Monday, October 21, 2013

philosophical transaction

With a freshly opened bottle of 1995 Carta Roja Gran Reserva next to me – and how long has it been since I started a blog post with the wine I was drinking when I wrote it – I happily submitted to the second episode of Brian Cox's Science Britannica. It's not only the wine. It's also been ages since I reviewed anything on the iPlayer.

Brian Cox is one of the outstanding science communicators in the UK these days. To my uneducated ears, he's the foremost singer of the English language – there's really no way you could call speaking what the the guy is doing in front of the camera – and an enthusiastic scientist to boot. Today's episode (today referring to the day I downloaded the episode) was about scientific breakthroughs and achievements. Bletchley Park was mentioned and Cavendish's laboratory (as opposed to the Cavendish laboratory), as well as the Royal Society and the Royal Institution. Never mind the language of the presenter, the show was amusing and also edifying, reinforcing and breaking public conceptions of scientists in equal measure.

Sometimes I wonder whether I can consider myself a scientist at all. If that happens on a Sunday night and I look back onto a weekend spent getting a manuscript ready for publication, the answer is unambiguous. But if it happens when I survey my professional development, I'm less sure. The true scientist, the searcher of truth, the ingenue (for which the dictionary, in its engrained sexism, does not have a male equivalent) on a quest for reason – this is not something I see in myself.

But maybe science is more than is shown on TV. I grab a bottle of Bushmills that had made its way over from Ulster a good year ago, grab a glass and get into a thinking pose. A memorable contributor to the documentary was a mathematician who said that seeing him work wasn't much different from seeing him sleep. The tinkerer, the searcher, the solver of problems – that is a scientist, and I can surely identify with that.

The BBC show I was watching ended with the presenter being credited as Professor Brian Cox. What the hell is a professor? Is that someone being paid for professing? Is it a professional professor, someone who professes for a living? What would be the point of that? Semantics, I know, but worth thinking about nevertheless.

Tomorrow, I'll go back to the little crystallography facility I run at Imperial, trying to keep things going smoothly for the few dozen of users that stop by on a regular basis, users that try to crystallize their proteins and solve the structures of the proteins thus crystallized. It doesn't sound like much, but it's all part of the scientific endeavor.

Monday, October 07, 2013


Just about a week ago, the US government shut down.  Ramifications are impossible to feel this early in the madness and this far away, but one can only hope that the Tea Party is right, that government is bad and that everything will run much better without.  Businesses near recently closed national parks are apparently already learning that relying on tax dollars (for the maintenance and running of said parks) isn't a sensible business strategy and that they should do the American thing and stand on their own two legs.

How long can a government shut down for?  Quite a long time, to go by a few recent examples.  Not too long ago, Belgium ran on autopilot for nearly two years.  No one noticed because nothing happened.  Chaos and pandemonium stayed away, and the Belgians kept selling waffles, diamonds, lace and Smurf-colored chocolates.  Late in 2011, they went back to having a government, out of a European sense of tradition presumably.

Italy has been without government for a few decades now, at least in spirit, for anything involving Berlusconi cannot with a straight face be called government.  Even before him, things hadn't looked good, more theater of the absurd than politics as you know it.  Italy is going through rough times now but not any rougher than those of its neighbors, and it's hard to make the case that the lack of government has anything to do with it.

Somalia, to complete the triumvirate that the US now turns into an unlikely quartet, has not only had no government in ages, it has also been a complete basket case, and a place of war, violence and everything that comes with it - with one qualification:  Despite not having a central bank, the country's currency is running as strong as ever.  There has been no authority behind the notes and no official effort to print new ones for more than 20 years, but they're still used daily.  Proponents of the gold standard will tell you the worn 1000 shilling notes are just shreds of worthless paper – and then faint from exasperation.  You can still trade them for qat on the market.

Conclusion:  None!  The three examples are just that.  They prove nothing because examples can't.  They're funny to contemplate and somewhat edifying – the world isn't going to end because civil servants aren't paid, and the dollar won't collapse – but they don't mean that any of what's going on at the moment is sensible or healthy.