Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Botanical Gardens

Clare, Adrian, my mother and myself visited the University of Bristol Botanical Gardens lunchtime today. Here are some pictures, mostly taken in the tropical glasshouse.

The picture below was taken elsewhere; not sure what the plant is.

Afterwards we lunched in a coffee shop in The Mall, in fashionable Clifton Village.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Monstrous Moonshine

In Stanisław Lem’s famous philosophical-SF novel, ‘His Master’s Voice’, an alien message is received from the stars. A Manhattan Project-style research establishment is set up to decode it, the world’s best minds from all disciplines are recruited - but the years pass while no progress is made. The conclusion is stark – whatever the message is, it’s just ... well, too difficult for humans ever to understand it, the aliens remain forever inaccessible in their esoteric strangeness.

Lem’s point is well-taken: the alien is likely to be more different from us than we can possibly imagine but we don’t need to wait for strange symbols from the sky. We have an existence proof both of extraordinary conceptual difficulty and astonishing personal idiosyncrasy right in front of us.

Let’s talk about Monstrous Moonshine.

Monstrous Moonshine is so incomprehensible that I can’t even give you a summary here – if you’re up for it there’s a note at the end. Like that message from space, the basic concepts are impossibly-hard to comprehend (except to a small handful of specialist mathematicians). The two leaders in research on the Monster and the Monstrous Moonshine conjectures were the famous Professor John Conway (also the inventor of the Game of Life) and the little-known Dr Simon Norton. While Professor Conway continues to work at Princeton University, Dr Norton has just been the subject of an amiable biography which I highlight below: he is a most unusual person.

Today in his late fifties, the genius Dr Norton is ‘unemployed and unemployable’. He owns a Victorian town houses fronting Jesus’ Green in Cambridge, England where he lives by himself in the basement surrounded by deeply-piled squalor and piles of bus-timetables. He dines exclusively on tinned mackerel and boiled rice.

Norton spends his days taking bus rides around the United Kingdom as part of his campaign to bolster public transport (he is fanatically anti-car). Occasionally he is invited to a Mathematical Research Colloquium where he blows away that small fraction of his listeners who can follow him with penetrating analysis of ‘The Monster’.

At age three and half, Simon’s IQ was rated at 178. A prodigy, he represented England three years in succession at the International Mathematics Olympiad where he scored a perfect 100% one year and 95% the next. While in his mid-teens at Eton he took a first class degree in mathematics with London University and then continued to Cambridge, where after his PhD he joined the Maths faculty, working with his doctoral supervisor Professor John Conway on the classification of simple finite groups.

His colleagues bewail the almost complete loss of Simon’s mathematical productivity since Conway left for America 25 years ago (‘the collapse of genius’) but Norton doesn’t see it that way at all: he has no sense that one part of his life is more or less important than any other: the crafting together of optimal bus routes is as interesting and fulfilling to him as the deepest problems of mathematics.

The interesting thing for me is the uniqueness of Dr Norton’s interior life: which is how I think Stanisław Lem imagined it would be with the alien.


The Hard Stuff

The Monster and Monstrous Moonshine are inaccessible unless you took Group Theory in your math MSc. If, however, you have some background then it is possible to get a sense of what it’s all about (if you’ve forgotten what a group is, check here).

It turns out that there are some special groups which can be used to create all possible groups, rather like the way prime numbers can be multiplied together to create all other numbers. These special groups are called the simple groups, and in the third quarter of the twentieth century it was found that they could be systematically classified. The multi-year international campaign to document the complete Atlas of Finite Groups was led by a five-man team at Cambridge University, headed by Professor John Conway (also the inventor of the Game of Life) and Dr Simon Norton, discussed above.

Wikipedia tells us that ‘The list of finite simple groups consists of 18 countably-infinite families, plus 26 sporadic groups that do not follow such a systematic pattern. The Monster group is the largest of these sporadic groups and contains all but six of the other sporadic groups as subquotients.’

Clear enough?

Reading on we discover that ‘The Monster’ is not just large; it’s enormous, with 808,017,424,794,512,875,886,459,904,961,710,757,005,754,368,000,000,000 elements. The Monster has a 196,883-dimensional representation, meaning that each element of the Monster can be expressed as a 196,883 by 196,883 matrix.

As they were coming to the end of their task, Conway and Norton were alerted to a strange coincidence between the 196,883-dimensional representation of ‘The Monster’ and the coefficients of the Fourier expansion of a particular modular function, j. They made some conjectures concerning this unlikely relationship which they dubbed ‘Monstrous Moonshine’ – (these were later proven by Fields Medallist Richard Ewen Borcherds in 1992 ‘using the no-ghost theorem from string theory and the theory of vertex operator algebras and generalized Kac-Moody superalgebras’).

Monstrous Moonshine has been the subject of several books. Symmetry and the Monster, by Mark Ronan, tells you a lot about elementary symmetry and the history of group theory, but nothing much about the topic under consideration; Finding Moonshine by the better-known Marcus Du Sautoy tells you quite a bit about elementary group theory and some biographical details of Professor Sautoy himself, but little of substance about the central mathematical topic.

Like I said, this stuff is inaccessible unless you’re a post-graduate mathematician specialising in the area. But see this great cartoon.


Originally written for but decided here was better.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Castle of Comfort

Alex has been here over the Bank Holiday so today Clare, Adrian, Alex and myself lunched at the Castle of Comfort pub, on the way to Cheddar. During this pleasant family outing we established that although Alex had sat through an hour of 'The Big Bang Machine' presented by Prof. Brian Cox this morning he didn't know that the programme was about the LHC, didn't know what the LHC had been designed for, and believed firmly that the objects being accelerated at the LHC were 'large hadrons'. Thank God we were not entertainly Prof. Cox to lunch!

Clare was looking a bit pale but otherwise in good spirits as she polished off her Lasagne with garlic bread. We skipped a post-meal walk in the woods in favour of retiring home for a rest, though.

The Case Against Manned Starflight

The DARPA Hundred Year Starship program is holding a public symposium in Orlando, FL at the end of next month. The symposium will plan a century-long program to launch manned missions to the stars.

Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? In reality no human being will ever embark upon an interstellar journey. Forget those Star Trek images, those stardrive-powered caves of steel with their space-marines and highly-trained crew. Manned starflight is as likely as a human swimming unaided between Europe and America. It will never happen because it will never need to.

Continue reading at


Other recent posts at

* Review of Greg Egan's 'Zendegi'.

* Science feature on the evolution of humans and chimpanzees.

Thursday, August 25, 2011


This has got to be the spookiest creation ...

... brought to you by Boston Dynamics for the US Military.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Another rainy Saturday

Yesterday we were in Bristol for Clare's first Brachytherapy session (she has one more final treatment the end of next week). The treatment itself is painless but Clare seems to have an associated allergic reaction to something: it was the familiar histamine reaction but this time not a whole body rash but extreme sensitivity of the hands and ankles. Today the effects are beginning to recede.

Still, she's very tired and spends most of the day sleeping - 'like a dormouse,' she says, and given the weather she could be forgiven.

Ship of Fools?

Part 1

Did you read the SF story where a future population is oppressed by ... well, an evil oppressor, and the time-travelling hero hands the Resistance the ultimate secret weapon, the U.S. Constitution? It may be one of the classic SF clichés but it speaks to a bedrock conviction of American culture: Democracy is Wonderful.

In truth it would be wonderful if the average voter wasn’t so incredibly ignorant:
  • Half of Americans don’t know that each state has two senators
  • Less than 40% know their representatives’ party affiliations
  • 45 percent of adult apparently believe that Karl Marx’s communist principle “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” is actually part of the U.S. Constitution.

How on earth do we get sensible representatives, policies and decisions from this ocean of baleful ignorance? We know that most voters don’t understand micro- or macroeconomics and fail to appreciate the subtleties of foreign policy. Given the likely effects of their one vote, it’s even been argued that it’s rational for them not to invest much time in preparing for an act of so little practical consequence.

Thankfully, it might not be quite as bad as it appears.

An example: suppose the 160 million registered voters in North America have to vote for candidates Ms Right or Mr Wrong. If we have 160 million totally ignorant citizens, then Ms R and Mr W are each going to get around 80 million each and it’s a toss-up as to who will win. We can model this outcome by simply imagining that each voter has a coin and just flips it: Heads for Ms R and Tails for Mr W.

If we imagine running that vote over and over again, then 99% of the time the total number of votes cast for each candidate would each be within 17,000 of the magic balancing 80 million votes. That is, when we counted the number of votes for Ms Right (or Mr Wrong) then with 99% probability the number of votes she or he would receive would lie between 80 million minus 17,000 and 80 million + 17,000. This is the magic of statistics* and also a possible answer to our dilemma.

Suppose that there are 20,000 well-educated and politically-engaged people in the electorate (just 0.0125% of the 160 million voting population).

Suppose that Ms Right’s political supporters successfully persuade these 20,000 to vote the Right way. A result! Democracy has successfully delivered the goods, despite an electorate which scarcely deserves such good fortune. So Democracy works even with overwhelming public apathy and ignorance if there is tiny crowd of political sophisticates who take the trouble to research the issues and vote the right way.

But be cautious: is this a model which describes the actual political world we see around us? Sadly not: in point of fact the true situation is even worse than widespread and systemic ignorance. The population-at-large in fact exhibits perverse and self-defeating bias: the people systematically vote for candidates and policies which act against their own self-interests.

How and why this happens will be discussed in part 2 of this article below.


* Where did that come from?

We have a population n of 160 million. Each individual has a probability of p=0.5 to vote for Ms Right and an equal probability q=0.5 to vote for Mr Wrong. This is a standard binomial distribution with standard deviation √(npq) = 0.5 * √(160 million) = 6,325. Plus or minus 99% corresponds to +/- 2.57 standard deviations = +/- 16,250 which we round up to 17,000.

The idea that the average voter is ignorant of politics is based on the idea that the personal cost of staying current with political issues is quite high, while the chances of any one person’s vote making a difference to outcomes is miniscule. It is therefore rational to not bother and stay ignorant (the theory is called Rational Ignorance).

Part 2

In Part 1 we encountered the theory of Rational Ignorance, the idea that your one vote makes such a small difference that it isn’t worth your time and effort to stay current with political issues. We showed that if the overwhelming mass of people voted at random, democracy would still work if a small elite were sufficiently educated and motivated to study the issues and vote the right way.

But we all know that it just isn’t so. People do not vote randomly: they are strongly opinionated and actively engaged with the issues – despite not studying them. In ‘The Myth of the Rational Voter’, Bryan Caplan flags three areas where voters passionately rally to counterproductive policies which actively harm their own self-interests.

1. Anti-Market Bias

Despite the fact that capitalism is the most successful form of economic organization ever seen on the planet, most people are profoundly suspicious of it. Adam Smith’s famous observation about the trade of the businessman: ‘By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good,’ has never been believed by the general public.

The public’s instincts are to go with regulation, price subsidies and Government provision of essential goods and services, believing that market mechanisms are driven by private greed, keep prices sky-high, lead to shoddy output and don’t give a damn about customers (i.e. themselves).

Given a competitive market, the truth of the matter is almost completely the reverse, as people would realize if they compared their grocery stores to almost any Government department they deal with. But people don’t trust markets.

2. Anti-Foreign Bias

Left to themselves, many people would choose to erect impenetrable tariff walls at our borders and keep all foreign imports out, stopping those perfidious foreigners stealing our jobs.

Protectionism misses a revelation about the gains from trade which has been known for 250 years. In a simple example suppose an American worker can make 10 cars or 5 bushels of wheat in a given time, while a Mexican can make 1 car or two bushels of wheat in the same time. Mexico is a poorer country, and not as productive as America. Obviously there is no point trading with them.

Take one American auto worker and one American farmer. Together they make 10 cars and 5 bushels of wheat.

Take three Mexican auto workers and one Mexican farmer. Together they make 3 cars and 2 bushels of wheat.

Total: 13 cars and 7 bushels of wheat.

Now let them specialize and trade. The 2 Americans make cars, 20 of them while the four Mexicans make wheat, 8 bushels of it.

Total: 20 cars and 8 bushels of wheat. So there is a point in trading with Mexico.

The Law of Comparative Advantage encourages countries to specialize in what they’re good at and trade with others doing the same. The result is prosperity, even if your trade partners damage their own economies through protectionism. Alternatively, you could be North Korea.

Does the general public buy this argument? Not at all. They listen to steel workers, about to lose their jobs because steel-making in America is uncompetitive, and they rally to their defense. Keep cheap steel imports out! In doing so, they make all other American goods which incorporate steel more expensive for themselves and less competitive on the world market. But, hey, we saved the steel workers!

Or did we?

3. Make-Work Bias

The third area where public opinion gets it wrong is layoffs. Capitalism works, and we all get richer, by continually churning obsolete technologies in favor of newer, more productive ones. In the short-term workers in these declining industries lose their jobs; in the longer term they tend to get new and higher-paid jobs. Still, we hear more about those unfortunates who don’t.

In 1800 it took 95 out of every 100 Americans to work the land to feed the country. In 1900 it took 40, while today it takes just 3 in a 100. That was a lot of farmers let go. Do you see them hanging around the poor parts of town begging for handouts? There was a lot of pain in the wrenching transitions which saw an agricultural economy transition to a modern technological one. At every step of the way, compassionate people cried ‘stop!’ – fighting to freeze the status quo and avoid redundancies.

Yet who today would want to go back?


There is a common factor to these three biases. Humans are social creatures: we have empathy with others in our social group. Our emotions reward efforts for the common good and prompt us to help those suffering misfortune and not stand idly by: that’s how we evolved.

Capitalism in its most effective, competitive mode deliberately pits people against people and disrupts bedded-down patterns of life in favor of disruptive change. Locally it can damage lives even as it globally increases prosperity and opportunity. Our emotions don’t ‘get’ the way complex, holistic capitalism works and in our guts we don’t really approve. And when it comes to elections (where the act of voting is very distant from any personal economic consequences) we vote our feelings.

Economist Bryan Caplan calls this ‘Rational Irrationality’ and it explains a lot about modern politics, even the forced-hypocrisy of otherwise honest politicians who are forced to advance correct policies by stealth in the face of heated populist opposition.


Further Reading: The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan (2007), Princeton University Press.


Opinion Polls

As a bonus here’s a quick review of how opinion polls work. The pollsters ask, say, 1,000 people if they intend to vote for Ms R. Let’s suppose she’s languishing a little and the poll gives her 33% support. The standard deviation of this sample of voters is, as before, √(npq). We could use p=0.3, q=0.7 but it’s easier and more conservative just to stick with p=q=0.5 so that √(pq) = 0.5, its maximum value.

So one standard deviation σ is 0.5 * √(1,000) = 0.5 * 31.6 = 15.8.

The 95% confidence interval around 33% is +/- 1.96 standard deviations, 1.96 * 15.8 = 31. The pollsters express this as a percentage, 31/1,000 = 3.1% and they tell you that Ms R is currently polling at 33% with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1%.

They’ll be right nineteen times out of twenty.


[Note: this was originally going to be a couple of articles for but I think you'll agree that they're better here.]

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Mars Colony Disaster

In October last year, NASA announced its ‘Hundred-Year Starship’ program designed to settle humans on other worlds, starting with Mars in the 2030s. It would be a one-way mission: the Mars colonists could never come home.

Writing in Scientific American (August, 2011, Letters) former astronaut Don Peterson listed the many serious problems with such a Mars Colony. He finished with a rhetorical flourish: “Most of all, why would anyone go?”

It took a while to think of a reason...

Continue reading.


Adrian's got a cold, Clare's bearing the weary load of 24 days radiotherapy (last day tomorrow) and as for me, well, I'm coughing a bit.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Two plus two equals what?

In George Orwell’s totalitarian fable, ‘1984’, Party executive O’Brien is interrogating dissident Winston Smith under torture.

“Do you remember writing in your diary, ‘Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two equals four’?”

“Yes,” said Winston.

O’Brien held up his left hand, its back towards Winston, with the thumb hidden and the four fingers extended.

“How many fingers am I holding up, Winston?”


“And if the Party says that it is not four but five – then how many?”


O’Brien turns up the voltage.


Do you believe, like Winston Smith, that 2 + 2 =4?

Proving this is not an easy task. It all depends on what '2', '4' and '+' actually are.

Start with an empty place and call the number of things there ‘0’. We call this the zero state. We could use any other symbol rather than ‘0’ if we chose.

Now we do an action which materialises an object at the empty place. Call the action s (s is going to stand for the word ‘successor’). The action s is naming what in mathematics or programming we would call a function. So we apply s to the initially empty place and end up with place containing one item, which we write s(0). Do it again and we get a place with two items, which we write s(s(0)).

So now we know what 2 is: it’s the result of applying the ‘successor’ function twice to an initial zero state, so we can say that when we write 2 we really mean s(s(0)).

What about ‘+’? This is a harder one, since you can add any two numbers together. How on earth can we define it?

Let’s add p and q together: p + q.

Rule 1: If p = 0, then p + q = 0 + q = q.

If p is not zero, then it must equal s(r) where r is a number which is one less than p. Now we write:

Rule 2: p + q = s(r) + q = r + s(q).

We made the left hand number one smaller and the right hand number one bigger and observed that the sum is just the same. These two rules are enough both to define ‘+’ and to prove that 2 + 2 = 4. Like this.

2 + 2
= s(s(0)) + s(s(0))
= s(0) + s(s(s(0))) – using Rule 2
= 0 + s(s(s(s(0)))) – using Rule 2
= s(s(s(s(0)))) – using Rule 1
= 4

If we tried to prove that 2 + 2 = 1 using the same technique we would surely fail, wouldn’t we?

Not necessarily: it depends on how we interpret s.

Up to now, s has stood for adding objects in succession at a place without limit. But suppose that we had a thermostat reading 0, 1, 2 with a dial which we could turn in a clockwise direction (the settings represent OFF, LOW and HIGH respectively). Applying the s function corresponds to moving the dial round by one notch so s(0) means 1 (‘LOW’) and s(s(0)) means 2 (‘HIGH’). s(s(s(0))) means 3 but we’ve gone in a complete circle so we’re back to 0 (‘OFF’) again.

What is 2 + 2? Well, as before, it’s s(s(s(s(0)))) but we now have the additional rule: s(s(s(0))) = 0, which means 3 = 0. So 2 + 2 = 1 in this interpretation, as we replace s(s(s(0))) by 0.

We can go further. If we interpret the s function as an operation which does nothing at all, then no matter how many times you apply it, you will always get 0. We can write this as the rule:

s(0) = 0.

Its implication is more clearly expressed, however, as 0 = 1 = 2 = 3 = 4 = 5 = ...

So 2 + 2 could equal anything.

Eventually Winston Smith did indeed learn to see exactly what the Party told him to see, and to honestly believe it. This is how a mathematically-trained Winston Smith could have kept more of his integrity and self-respect.

“I’m going to take O’Brien’s no finger up as the zero state. His act of raising an additional finger is going to be a representation of the s function; so four fingers corresponds to s(s(s(s(0)))). However, I choose to interpret zero or more raised fingers as the statement: The Party is Right!

“This means I’m imposing an additional rule, s(0) = 0.”

On this basis 0 = 1 = 2 = 3 = 4 = ... and Smith can honestly label O’Brien’s four fingers with any number the Party chooses. The Party wins an utterly vacuous victory.

The proof above that 2 + 2 = 4 (usually) may seem a small, whimsical thing but the technique provides an entry into the whole world of functional programming, our best hope of parallel programming the next generation of massively multi-core computers.

[This post was something I thought about for but I concluded it was too specialised.]

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A few thoughts on rioting in the UK

In 1992, after the acquittal of LAPD officers following the beating of Rodney King, Los Angeles burned for six days as criminal gangs looted and pillaged. The forces of law and order stood by, largely unable to cope. A week ago we saw an uncanny echo of these events in England, where after the fatal shooting of a black suspect by police, parts of London and a number of provincial cities including Manchester, Birmingham and even Oxford were trashed by criminal gangs. TV shots showed buildings aflame while looters ransacked electrical goods and sports shops. People defending their properties were killed.

Most citizens are naturally horrified. Were the perpetrators ‘scum’ or was this some kind of protest at a lack of jobs and opportunities? Should we bear down on the looters with retribution or was this a wake-up call that they need more help? Opinions are cheap and varied, but can science say anything useful.

Who are the looters?

In Los Angeles most of the trouble was caused by ethnic minority gangs. In the UK the media has tip-toed around the ethnic issue but inner-city gangs do appear to be the driving force, coordinated by the Blackberry Messaging System and Twitter. Commentators agree that we’re dealing with the urban criminal underclass, what some people called the bottom 5%.

Many studies have been carried out on criminal intelligence and personality. Low level gang crime is carried out be people who are the inverse of the white-collar professionals who form society’s elites. What are their relevant psychological characteristics?

As outlined previously, psychologists define personality along the five OCEAN dimensions: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism.

The kinds of traits which get you a high-status and well-paid job include being hardworking, diligent, honest, polite, cooperative and kind - and having a higher-than-average IQ. These traits correlate closely with high-scores on two of the above personality dimensions: Conscientiousness and Agreeableness; Intelligence also tends to correlate somewhat with Openness (to new thinking and experiences).

By contrast, gang members tend to have low IQ, be low on conscientiousness (i.e. impulsive) and low on agreeableness (they’re aggressive and lack empathy). Think of the riots as the revenge of the extreme left of the bell-curve.

These psychological characteristics of gang members tend to undermine the most straightforward solution to breaking up gang culture, namely getting them into employment. It’s a fixture of the TV studios to see leftish politicians stating that if only ‘the Government provided jobs’ then the problem would be solved. However, the stereotypical gang-member is the last person any rational employer would wish to hire – he (and it’s usually a ‘he’) is the employee from hell. Conversely, if crime does provide a pay-off, then it’s much more suited to the gang-member’s natural affinities than the discipline and structure of low-skilled work.

The inhabitants of the extreme left-hand side of the bell curve are a problem for every advanced society. The options are only cooption or containment. Since cooption, in the form of low-skilled jobs, is expensive, time-consuming and has diminishing marginal returns the default for most societies is containment. Low-levels of ongoing crime in the gang ghettos are tolerated and contained by specialist police units, while the rest of society keeps well away and gets on with its business. When the ghettos explode out, as they did last week, it forces everyone to rethink.

An Engagement Model

The British Government is taking the lessons of Los Angeles very seriously: ’Communities cannot "arrest their way out" of gang crime, the prime minister's new crime adviser, US "supercop" Bill Bratton, has warned.’ Bratton was formerly head of the LAPD, charged with putting it all back together again after the riots. He then achieved success in New York and is now advising David Cameron.

The carrot and stick approach will see Government agencies investing to create opportunities for ghetto children who are amenable to cooption, giving them access to training and jobs, and mentoring take-up. Those harder types who are essentially unemployable will be monitored much more closely and if they have to be locked away, so be it.

These steps will diminish the number of gang members and their social power but the gangs will not go away. The final step will be improved technology for identification of rioters and countermeasures. The already massive deployment of CCTV will be stepped up and if you have cash to invest in automation systems for incident analysis and facial recognition, now is a good time to buy.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Beam Weapons

"In a previous article we discussed the use of relativistic kill weapons: impactors travelling at almost the speed of light delivering enormous amounts of kinetic energy to demolish their targets. But why go with a weapon that travels at almost the speed of light when you can use light itself as a weapon? Then the enemy will have no warning at all.

The United States has been developing laser weapons for years but current systems still require several seconds of target-lock before the thermal effects kick in. In a future warfare scenario we’re not so limited: let’s consider stellar-class beam weapons."

Continue reading at

It's a Histamine Reaction

Yesterday I noted that Clare had come out in a rash (looking like measles) which we attributed to the cumulative effects of the radiotherapy. Back at Taunton's Musgrove Park Hospital for today's treatment, nurse Jane took a look and pronounced that it was an allergic reaction - nothing to do with the x-rays.

She bleeped for a doctor but, hey, it's an NHS hospital: the last thing they have is spare doctors. Jane suggested we go to A&E but confided that it was currently a two and a half hour queue.

We elected instead to drop into the nurse-practioner hospital in Glastonbury on the way home, where after a five minute wait Clare was briskly diagnosed as having an allergic response and dosed with anti-histamine pills. Puffy and red, she's currently watching her favourite 'Waking the Dead' DVD on the couch and pining after Trevor Eve ...

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Monster

"Alexander Masters has set himself two impossible problems. The subject of his biography, Dr Simon Phillips Norton, is to a first approximation, personality-free while the matter which has made Dr Norton biography-worthy is so arcane that no-one has been able to explain it to any circle wider than the elite mathematicians who actually work on it."

Continue reading at

This was a pretty good biography of Dr Simon Norton and I also worked the material into an article on 'Monstrous Moonshine' for It's on the stack for September.

The radiotherapy has finally, and cumulatively, caught up with Clare. She has a red 'sunburn' over most of her body - the magic of x-rays - and is feeling a lot more fatigued. I've taken my sister Elaine's advice and bought a Bottle Green cordial of Ginger and Elderberry to pep her up. Don't you think she looks a little like Mother Theresa?

I'm writing this breaking all the rules for electrical goods as a thunderstorm has just swept by leaving a desultory pattering of raindrops in its wake. The summer weather correlates with economic gloom: the Sunday Times today has a four-page pullout detailing minutely the anatomy of worldwide economic armageddon.

I read a few days ago that one in six of Dutch Protestant ministers of the church were either atheists or agnostics. It's all part of a 'radical re-interpretation of Christianity'. I like it - this is a church I could relate to. I'm currently working on a prayer for low-inflation and higher interest rates. Do you think they'd be interested?

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Book Reviews

A review of Charle Stross's SF novel Rule 34 here at

A review of The Milkman in the Night by Andrey Kurkov here at Amazon (amazon vine review).

So that's two books reviewed and two to go: one a rather zany biography of Dr Simon Norton, mathematician and hunter of the Monster group; the other a thriller set in thirties Germany: "The Einstein Girl".

Clare's increasingly tired after days of radiotherapy. She's lost appetite and I've been put on notice that it's evening dinners for one from now on. We're off to that high-quality shop in Wells which serves pre-packaged oven-friendly meals tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Higgs Boson

There was excitement at the European Physics Society conference in Grenoble, France last week as physicists gathered to review evidence for the detection of the Higgs particle. With the latest data, the LHC is finally returning on its investment while the Tevatron at Fermilab is bravely battling on before its imminent closure in September. But why is the Higgs particle so important?

The Standard Model of particle physics is the most successful and accurate theory ever created. Physicists such as Anthony Zee have lauded it as mankind’s greatest achievement, the pinnacle of human thought (Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell, p. 455). Yet it is not widely understood that the Standard Model predicts that all particles will be massless, and so travelling at the speed of light.

You will have noticed that this appears not to be the case ...

Continue reading.


I posted the above article to - and then decided it was too technical for the audience. Lagrangians don't sit too well with Captain America and Torchwood. The editor was at pains to reassure me that there is a class of people 'out there' who quite like my science pieces. So we've gone with it. As I said in the comment:

"I spent years hearing about the Higgs particle and how it was 'very important' for our understanding of the universe. I was intensely irritated that no-one ever explained *why* it was important, or how it connected to those parts of quantum mechanics and relativity that I did understand.

Eventually I did some more work and got at least the framework sorted. Closure at last -- so I'm delighted to share :-)"