Killing your Babies

•May 7, 2013 • 2 Comments

Nirvana's epic baby album cover for NevermindIt’s often said that an author isn’t well-placed to adapt their books for the big screen. There are various reasons, but one is that we can be very precious about our stories, not wanting to leave the tiniest detail out, and that’s pretty difficult in a 100 minute movie. If you’re going to do it (right) and your name’s not Jo Rowling, you have to “kill your babies” (of course any excuse to show off that Nirvana album cover).

I mentioned over at that I’m working with a production company on a movie and I have to say it’s terrific fun. Happily the script won’t be solely down to me. Also, I’ve written a little for television before and worked for the British Film Institute, so hope I know what makes for a good film. People often think the secret to a good script is the dialogue. If only it were true as I think authentic dialogue is one of my strengths. But when you’re writing for cinema, it’s the images that need to tell the story, not the spoken words.

Oblivion movie poster from official siteI went to see Oblivion the other day and enjoyed it far more than I expected, given some poor reviews, but what surprised me was the opening ten minutes of voice-over explanation by Tom Cruise to set the scene. the golden rule of any storytelling is “show not tell”, yet that movie did exactly the opposite. Buoyed by wondering what the Johnny Mackintosh movie poster would look like, I’m including the very first draft of the opening here. I would never normally make such early material public (and may well regret it), so take a look quickly before I decide it’s rubbish and I should take it down.

Opening scene from the Johnny Mackintosh Movie (draft 1).

You can compare this with the opening of the original book by reading an eBook sample. Or, if you’re reading this post on the day it’s written, the book is actually the Amazon Kindle Daily Deal, so you might as well buy it!

There’s no need for captions or voiceovers. the pictures should tell the whole story, introducing Johnny (and Bentley), his love of fish ‘n chips and football (not necessarily in that order), and that he lives in a children’s home where he’s programmed the computer to search for signals from aliens. While screenwriting guru Syd Field talks about entering a scene as late as possible and leaving as early as you can, here I’ve gone back a couple of minutes before the start of the book in the expectation it makes things clearer and will save a lot of time with the setup later on.

Nowadays I tend to read scripts instead of books. There are plenty of web resources that have them, including the BBC Writers Room which is always a handy place to visit.

Where is Everybody?

•May 5, 2013 • Leave a Comment

alien greyThe most important question facing all of science is finding evidence for intelligent alien life. Before someone who’s chanced upon this webpage dismisses me as a fruitcake (rather than a Cambridge-educated mathematical physicist and currently Science Publisher at Oxford Unversity Press), let me add that the very first conference organized by the Royal Society for its 350th anniversary year was on this very question – and I was there.

The whole of science is founded on what we call the Copernican Principle, after Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus who first proposed that Earth orbited the Sun, rather than the other way around. In doing so, Copernicus was the first person to say humanity has no privileged position in nature when, until this point, Earth had always been the centre of the Universe. Recognizing Earth as simply one of many planets orbiting the Sun, which in turn we came to understand orbits the Milky Way (in turn a part of the Virgo Supercluster and so on), allowed us to talk about the laws of nature as applying equally everywhere, rather than differently on Earth compared with in the heavens.

The Sun is one of a few hundred billion stars in the Milky and, partly through the Kepler Space Telescope, we now understand that most of those stars are accompanied by planets. Then the Milky Way is one of many hundreds of billions of galaxies in the visible Universe.The numbers are so vast as to be almost unimaginable. If intelligent life can come into being here on Earth, it seems inconceivable that it hasn’t happened elsewhere, myriad times across the Galaxy let alone the wider Universe. There’s even a mathematical expression known as the Drake equation that is intended to give the number of intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way:

the Drake equationAccording to Frank Drake, the number N of detectable civilizations in the galaxy is the product of:

R* (the rate of star formation)

fp (the fraction of stars that have planets)

ne (the average number of earth-like planets per star – ie planets capable of supporting life)

fl (the fraction of those Earth-like planets on which life develops)

fi (the fraction of those planets that have life on which intelligent life develops)

fc (the fraction of those planets with intelligent life that create communications technology)

L (the average lifetime of an advanced civilization)

Keith Mansfield at Jodrell BankLet’s make up (and in most cases I do mean invent) some numbers. Say there are 10 new stars in the Galaxy each year (that’s roughly what scientists think); that three-quarters of the stars formed have planets; taking our own solar system as average there’s 1 Earth-like planet per solar system; recognizing life developed very soon on Earth after the planet formed we’ll go with this fraction as 0.8; equally, it took many billions of years for life here to go from single-celled organisms to complex, so let’s call the fraction on which intelligent life develops as 0.001, or one in a thousand; there are various “intelligent” species on Earth, but dolphins are never going to build radio telescopes, so let’s say one in four eventually develop communications technology; finally, once a civilization is able to communicate (perhaps with radio telescopes such as at Jodrell Bank here), I’ll suppose that they remain capable/willing to do this for 100,000 years. Plug those together and we get:

10 x 0.75 x 1 x 0.8 x 0.001 x 0.25 x 100000 = 150

That would suggess there are 150 species spread across the Milky Way who could communicate with us right now (but remember most of my numbers are pure guesswork). Apparently the average of estimates comes out at around 10,000, so I’m possibly being cautious, and one of my estimates that could be considered low is my number here for L. If even a few civilizations find ways not to destroy themselves so they can transcend their original home and spread out into the wider galaxy, that would seriously increase the number for L.

Considering the age of the Milky Way, the Sun is a comparatively young star meaning Earth is a new kid on the block when we think about galactic planet formation. We would expect plenty of civilizations to have formed before ours. If L is large they might still be around, but in this case we would surely see evidence of large-scale engineering projects happening in the galaxy. Yet, when we turn our ever more powerful telescopes skyward, we completely fail to find any evidence of and reorganization of the Galaxy by advanced races.

Some people argue that even if L is small it doesn’t matter. The mathematical physicist John Von Neumann developed the idea of self-replicating machines and this has been applied to autonomous space probes that an advanced alien race could send out into the galaxy to explore/conquer/assist other civilizations. Using this method, the entire Milky Way could be explored within only a few million (yes million, not billion) years, even if the originating civilization had long since died out. But again there is no evidence of  such probes anywhere.

If science cannot find evidence for aliens, then the premise of the Copernican revolution is called into question, and we have to recognize ourselves and our homeworld as special after all, which goes on to call into question our entire view of the Universe and basis for understanding it.

One of the most interesting people investigating this area is the brilliant Serbian astronomer Milan Cirkovic, so check him out if you want to know more. This post is called “Where is everybody?” because that is supposedly a question posed by phyisicist Enrico Fermi over lunch with colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The conversation had turned to the apparent likelihood of intelligent alien life, yet the total absence of evidence for this. This is nowadays known as the “Fermi paradox”.

I have two very different and equally interesting solutions to the problem, both of which I intend to turn into novels or film scripts, so I shall say no more about them for the time being.

Neil Armstrong and the Gamble of Manned Space Exploration

•August 27, 2012 • 1 Comment

One giant leap

Like many people, the earliest event (I think) I remember is Neil Armstrong climbing down a ladder, jumping off the end, slightly botching his lines but being the very first human being to set foot on another world. That was more than 43 years ago but the shocking fact remains that only 12 people have walked on ground that wasn’t Earth’s, all of them only went to the Moon and no one has done this for more than four decades.

Neil Armstrong died a couple of days ago. It brings into focus how long ago the Moon landings were. We went from the first powered flight in 1903 to the first flight over the Atlantic in 1927 to the first Moon landing in 1969. And then nothing. The pace of progress in the modern world is often frightening. I look at my android phone and think in many ways the future has arrived early, but there’s a gaping hole in all of this and it’s that we haven’t colonized the solar system.

In the aftermath of Armstrong’s death I was watching a BBC Sky at Night broadcast from not long after the second Moon landing called “1969, the Year of Space”. Presenter Patrick Moore delivers the line,

“The Americans plan to get a man on Mars between 1985 and 1990 and I’m sure they’ll do it.”

Now we’re probably looking at 2050. Does it matter? I want to shout an enormous “YES!” from the rooftops. The very survival of humanity as a species depends on it. That’s a simple statement of fact. There’s a proverb that it’s best not to keep all your eggs in one basket and right now all the humans in the universe are either on or flying around planet Earth. It’s when you view the photos of our world from the Apollo spacecraft that you realize just what a fragile basket we inhabit. If something happens to this one, island Earth, then that could be curtains for us. What sort of thing do I have in mind? Well, I’ve published a book on Global Catastrophic Risks so if you’re interested you can take a look. But if we don’t get off-planet it is a mathematical certainty that humans will one day become extinct.

One of the miracles of the modern world is the connections given us by Twitter. It’s currently the Edinburgh Book Festival whose account I follow, and the book festival tweeted a comment from one time British Labour Party cabinet minister, Michael Meacher:

I don’t know anything about Meacher’s ideas on sustainability but the incorrect assumption in the statement annoyed me – that we are in an “unsustainable bubble”.  Since the Industrial Revolution, gloriously portrayed in Danny Boyle’s recent Olympic Opening Ceremony, we have embarked on a path of economic growth. We have gambled humanity’s future by mining over the course of a few decades, resources that took millions of years to create. Was it a gamble worth taking? I would say yes because we have become immeasurably wealthier as a race. For instance, if you’d given people blueprints for the Space Shuttle in the middle ages, it would have been impossible to build one, not because the plans couldn’t in time have been understood, but because they couldn’t afford it! Similarly for cures for polio or smallpox.

But the resources we greedily consume cannot last for ever, so it might seem on the surface that Meacher is right. If you view the Earth as a closed system in game theory terms then he would be. In what’s known as a “zero-sum game”, not everyone can keep winning – for the upside of what we take from the planet there will be a price to pay – a downside – later on. Stick to Earth and we are living in unsustainable times having already mortaged the future for our descendants. But there is an alternative.

There is vast wealth waiting for us in space, in terms of both energy and materials.  The sum of the game is no longer zero – it is effectively infinite and to reach out and grasp it is a win–win “for all mankind”. The choice before us is clear: (a) we can either continue with space exploration, develop fabulous new technologies and expand  into and exploit the resources of the solar system (and hopefully beyond); or (b) we can turn our back on space for ever, rein in our development and try to live in a sustainable way within the finite means of just this one planet, in a depressing era of ever-diminishing returns.

As a species there can be no standing still, no stable equilibrium: either we progress or we’ll begin to decline. My sense is that we only have one shot at this. We have already used up so much of Earth’s resources that if we were to quit now and decline into some sort of pre-industrial era for a millennium or three, it will be far harder for humans (or whatever was to come after us) to begin again and reach for the stars.

After Apollo was prematurely cancelled, America reined in manned space exploration. I sense that the tide is turning and hope that it’s not already too late. The next flag on the Moon is likely to be Chinese or Indian, but while it is partly a matter of national pride, these nations are trying to go because they realize it is also an economic necessity.

Armstrong’s great legacy was that he inspired a generation of humanity to reach for the stars. Now he’s gone it’s up to those of us he touched to argue the case. As a child after the Apollo landings I didn’t want simply to be an astronaut – I expected to one day command a Moonbase. Now I shall argue all I can for one to be built within my lifetime.

[All the space images in this post are courtesy of NASA]

The Essex Lion & my own big cat sighting

•August 27, 2012 • 3 Comments

The news over this bank holiday weekend has been dominated by the sighting of “The Essex Lion“, a big cat apparently seen by several people in St Osyth near Clacton-on-Sea. Remarkably, it’s almost four years to the day since I also saw a big cat in Britain, on the first day of a holiday in north Staffordshire. I tried to contact a few people about it when I returned home and ended up talking to BBC Radio Stoke about it.

Two of us saw the creature, which was a massive sandy-coloured cat-like animal (maybe 7 feet long?) prowling in a meadow immediately south of Rudyard Lake. You would think the instant reaction would be to pull out a camera and start snapping, but it’s hard to convey how completely shocking it is to see what looks like a lion simply wandering around in a field. We watched it fow a couple of minutes before I finally came to my senses and pulled my (switched-off) phone from my bag. When you’re waiting for something to boot up we’ve probably all scuppered the process by pressing buttons too quickly, and that’s what I did here. So by the time I managed to capture something it was a video of the very last few seconds at the far edge of the field, and no accompanying still images. But here’s the video:

I thought this was pretty important so wrote down as accurate as possible a witness report at the time. I’m reproducing it in unedited form below:

We were walking between the carpark of the Rudyard Steam Railway, alongside the railway track (the trains are very narrow gauge and this is an official footpath) up to the Rudyard Lake dam for a picnic lunch. The railway track is elevated, but tree-lined on either side. Walking north, the actual rails are on the right-hand side so you walk alongside the left line of trees which has gaps from time to time enabling you to look out across a meadow to the left. We’d never been here before and don’t know the area particularly well (it had been recommended as a place to break our journey).

We started walking just after midday (about 12.45 pm). It was a reasonably clear day with good light and visibility. After three or four hundred metres, at an opening in the trees on our left, we simply stopped and stared.

A large cat-like creature (you couldn’t call it a cat as it was as big if not bigger than a large dog) was prowling through the meadow beneath us. From the animal’s perspective, it would have been surrounded by fairly long grass so felt secure in not being seen easily. Because the railway line is elevated we had a crystal clear view of it, perhaps between eighty and a hundred metres away.

It was sandy coloured, with a long tail that curved down and then up. I can’t remember now (sorry) but there may have been a small splash of white on the tail, or it may have been all sandy. I’d have said it was at least six or seven feet long. An adjective I’d use to describe it would be “powerful”. After watching it on the prowl for a minute or so, the animal paused and sat briefly.

It also seemed very assured/confident in its surroundings. That was odd because it was so clearly out of place in North Staffordshire, that the whole thing seemed quite unreal. As it made its steady progress through the meadow, I was wondering what on Earth was going on and looking around for a film crew as I could only assume someone was trying to fake some exotic footage for a movie. Finally, while the creature had briefly paused, I came to my senses, dropped the packed lunch to the ground and rooted around my pockets for my mobile phone to record it. As I’d been driving it was turned off and, for the first time ever, the camera seemed to go wrong when I switched it on (probably opening the lens cover too early before it had booted up). The upshot of that was I sadly didn’t take any stills and I was only able to capture about the final 15 seconds on video (which perhaps foolishly I’d set on maximum zoom) as it moved off. My phone’s a Nokia N95 so reasonably high-spec, but let me down on this occasion. Considering how clearly we could see the animal, the footage doesn’t do it justice at all and looks very distant.

The animal ended up at what looked like a small stream or brook. It stopped there for a few seconds, then jumped down and up the other side and was gone.

I think we were in a state of shock and didn’t know what to make of it. We carried on up to the dam for our lunch and on the way back kept looking through the trees (camera properly at the ready now) to see if the unexpected creature would make a reappearance. Naturally, this time we were disappointed, though we saw a couple of cattle (with horns) that I hadn’t spotted earlier.

Making history on Mars

•August 6, 2012 • Leave a Comment

In case you missed it, Johnny Mackintosh (and Clara and Bentley, and even me) only went and landed on Mars this morning: read all about it!

We’re all here, etched onto the back of the Mars Curiosity rover, in the Gale Crater:

A New Earth and the Missions to Mars

•February 4, 2012 • Leave a Comment

I realize I’m privileged to have access to some of the world’s cutting edge science, but last week was particularly special with a visit to University College London to hear a mixture of astrophysicists and astrobiologists talk to journalists about their cutting edge work,organized by the ABSW, the Association of British Science Writers, of which I’m a member.

Now we all know scientists can sometimes waffle, but this brave half-dozen weren’t allowed that luxury. The format for the talks was a pecha kucha – born in Japan, you have 20 slides, each lasting for exactly 20 seconds, to get your point across. That’s 6 minutes, 40 seconds (and not a second more) to say who you are, what you do and pitch for a place in the science columns of Britain’s newspapers.

First up, Giovanna Tinetti asked what exoplanets are actually made of. For those out of the loop, exoplanets are those orbiting other stars, far beyond out own solar system. We weren’t sure such things even existed until the 1990s, but nowadays there are more than 700 confirmed cases, with hundreds more candidates awaiting confirmation. recently some astronomers have gone so far as to sayy that every star in our galaxy must have planets orbiting.The most productive way to search for these faraway worlds is by using the Kepler Space Telescope. Looking back along a populous spiral arm of the Milky Way, this other Hubble is a study in concentration, staring fixedly at a single window on the stars, watching for the most minute variation in their light. And by analying this light – the chemical clues hidden within the spectra, scientists like Giovanna can tell what planets hundreds of light years away are made from. She’s looking for those that are habitable. Soon, New Earth need not be a thing of science fiction stories, especially if Giovanna’s plans for ECHO, the Exoplanet Characterisation Observatory, are approved by ESA (the European Space Agency).

Ofer Lahav, Professor of Astronomy at UCL, chose to talk about dark energy, the mysterious entity that apparently makes up three quarters of out universe, but which we didn’t even know was there until 1998. For me the most incredible, unexpected discovery of the last fifty years has been that the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing. No one expected this. Everyone wants to know why, but Ofer was impressively agnostic in his views. Either an entity we call dark energy permeates space itself, acting as Einsteins cosmological constant, or the best theories we have are very wrong. Once upon a time our best theory was Newton’s, but it couldn’t explain why Mercury orbited the Sun the way it did. Along came Einstein, General Relativity and a revolution in science. With the dark energy anomaly, are we on the cusp of another such paradigm shift?

Next, how would you rate a snowball’s chances in hell? According to Geraint Jones they turn out to be a lot worse than a comet grazing the edge of the Sun. In December (2011) Comet Lovejoy’s trajectory sent it plunging into the Sun’s corona. Now comets are pretty much snowballs and our star is one of the hottest things around. Because of that, few astrophysicists expected to see anything reappear on the other side, but that’s exactly what the plucky comet did.

Astrophysics moved to astrobiology and Peter Grindrod talked about the Mars Science Laboratory, otherwise known as Curiosity. Given that NASA’s superprobe is currently en route to Mars with my name and also Johnny and Clara Mackintosh’s recorded on its microchips, I rather thought I knew all I needed it about this mracle of interplanetary engineering. Not so. it turned out I was very light on where Curiosity is going and exactly why. The Gale Crater reveals strata twice the height of the Grand Canyon, a timescope through which to observe millions of years of Martian geology. We even got to look at the view using 3D glasses.

I’m sure Claire Cousins would like to go to Mars, but she’s looking for analogues of the Red Planet here on Earth. If we can find local places that are similar we can test our robotic Martian explorers and see close up how they perform. So, despite being based at Birkbeck and UCL she’s a frequent visitor to glaciers and volcanoes in Svalbard and Iceland. it’s a tough job, but someone has to be an astrobiologist. Claire’s working on the joint ESA/NASA ExoMars mission – I’m hoping that in a few years’ time might also carry Johnny Mackintosh to  our near neighbour, where it will proceed to drill into the red soil, searching for the elusive evidence of life on another world.

So is there life on Mars? It’s no small affair to most of us and Lewis Dartnell continued the theme, talking about extremeophiles, the super bacteria that survive on Earth in places almost every bit as hostile as the Martian dunes – places such as the dry valleys in Antartica. Become an astrobiologist and, even if you don’t get to the stars you’ll certainly see some very cool places on Earth. You don’t imagine drought on the Earth’s southernmost outpost, but these valleys have less rainfall than the Sahara Desert. For a long while we assumed nothing lived there, but now we know better. Step forward, Conan the Bacterium! If such lifeforms can survive freezing temperatures and minute quantites of water here, surely we will soon find similar examples on Mars.

My mind buzzing it got better as Geraint, Peter, Claire and Lewis joined me down the pub to continue our other-worldly discussions, freed from the limitations of 6 minutes, 40 seconds of PowerPoint presentations.

Spotlight Kid at the Hoxton Underbelly

•October 28, 2011 • Leave a Comment

In June of this year I found myself knee deep in mud, struggling from my Glastonbury tent towards the faraway, more interesting areas of the vast festival site. I could go no further, marooned in the one place you don’t want to get stuck at Glastonbury – the dance field (well, I suppose the inside of the portaloos might be worse). Yet here, in this foreign field, I somehow zeroed in on one corner where richer sounds were concealed, chancing upon the BBC Introducing Tent. And there I discovered Spotlight Kid.

That was how I came to be at the Hoxton Underbelly last Friday. Sometimes people describe me as “lucky” so I suppose it was no surprise that, having discovered a great new band originating from my home town of Nottingham, I would swiftly find them playing just round the corner from my adopted Spitalfields. After the fates had conspired, it would have been rude not to attend.

Rude, but possible. There was a parallel invite from ITV to spend the night in the Jonathan Ross green room (the real one rather than what you see on stage) with Noel Gallagher (who did so much to revive British music at its most dead), Michael Sheen (who did a magnificent portrayal of the great Cloughie himself) and Miranda Hart (who did so little to win all those comedy awards) but I reasoned I can go to Wossy any week when he’s filming. But then there was an also a British Sea Power  gig at the Barfly in Camden and they are quite possibly Britain’s absolute best band, but I have seen them maybe a dozen times before. Nottingham’s finest won out.

This year I’ve been invited to see Muse in the private Wembley box of the head of Warner records, stood on the very front row for U2 at Glastonbury and even had to step in as John Taylor’s body double for Duran Duran (I told you I was a lucky so-and-so), but it’s this sort of gig, down in the basement of a small club with an energetic hungry young band that will always excite the most.

Spotlight Kid (the Spotters on Tour) had support: the long running order comprised four hungry bands, but I missed the first (apologies to La Bete). Next up came three-piece Alphastate, with singer Ani announcing it was her birthday. She sang well, but spoke quietly and moved little, but I liked her dreamy folky vocals. And that she asked if anyone had been lucky enough to get Stone Roses tickets earlier in the day. I’d booked my place at the reunion gig so raised my glass to her and cheered, and embarrassed myself as I was the only one in the whole of the Underbelly in that fortunate position.

After Alphastate came four-piece Faults (in the unusual position of having a female drummer). They had what I thought were excellent songs,  but the Hoxton-fin-crowned lead singer’s voice was just one you really didn’t want to listen to for any time at all and the (excellent) guitarist squeezed every note with the emotion and anguish of forcing a number two. Half the audience seemed to comprise family or friends of the band, so you clapped on pain of being beaten up. Bizarrely the other half was largely made up of minute women, presumably swelling the crown to make pint-size Spotters singer Katty Heath feel more at home.

Katty’s pronounced “Cat” rather than “Kate”. I know because I asked at the beginning of the evening, finding her all glittery eyed selling CDs and T-shirts in the middle of the bar. That’s another thing about proper working/touring bands – you can talk to them properly, except when you get all tongue-tied despite being a professional wordsmith like me. But she is very cute and all smiles. And just when you think she can’t get any more perfect, you notice the Johnny-Mackintosh-style Starmark tattoo on her right wrist. It would have been rude not to buy a CD and in fact I found myself asking for two.

In the twenty-three years before I left Nottingham permanently I don’t recall any decent music coming out of the city. One band (Krush) made it to number three in the days when the singles chart mattered, and I think they even DJ’d at The Garage, a presumably long-defunct Lacemarket club where I spent most of my weekends, but House Arrest really wasn’t my cup of tea. I moved to Oxford and fell into the “Happy (Thames) Valley” Shoegazing scene made all their own by the once-mighty Ride, with support from Chapterhouse and Swervedriver and Lush and Curve. Back in that muddy Somerset field I felt I’d hit upon the new Ride, but with more ethereal vocals. And unlike Alphastate, Spotlight Kid are all energy on stage, Katty pumping her air guitar for all it’s worth.

But Spotlight Kid are much more than their female singer. They’re a six-piece of sweltering guitars, building a wall of subtly crafted noise and with vocals and energy also coming from Rob McLeary, an effortlessly thin guitarist with spectacular hair and a penchant for taking his guitar into the audience and climbing onto the sound desk. He told me he was from Arnold and he looked it. Your eyes are drawn to these two but the band are very tight, with Chris Moore and Karl Skivington also on guitar, Matt Holt on bass and Chris Davis bashing away behind them. Space was limited. I thought I’d caught Katty on video accusing the others of touching her bum but the phone failed so instead you get a video of a track from their new album Disaster Tourist. This is “Forget yourself in me” (I might be wrong but I think it would make life easier for Katty in all that wind if she got a shorter veil):

The Spotters are endearingly proud of their visuals and I guess must have spent a lot of time putting them together. I thought this meant that the occasionally bitty nature to the night was because, between every song Katty had to get down on her knees and play with a laptop to call up the next vid. But she reliably informs me it was just to have a swig of water before belting out the next number!

The setlist is short and well crafted, as yet without an encore. Is that because Spotlight Kid haven’t yet found their breakthrough song that might see them sitting in the Jonathan Ross green room? Or are they just modelling their appearances on Jesus and Mary Chain/Strokes/Vaccines (take your pick)? I hope the former. Next time they’re gigging, treat yourself – I hope London doesn’t have to wait too long. What we heard was:

Plan comes apart

Forget yourself in me

Can’t let go




All is real



During the final number, grasping her tambourine tightly, Katty made her way back to the CD stand to sell merchandise with the promise of kisses for purchasers (sadly I could hardly buy more) while Rob vaulted onto the bass drum, only to fall backwards into the drum kit – I wasn’t sure Chris was terribly amused.

Ides of March Premier

•October 23, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I’ve always disliked The West Wing, primarily because it peddles the myth of brave and decent politicians, always doing the right thing in difficult circumstances. In reality I suspect the public prefer not to think about the dirty deals and corrupt and seedy goings on behind closed doors, which makes The Thick of It more my cup of tea – maybe that’s the UK/US divide? Of course I’m not saying most politicians don’t enter the fray with the best of intentions, but they universally seem to disappoint and the longer they hang around, the more they disappoint. Power corrupts. Even the scent of power corrupts.

So full marks to Ides of March for telling the down and dirty, shabby story of how politics always seems to turn out. Last Wednesday I joined George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Evan Rachel Wood on the red carpet for the UK premier. To really appreciate a movie, I try to read as little as I can about it beforehand, so I can watch at face value. Because of that I can admit my ignorance by believing we were likely to have some kind of retelling of the Julius Caesar story (by coincidence the play I studied for my O level Shakespeare), so I entered the Odeon Leicester Square confident of making the necessary connections between the film and the Bard. Not a bit of it.

The bfi (the British Film Institute in official lower-case letters) is a great institution and a former employer of mine, but their organization often leaves a lot to be desired. I ended up being sent to various spots around central London to collect my tickets, meaning I only reached the red carpet about one minute before curtain up. I ran past George Clooney being interviewed without noticing, sat down in my seat and then saw the whole shebang being projected on the cinema screen.

As part of the bfi London Film Festival, my old colleague Sandra Hebron (it’s her last year as Artistic Director of the LFF) called Clooney up on stage where he proceeded to share a few jokes and introduce various cast and crew. Then the curtains parted and we were treated to 101 minutes of an intriguing thriller, even if the expected links to Shakespeare were missing.

This is the fourth film Clooney’s directed. In front of the camera he plays Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris, Governor of Pennsylvania and leader in a two-horse race with a Senator from Arkansas. What I loved about the movie was that it’s not The West Wing – it shows just how sordid the realpolitik can be, and all credit to Clooney he’s right at the heart of it. The Ides of March of the title refers to the date of the key Ohio primary, which will fall on 15th March and help decide the contest.

The US Primary system has always seemed flawed to me because (in my doubtless limited understanding) it seems anyone can get to vote to decide the preferred candidate. All well and good if it’s only people supporting the party concerned, as they have an honest interest, but I’ve always thought the other party (in this case the Republicans) should rally their voters to support the weakest opposing (in this case the Democrat) candidate. That’s what’s happening in Ideas of March, and it’s embraced by Paul Giamatti’s Tom Duffy who’s campaign manager for the underdog from Arkansas because he thinks it could win them the White House.

Morris’s campaign team is led by the always-brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman as Paul Zara, working alongside second-in-command Ryan Gosling’s Stephen Meyers. There’s also intern Evan Rachel Wood as Molly Stearns. Her dad is  leader of the Democrat National Council so she has all the right connections to land a temporary job in the campaign office.

In the main the movie follow Gosling’s Meyers in a magnificent performance. His (and our) knowledge of what’s going on around him is limited and he has to act as he sees best given the circumstances he finds himself in. The best of the screenplay is the flirting between Gosling and Wood, and Clooney’s West Wing-esque campaign interviews and speeches. I bet there are plenty of real-life Democrats wishing they had screenwriter Beau Willimon as a speech writer.

When you’ve grow up with the sickening bullying spin doctoring of real-life Alistair Campbell or his celluloid double Malcolm Tucker, you get the feeling Zara should have been far more on top of things and people than appears to be the case, which is one of the weaknesses of the movie, and much hinges on a meeting between Meyers and Duffy that seemed very innocuous to me. But if you can get over those two creaks in the story the rest of the film unfolds to give a real humdinger of a thriller and one of the must-see movies of the year.

The Trouble with Neutrinos

•September 25, 2011 • 1 Comment

The science and even the popular press are filled with excitement at the moment after the OPERA experiment at Europe’s giant particle physics laboratory, CERN (to which I applied for a summer job when I was 16, but that’s another story). Apparently, neutrinos sent from CERN and captured at Italy’s INFN Gran Sasso Laboratory about 730 km away are arriving faster than scientists thought physically possible – faster than the speed of light travelling in a vacuum.

I had to write about this because the news reporting has really annoyed me. Every announcement has said that Einstein might be wrong because he (special relativity) says nothing can travel faster than light in a vacuum. Poppycock! (As I’m being polite.) What the theory says is that nothing that has what scientists call “rest mass” can travel at the speed of light – there isn’t any block on things travelling faster. It’s always slightly surprised me that in a discipline where mathematical physicists are used to things called discontinuous functions, I rarely hear of people willing to accept that something could go from “slower” to “faster” without having to “equal”, but it might be possible.

One argument against travelling faster than light is that, although there are solutions to Einstein’s equations, they contain the square root of minus one which we sometimes call an “imaginary” number (as opposed to other numbers that are called “real”). This is a brilliant example of mathematical spin and how it has actually damaged our understanding of mathematics and the universe. There is nothing less real about these imaginary numbers than what are called the real ones. It’s actually by combining both set that we achieve a far deeper understanding of the mathematical and physical universe. But way back when they were first introduced, French mathematician and philosopher Rene Decartes was very distrustful of them so coined the term imaginary as a pejorative description, hoping it would mean they didn’t catch on. He’s got a lot to answer for.

What is a neutrino? Like the similarly named neutron, a neutrino carries no net electric charge (compared with other familiar subatomic particles such as electrons (-1) or protons (+1). Unlike the neutron, the neutrino has almost (but not quite) no mass. Having no charge and almost no mass makes a neutrino extremely difficult to detect.

Back to relativity! Anything travelling faster than light in relativity yields solutions including the square root of minus one which people have interpreted as meaning travelling backwards in time. That’s the reason for the joke that’s currently doing the rounds on the twittersphere:

Barman: “I’m sorry, sir. We don’t serve neutrinos in here.”

A neutrino walks into a bar.

The idea of time travel in physics isn’t as unusual as nonscientists might think. In fact travelling into the future is completely straightforward and not disputed. Even if the time comes when relativity is superseded by a better theory, it will have to allow for the possibility of time travel into the distant future as we know full well how to do this (you just move very quickly) and have demonstrated it experimentally. However, as I mentioned in a recent article on the Johnny Mackintosh website, we can consider an antimatter particle to be the same as a particle of normal matter but travelling backwards in time – that’s how a notation called Feynman Diagrams actually work.

One of the reasons relativity came about was due to the unexpected results of the Michelson-Morley experiment back in 1887 which showed the speed of light didn’t vary, even if you changed the way you yourself were moving. Could it be that people will look back on these OPERA results in a similar fashion? Although we can’t yet rule it out, I doubt it. Nowadays we realize that there is an amount of uncertainty in every observation and experiment – statisticians possibly occupy the most pivotal role in the interpretation of results. And in an experiment such as this which is so incredibly complex, there are a lot of uncertainties that have to be quantified. It only takes the most fractional error somewhere for these results to be off by enough to bring the results back into line.

For instance, CERN can’t make the neutrinos in short enough bursts that there’s a gap between them leaving Switzerland and arriving in Italy (so they use statistical methods to infer which are which). Then the neutrinos don’t actually travel round the Earth – they go through it – so we can’t directly measure the distance they travel. We use light to measure distances accurately around Earth by bouncing it off satellites, but the speed of light is only constant in a vacuum – it is slowed down in different media and by different phenomena so it becomes hard to measure this distance as precisely as we want. And how can we know exactly how far away the satellite is. In fact I’ve just published a book on a technique called Nonlinear Filtering that tries to answer these sorts of questions and will be a technique the CERN scientists have used. And then, probably far more important, there are delays in electrical circuitry and clock speeds.

But it’s brilliant that CERN has released the conundrum – it shows a problem in action and is especially brave because everyone thinks the results are almost certainly wrong. I applaud them for asking the world to scrutinize this when they couldn’t find the error themselves and, whatever the final outcome, new things will be learnt as a result. And it’s always a great day when theoretical physics makes it into the news bulletins.

Tall Tales and Short Stories

•September 8, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Ever wondered how to get ahead in advertising? Upon leaving university I tried and failed, but have always had a love of the ad world. Here’s a piece I wrote for Tracy Ann Baines’ blog, Tall Tales and Short Stories. The blog’s a really impressive piece of work and is now ranked in the UK’s Top 10 Children’s Literature blogs. My little article is about structure, using one of my favourite ever commercials as the example, and is called Storytelling in 60 Seconds.