this is good for businesses. But it seems to have done little or nothing to avert the last major financial crisis, and, far worse, the austerity policies being imposed on Greece largely at the behest of the Germans smack of the very worst aspects that anti-E.U. campaigners like to shout about so much.

Britain should not join the Euro. It should probably never join the Euro without some massive reforms of the entire system. Yes, Greece was probably at least partially responsible for its own mess, but the level of cuts demanded are absurd. Closer economic integration may be good for ensuring peace, but there's no particular reason that requires the level of having the same currency, and it certainly isn't supposed to be wealthy countries punishing smaller ones. That is the antithesis of what the E.U. is supposed to be about*.

* Of course the situation isn't that simple, since Germany paid a huge amount of the bailout money and is perfectly entitled to be quite cross about the whole thing. They've also taken on far more of the refugees than any other European county. Germany may be punishing Greece, but it's hardly as though it's a case of German fat cats trying to feather their nests or some other mixed metaphor.

Could we dismantle the Euro without dismantling the otherwise reasonably effective apparatus of the E.U. itself ? I have no idea if that would even be a good idea, let alone possible. But if we want to influence European economic policy - which we surely do - it seems to me that the best place to do that is from inside the E.U. Or as Yes Minister put it :


Specifically, political impotence when it comes to foreign policy. Europe is still reeling from the financial crisis and is now being hit by a huge influx of refugees, which are not being settled in proportion to the existing population. This is not the economic-based internal freedom of movement the E.U. was designed to facilitate, it is a sudden, sharp, external shock. Few individual countries are designed to deal with this, and it plays right into the hands of the racist nutcases who've been singing the same dreary song about any and all ethnic groups for years.

If you're one of those, "it's not racist to discriminate against a religion" types, you can fuck off. I've run out of patience for that nonsense. Walk down any street in Cardiff and tell me that "their" values are incompatible with "ours". But that doesn't mean there can't or won't be a cultural shock - assimilation takes time, as does developing the infrastructure needed to cope with a sudden increase in the population. Long term, of course more people necessitate more jobs, but you can't just bring in a million people who've lost their homes and expect everything to be a magical paradise five minutes later.

The E.U.'s failure has been twofold. First, it has allowed the refugees to settle in numbers which are massively disproportional to the local populations. Secondly, and much more seriously, it has chosen to decisively respond to the crisis at the source by whistling a jaunty tune. The problem is that the E.U., contrary to the xenophobic lobby, is not a latter-day Roman Empire. It doesn't have all that many consistent, enforced domestic policies, much less any sort of coherent foreign policy, despite the attempts to create a European army. Still, the tightrope the E.U. has to walk is between becoming a tyranny by majority and unable to act at all.

Leaving the E.U. won't stop the refugee crisis. Staying in the E.U. won't stop it either, but if we do want to persuade other countries to help - and that can mean anything from military aggression to co-ordinated aid efforts - we're far better to do that if we stay inside. Oh, if only there was a country with experience of managing affairs on a global scale that could step up and lend a hand !


While many of the stories of horrendously meddlesome over-regulation from the E.U. bureaucrats are simply myth, and many are exaggerations, there's enough truth there that the organisation needs a good periodic kick up the backside. For instance, the E.U. really does have regulations that describe bananas by how curved they are, but it does not ban them if they're the wrong shape. It had plans to use multiple labels for yoghurt, but it was never planning to stop people calling it yoghurt. And the switch to the metric system is only partially due to the E.U., and I don't know about you but I have yet to see miles being replaced with kilometres or pints with litres. Finally, a weird Czech pickled sausage is (I'm told) banned under E.U. laws but everyone took as much notice of that as they did about the world championship bellydancing contest.

In less turbulent times, such silliness is at worse a nuisance. During crises, it makes the organization seem pointless. It's great that roaming charges are being abolished, but this decision to benefit the lives ordinary citizens rather than corporations looks somewhat unusual. That the E.U. even considered abolishing freedom of panorama is not a good sign, even though the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of keeping it, while the decision on net neutrality appear to be a case of, "if you can't convince, then confuse".

What the E.U. needs right now is a major political success - setting out a better policy for Greek debt, a policy to stem the flow of refugees through action at the source, that sort of thing. Day-to-day regulations are all well and good, but somewhat petty in the current political climate.

Image Problem

Which way is the train going ? Are you sure ? Look again. No-one seems to have much of a clue what the point of the E.U. is either. Or they do, but everyone else thinks it should be something different. It's not that the E.U. merely isn't projecting a vision, it's that it doesn't even have one. That is its strength - most of the time, it isn't trying to ride roughshod over national concerns, and its weakness - no-one can easily say what the blasted thing is for. It simultaneously appears to be a sort of pro-state yet not a state, overbearing yet ineffectual. The result is that the only people in Britain who care about the E.U. are the ones who hate it, hence most of our MEPS are members of UKIP. This is going to be a big problem if there's a low voter turnout at the referendum.

To be more precise, the goal of the E.U. to foster peace by greater economic interdependency is clear enough. The devil's in the details. Is this to be a pax Europa, "they make a wilderness and call it peace", with all aspects of life subject to bureaucratic regulation ? Just how far is this interdependency supposed to go ? Is the aim to dissolve national sovereignty, regulate it, or should the whole thing be strictly limited to economics ? Will we have a United States of Europe or just a European financial bloc ? How can you expect people to endorse something if they don't even know what it is they're supposed to be endorsing ?

Few in Britain - myself included - are keen on the idea of "ever closer union". Maybe that will happen on a timescale of many decades, but it isn't something you can foist on people next Tuesday. It can only happen of its own inevitability through a shared spirit of European identity. We don't have that yet. We're not even close.


The E.U. is not Star Trek's United Federation of Planets. Nor is it a modern day Empire or a regime of any kind. It's as flawed and as necessary as any other modern political institution, and while people often complain very loudly about whoever's in power, few of them ever want to actually bring down Parliament itself. Political problems are generally solved through evolution, not revolution - reform the system, don't trash it. Perhaps the one good thing about this silly referendum is that it might force the E.U. to realise that major reforms are urgently needed.

There are many serious problems and failures of the E.U., but it's also had many successes. In my opinion, the right way to address those problems is not to leave but to stay in in order to sort them out. We cannot ignore this massive economic entity on our doorstop, nor do we have a snowball's chance in hell of somehow having more influence outside it than from within - it's not as though we can go out and re-take India, for heaven's sake. Just about every single other country and major political figure on the planet - with the exception of Donald Drumpf - is telling us this. Could this not simply be because this is blindingly obvious ?

This man thinks we should leave the E.U. Call me crazy, but I question his sage political wisdom.
Were we to leave the E.U., I doubt we would sink into total obscurity or suffer the Ten Plagues of Egypt as many campaigners seem to think. But I see no way in which we would not be diminished. Instead of bitching about the problems of the E.U. management, we should be more actively involved in running the thing. None of the problems are insurmountable without a bit of clear leadership. Achieving leadership that everyone respects (doesn't matter who's actually in charge), that's the tricky part.

Finally, while there are many uncertainties, there are two things I think we can be reasonably confident about if we did leave. First, Scotland would almost certainly leave the U.K., because Scotland loves the E.U. That would inevitably weaken both Scotland and the remaining U.K. nations. Secondly, it's at least plausible that the loss of the English economy would weaken the E.U. considerably, and fears of a precipitating the break-up of the whole thing do not look so far-fetched given current crises. Leaving the E.U. looks likely to hurt a lot more people than it would in any way help - yes, those people are foreigners, but so bloody what.

And perhaps that's what the message and goal of the E.U. should be about - help. Not running a state or merely running Corporation Europe, but helping wherever it's requested and required. Can't get a job in your own country ? Have some European investment to improve the situation, or, move to another country. Need to build a particle accelerator but don't have a few billion Euros to spare ? Pool your resources. Suffering from oppressive governments ? Call in the ECHR.

It isn't easy. Mistakes will be made. It just looks to me that, now that's we're in, that it's going to be a lot easier to stay in the E.U. than trying to do all this on our own. We could do it on our own, but what would be the point ? We already have a system for European economic and political co-operation, and while it may not be the greatest political institution ever conceived, it certainly isn't the worst. So let's stay and utilise its benefits, exploit it, work with it, and ultimately, improve it. Let's help each other, not divide and rule or cower in isolation. Even if the E.U. dissolves, the European nations will still be a thing. Ignoring them won't make them go away.

Monday 23 May 2016

Nearly Nirvana

Previously I've described how one of my general philosophies in life is to be moderate in moderation. Most of the time, the middle ground is the correct approach and almost always the best default position to adopt. But sometimes things are so extreme that normal rules do not apply : some things need to be censored, some activities banned, some punishments severe.

A nice fictional example from Star Trek illustrates this quite well. In the two part episode Redemption, commander Data defies orders but in doing so bloodlessly prevents a Klingon-Romulan war. Yet, rule-follower to a fault, he 'fesses up to Captain Picard that he's guilty of insubordination : the ends don't justify the means, he says. Picard says, "bite me" and tells him to "get back to work, you stupid robot", only with more inspirational feel-good style.

Star Trek is replete with similar examples of moral ambiguity, but that particular scene has always bothered me. There are a great many situations where the ends don't justify the means but that isn't one of them. Rules are not automatically just or moral, and if you break one of them without injury to anyone in the cause of preventing a freakin' war, it should be obvious that yes, of course you're bloomin' justified, you great ninny. Otherwise you have the stupid scenario of saying that millions of people being blown to smithereens is better than disobeying orders, which is just stupidy stupidy stupid.

Data failed to realise that in extreme situations, following the normal rules isn't a virtue. This is something which is explored in depth (or, arguably, in long-winded and mostly badly-written prose) in Frank Herbert's God Emperor of Dune, in which the prophetic Emperor has to take actions normally seen as abhorrent since the only alternative is the extinction of the human species. Just as extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and vice-versa, so, perhaps, extreme situations require extreme measures.

But I'm not so sure the whole "ends do/do not justify the means" is, in general, really a very helpful philosophy either way. It depends far too strongly on the details of the situation to ever extend to a general principle. "You need me to donate blood for a transfusion to sick war veteran ? Sorry, but that's going to hurt me slightly, and the ends never justify the means.". The problem of the reverse is even easier : "You need to kill scores of cuddly kittens so that I can have better lipstick ? Fair enough, the ends always justify the means." Both of these can be right or wrong in different situations, making the whole principle as slippery as a greased eel.

An even better example comes from the staggeringly awesome Existential Comics :

Is taxation slavery ? No, of course not, unless you think it's possible to be a volunteer slave. And even if it is, I don't really care. It's patently obvious that this scenario is morally incomparable with physically chaining people up and whipping them until they build a railway. So if the end result is better for everyone (including, importantly, the "slaves") than the alternatives, then how could anyone say that the ends don't justify the means ? Whether or not you're justified is, perhaps, the wrong way of looking at a problem. As Doctor Who puts it :

Data was suffering from the Nirvana fallacy : the notion of reaching the Platonic ideal of a situation, one so perfect that it cannot ever exist in reality. He'd like to resolve the situation peacefully and obey his captain, but that's not possible because his captain is imperfect. The pseudo-fictitious Mr Nozick has the same problem : he wants everyone to be both totally free and happy, but this is impossible because some people enjoy doing extremely nasty things to other people, and he sees anything less than total freedom as equivalent to a brutal dictatorship.

Data and Nozick both have to make choices. Instead of trying to weigh the pros and cons of each choice and decide if, on balance, they result in some sort of morally net-positive outcome, perhaps they should simply be asking if their choice will make the situation better or worse. Data would see that disobeying orders is clearly the correct choice here, while Mr Nozick will escape the idiotic dilemma that taxation is slavery - because the whole, "do the ends justify the means ?" thingy is avoided. The ends and the means are kept completely separate. The situation on the ground - what people are actually doing and how content they are - is infinitely more important than linguistic and philosophical quibbles.

Data and Nozick must, of course, judge the possible consequences of their actions. That is unavoidable. And they can't know everything or the consequences of every possible action, as characters in Dune can. A Nirvana fallacy would be to say that they shouldn't make any choices at all because they will inevitably make mistakes, whereas in fact they can and should only make the best choice they can given the information they have available. It does not, as some seem to think*, mean that because they can't achieve perfection they shouldn't try and make things better - rather it's the exact opposite !

* Google Plus link is liable to disappear. This was a discussion about gun control.

According to certain befuddled Americans, the whole of Britain is a sort of Nirvana, a template island paradise. It's apparently a fallacy to suggest that America should have even rudimentary gun control laws, because there's just no way to do that in the real world. Mass shootings have to happen every year because schoolchildren being shot are somehow preventing dictatorships (yes, people really believe that, it's not hyperbole). Laws don't prevent crime, apparently, which is one of the silliest things I've ever heard, or at least they apparently don't prevent crime completely [same gun control discussion link as above] so they're not worth having. Single payer healthcare is just totally a pipe dream that can't ever happen in reality, despite being reality in Britain since 1948.

So much for the American can-do attitude, I guess.

This other Eden, this sceptred isle, this demi-paradise...I mean if Britain is a Nirvana, then it's certainly a very odd sort of Nirvana.
There's nothing wrong with postulating an ideal and working towards it, because in general people are well aware that they will never reach perfection - that's not the point. The point is to make things better than they were before. If Mr Nozick lived under a totalitarian regime, it wouldn't have been a Nirvana fallacy for him to suggest that things would be better if people had more freedom, just as if there was total anarchy it wouldn't be a Nirvana fallacy to suggest that things would be better with a bit of regulation. In neither case would a sensible citizen bewail the inevitable downfall of civilization; it's perfectly possible, indeed normal, to hold the center. Things don't always fall apart.

I expect Yeats just couldn't think of a good rhyme for "unstable equilibrium".
In short, it's a Nirvana fallacy to believe that things must either be perfect or they're not worth doing, or that anything that's even a little bit better or worse is the same as taking it to the idealised extremes. To suggest that taxation / gun control / healthcare / censorship / the E.U. / laws are always absolutely good or bad in any conceivable situation are both Nirvana fallacies. Merely suggesting that if we took things to extremes we could achieve an ideal (or, equally, hellish) state isn't a Nirvana fallacy - rather, the fallacy is to say that if we do this one little thing, we'll be instantly and/or inevitably as bad as the worst despots or as wonderful as the magical happy land of the Care Bears. It's like the slippery slope fallacy on steroids.

The tricky part is that of course sometimes one thing does lead to another and the extreme outcomes do happen. The fallacy aspect, the bit to avoid, is the notion that this is inevitable in every situation. It is true that pretty much anything becomes awful if do you take it to extremes : veganism becomes bloody stupid if you starve yourself rather that eat an egg from a battery-farmed chicken; pacifism means surrender and oppression if you insist that conquerors won't attack you if you disarm. But, by and large, the burden of proof should be on those claiming an inevitable extreme outcome. Preventing lunatics from buying assault rifles won't end in tyranny, free healthcare won't usher in a communist regime, charity does not equate to surrender.

Except that even this meme is too simple, as William of Occam will attest to. You can also have complex but wrong and simple and right. Of course the point is that people will choose the simple answer regardless of its validity.
Which is not to say that the idea avoid the ends-justify-the-means thingy completely, because that would be a Nirvana fallacy in itself. But, generally speaking, EJTM choices are a sort of trolley problem : a choice between two extremes which is so ridiculously strict that it has very little relevance to the real world.

Confucius famously understood the essence of this : even a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a first step*. Forget worrying about whether you're dong more good than harm, and for God's sake don't avoid things just because they're imperfect. Everything's imperfect. Just try and improve on what's there already. As in life, so in science : don't try to learn everything, just try to learn more. You can't do perfect research. You can only do the best you can with what you've got. Which seems an appropriate point to end on a lengthy quote from Paul Kriwaczek's Babylon :

* He might well have added, "and you can stop along the way and turn back, if you want to."
The next great shift of values and ideal was the one that ultimately led from village farming to our own city civilization. The urban revolution was not quite as destructive of the old ways as the change from hunting and gathering had been. But those who chose this path still had to give up a great deal, including their autonomy, their freedom and their very identity as self-reliant and independent actors. It must have been a very powerful belief that persuaded them to follow a dream whose full working-out was both unforeseeable and unforeseeably far ahead, a belief that could persuade men and women that the sacrifice was worth making : that city living offered the possibility of a better future, indeed that there was such a thing as the Future, which could be made different from what had gone before. This was, above all, an ideological choice.
... These people were, unlike the others of their time, never slaves to tradition, never satisfied with what had gone before, but aiming for constant improvement. In the course of some ten centuries, they tore down and rebuilt these constructions eleven times, an average of once every ninety years or so, displaying an impatience with the old and a welcome of the new on an almost American scale. The Eridu temple was the symbol of a community who believed in - perhaps one might even say invented - the ideology of progress : the idea that it was both possible and desirable continually to improve on what had gone before, that the future could and should be better - and bigger - than the past. The divine power celebrated and honoured here was the expression, embodiment and personification of that idea : no less than the God or Goddess of Civilization.

Tuesday 10 May 2016

Politically Correct or Politically Cuckoo ?

Ever find yourself agreeing with something only to find yourself agreeing with the exact opposite five minutes later ? I do. Especially when it comes to the torrent of articles about whether we're all too easily offended and suchlike. Yes, censorship is bad. Saying unpleasant things isn't necessarily good or bad, but can be necessary. Treating people like special snowflakes is bad, but not respecting their beliefs is also bad. Being intolerant is bad. And being racist is bad too, but intolerance of racism is good. It's all frightfully confusing.

To try and make sense of my dilemma of apparently agreeing with everyone, I've been trying to address one small point and decide what it is we really mean by politically correct. As with most things, Wikipedia is a good place to start. It says :
Political correctness (adjectivally: politically correct), commonly abbreviated to PC,[1] is a term which, in modern usage, is used to describe language, policies, or measures which are intended not to offend or disadvantage any particular group of people in society. In the media, the term is generally used as a pejorative, implying that these policies are excessive.
Other parts of the internet put it more succinctly, saying that it just means treating other people with respect. This leads to amusing results when media headlines are appropriately altered.

It seems to be that there are two quite distinct meanings to the term, but both can be legitimate. The first is just basically being nice to people and not trying to insult them on the basis of whatever group it is they happen to belong to. This is what politically correct is supposed to mean. The second sense of the term is what crops up typically in right-wing newspapers, and means something like, "walking on eggshells", as though your own true feelings should always be kept back in the 1950's, you racist bastard : essentially, being nice to people and not insulting them even for legitimate reasons. Or, if you prefer, it's politically correct in that it agrees with an ideology, as opposed to being factually correct, which is of course not necessarily the same thing. And that does happen too, though it should surprise no-one when I say that I think it's rather rarer than the nutty right-wing gutter press believe.

Obviously, treating people with respect is a good thing and to be encouraged. So you might think that if this second sense of the term - which I shall refer to as political cuckoo - does happen, it's probably something else entirely. Not so. Firstly, it is possible to treat people with too much respect. This happens to just about every single king, emperor, pope and dictator in history.

In some cases with more justification than others.
Horrible newsflash, royalists : the Queen poops. She also farts and belches. I don't know if she fornicates or not, but a great many kings and no small number of popes certainly have. And yet these people are treated with something related to but exceeding respect : reverence, even worship. The reason the above headlines sound funny ("it's treating people with respect gone mad") is because a) they omit "too much", i.e. you can give undue respect, and b) the situations they describe are about struggles for equality, not elevating one group above another.

But it is possible to cross the line from political correctness to political cuckoo, and yes, that could be argued to be fuelling extremism. Take, for example, the annual silly story that Christmas lights are to be renamed "winter lights" out of fear of offending Muslims / Hindus / Buddhists / Russell Brand, whatever. It doesn't really matter if this story is true or not, the point is that if it did happen, the ethnic or religious minority would have been granted too much respect : Christmas lights are Christmas lights, and no-one in their right mind would be offended by calling a spade a spade. And guess what ? The vast majority of said ethno-religious minority are people in their right minds, and don't give a flying Queenly poop what Christmas lights are called. It's not politically "correct" at all, it's politically cuckoo.

Obviously, that possibly-fictitious example has done about as much for fuelling extremism as cat farts contribute to global warming : it's the same basic thing, but on a scale so different that comparing them doesn't really make any sense. Fuelling extremism could potentially arise (I make no comment as to whether or not it actually does) if one group of people is held with such over-respect that crimes committed by individuals are overlooked : "these people can't possibly be guilty", or, more pertinently, "we can't be seen to be discriminating against these people".

Which, of course, doesn't necessarily happen because of a true over-reverence for the minority. The police probably don't go around thinking, "I just love black disabled lesbian Muslim people so damn much !" and how they can't arrest any of them because they're all wonderful ("positive" discrimination). But they can in principle (and perhaps do in practise) fail to act for fear of being seen as contributing to more ordinary negative discrimination, which in turn means the net effect is the same : the minority are treated with the direct equivalent of undue respect.

That's politically cuckoo - or politically correct as the fascist rags would have you believe. I prefer terms which clearly and inherently distinguish between the positive and negative aspects, because both certainly exist to some extent. "Correct" is a positive word, so let's take back "politically correct" to have only positive connotations, i.e. treating people with respect. We should also look at the less life-threatening situations of people simply saying or being too afraid to say things deemed to be offensive.

The problem is that it's entirely possible to be offended by things which aren't intrinsically damaging to you or your family or your cousin's favourite hamster in any way. It's also easy to be offended by things which are true : politicians seldom react well when their underhand dealings are revealed. People aren't all that good at judging what is really vicious and intended as such, and they're certainly not always gratified when their misdeeds are pointed out. Which means that someone being offended, by itself, tells you absolutely nothing about the moral status of whatever it was they were offended by.

Still, we might broadly define politically correct speech to be respectful and courteous to minorities, whereas politically cuckoo speech takes this to absurd extremes : avoiding speech that isn't actually offensive at all, or, far worse, not saying the truth for fear of causing offence. It's the difference between, "I can't say this, it's actually offensive" - which is a fundamentally good thing - and, "I can't say this, people will be offended", which is a terrible thing. Or equally, "I must say this because if I don't, people will be offended".

Then there's the phrase, "It's not politically correct of me to say this, but...". Well, there's nothing remotely wrong with pointing out that some minority group commit more crimes if that's actually true - not mentioning it would be politically cuckoo, you'd be treating them with undue respect. If you also want to imply a causal relationship (they're committing crimes because they're Muslims / African / French / Donald Drumpf), that is much more tricky. It can and does happen : you can't really be a good terrorist.

For example, it would be politically cuckoo indeed to say, "I'm sure all those bombs he planted and the fact he was a member of the IRA were just a complete coincidence". Whereas it would be much more borderline to say, "he planted all those bombs because he was Irish". Yes, it was a contributing factor*, but obviously it wasn't the only one, so it's just politically (and factually) incorrect to place the blame firmly on his ethnicity. Groups which preach hate and violence self-evidently do not deserve respect, whereas those which do not, or contain no intrinsic message of any kind (such as colour or nationality) deserve at the very least the benefit of the doubt. Innocent until proven guilty, and all that.

* Though only due to the terrorist's perception of the political situation, just as the political and economic situation in Somalia fuels piracy. Of course, there's absolutely no innate, permanent link between being Irish and a terrorist any more than there is between being Somalian and being a pirate.

It disturbs me that a) we need a special term for not being rude to minorities and b) the press have succeeded so fully with the idea that political correctness isn't correct at all (also the name itself doesn't help) that it's practically synonymous with "mistake". This is why we need a better term, be it political cuckoo or something else, for the kind of thing the press are usually talking about, even if that doesn't happen as often as they think it does.

One of the points from the gutter press that I must concede is that political correctness, even in the proper sense, is about telling people how to think and behave. But it's becoming a damn silly world if saying "try not to discriminate against minorities" is somehow itself offending people. It seems to me - cue brief anecdotal rant - that the people shouting most loudly against political correctness are the ones most eager to tell us all about how evil Muslims are or how "blacks" are planning to give Britain's swans cancer, or some such idiocy. By and large, the people who complain that we're all too easily offended are the ones who are the most easily offended and often also the most bigoted. With exceptions, of course.

Yet even as someone on the extreme political left, I find it disingenuous to claim that it isn't possible to go politically cuckoo. Indeed, it happens to those on the left pretty frequently, who over-react and fail to check the facts before leaping to unjustified conclusions. Tim Hunt didn't really say anything that was, at worst, anything more than mildly obnoxious; Matt Taylor didn't do anything that was truly demeaning to women. Twitter mobs ostensibly full of people in paroxysms of rage about the latest shenanigans are common. Sometimes they even happen for very good reasons, like GamerGate*.

* Because yeah, it's really about ethics in journalism and not death threats. Morons.

The problem isn't necessarily that we're all too easily offended, as is often claimed. True, sometimes people just don't know when to take a joke, but that's only part of it. Another factor is that we hear what we want to hear - or rather, what we don't want to hear. We like having adversaries. There's a nice quote in a Moby Dick adaptation : "He won't permit them to think, only to feel." When something provokes strong emotions, it becomes very hard to think rationally. Careful fact-checking to see who said it, what they've said previously, what they're likely to really mean, and what it was they actually said as opposed to the media reports ? Don't be daft, I haven't got time for that, I'm ANGRY !

People can hear a message that's hugely offensive, even if the original was nowhere near as bad - or even completely innocent. And thus political correctness becomes politically cuckoo, and earns a bad reputation. If you're going to jump down people's throats for what are at worst minor infractions, then of course people are going to stop taking you seriously.

So yeah, this one isn't so difficult. Political correctness - not discriminating for or against people - is a good thing. Going politically cuckoo - assuming people are above reproach because of their demographic, or avoiding inoffensive speech for fear of offending, or saying things which aren't true because they're nice - is a bad thing. The latter may be rarer than some suppose, but it certainly does happen, and it's damaging for everyone. And so is treating every slightly genuinely politically incorrect comment as though the person saying it was worse than Hitler. That's not the way to promote tolerance at all.

There's really only one way to end this post :

Sunday 8 May 2016

Ask An Astronomer Anything At All About Astronomy (XXIII)

A significant dearth of these posts of later owing to other time commitments. Still, here are the questions I've been able to round up over the last few weeks :

1) Is there an ordered sequence to galaxy evolution ?
No, it's a bloody great mess.

2) Could ultra-diffuse galaxies just be normal galaxies at a different stage of their evolution ?
Sure, why not.

3) Can you do science without the scientific method.

4) Are astronauts wasting time by doing marathons on the International Space Station ?
They're allowed free time, you jerk. And anyway their bones would decay if they didn't, so there.

5) Could Unruh radiation explain galactic rotation ?
Whatever Unruh radiation is I'm sure it's not as sexy as Uhura radiation.

6) How does the expansion of space cause redshift ? Where does the energy of each photon go ?

Monday 2 May 2016

Nemesis : Everyone's Favourite Death Star

The Ask An Astronomer Anything At All About Astronomy posts have become the most popular regular feature here. Usually this involves digging around in my own head for the answer, occasionally doing some quick calculations, almost always some Googling to make sure I'm not spouting nonsense, sometimes watching (usually bad) documentaries, and very occasionally reading papers. But never before have I gone to the lengths of reading an entire book because of what some moron I've never even met has written on social media.

But this post was different. Nemesis, some claimed, was "junk science" or worse, "drivel", and the post should be removed. I could not let that pass. Richard Muller's Nemesis : The Death Star was one of my favourite popular science books from my early teenage years. I had quite clear memories of it being exceptionally well-written, ruthlessly honest, and giving a detailed and interesting account of what it's really like to actually do science on a day-to-day basis. Most outreach books tell you only about the theories, whereas Nemesis also told you about the other aspects : the workload involved of getting a result, how other scientists and the media reacted, how people changed their minds or became dogmatic - in short, what the scientific method is really like, not what it's supposed to be.

So I ordered my copy for some ridiculously small amount of currency, and three weeks later it finally arrived. Three days later, I'd finished reading it, having found it quite hard to do anything else.

Nemesis is a real gem. The fact that it's about a star that disturbs comets and is likely wrong is absolutely irrelevant - it's a tour de force in intellectual honesty and a brilliantly clear description of what front-line research is really like. Still, for the sake of it, I suppose I should explain the basic premise.

The book is actually about two ideas. The first is the now well-established idea that the impact of a comet or an asteroid killed the dinosaurs 65 million years (Myr) ago. The key evidence for this is a layer of iridium across the globe at the end of the Cretaceous period. Other claims that this could have been due to a supernova or from volcanoes were very carefully examined and found to be wrong. Not merely unlikely, but quite wrong.

Image credit : me.
The second idea is more controversial. Both mass extinctions and cratering of the Earth appear to occur on regular intervals of about 26 Myr. Not everyone agrees with this, but following that assumption, the idea is that there's some event which causes a regular bombardment by comets or asteroids. The Nemesis hypothesis is that this is due to a low-mass star which orbits the Sun, perturbing the comets in the Oort cloud every 26 Myr, plus or minus a little bit. These "comet storms" last around 2 Myr and around 0-5 comets might impact the Earth during this time, hence the periodicity might not be exact and the magnitude (and duration) of the extinctions can vary.

From this summary article. The arrows are separated by 26 Myrs.
A minor point of fact : on the original post it was stated that there's a more recent alternative idea that the extinctions follow the Sun's motion through the galactic disc, which also follows a ~26 Myr cycle. Actually, this was an earlier idea considered at around the same time as the Nemesis model, and dismissed because the Sun is currently in completely the wrong place for this to work.

I've decided that this review should concentrate on the philosophy of science aspects of the book. Hence while the book itself forms a clear, straightforward narrative, I'm going to organise this review thematically. This deceptively simple theory provides an excellent lens through which to examine the complex nature of the scientific method. As I've described before and no doubt will again, the forefront of research has little resemblance to the fact-checking approach taught in schools.

Is It Really A Theory ?

"But I thought 'theory' had a special meaning for scientists", you might say. Yes and no. I suspect I've probably put about confusing mixed messages on this myself, so it's worth trying to clear this up. Throughout the book, Muller uses "theory" just like anyone else does : a synonym for "model" or "possible explanation that fits the currently-known facts". He never uses it with the special sense of also being extremely well-tested, which is a common retort to anyone who says, "just a theory" today. Indeed, he even uses, "just a theory" himself. So do real scientists, all the time. Happens every day.

While it would certainly be extremely useful to have a distinct word for very well-tested model, as opposed to hypothesis, the reality is we just don't. The word isn't used like that. To hell with whatever the "official" definition is - it's usage that matters. And as I've described very recently, even very sophisticated models which explain the facts with very impressive precision can still be utterly wrong. So is it fair to say, "only a theory" after all ?

Without some rigorous, objective definition of "very well-tested", I think it has to be done on a case-by-case basis. Certainly you cannot say that evolution is only a theory, because speciation has been observed to be happening. And it's certainly not fair to say that relativity is "only" a theory either, because its predictions have been verified time and time again with insane precision. It could still be wrong, but it makes no sense to call it "only" a theory - that cheapens the immense workload involved in both creating the idea and testing its predictions. But you definitely can say "only a model" for lesser ideas that have not withstood decades of careful testing.

Extraordinary Evidence Requires Extraordinary Claims

Or as Muller puts it on page 4, "ludicrous results require ludicrous theories". This is the flip side of the famous quote, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence". Not everyone likes this, though I tend to agree with it. If your claim (or theory) is in stark contrast to very well-established results, the burden of proof is firmly on you. To disprove a widely-accepted idea (except during those rare cases* when the establishment has reached a stupid conclusion), you ought to have pretty good evidence against most (not necessarily all) of the major points. Collectively, the strength of this evidence would have to be extraordinary - though, importantly, each individual piece of evidence need not be especially strong.

* There was a very nice recent article I wanted to link here, on describing what actually happened to scientists who claimed that animals could think, but I can't find it. Do let me know if you think you've found it.

But somehow the reverse of this had never really occurred to me - at least, not in such an eloquent way. In fairness I have mentioned on occasion that sometimes evidence forces you to a conclusion you may not like. That is, after all, how science works. The difference is that this is a nice succinct, quotable reminder that sometimes you cannot avoid seemingly crazy ideas.

Don't Be Hasty

Or more importantly, don't be overly-critical. In Muller's words, skepticism needs to be "finely honed". This is one of my favourite aspects of the book, a running theme for which many examples are given. It's a simple enough idea which I've pointed out elsewhere many times : if you really attack an idea too strongly (especially when it's in its infancy), you can shoot anything down - even really good ideas. It's the difference between true skepticism and denial.

Knowing where to draw the line isn't easy. Muller gives many examples of when he and others seemed to be straying into denial (and even outright abuse) rather than skepticism. Indeed the book opens with his former PhD supervisor arguing that an idea is just stupid based on authority. Obviously real scientists aren't supposed to do that, but they do anyway. Although Muller wins the argument, near the end of the book we find his supervisor apparently hasn't learned anything, dismissing a related idea as "just nonsense" without examining it. Yet these are exceptions - far from being a critique, much of the book actually feels like a bromance with his supervisor. Scientists aren't saints.

And Muller gives plenty of examples of when he spots his own over-skepticism too. Toward the end, he gets word of a similar rival theory in which he finds a flaw. He called the authors :
"A few days later he called back and said my criticism was indeed valid, and their old theory was in fact wrong. But now they had a revised variation on the theory that didn't have the same weakness... I asked myself why I hadn't attempted to salvage their old theory, rather than just knock it down ? I realised once again that I had been getting lazy. I had a theory of my own, and I was trying to disprove other theories. I wasn't trying to find alternatives that worked."
The Platonic ideal of science is that it's about finding out what's happening. In practise, it's at least as often about disproving your rivals - which is part of the reason why peer review is important. It's usually a lot easier to find out what doesn't work than what does, and all too often we fall into the trap of trying to shoot people down rather than uncovering the truth. Which is not to say that some ideas don't deserve to be shot down. It's complicated. A couple of passages deserve to be quoted at length :
"Skepticism, the ability not to be fooled, was clearly important, but it is also cheap. It is easy to disbelieve everything, and some scientists seemed to take this approach. Sometimes Luis was skeptical, but more often he seemed to embrace crazy ideas, at least at first. He rarely dismissed anything out of hand, no matter how absurd, until he examined it closely. But then one tiny flaw, solidly established, was enough to kill it. His openness to wild ideas was balanced by his firmness in dismissing those that were flawed. He had a finely honed skepticism... A scientist differs from other people in that he knows how easily he is fooled, and goes through procedures to compensate."
And later :
"Scientists are trained to be skeptical, to doubt, to test everything... but they never mention that too much skepticism can be just as bad as too little. When presented with a new, startling, and strange result, it is easy to find flaws and come up with reasons to dismiss the finding. Even if the skeptic can't find an outright mistake, he can say, "I'm not convinced". In fact, most scientists (myself included) have found that if you dismiss out of hand all claims of great new discoveries, you will be right 95% of the time. But every once in a while, there will be that rare occasion when you are wrong. Likewise you cannot afford to lose your skepticism or you will waste your time in hopelessly blind alleys.
How do you develop the right sense of skepticism - when to dismiss and when to take seriously ? How do you argue with someone who has a different level of skepticism ? How do you respond to the statement, "I'm not convinced" ? The best way, the only possible way, is to go on with the work. Be grateful that the competition has not even entered the race, and has left all the fun to you. Someone had once said, "Research is the process of going up alleys to see if they are blind.""
One technique I've recently been finding useful is to numerically estimate the odds you think that a new idea could be correct. It really doesn't matter how you arrive at the number, that's not the point. The point is to remind yourself that you might be wrong. You can give extremely high odds if you want, but there is almost always some wiggle room which demands you consider the unknown unknowns. Trying to put a number on it forces you to consider possible alternatives, which you might otherwise not do.

You're Usually Wrong

Another extremely important running theme is that humans are quite a lot like dogs, though it's not phrased like that in the book. Dogs rely heavily on trial and error, especially when a human tries to teach them a new trick. So it is with science more than we might like to admit. Muller's advice is to try to have one good idea per week, and to keep trying out the crazy ideas. The book is replete with examples of outlandish ideas being tested. Most of these don't survive more than about twenty minutes of discussions with colleagues -  a few last days, and a very few go to to be published.

And these ideas really are outlandish and ridiculous. There was the idea that the dinosaurs were all killed by a HUMONGOUS tsunami that somehow swept entire continents clean. There was the one about hydrogen from the Sun combining with water in the atmosphere to form excessive clouds that darkened the sky. How about the one that comets impacting sunspots get vaporised and blown back to Earth where they cause a magnetic field flip ? Or the one about the Sun going nova, which any undergraduate astronomer could tell them is fundamentally impossible ?

This ties in closely with the idea that you shouldn't be overly-skeptical. What you should do, in my view, is be aware of the alternatives but not necessarily investigate them yourself. That's really a personal choice and you're not obliged to investigate someone else's crazy idea. But if you raise an objection, you're obliged to hear their counter-argument.

For example, right at the start of the book there was the statement that Nemesis' apogee would be about 2.8 light years from the Sun. They considered this to be close enough that it wouldn't get pulled away by other stars. That had me extremely worried that the book was, after all, junk science. 2.8 light years is more than half the distance to the nearest star, so the Sun won't affect it as much as the other stars*. So if I'd been in the room, I'd have shot the idea down instantly.

* They also had more sophisticated models where the orbit wasn't so large but the star still managed to enter the Oort cloud every 26 Myr, but found that these didn't work.

This is still my strongest objection, but they did (eventually) come up with a clever counter-argument. Passing stars, they say, will only influence Nemesis when they are within about a light year or so (not sure where they get this number from) and at the speed they're typically moving this will rarely last for more than 30,000 years. The time between perturbing stars is more like a million years, so passing stars don't act for long enough to do much. And the direction they perturb Nemesis will be random, whereas the gravitational attraction towards the Sun is always in the same direction. They also came up with numerical models to investigate this, though no details were given.

Having experienced first hand how difficult orbital dynamics can be, I ended up less skeptical than at the start. But without more details, I'm still not fully convinced. My perhaps naive concern is that once you end up deeper in the gravity well of another star than the Sun, you're in big trouble. I don't know.

Observations Can Be Wrong

While we're dealing with the things I don't like about the book (few as those are), the thing I found strangest was a consistent attitude that if the observational numbers were in conflict with the theory, then the observations must be wrong. Now, I've just publically rubbished* the EmDrive, which claims to be producing minute amounts of thrust even though theory says it shouldn't - so you might well accuse me of hypocrisy. But the theory against the EmDrive - the conservation of momentum - has literally been tested for centuries, whereas Nemesis had been investigated by a handful of people for a few months. So I found it a mite strange that when they found a number that didn't agree, they didn't immediately regard it as falsifying their theory.

 * Google Plus link is liable to disappear. In that thread I argued with people who did not understand that peer review trumps repetition. Repeatedly claiming to get the same result does not strengthen your claim in the slightest unless someone actually checks what you've done, not to mention systematic effects. I summarised this here.

And yet, reluctantly, I'm forced to agree that their approach was correct. They cite several examples where, on checking, the observational numbers were indeed found to be in error. Sometimes those changes were in favour of their theory, but sometimes they were against it. And when they were against it, they did the only reasonable thing possible : they changed their minds. Importantly, they attacked their own findings with the same zeal they applied to others.

By far the best example concerns an early idea that the dinosaurs were killed by a supernova. The experiment they ran to test this looked for minute amounts of plutonium by irradiating a sample of Cretaceous rock. It was not a straightforward procedure. It took two weeks just to prepare, then required a literally all-night session (since the radioactive material produced quickly decays) to make the measurement. Initially, the results were astonishing. It seemed like a clear, decisive victory, and for a few glorious moments it seemed as though a select few people knew what really killed the dinosaurs before anyone else did. And yet... the amount of plutonium detected was too low. So they re-did the entire thing, and discovered they'd picked up contamination from elsewhere in the lab. Their initial result was simply wrong.

Observations have the last word, of course. But observational measurements involve just as much care as the theoretical predictions, and if the two are in conflict, it's maybe not quite so easy to decide which is correct.

Don't Be Fooled

As mentioned earlier, a scientist should be aware of how easily they can fool themselves - even, as we've just seen, with observational results. That's why we demand statistical significance. Sometimes raw numbers aren't enough, which is demonstrated in this case by the extinction and cratering periodicity. Luis Alvarez, Muller's former supervisor, wasn't convinced by their statistical analysis, finding it too weak to be worth considering. So Muller devised a way to let Luis convince himself. He generated artificial plots of the cratering, some of which were random and some with periodicity. He gave these to Alvarez unlabelled, along with the true data and told him to select the three he thought were the most periodic. Alvarez's selection included the real plot and two of the plots with artificial periodicity - without knowing it, he'd rejected the ones which were purely random.

This is all very convincing stuff when you read it. On reflection, I'm nearly there, but I can't quite make the leap to conviction. It shouldn't be necessary to emphasise statistically weak effects like this. Muller himself admits on his website that not everyone agrees it's significant, and without this, the theory is dead. And yet there seems to also be a matching rate in large craters and, possibly, in magnetic field flips, so if I have to choose I'd say it's probably real.

You might be wondering how an impact could change the magnetic poles. Well, they came up with a remarkably ingenuous mechanism to explain this. The magnetic field is generated at least in part through the molten outer core of the Earth. If the spin of the solid crust and mantle were to change, this would cause a twist in the magnetic field as the core lagged behind. The impact itself couldn't alter the spin enough to do this directly. But the after effects just might. The dust thrown up from the impact, along with the soot from forest fires, could cause a significant temperature drop and increased snowfall near the poles. That shifts a not insignificant fraction of the Earth's water, altering its spin.

But is this just, err, spinning an elaborate idea to explain something of marginal significance ? Possibly. The discoverer of the magnetic field flip periodicity withdrew his claim, saying it wasn't significant enough (though he maintained that extinctions are periodic). Which ties in quite well with the old adage about beautiful theories being slain by ugly facts. Not though, as Muller repeatedly points out, that all wrong theories are devoid of merit.

It's Not Always Fun To Be Wrong

The whole point of science is to find out things you didn't know before. Sometimes the most wonderful and rewarding part of the process is to have your entire world view overturned by a new discovery - it's a thrill, an intellectual adrenaline rush. But not always. Nemesis deals with this in a blunt and incredibly honest way.

Muller notes that when the supernova theory (which his group supported) was proven wrong, this was still progress. It also wasn't their idea originally. It's easy to be pleased when you've disproved someone else, even if you agreed with them, which is another reason for peer review. If, however, your goal is to find out what's really happening and not merely disprove ideas, even this can be disappointing rather than elating. Muller makes it clear that he went through a lot of long periods of frustration as he struggled to work out what was really going on. Wrong idea followed wrong idea with no light at the end of the tunnel.

Sometimes these days there seems to be a lot of emphasis on the idea that you can't ever prove anything in science. I profoundly disagree. The Earth was proved to be round by observations. Evolution was proved to happen by observations. The Universe has been proved - near as damn it - to be expanding by observations. The existence of Neptune was predicted by theory then proved with observations. As long as you accept the existence of an objective, measurable reality, then of course you can prove a theory. Which is why the ideas of the Universe being a simulation or an illusion are just unscientific gibberish (Note : I haven't read those links). Proof may be rare, but it does happen.

Muller also notes a difference between theorist and experimenters : if an experimenter publishes a result which is found to be wrong, it will damage their reputation, whereas if a theorist comes up with a wrong idea then it does them little harm so long as it's clever. The issue is, of course, one of competence. Experimenters are supposed to understand how to use the equipment correctly to get the right numbers - if they get something wrong, they've exposed their own incompetence*. Theorists are much more free to speculate.

* Which is not to say that they can't ever make mistakes. Muller recounts how Alvarez was delighted with him when he dropped and broke a $15,000 piece of equipment, because these things just happen even to the best of us.

Even for theorists, though, Muller notes how he felt free to discuss outrageously stupid ideas with some colleagues but not others. No-one likes exposing their own stupidity in front of strangers, but being able to discuss ridiculous ideas with trusted colleagues is vital. The thing is, when you've established a strong and prestigious reputation like Muller, you can get away with exposing the stupid ideas you came up with along the way. The rest of us can't afford to do that. Transparency isn't always such a virtue.

Media Mania

At first, Muller says he enjoyed the attention, despite already being a prominent scientist. But then he's honest enough to confess that he likes prestige and was jealous of Alvarez when he demonstrated that a meteor likely killed the dinosaurs. Maybe science shouldn't be motivated by such mundane trivia as money or fame, or have political concerns about whether publishing a paper will damage one's reputation - but in the real world all these things happen, like it or not.

Soon though, he began to realise the damage the attention was doing. He was, he says, secretly pleased that the New York Times ran an article insulting the Nemesis theory, even comparing it with astrology, as this meant he couldn't be accused of doing science by press release. This quickly soured. Local news agencies always go to local scientists for comment, but often they haven't read the original paper so they're only commenting on the press releases. Like Chinese whispers, errors quickly multiply, and the theory's reputation suffered.

Worse, and much more surprising, was that scientists were not just giving quick responses to requests for media interviews - in which case the errors would be understandable - but also writing rebuttal papers without having read the original. Or as Muller says :
"When colleagues asked me whether we had any response to the 'latest criticism', I often responded by saying, 'Yes, and you can read it in our original paper.'"
Even the scientifc journals were not above dubious behaviour. The original draft of their paper contained a wonderful footnote :
"If and when the companion is found, we suggest it be named NEMESIS, after the Greek goddess who relentlessly persecutes the excessively rich, proud, and powerful. Alternative names are : KALI, the "black", after the Hindu goddess of death and destruction, who nonetheless is infinitely kind and generous to those she loves; INDRA, after the vedic god of storms and war, who uses a thunderbolt (comet ?) to slay a serpent (dinosaur ?), thereby releasing life-giving waters from the mountains, and finally GEORGE, after the saint who slew the dragon. We worry if the companion is not found, this paper will be our nemesis."
I love it. It injects both self-doubt and self-deprecation. The journal, however, promoted the footnote to a paragraph and deleted all the names except Nemesis without the author's permission. I think that's pretty awful. Clearly, the people have been working hard at making papers unreadable for some time. Depressingly, problems in the media extend from the lowest tabloid to the most prestigious journal.

Nobody Reads The Literature Any More

This is a phrase oft-repeated throughout the book. And it's perfectly understandable, because most papers are unreadable. Now, obviously scientific papers don't need to feature lolcats. They have to contain the nitty-gritty details other researchers need to understand exactly what was done, and for heavily mathematical works there's only so much that can be done to make them readable. But there's absolutely no reason at all the comment about George had to be taken out, any more than the name of Boaty McBoatface needs changing. The occasional mild chuckle will do absolutely no-one any harm and an awful lot of good, because people will be far more willing to read papers thoroughly.

Whether the implication of, "any more" that people read more literature in the past is true, I don't know. I suspect not. At least, I haven't noticed any obvious trend for older papers to be any more readable. On the other hand publication rates are higher so the sheer volume of material now makes reading the literature a daunting prospect.

This is a large topic. All I'll say is that the state of academic writing could be easily improved with a very few changes : the authors should feel free to speculate provided they are clear they are speculating and don't contradict the facts, colloquial expressions should be permitted in moderation, clarity should be emphasised over brevity, obfuscation should be seen as a black mark, a narrative flow should be encouraged where appropriate, and above all meaning and implication should be as explicit as possible - to the extent of assuming the reader hasn't been studying that particular topic for fifteen years.

Epilogue : Death of the Death Star ?

To summarise : it's a fantastic book. You should buy it. But the obvious question must be asked - is the theory correct ? Well... no, probably not. Any fool could have told them that their predictions of detecting the star in three months were wildly optimistic. You don't need hindsight to see that, just practical experience of doing astronomy. And yet, more than twenty years and many large-area surveys later, the silence from the sky is deafening.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Actually that's not entirely true : you most certainly can have evidence of absence; you can, with difficulty, prove a negative. You can't necessarily prove that Bigfoot doesn't exist somewhere, but you can prove he doesn't exist in this particular patch of forest. In this case it seems there have been enough surveys that an object with the properties of Nemesis would have been detected by now if it existed - or at least, that's the claim. Having read the book, anyone with any sense ought to get the message that science is hard, and jumping to conclusions without having read the literature (even if that it is really tedious) is foolhardy. It's not always obvious to spot where the mistake is.

Is it junk science ? Like hell. Is it drivel ? Screw you ! Regular readers will be aware of just how much time I spend fighting the pernicious myth of the dogmatic scientist - but when people behave like this, they are indeed being dogmatic. You're not helping me out here guys. And yet... Nemesis is a true story of science, warts and all. It's full of people at their best, when the evidence changes their mind, and at their worst, when they dig in their heels and refuse to listen to reason.

It's also a story of drive, determination, doubt, human fallibility, and sheer complexity. I am left in no doubt that they team did the absolute best that any reasonable human being could expect of them. But ultimately it's a reminder of the importance of the long game : trust no new results, because there almost certainly hasn't been time to check them properly, but don't dismiss them out of hand either. Treat media claims of "mystery solved" as though they'd reported the discovery of the Loch Ness monster. Real science is a process of continuous self-doubt and external criticism. Even if there is a key paper that solves a mystery, it usually takes years before you can be sure of that. Don't be hasty indeed.

I've really only scratched the surface with this pseudo-review. I haven't told you half as much about Muller's forthright attitude as I should, how he admits to thinking his supervisor was being overly-skeptical or did the whole project as an excuse to work with his estranged son. Or how Muller himself felt jealously and envy - even to the point of being relieved when a Nemesis candidate turned out to be false because his team hadn't found it. Nor have I said much about the continuous process of investigating new ideas, with the many knife-edge moments when it looked like the whole thing would come crashing down. I think it's wonderful. If I have to rate it, I can't give it anything other than 10/10.