Back To the Future

fifties science fiction spaceshipThe BBC Radio 4 program Archive Hour was just brilliant on the weekend. Here is the synopsis:

Adam Hart Davies looks at some of the predictions made in the past by scientists, programme-makers and politicians about how future society and technology would develop. He explores some of the moral and ethical dilemmas arising from mankind’s thirst for new inventions, new technologies and new ways of life.

(Image right: Chesley Bonestell painting for a cover of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1950. See more art from that era at this excellent site.)

It brings to the issue a lot of archival footage of interviews, debates, and other material. There are interviews with many interesting people, including scientists and science fiction writers. The role of science fiction (the really good stuff, not the stuff that’s purely space opera… although sometimes it is hard to know which is which without the benefit of hindsight) is discussed quite a bit too.

There are the usual discussions about mobile phones, communications satellites, and the like, well-known things that were anticipated by writers of fiction, but the programme is much more interesting than that, reflecting upon the impact of various technologies and medical techniques (e.g. heart transplants) and how they were regarded and debated at the time, since they were often seen as either assaults on, or enhancements of (depending upon point of view) our humanity. This discussion is all in aid of reflecting upon us in the present. (Consider carefully the face transplant, for example, and how people react to what that means…)

There’s also very interesting discussion of the moral/ethical responsibility of the […] Click to continue reading this post

Get One For A Friend

Science and Society… Science Education. You’ve heard me speak of this issue so many times here, so I won’t repeat myself too much. Seems that Natalie Angier is in agreement – So much so that she took matters into her capable hands and wrote a book to try to change things: “Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science”. I have not read it, but I’ve heard a lovely NPR interview with her today, and she read an extract. You can hear it at this NPR site, and also read an even longer extract there.

natalie angier's canonIn the interview, she backed off a bit from saying that everyone learning a bit of basic science literacy is of vital importance (increasingly so in this day and age, I’d say), although she acknowledges that there are a number of us in the scientific community who do think so. You’ll notice the -perhaps understandably- lighter approach (”these things are fun…” ) that is taken in the book blurb I quote below. While I agree that the fun part is very important indeed (and we really need to get that across a lot!), and that one should always try to persuade rather than scare, I do think that we’re in a dangerous situation sometimes with regards the overall science education and attitude to science of our citizenry. We should definitely not be reluctant to say it. I think that she thinks so too, but does not – when promoting a book – want to make the book seem like it is bitter medicine, but rather, a bit of tasty candy. I’d prefer to think of books like this as a delicious piece of fruit: both tasty and good for you. To be fair, I should mention that in the interview, while declining to subscribe entirely to the view herself, she mentioned a scientist acquaintance who considers the issue as analogous to the urgency for everyone to acquire literacy when the world changed and printing and the written word became common currency. While we are not quite there yet, I’m inclined to agree with that view, on balance…

Well, rather than repeat myself endlessly on this interesting matter, here’s the blurb from her website: […] Click to continue reading this post

Chocolaty Book Fun

Ah yes, it is that time of year again. The LA Times book festival is on, starting today, and it was kicked off with the swanky Book Awards festival last night, followed by a reception. This all takes place on the UCLA campus, in Westwood. You might recall that I went last year and reported on it. [(Update: A version of the post is here.] (If in town, go to the LA Times website for more information and find your way over there either today or tomorrow!)

So I went to the Awards show again because:

  1. I enjoyed it last year,
  2. I like “book people”,
  3. I like the idea that in the city where there’s a swanky Awards ceremony for everything else, they have one for books,
  4. I like the unashamed delight that everyone takes in the value of the word on the page… there were some very nice speeches from the master of ceremonies (Jim Lehrer this year) and the various presenters in each category (all authors themselves) about the various aspects of this (all the way from history to Children’s books, to Science…)
  5. I wanted to see if they would have chocolate fountains again. They did.
  6. I wanted to see if they had old typewriters embedded inside ice sculptures again. They did.
  7. I can never be mistaken for an actual author at the reception too many times,
  8. I like dressing up, from time to time. (Never let it be said that I am not honest with you on this blog.)

book prizes   book prizes

(Above: MC for the night, PBS Newshour host Jim Lehrer, and the LA Times’ Kenneth Turan, on the set/stage. I really like the work of both of these guys…)

Spent most of the evening after the ceremony at the reception talking with LA Times (or related) people and their spouses. This was not my intention, but it was a happy occurrence, as they were all really interesting people – two science writers (Rosie Mestel and Alan Zarembo, who I’d not met before and who were just great to talk to) and also some more general columnists, such as (novellist and essayist) Meghan Daum and others whose names escape me now. K C Cole, my friend and USC colleague – and ex-LA Times science writer – was there for good conversation, as was Tom Siegfried. So it was just excellent to stand around and munch on the excellent food, drink the wine, and talk (and yes, sometimes gripe) a bit about science coverage and science writing. Briefly chatted with poet and author Michael Datcher (remember him from the point of view event?) and his wife as well, who told me about an upcoming event I’ll be mentioning later, I hope.

Rosie and I turned out to have some interesting points of commonality, which was a pleasant surprise, and so we talked about not just science and science-writing, but England, gardening, and the East/West divide in Los Angeles.

book prizes

(Above: Available light (sorry) shot of Alan Zarembo dipping a bit of pineapple into the chocolate fountain. Meghan Daum and Rosie Mestel look on.)

Some friends and colleagues from USC were there in an official capacity as well, such […] Click to continue reading this post

New Tolkien!

tolkien novel coverI don’t care what they say – I’m excited!

Having consumed (a number of times) the several books worth of J. R. R. Tolkien material scraped together from his papers by his son Christopher Tolkien (they sit here on my shelves…. The Book of Lost Tales (I and II), the Lays of Beleriand, Sauron Defeated, Morgoth’s Ring, and so forth…), and thirsted for more, this is just excellent news:

From Reuters, in an article by Mike Collett-White, I read:

More than 30 years after his death, a “new” book by J.R.R. Tolkien goes on sale on Tuesday which may well be the author’s last complete work to be published posthumously.

Tolkien’s son and literary executor Christopher, now in his eighties, constructed “The Children of Hurin” from his father’s manuscripts, and said he tried to do so […] Click to continue reading this post

Categorically Not! – Vulgarization

The next Categorically Not! is Sunday 25th March. The Categorically Not! series of events that are held at the Santa Monica Art Studios, (with occasional exceptions). It’s a series – started and run by science writer K. C. Cole – of fun and informative conversations deliberately ignoring the traditional boundaries between art, science, humanities, and other subjects. I strongly encourage you to come to them if you’re in the area. There’s a new website showing past and upcoming events here. You can also have a look at some of the descriptions I did of some events in some earlier posts (such as here and here), and the description of some of the recent special ones on Point of View and Uncertainty that I organized with K. C. as USC campus events (here, here (with video) and here).

Here is a description from the poster for the upcoming programme: […]
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Novel Physics

Well, I got an email from my dear friend and collaborator Nick Evans on Tuesday, and in all the craziness of my work week, I forgot to do this post. In the email, he says:

nick evansWe talked on a few occasions about the need for physics to meet popular culture… sooo.. over the last 2 years I’ve put together a novel about particle physics… it’s quite high level – aimed at A-level science students really… but hopefully it’s fun… I was really playing with mixing a novel and popular science… it’s mainly LHC science …[…] … we’ve done it as a web book Outreach project. [link here]

If it intrigues have a read…

So I’m passing it on to you. I’ve not found the time to read it, but I trust Nick enough to know that it is certainly worth a look. (To resolve a possible transatlantic confusion, I should mention that “A-level science students” in what he said does not refer to “grade A science students”. It refers to a specific subject level in the UK school system.)

Enjoy! (Come back and let us know what you think…)


(See also blog comments by Nick’s former student, Jonathan Shock.)
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Out West

Well, yesterday I handed in my grade sheets for my courses, so I’ve finished all undergraduate teaching duties for the calendar year! Time now to turn to all those things that have been piling up waiting to be done. Eventually, this will mean research, but in between there are various tasks, from writing letters of recommendation to reviewing grants, fellowship applications, and more.

Mostly, I just want to disappear for a while. Leave the planet for a bit and go walkabout, like I did last year’s holiday season. That might happen, but I have to be partly available for a little while for a number of duties. Either way, I need to get out of the old mode, and into the more contemplative one. In order to begin the resetting, I decided to hide away from campus entirely and in the afternoon visit one of my other offices… the beach.

I had some errands to run out in Santa Monica, such as picking up my boots from that great boot repair place (where I’d dropped them off to get stretched a bit… the miracle repair I told you about before had resulted in them a bit stiff and slightly tighter on the slopes, and so I thought I’d try a stretching of a few days), and so this fit well. I figured I’d just stay there until the evening.

I have a love-hate relationship with Santa Monica. It sometimes annoys me a lot, and seems to be a place that is so squeaky clean that all the flavour of real life has been drained out of it, to be replaced by mostly smugness…. but at other times, I’m very happy with it, since it has a number of gems that I like a lot.

If the truth be told, one of the main reasons that I like to go over there is the tarts. […] Click to continue reading this post

Flying Clams

There’s a lovely new book (or it sounds that way) out on Darwin. It’s a biography by David Quammen, called “The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution”. There was a very nice radio piece on it on NPR’s Morning Edition, on the segment by Robert Krulwich, with an interview with the author. I recommend it, as it is a very pleasant conversation that does not dumb everything down, for a change. From the […] Click to continue reading this post