24 September 2006

A right royal megaphone

Whoever, or whatever, The Scientific Alliance might be, you have to agree with its statement that this has been "an extraordinary week for the UK scientific establishment". That's how they kick off their latest newsletter, which, because it does not seem to be on the alliance's own web site, we read thanks to the Cambridge Network.

The alliance was moved to make this comment by the recent attempts by the Royal Society to bully Exxon, the world's most hated oil company, into pulling the plug on any funding it hands out to climate dissidents, folks who don't buy the party line on climate change.

According to a report in The Guardian, Bob Ward of the RS sent a letter to Exxon, or its UK arm Esso UK, complaining about the company's support for these crackpots, as some might dub them.

The first complaint in the alliance's newsletter is that "putting [the letter] into the public domain in this way is unprofessional and, at the very least, discourteous to Exxon, who seem to have been in discussion with the Royal Society in good faith". The alliance seems to have jumped to the conclusion that it was the RS that did the leaking. All that the newspaper report says is a copy "has been obtained by the Guardian".

The alliance is upset partly because The Guardian fingered it as one of the climate deniers. We'll leave it to others to fight about climate change. More interesting is the propensity of the Royal Society to issue statement left right and centre. In this case, they have latched on to an important issue, but sometimes they seem to utter forth for the sake of it.

This is a far cry from the old days, back in the 1970s, when I asked one President of the Royal Society (PRS) why they didn't come out and say things in public, he answered along the lines that they preferred to work through the corridors of power. As a noble lord himself, the PRS was probably talking about Westminster and the House of Parliament.

That attitude is long dead, fortunately, but has the RS gone too far? It seems to put out policy statements on a weekly basis. It churns them out on nuclear waste, evolution, and education. The RS even let the world know its views on "the UK Marine Bill consultation".

Then there are all those press releases and statements from the current PRS. At last count there were nearly 80 press releases this year. To single out one at random, do I really care what the Royal Society has to say about fishing quotas?

I guess they expect us to care because they are, after all, the country's brightest scientists. Then again, too many of the really bright scientists I meet may be experts in their subjects, but when it comes to the real world, it might as well be another planet.

I'm sure that all of these statements are world shattering, but you do get the impression that the RS feels that it needs to justify the existence of its policy machine. Doubtless they realise that media enthusiasm for these statements is a diminishing resource. Science writers have only so many pages for these Very Important Pronouncements. How long will if be before the "not them again" response kicks in?

23 September 2006

How often do violins burst into flames?

An item from Reuters, adds to the kerfuffle over incendiary batteries. The story, Sony investigates notebook fire, reports that a battery "caught fire at Los Angeles International Airport last weekend". This reinforced a question that I have been pondering for some time. After the recent, almost certainly over blown security scare, why did the Government allow portable computers on aircraft while banning the carriage of musical instruments?

As far as I can recall, there have been no recent sightings of spontaneous combustion of violins. Yet we get daily reports of exploding batteries. And you don't have to be a terrorist, just a tourist, for this to happen.

For some reason, airlines still allow you to board their 'planes with an unexploded battery. Must be something to do with the relative spending power of PC toting business folks against that of orchestral musicians.

07 September 2006

Would you let the world edit your copy?

Journalists hate it when people they are writing about ask to see their copy before it appears in print. They only put up with editors and subeditors because that is a part of the deal. So Ryan Singel must have had qualms when he posted a story he was working on for Wired so that the world could intervene and Wiki" it.

He recounts the result of the exercise in Wired News: The Wiki That Edited Me. It is an interesting account of how the story changed.

There may be little surprise in his conclusion that the exercise did little to improve the story. But his explanation of why this was so strikes home. "The edits over the week lack some of the narrative flow that a Wired News piece usually contains. The transitions seem a bit choppy, there are too many mentions of companies, and too much dry explication of how wikis work."

One bit that caught the eye was his observation that most of the edits merely made the story longer, until someone stepped in and did a proper edit of the piece. This is something that should happen to most of the material that appears in Wikipedia.

No matter how good the information there, it is often let down by lack of any editing to make it readable. But that's what you'd expect of something cooked up by experts. A bit like the result of Ryan Singel's experiment.

Hot science from Siberia

It is always interesting to see science publications from other countries. Usually, though, I am reduced to admire the pictures, such are my language skills – I'm not what you'd call a cunning linguist. So it is nice to find
Science First Hand, which describes itself as "A good journal for inquisitive people".

This is an English language version of a Russian publication founded by the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and published since January 2004.

Unfortunately, the web site is no more than a place to check the contents and buy a subscription.

04 September 2006

The headline that got lost in space

The headline on the RSS feed was "One giant crash for mankind". It was the only light relief for one of those terminally tedious "so what" stories.

Decades after the US landed people on the Moon, Europe managed to crash a pile of expensive metal and electronics on to the Earth's biggest satellite. (How come the only stuff we can do in space is to crash into things?) The first response was to excoriate these scientific litter louts, but life's too short. Move on to something significant.

Then that headline came along, bringing back memories of the days when The Guardian gained a joint reputation for excrutiating typos but great headlines, mostly puns. You click the headline and lane on a far less entertaining version

Giant leap for mankind ... or just a big crash?. Ho hum.