Doctor Who – old, new, and tangential

Yay, bank holiday!

Apropos of nothing in particular, I indulged in a bit more nostalgic Doctor Who watching recently.

‘Battlefield’ starring Sylvester McCoy was the extended DVD version. While it’s one of the Seventh Doctor’s better outings (i.e. it’s not utterly unwatchable), it’s very stilted. In general it feels like it was shot on a shoestring budget in approximately two days with no time to rehearse. (Which knowing Who is probably exactly how it was shot.) McCoy does his best to appear, by turns, mysterious, impish and brooding, but I remain utterly unconvinced that he’s any of those things. Worse, I can’t help feeling that the Doctor is written significantly better than he’s played, which is never a good feeling to have about the lead character. Likewise Sophie Aldred as Ace gets a lot of gushing teenage behaviour for which the actress seems too old. There are a few decent scenes and likeable supporting characters, and a welcome return for Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier. Oh and a cool blue demon. But overall: meh. Sorry, Tim!

‘Image of the Fendahl’ starring Tom Baker is better. Okay, it feels like it was shot on a shoestring budget in approximately two days with no time to rehearse, but at least Tom Baker is convincing. The story is an odd pastiche of ‘Quatermass and the Pit’, involving ancient aliens from Time Lord mythology who have somehow influenced human evolution. The plot is woefully illogical and under-explained, to the point where it feels like key scenes must be missing. On the plus side it has Chris Boucher’s usual crackling dialogue and pin-sharp characterisation, and a very decent supporting cast. I have no recollection of watching it my youth so I can’t lean on nostalgia with this one, but I do remember the novelisation which probably helps.

On a related-ish note, here are a couple of BBC News videos:

An interview with Russell T Davies about completing filming on his (and David Tennant’s) era on Doctor Who. (It includes the trailer for ‘The Waters of Mars’ special that aired after the Easter special.)

A five minute interview with Richard Dawkins that barrels through all the questions you’d expect, against a ticking clock, and gets Dawkins’s usual precise answers.1

1 Dawkins is of course best known for his cameo in last season’s Doctor Who finale (not to mention being married to Romana mk II), but has probably done a few non Who-related things in his life.


Footprints uncovered in Kenya show that as early as 1.5 million years ago an ancestral species, almost certainly Homo erectus, had already evolved the feet and walking gait of modern humans.”

This is truly fascinating, particularly with the accompanying photograph. I love little glimpses like this into the distant past, and a footprint is such a vivid and relatable image (and a ready-made metaphor of course.) 1.5 million years ago someone who was not yet fully human but with a foot essentially the same as ours walked upright, and we can see their footprint. For some reason this really touched me.

The only earlier prints are apparently more than twice as ancient, and much more apelike.


Interesting juxtaposition in the US Presidential Election of Sarah Palin’s derogatory statements about science vs. Obama getting the endorsement of high profile scientists.

Palin, in that ‘loveable’ folksy way of hers (see also: George W Bush), decided to ridicule ‘wasteful’ scientific research on things like fruit flies: “You’ve heard about some of these pet projects – they really don’t make a whole lot of sense – and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit-fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.” Since my own wife’s degree project focused on drosophila melanogaster, I’m well-versed in how incredibly useful these little insects are to science, but here’s a fairly scathing rebuttal to Palin.

Meanwhile 76 Nobel prize winners have written a letter endorsing Obama as “a visionary leader” and condemning Bush’s policies.

Also, as if Obama could become any more like Jed Bartlet, here’s a really fascinating speech of his about the role of religion in modern America. I hadn’t previously been aware of this speech but it looks like it was made back in 2006. I can’t help but be reminded of President Bartlet’s rant from The West Wing episode The Midterms (itself gacked from the interwebs) about selective adherence to the Bible to support bigotry. Obama’s speech (in selectively edited form) been seized on to argue that Obama ‘hates’ God, but it’s actually a very even-handed and astonishingly brave thing for a US politician to do. Brave even though he’s not claiming to be an atheist, merely arguing very cogently for separation of Church and State; a fairy uncontroversial view, you’d think1.

Speaking of YouTube, this video of Palin set to piano improv is deeply unfair, but very funny.

1 Bartlet is of course portrayed as a devout Catholic and his rant is not seen as coming into conflict with his beliefs, and there’s no reason Obama could not be a Christian and still make this speech.

Earth: The Climate Wars

When I discussed Prof Richard Dawkins’s three-part series The Genius of Darwin I was puzzled as to why it merited the word “polemic” in my TV guide, noting that “creationism attempts to refute geological wisdom as surely as it does biological wisdom, but we don’t go around calling [TV geologist] Dr Iain Stewart a polemicist.”

Inevitably, Dr Iain Stewart immediately launched a three-part series (apocalyptically titled Earth: The Climate Wars) that’s as likely to be labelled a polemic as anything Dawkins has produced. Global Warming is, after all, as likely as Evolution to be described in the media as “controversial”. Interestingly, the polemic word doesn’t seem to have been attached to this one. It’s an “investigation”.

To be clear, I don’t regard either series as a polemic. Both are written and presented by individuals who hold a clear view as to the truth of the matter, and both include passionate advocacy of the importance of the issues being debated, but crucially both discuss the relevant ‘controversy’ in some detail and arrive at their determination through dispassionate and thorough (as thorough as the format allows, anyway) examination of the evidence.

Earth: The Climate Wars tackles its subject in three parts: the first details the gradual development of climate theories in the 1960s and 70s, including the now disproven prediction of a “big freeze” and the gradual rise of global warming as a theory. The second deals with the controversy that arose around global warming in the 1990s, examining the changing and contradictory evidence and the opposing arguments before ultimately disproving the objections fairly categorically. The third programme examines attempts to model the Earth’s future climate, and to incorporate increasing evidence that climate change is, if anything, occurring faster than expected.

I found it fascinating. Iain Stewart is an engaging enough presenter and the programmes move at just about the right pace, focussing mainly on the science but to a lesser extent on the personalities and historical account of the discoveries. I knew a lot of the background, but there’s plenty here that I hadn’t heard before, or hadn’t heard in detail. In some respects it’s surprising how long ago the theory of global warming caused by human activity was first proposed, and how readily it was initially accepted. Fascinating, for example, to see Margaret Thatcher talking about the need for urgent action.

I was also aware of the notorious C4 programme The Great Global Warming Swindle (a “polemic” if ever there was one) for which the channel was censured by Ofcom for misrepresenting the views of its contributers (although since it had caused no “harm” to its viewers Ofcom refused to rule on its scientific accuracy). Dr Stewart briefly touches on that programme and the shockingly inaccurate graphs used to make its case. I’ve read other rebuttals, e.g. but it’s still nice to see a belated televised rebuttal. Indeed, this series of programmes, careful, thorough and engaging as they are, make a pleasingly level-headed counterpoint to the very propagandist and even ad hominem nature of the C4 programme. Dr Stewart also used extensive clips from a much earlier 1990 programme from C4 called The Greenhouse Conspiracy which makes you wonder what exactly C4 has against the theory of global warming.

The final programme includes some rather scary evidence of very sudden — in the everyday rather than geological meaning of the word — shifts in global climate in the past. These are sudden “tipping point” temperature shifts of several degrees centigrade occurring within a period of 2 to 5 years, calculated by examining both the thickness and chemical composition of Greenland ice cores1. Coupled with recent evidence about the unprecedented summer retreat of arctic sea ice during the summer, it does make you wonder — although thankfully 2008 didn’t break the record retreat in 20072.

In an age in which (as repeats of Horizon on BBC4 will attest) TV science has been lobotomised to a few health programmes and the occasional theory that Yellowstone park may explode and DOOM US ALL, it’s always welcome to have some real, solid science. Hot on the heels of Dawkins and the recent coverage of the Large Hadron Collider it almost feels like a mini-Renaissance in science programming, even if in each case it was probably the underlying sense of “controversy” driving things forward. I strongly doubt if Earth: The Climate Consensus would have made it to air.

All three episodes are available on BBC iPlayer. The third was probably the weakest, but all are worth a look.

1 The process of dating ice cores back 50,000 years by simply ‘counting the rings’ that represent each winter and summer snowfall is surely as common sense a refutation of creationist dating of the Earth to 6,000 years old as you’re likely to find. That’s assuming geological dating using the precisely known decay rate of multiple radioactive isotopes is wrong — which, wearyingly, is exactly what creationists argue. In fact, that very creationist web page states: “Ultimately, the age of the earth cannot be proven”, a relativist bombshell which makes you wonder why they’re bothering to contest the science at all.

2 I sometimes find myself feeling an unworthy (and criminally stupid) desire to see the Earth meet a spectacular demise. Not just to prove the doubters wrong — although, y’know, that would be some slight consolation for me as the human race faced extinction — but because disasters are cool. That’s why Iain Stewart’s earlier series Earth: The Power of the Planet was interesting: because vast climactic and geological changes have a certain spectacular appeal. Catastrophes and disasters are strangely compelling, like that sensation climbers sometimes report of feeling an urge to hurl themselves into the void. I don’t for a second suggest that I actually want the Earth to be destroyed, but the childish part of me does seem to revel in the concept. People are strange creatures. Or maybe that’s just me.

Here is the News

1,800-year-old Roman stone sarcophagi found in Newcastle. That’s not far from us! I learn from this story that they’re apparently building a Great North Museum in Newcastle including antiquities, a planetarium, an interactive model of Hadrian’s Wall, a life-size T-Rex dinosaur skeleton, and special exhibitions from London. This could be very nice for us as it’s not always convenient for us to get down to the British Museum. I’m only amazed that my wife’s normally excellent Archaeology Radar hasn’t tipped us off to this sooner. The website banner appears to feature Egyptians on chariots hunting Dinosaurs, but I’ll assume there’s some artistic licence involved…

Of course if that recent bonkers think tank report was listened to there’d be no point in doing any of this because everyone in the North should just give up on their cities, which are beyond all hope of revival, and move south. This is so patently absurd that it probably isn’t worth getting upset about, but Exhibit A would surely be the fact that any number of Northern cities have already succeeded in transforming themselves and their fortunes into thriving centres of business and culture. Like Newcastle & Gateshead, for example. Sunderland is one of those named by the think tank as “beyond revival” yet — although it’s hardly the largest or most cosmopolitan of cities — in the relatively short time I’ve known it Sunderland has transformed itself from a shipbuilding town to one with a beautiful riverside and coastal area and a strong service industry base (including the University), not to mention the famous Nissan plant. The fact that anyone could seriously suggest otherwise reflects blinkered attitudes to the ‘North’ of England (i.e. anywhere north of the M25) that are quite surreal. It’s the equivalent of saying that the London Dockland area was beyond revival prior to Canary Wharf being built.

And finally…

A sensible, evidence-based story about the British Summer. Will wonders never cease.


I’m greatly enjoying Prof Richard Dawkins’s current C4 series The Genius of Darwin, commemorating the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species. All pretty basic and obvious stuff about evolution perhaps, but I’ve been hoping for some time now (in this world of lowest common denominator science programming) that someone would come along and just Explain This Stuff to a wide audience. Too often TV gravitates towards only the most controversial or biographical aspects of science, or assumes that everyone knows the basics when it’s sadly apparent that everyone doesn’t. It’s nice to see some basic facts set out clearly.

A lot of people seem to find Dawkins abrasive, but he’s generally at his most self-effacing in the series to date, perhaps because this time around its premise rarely seeks to pitch him into direct confrontation with those who oppose his views (unlike previous series The Enemies of Reason and The Root of All Evil?). I don’t find Dawkins particularly arrogant myself, but that’s probably because I agree with him. He makes few concessions, but although I personally might not call a book on religion “The God Delusion” a) my book wouldn’t sell many copies and b) I find it hard to argue with this title as a basic position.

So far the first episode has provided a whistle-stop tour of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, while the second has covered human evolution, and specifically the evolutionary roots of altruism, drawing on Dawkin’s own work in The Selfish Gene. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that humans are ‘designed’ for small family groupings and that much of our behaviour can, for good or ill, be explained by the rules for living in groups writ large. What’s pleasing is how optimistic a view of human nature Dawkins manages to convey even while explaining biological origins of human behaviour that many might find unpalatable. He’s obviously a liberal idealist who finds himself disgusted by the various political and capitalistic practices to which the word “Darwinism” has been metaphorically attached.

Next week it’s back to the shameless creationist-baiting with a (to my mind much-needed) attempt to examine and rebut the attempts of intelligent design to cast doubt on evolution.

My only source of puzzlement about the series is that the C4 website1 describes it as “polemical”, whereas it’s about as polemical as Earth: The Power of the Planet. It’s not an opinion piece, it’s the kind of straightforward explanation of accepted scientific knowledge that used to be commonplace under the banner of Equinox or Horizon . After all creationism attempts to refute geological wisdom as surely as it does biological wisdom, but we don’t go around calling Dr Iain Stewart a polemicist.

1 The C4 website has whacky floating banners that completely screw up the page in Firefox, but seem fine in Internet Explorer. Or rather, the IE tab plugin for Firefox which is about as close to Internet Explorer as I care to get these days.

Outer Space, Cyborgs and Dragons

Things that share little in commmon except that I saw them recently:

The Phoenix has landed. The Mars probe, that is. That’s a bit of a relief. Watching the video of everything it had to do on its descent I was a little sceptical1.

Sadly this good fortune does not extend to the pair of 200 year old pistols allegedly forged from meteoric iron, whose extraterrestial heritage has been disproven. They still look pretty in their own right, though.

There’s some kind of slick link here to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull which looks to be having a good box office weekend despite a fairly mixed critical reception. We saw it yesterday, and I enjoyed it a lot while not really rating it as a great film. Certainly it was about as entertaining as Last Crusade, and nowhere near the level of godlike perfection that is Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Meanwhile Iron Man continues to rake in the cash (almost certainly fuelled by my review).

Terminator 4, which still seems to be called Terminator Salvation despite recent suggestions to the contrary, has an official website with a good-looking bit of pre-production art. Frankly the only announcement so far that has made me feel positive about this trilogy is Christian Bale’s involvement, but the concept of a post-apocalyptic trilogy is potentially a great one.

Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro webchat about The Hobbit and The Hobbit 2. Following my poll to scientifically determine the title of the second film (“Back in the Hobbit” being the clear winner), Del Toro kindly tells us: “not ‘H2 Electric Boogaloo’, that has been discarded.” So that’s a relief. In a further display of good sense he comments: “Smaug should not be ‘the Dragon in the Hobbit movie’ as if it was just ‘another’ creature in a Bestiary. Smaug should be ‘The DRAGON’ for all movies past and present.” He also rates the dragon in Dragonslayer. If he were any more rightheaded he’d explode.

1 Obviously the evil Martians who shoot down our probes were too busy carving gigantic faces on the ground. Ahem.


Today is the day on which the fact-free conspiracy theory that Prince Phillip had Diana assassinated (for a plethora of reasons that only exist in Mohamed Al Fayed’s head) finally went up in smoke once and for all. Not that it will stop the conspiracyheads of course, but then conspiracy theories don’t thrive on rigorous public examination anyway. They thrive on half-truths and insinuations that often make a seductive amount of sense until you take a single step backward and remember all the other facts that make them impossible. So, although it will make no difference and I stopped caring about Princess Diana’s death approximately ten years ago, I do think it right to pause briefly and genuflect at the altar of rightheadedness.

In that vein, Charlie Brooker writes hilariously about the so called ‘Brain Gym’ for school-children [via].

Signal to noise

This is rather cool. The earliest known recording of a human voice has been found, from 1860, pre-dating Edison’s “Mary Had a Little Lamb” by 17 years. The full details of the recording and the work done to play it back are here and here, and the actual (rather warbly) sound files are here. The recording unfortunately reduced one Radio 4 presenter to a fit of giggles.

There’s another BBC story that my wife was ranting about the other day. Apparently — and I know this will come as a shock to you — unrealistic images of male bodies in lad’s mags can cause teenage boys to aim for an impossible ideal (to the point of taking steroids: a ‘condition’ named “athletica nervosa”. Really.) Apparently after years and years of everyone saying this about unrealistic images of women in the media, it’s considered surprising that men are affected the same way. I suppose it’s worth reporting but a) surely we all knew this and b) surely the pressure on men to achieve unattainable physical perfection is orders of magnitude less than the equivalent pressure on women? My impression is that images of male perfection in the media and in Hollywood are far more about attitude, looks and style, e.g George Clooney, than they are about toned abs. And surely lad’s mags in particular remain far more influential in their depiction of women’s bodies than men’s? Then again I don’t read lad’s mags.


Some sparkly things that have captured my ever-drifting attention:

Everbody’s favourite transporter chief1, Colm Meaney, says he’s filmed the pilot episode of David E Kelley’s U.S. version of Life on Mars. He’s in the Gene Hunt role. I’m extremely interested to see what it’s like. The original BBC show, especially the first series, was excellent but there’s room for a different take on the concept. Relocating it to LA could just be enough of a difference.

Ben Goldacre’s seminal explanation in The Guardian of why homeopathy doesn’t make sense (it’s really good–read it) has won high praise from James Randi. Which is nice.

Galactica showrunner (and Trek alumnus) Ronald D Moore has a shiny new blog replacing his moribund one on the Sci-Fi Channel site. At present there are musings about Galactica and the Writer’s Guild of America strike.

Speaking of the shiny, in the wake of the terrifying number of Trek fan series underway on the internet, there’s now a Firefly fan series named Into the Black in production. As with most things in modern fandom, the production values are surprisingly decent. The cast… not so much. At least, not if the YouTube trailer is anything to go by. Also the song is quite scary.

Lastly, for the woman who has everything except a talking Stephen Fry clock: a talking Stephen Fry clock. Cool, but not quite as cool as Lego Batman: The Videogame.

1 Unless you favour Mr Kyle but, really, how geeky would that be?

Free Rice

I’m finding the Free Rice word game strangely compulsive. It’s a multi-choice word definition game that adjusts to your vocabulary level so it’s always just on the cusp of knowledge and instinct. I can reach a vocab level of 45 47 briefly, but tend to lose it with wrong answers. The game seems to be a very effective fundraising tool.

While I’m here, this is a lengthy but satisfyingly logical dissection of why homeopathy shouldn’t be excluded from normal standards of evidence. [Via]

And if that’s too heavy for you then–look! Cute cat! Sadly, most of the time she looks more like this.

Just astonishing

Predictable perhaps, but some the comments on this BBC news story about the entirely admirable move to vaccinate girls from 12 to 18 against cervical cancer really do betray both astonishing ignorance about medicine and neolithic head-in-the-sand attitudes to sexuality. The same levels of ignorance were equally in evidence in emails to BBC News 24. I should know better than to look, shouldn’t I?

And I quote:

“It cannott be right to inject cancer into patients”

(no really)

“The money would be better spent on Sex Education not vaccination.”

“Like myself, I will teach my daughter to wait for marriage before sex and this will eliminate problems like stds and pregnancy which also destroys unmarried womens lives and costs taxpayers millions taking care of illegimates. But, on the other hand, if it will save loose women from cancer then it will be ok for them.”

(pragmatism *and* generosity in one package)

“Why do women always get the vast majority of media attention, financial help and medical facilities when it comes to cancer treatment and prevention? The slightest news regarding breast or cervical cancer seems to hit the headlines.”

“It would be very interesting to know how much money was spent developing the vacine. Has an equivalent amount been spent attempting to do the same for prostate cancer – I very much doubt it. When will there be equality for men in health care?”

“one has to question the expenditure of “hundreds of millions” to save 1000 girls each year.”

“I DONT agree with this sexist vacination if males are’nt included”


“This is another great reason to teach your children at home.”

(say whut?)

“Total and utter propaganda to make more money for the pharmacutical companies. FACT is the immune system will stop all diseases”

(because, as we know, no-one ever dies from anything)

“I am against vaccination unless there is evidence showing the disease is contagious, air borne, spread by some sort of interaction. Personally, the idea of pumping children with all sorts of drugs/chemicals (vaccines), I find quite disturbing.”

(I’ve never heard it called “some sort of interaction” before)

…and so it goes on.

Janet is particularly annoyed at the sexism evident in many of the attitudes: women who have sex are ‘loose’ women who have done something wrong; money spent saving women would be better spent elsewhere (e.g. saving men!).

There are a great many rightheaded comments too, pointing out that this is not an issue about promiscuity. Sexually active does not mean promiscuous (and promiscuous does not mean immoral). Anyone who has sex, even once, is likely to be exposed to the virus. As Janet notes, all these concerned mothers must, presumably, have had sex at least once in their lives. That’s all it takes. Vaccinating young doesn’t mean we expect children to have sex young – but it does mean that the’re protected before they first have sex, which evidence suggests is most effective. I’m quite taken by one comment on the website: “The fact that I could get HPV did not make me not have sex, so I doubt the opposite will make people have sex.”

The idea, too that male diseases don’t get attention or funding seems to me to be ludicrous and inaccurate. Hardly surprising since those who are decrying this vaccine seem to be talking from sheer off-top-of-the-head prejudice. And the relative cost of this vaccination is hardly out of scale with other treatments / preventative measures.

Smart People Saying Stupid Things

It’s really depressing to see one of the pioneers of modern science spouting a load of racist nonsense. It’s rather like hearing Sir Patrick Moore blame women for falling standards at the BBC a few months back. Something in me wrongly assumes that people of science should be less prone to irrational prejudice, but of course we’re all flawed in the end, and we all carry with us assumptions that took root very early in our lives. Still you would think that an understanding of DNA would bring with it some sense of that fact that we are all fundamentally the same as a species. And you would think that a devotion to science would bring with it a spirit of challenging ingrained assumptions. I find it hard to excuse not only the sheer scale of his prejudice but also the need to shout about it as if it were something to be proud of.

Watson of course co-discovered the structure of DNA, but here he seems to be mouthing off about the intelligence of Africans based purely on his own opinion. He vaguely cites test scores but it’s often discussed that this kind of intelligence test is notorious for the difficulty in separating pure intelligence from in-built cultural and societal assumptions that influence how well people from different backgrounds and languages are able to perform. But the nail in the coffin is his entirely anecdotal and offensive suggestion that “people who have to deal with black employees” find that they are not as intelligent. Apparently he’s been even more offensive on the subject of homosexuality in the past so maybe this isn’t out of the blue. I’m not one for stifling debate but good on the Science Museum for taking a stand on this one.

Science: practical and theoretical.

Last night we laid on a rug outside and watched meteors. The rate was relatively low–at most one every five minutes with some longer lulls–but it was still great. Even the typically light-polluted city skies didn’t spoil the experience; indeed we probably saw as many stars last night as we’re ever likely to from this location, and the view was stunningly beautiful. The weather was absolutely clear for once. A really lovely prelude to my birthday.

Tonight we watched Richard Dawkins’s The Enemies of Reason on Channel 4. Despite agreeing with him in every way that counts I sometimes think that Dawkins is his own worst enemy, since he can come across as a strident, joyless naysayer. His recent polemic on religion fell a little foul of this. Here, although still preaching to the converted, he struck a good balance between singing the praises of reason (and, importantly, defining and demonstrating the beauty and relevance of science in everyday life) and analysing the failings of superstition and pseudoscience. Janet and I stopped the playback several times to debate the issues, but pleasingly there were very few things we raised that Dawkins didn’t himself address at some point in the episode. My only complaint is more of a wish: Derren Brown’s past contributions to debunking psychics and astrology have been so compelling that it would have been nice to see more of him than just a brief interview segment. My TV guide presented this documentary as something of an equal pairing between the two, and it intrigues me to think how much mileage could be gained from seeing Brown demonstrate before our eyes the ease with which apparently impossible phenomena can be faked. Even as it stands though I’m very interested to see part two next week.

The Great Global Warming Muddle

Courtesy of I knew C4’s recent “polemic” The Great Global Warming Swindle had been roundly criticised for scientific inaccuracies, but I’m still flabbergasted by the extent to which the film-maker distorted the evidence – take a look at these graphs.

Of course, some scientists are now warning that some claims about the impact of Global Warming exceed what can be purely justified by the evidence. This is perfectly reasonable and indeed the basis on which the scientific community ought to operate, and the online story is fine. However it’s a bit of a shame that BBC News 24’s soundbite approach to the story left the impression that they were casting doubt on global warming itself, not merely the extent of it. (In fact one of the scientists explicitly says in the online version: “I’ve no doubt that global warming is occurring”.) So a story in which scientists warn against confusing the public ends up being itself a cause of confusion. Typical.

Science Horizons

Janet has pointed me towards Science Horizons, the website for “a national series of conversations about new technologies, the future and society… …set up by the UK government”.

It looks like a series of national discussions about the public’s views on science and technology and where they’re heading in the future. As well as the pre-organised discussions, you can even set up your own small group discussion about the future:

“The pack contains some information and images about what life might be like in 2025 based on the views of experts. But these are not predictions of what will happen – just some possibilities to get people talking. We have included some information about the science behind these possibilities, and some links to where you can find more information if you want it, but you don’t have to have a special interest in the subject to take part.”

You then enter the group’s views online before 25th June 2007. Nifty.

As Janet said this morning, wouldn’t it be great if people with an active interest in science, who are actually intelligent and rightheaded1, were to do a few of these. You know: SF fans. Make a nice change from the luddites who make up the bulk of the UK population. Put power back in the hands of the elitist SF snobs, that’s what I say!

1 Sort of.


The generally entertaining Gadget Show on Channel 5 is running a campaign to get free wireless internet access on the streets of our cities, as has apparently already been done in, er, Norwich. While I remain sceptical that this is going to happen in any coordinated Government-led way, it does seem to have happened in Norwich so you never know. There’s a petition on their website if you’re interested.

Sad to say The Gadget Show is actually the closest thing to science programming on TV most weeks, and although it’s not always the most highbrow of shows its heart is in the right place. It’s that rarest of things, the genuinely IT literate TV show whose presenters know what they’re talking about and who actually geek out about shiny brushed aluminium gadgets and cool robots. Next week it looks like they’re testing stores like PC World to see if their staff actually know anything about computers. Seems like a foregone conclusion to me…

Why then it’s not SF

From tonight’s Horizon on pandemic flu: “This vision of the future is not Science Fiction. It’s based on the very latest scientific research”. It then proceeded to show a fictional docudrama on what might possibly happen in the event of a worldwide pandemic killing millions. Which was not, repeat NOT science fiction.

I notice that the ever eclectic BBC4 is showing a short season of programmes celebrating British Science Fiction. By which it largely means British Cult TV with an SF tinge, but it looks entertaining at least. It seems as if they’re dusting off serialised showings of Adam Adamant Lives, Doctor Who (Spearhead from Space), The Crow Road, Day of the Triffids and Blake’s 7, interspersed with short new documentaries about British SF, and repeats of more modern stuff like the A for Andromeda remake and the HG Wells drama that was on recently. There’s even an interview with Iain Banks. Looks like slim pickings but there’s at least something in there I’ll watch.


Tonight I got inadvertently sucked into watching a 30 minute tribute on BBC2 to Raymond Baxter, who passed away recently. It proved to be unexpectedly interesting. I wasn’t really watching Tomorrow’s World when he was presenting, but I have an indelible image of what he was like from various clips, and the show was clearly in its heydey under his leadership. Moreover he really does appear to have been a charming, debonair but also extremely daring presenter. I hadn’t realised that he was a Spitfire pilot in World War 2, that he championed live outside broadcasts, supported Concorde from its earliest days to its final flight, and even co-created Tomorrow’s World itself. Fascinating stuff.

Afterwards was a new, much longer trailer for Torchwood. It’s a show I’m feeling quite meh about, but with every successive trailer I get slightly more interested. I still remain to be convinced that what the world needs is a dark, sexy post-watershed Doctor Who spinoff (or that this is all of those things), but the production values look good and the format appears to be a blend of every likeable cliche you’d expect. Apparently it’ll premiere on October 22nd on BBC3 with repeats the following Wednesday on BBC2, both 9 p.m. slots. (Don’t tell the BBC but knowing me I’ll be watching the whole season regardless of how good or otherwise it turns out to be).


I hadn’t seen this Onion article before, part of their ‘Top Stories of 2005’ series. It’s clearly a work of genius.

Evangelical Scientists Refute Gravity With New ‘Intelligent Falling’ Theory

The lovely thing about it is that while it’s a nice bit of satire, it also highlights very clearly the kind of logical fallacies (and that’s what they are) used to challenge evolution. I approve.


Got up early this morning. We sat and drank coffee and watched the end of the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story “Carnival of Monsters” on UK Gold+1. Very creaky production values but quite entertaining, and a very civilised way to start the day.

Then we flicked over to the Heaven and Earth Show on BBC1, which was staging a small ‘debate’ between a Creationist, a Christian, and Geneticist Steve Jones. *bangs head on desk* It may take me several hours to stop ranting.

It was your typical example of the Creationist planting a few choice seeds of doubt over evolution which, while absolutely unscientific, are impossible to refute in an interview sound-bite. And since the Creationist only has to create specious doubt while the scientist has to summarise and prove the entire theory of evolution in one sentence, it’s really a no-win situation. Thankfully the CofE representative agreed that Creationism doesn’t belong in the science classroom, and Steve Jones chose to step back and argue that belief in divinity and the soul are not inherently incompatible with evolution.

Nonetheless, the Creationist was allowed to get away with all the usual tricks: saying that science is just another “competing” theory equal to any other, that “science” is interpreted through the context of our culture and so is not objective fact, that evolution is science’s version of a “Just So” story (oh the irony!), and this recent favourite – which I still don’t understand – that the mechanism for evolution by genetic mutation is apparently unupported by any evidence (!) and that evolution requires the spontaneous creation of genetic complexity out of nowhere. Apparently. Indeed, although the creationist admitted to not knowing much about genetics, well-informed people had told him that antibiotic-resistant viruses actually have less genetic complexity and therefore don’t prove evolution! I’m no expert myself, but I’m staggered that anyone can fundamentally (or wilfully) not understand the process of natural selection and mutation to this extent. Am I missing something that makes this whole ‘genetic complexity’ argument even remotely logical?

What really annoys me is that Creationists are always pitched against geneticists, yet Creationism by definition refutes not just evolution but also most other branches of science. After all, to say that the Earth and human life are only thousands of years old is contradicted by the evidence of plate tectonics, geology and erosion, radioactive decay and carbon dating, the stratification of fossils and other biological material in a geological context, cosmology and microwave background radiation from the big bang etc. etc. You can’t just cherry-pick evolution as being false without invalidating more or less every other branch of science.

Sigh. Why do I even get sucked in by these things?

Dear CSI writers

Dear CSI writers,

Just a few things to help you on your way…

Radio-monitored shopping tags used to track individuals?

Fingerprints analysed for clues to lifestyle

DNA could be used to predict your surname

It’s amazing how many of these stories keep popping up. You’ll note that not a single one of them says “Laws of physics changed – now possible to zoom into reflections 300 times using grainy CCTV footage”. (Something they did on the episode of Bones we just watched, despite scoring highly a few minutes earlier by referring to the impossibility of enhancing the resolution of an image.)

Godless heathens

Hey, I’m part of a distrusted minority. Finally! It may even give other minority groups something to be pleased about, relatively speaking, since: ‘From a telephone sampling of more than 2,000 households, university researchers found that Americans rate atheists below Muslims, recent immigrants, gays and lesbians and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society.”‘

Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that strongly religious people distrust atheists. At some fundamental level you’d almost expect it, though it needn’t necessarily be the case. To be honest I’m perfectly happy with the notion that people with equally strong – if opposing – religious beliefs have more in common with each other than with atheists. It’s all about the way you view the world and your place within it, and religions do indeed have a great deal in common on that level.

I do wonder, though, whether this result isn’t influenced by other factors. Atheism is also one of those forgotten minority groups (and how sad that it’s a minority!) in that there’s no sense that denigrating atheists is discriminatory in any way; no sense of guilt at having transgressed a cultural boundary. People will tend to be honest about their feelings towards atheists where perhaps they would not towards Muslims.

But still – to distrust atheists on principle – as if they were a homogenous group defined solely by their scepticism about the Almighty – indicates some fundamental assumptions which go hand in hand with distrust of science. It’s that feeling that scepticism is the same as believing in nothing or having no moral values. The feeling that to demand scientific evidence for belief is to be contrary and closed-minded. That’s more worrying to me.

I’m also struck by those minority groups mentioned in the quote; particularly their incredible diversity. They are all regarded as “other” by some kind of majority definition, but they share almost nothing else in common. That implictly says a lot about the very limited definition of social normality used by the people participating in the poll (or possibly by those conducting it, depending on how the quotations were phrased.) It’s sad that there’s any question of whether minority groups share a vision of society in common with other people: after all, any group is composed of individuals with their own beliefs, people who are not solely or even mainly defined by some arbitrary notion of “minority”. And if there is any sense that those groups don’t agree with the mainstream vision of society, it’s almost certainly because that society treats them with suspicion and intolerance and seeks to disenfranchise them. So standing up for your rights leads you to be seen as a threatening outsider: talk about a vicious circle.

All of which is just the tip of the iceberg of a very complex issue, but there’s nothing like a ridiculous poll to get your brain working.

Captain, there’s a cascade failure in the antimatter injectors

This subspace hyperdrive theory reported in New Scientist is clearly bollocks. Right?

More plausibly, Deadwood may get a fourth season before the third has even aired. One of the few times a renewal causes more swearing than a cancellation.

EDIT: The Screen Actors Guild have their own awards and they’ve nominated Ian McShane in the “Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series” category. Other nominees include Alan Alda, Hugh Laurie and Kiefer Sutherland. All the nominations are here.

And Universal will be releasing a High-Definition DVD version of Serenity.

Space Cadets

My brother-in-law force-fed us some Space Cadets last weekend, a show I’d been assiduously avoiding on principle as I was offended by the very idea of conning people into thinking they were off to space.

The show is both worse and better than I’d imagined. Worse because I hate watching people being conned, and I’m so uncomfortable watching I can hardly sit still at times. It’s lowest common denominator TV.

Better because the people being conned are mostly a complete waste of space and after a relatively short time you’re forced to conclude that they deserve anything that happens to them. I mean, would you seriously believe our local cluster of galaxies is called the Hazelnut Cluster, or that your Russian space shuttle has artifical gravity generators? There’s also a certain shameful thrill in seeing whether the programme can actually pull off the ludicrous hoax.

To counter my deep moral reservations about the whole thing, the makers of the programme have cannily got the family and friends of the contestants to approve the practical joke before starting, and there’s real astronaut training and a trip on a vomit comet for the contestants when they’re done. Also Johnny Vaughan, of all people, treads the fine line between taking the mick and taking it seriously. He knows when to tip his hat to the idea of space travel, or the bravery of the contestants.

Still, overall it’s an uncomfortable and very ambivalent viewing experience.

How Smart is Your Viewer?

The document contains no data? Of course the document contains data, you stupid bloody…THERE’S the data. It’s right there. Gah!

Where was I? Oh yes.

I was watching How Smart Is Your Pet, or something similar on BBC1 the other week. (I know, I know, it’s my own fault. It was a Saturday evening, so I should have known the TV would be pitched at a level that colobus monkeys would find vaguely patronising.)

Anyway, they did a feature with an “amazing” intelligent dog which could fetch whichever large foam-rubber letter its owner asked for, simply based on a word command. It was as if the dog could tell one letter from another. The TV presenters fawned admiringly, including the lovely Kate Humble who really should know better.

What no-one seemed to realise was that the dog was clearly taking very simple cues from its owner, just like the famous case of the horse that could allegedly do sums by stamping the result with its hoof.

The dog’s owner made encouraging “Find the letter ‘C’, find the ‘C’, no, the ‘C’, find the ‘C’” noises. The dog snuffled from one letter to another. Then, as soon as the dog (by random chance) happened upon the letter ‘C’ the owner immediately changed to shouting “Good dog, there’s a good dog.” The dog, realising its task was complete, happily trotted back with the letter. Very simple. Very obvious. Requiring nothing more than basic fetching skills from the dog. Sheep dogs manage far more complex tasks.

I don’t know why I’m ranting about this, except that shouldn’t a programme that professes to be some kind of survey on the intelligence of animals have even the vaguest smattering of scientific method and skepticism about it?

Apparently not.

Maybe it was all some fiendish experiment to test my willingness to sit through utter drivel. If so, I think I failed. No doubt the colobus monkeys were all watching the Discovery Channel.