Sunday, 30 January 2011

England's forests for sale

I declare an interest: I love trees. I don't seem to find that many of them these days, especially not in the same place - and they're often found put there on purpose, or the space around them adapted to our tastes. Here's a little collection, though. Three are in a public woodland, Idless Woods in Cornwall. The others are from Kew Gardens, my old university campus, and a patch of ground near where I live in Wales . . .

This country was not always like that. Once upon a time, it was covered with forests. That was the natural thing. (Is it just me or is our hero in many fairy tales a poor woodcutter?) Have you heard about succession? It was a beautiful little concept I learnt of in first year A level Biology - take a barren area, perhaps rocky, or a beach, with no fertile soil. Start with the faintest sprinkling of a few tiny, hardy plants. As they drive their roots into the ground, they create airholes, a good soil texture (not with particles so large that the water all drains away, such as pure sand, or so small that it clogs and floods like clay), fix nutrients, and generally set up a complex ecosystem. Plants and bacteria and animals - first tiny ones, and later larger ones - find their homes there.

A forest, if I understand correctly, is pretty much the last stage of that. Trees reach for the light. When the rain hammers down from the sky, the trees' leaves break its fall, softening the raindrops' impact on the soil and preventing if from being washed away. Moss grows on trees. Dead leaves provide nutrients for next year. When a tree dies, its dead wood is home to hundreds of creatures. A rainforest is a symbol of perfect recycling and order - evaporation from the plants even often control the weather, and set off predictable and regular cloudbursts - a temperate forest is certainly less dramatic, but the same general processes go on.

But what such a system is not - like so many things ecological - is speedy. A tree takes hundreds of years to grow. Some forest ecosystems have been suggested to be adapted to forest fires. But a wipeout of an area of trees in a forest not so adapted would take years and years to recover. Vast as it may seem, and remote, an ecosystem is a delicate thing.

Gradually, forests were cut or burnt back to make way for farms, and then towns. Gradually, more and more of what is now the UK was invaded by one horde after another, and land became something owned by humans, to do with as they liked. Of course, so many animals have ways of "owning" their territory - by patrolling and spraying it, and chasing off competitors; and I have the feeling from my faraway biology studies there are a great many plant species that barely survive or have been driven to extinction by relentless chomping or wanton destruction by local critters. But ecosystems have had time to adapt to that. No animal, to the best of my knowledge, has the desire or the means to eliminate all plants that grow around it. I think the only time this happens is when a fairly large animal is tethered or enclosed in a small space, and tramples all the grass.

Not that humans generally have, either. We all love to see a bit of greenness. When I was 20 I visited Norway, and my guidebook was pretty exact on how forests were regarded there. (I cannot recommend enough a visit to Bergen on the west coast, and a trek round the forests and up the mountains that surround it. That was one of the most magical days of my life.) A walk in the woods was supposed to cure all stress and misery. There was an indestructable tradition of collective ownership - I think it even had a name (if only I knew where that guidebook was now!) - and of the right of all people to walk through the woods, pretty much anywhere. As long as you were further away than 200m from the nearest fence around a property, you could camp anywhere, too. It's possible that the book was exaggerating or romanticising madly, and I was young and impressionable then; but as I walked through Norwegian woods and met others doing likewise, I felt a sense of almost sacredness, of a collective treasure that nobody could be denied.

This all sounds very woolly and hard to pin down in today's world. Everything has to be owned by someone, and to have some utilitarian, measurable, monetary purpose. To today's government, collective ownership of what forests England has left is something that can be dispensed with. "We're going to make billions of pounds this way! We need to reduce the deficit! Oh, and yes of course they'll be sold to really responsible owners, who'll let you all still enjoy them. In fact, private ownership is a guarantee of improvement. They will be managed more efficiently this way." Or something like that.

I say England, because Wales is keeping out of it for now (I don't know what is going to happen to us, but my hopes are not high) and here is the map of the forests that are up for sale:

Just who are these responsible owners? "The controversial decision will pave the way for a huge expansion in the number of Center Parcs-style holiday villages, golf courses, adventure sites and commercial logging operations throughout Britain as land is sold to private companies," reports the Telegraph.

A spokesman for David Cameron claims that "We are not going to sell off our heritage forests to the highest bidder, we are not going to remove public access to forests – there will be strict rules in place to prevent that happening. There is a consultation. We are going to have that consultation and listen to people's views and then come to some conclusions." I'm sorry, spokesman, but I simply don't believe you. Once someone has bought a forest, and it's their property, how are you going to stop them then cutting the whole thing down? You couldn't. And money would have exchanged hands; they'd be your mate. You wouldn't want to upset them. That's the way you people do things.

The government claim the issue is not private versus public ownership, while a large segment of the public argue that it is. Typically, there are the usual howls about how some woods under public ownership haven't managed them perfectly, and therefore privatisation necessarily will. Funny how you never hear the opposite being suggested in cases where private companies do a bad job - apparently, competition is the cure-all to that . . .

(As an aside, this "consultation" about "how we would like our forests sold" is exactly the same as what Labour were fobbing us off with regarding our National Health Service, when they were closing Accident and Emergency departments in the name of efficiency. They designed a survey which asked people all about choice, and then concluded that the public wanted choice. Someone wrote to the Independent to remark that the survey would have failed as A level Psychology coursework. It was like asking, "Do you like tea or coffee?", ignoring those who said "orange juice", and then reporting triumphantly, "Buyers exclusively like hot drinks! Let's dispense with fruit juice in the name of consumer choice!")

OK, I'm stereotyping my head off here, but as another aside, trust them to be going for golf courses. I'd love to see a library, youth club or community centre being the thing to replace a forest. But no, again, if anyone benefits from this sell-off, it will be the ultra-wealthy few.

Our forests are more than pretty trees, more than a nice walk that doesn't get the economy going. They're lifeblood of the biosphere. They're what keeps our soil good, and they help prevent floods. They're the precious remaining homes of millions of innocent creatures. They're a place to keep people sane amidst the stress of a noisy, utilitarian world. They release oxygen and soak up carbon dioxide, maintaining the delicate balance of our atmosphere. They're a tiny bit of our world that has every right to remain. Too much will die if it's lost.

I suppose none of what I've said here can sway anyone who thinks only of money. But I know I'm not alone. About 300,000 people have now signed 38 Degrees's Save Our Forests petition. The National Trust and the Woodland Trust have both made their views clear. I feel horribly conscious that my science on this topic is rusty. And that we'll have difficulty phrasing our arguments in a capitalist, government-impressing, management-speak way. But I don't believe that invalidates them.

It's well summed up here in the Independent, and by a commenter on the BBC website: "Woodland does not 'belong' to people. We are stewards who safeguard it for the benefit of all creatures. The idea of our remaining precious public access woodland being sold off to the super rich to barr families who enjoy being in the woods is totally unthinkable. This government is taking reckless, far-reaching decisions, which will impact on many generations to come. Once the woodland is sold off that's it - there is no going back."

You can catch up with all the media stories here on 38 Degrees - there's quite a bit of history, too, especially on the subject of how the Forestry Commission was set up after the wreck of the First World War. People knew what damage was then. They should bear in mind what damage is now. Modern society needed to progress to a certain extent to realise that human beings should not be put up for sale - perhaps there are other things, and forests fall into that category, that should receive similar exemption.

If you agree, please sign that petition and tell everyone you know. It's particularly interesting that whenever I see it mentioned, or mention it myself, along comes someone else who turns out not to have known and is aghast. Parliament will be making the decision very soon - a lot of people are making their voice known one way or another these days; please add yours!

Update, 12th February 2011: The bill did go through - but now they're rethinking. So there's still time to act.

Update, 17th February: LOOK!!!!!

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Doctor Proctor and the Irregular Galaxies

Before I write this post, an apology. Formspring, the question and answer site - on which you're all welcome to contact me with an astronomy question (no guarantee I can answer it, but I'll do my best) - turned one of my entries into a blog post here without any form of notification. I always make sure I have the "blogger" tickbox un-ticked, so it shouldn't have been able to do that. Annoyed and caught off guard, I deleted the unwanted blog post - and forgot to save a comment someone had left! Sorry to that person. Please do leave it again.

Back in 2008, when the first of Galaxy Zoo's many projects on merging galaxies got underway, the zookeepers posted a list of galaxies they wanted us to identify as mergers or not. We had a zooite called Waveney, which, incidentally, is also the name of the hall of residence that I was in at university - and which he had been in many years earlier! Waveney, whose real name is Richard Proctor, wrote a program allowing us to go through the list much faster, Galaxy Zoo style - and made quite a difference, by allowing mini-projects to run quickly and enjoyably on the forum.

One area which hasn't been looked at much in astronomy, including in Galaxy Zoo, is irregular galaxies. We've been focussing - especially in the early days - on galaxies with a defined shape we can study, such as spiral or elliptical:

(From the Galaxy Zoo 1 tutorial. Click to expand.)

An irregular looks like neither of these. In fact, I can't really describe an irregular's shape. It might be a cloud, it might be a set of clouds or starforming clumps, it might be a crazy-shaped mass after a merger . . . There's a good sample here and the forum's whole collection here if you'd like to browse. Here's one for illustration, but it's hardly a representative of all of them.

(From SDSS.)

Now, on the one hand, irregular galaxies got more interesting since the launch of Hubble Zoo because it seems to me that nearly every galaxy we get on that is irregular! Hubble Zoo is mostly looking at galaxies much, much further away than those we looked at with the SDSS telescope. That means we see them as younger than our own - and younger than they would be now if light travelled instantaneously. Most of them are, frankly, a mess. It's fascinating to think that these wispy, often unclassifiable things are a prelude to the gorgeous creatures nearby. As an aside, to me, that's a hefty piece of evidence in favour of the Big Bang. I've classified well over 100,000 galaxies by now, and seen how different they look according to age. (Granted, this is not a scientific study.)

And on the other hand, irregular galaxies are interesting because Waveney is going to do a PhD on them.

His irregulars project has been running for a while, and as I write this, the "click count" is 88,488! The largest sample of galaxies looked at by a professional astronomer that he can find is 161; Waveney's project has many thousands. These were mostly collected by extracting all the ones from the Irregulars thread on the forum, and a brilliant, dedicated lady in Puerto Rico named Aida Berges going through the rest of the forum and the SDSS databases to find others. (Have a go at navigating around; it's terrific fun!)

To take part in the irregulars project, I recommend a quick look around Galaxy Zoo or the forum for a few tips, so you know what you're doing. But I don't mean masses of intense study. Galaxy Zoo itself does not require you to be an astronomer; it requires you to be better than computers at looking at shapes, and as (presumably) a human, you therefore qualify. There is an "irregular checking examples" thread where people can ask for advice.

You'll be asked: how clear the irregular is (i.e. how reliable anything is you say about it - some are very faint or fuzzy); whether it's a compact galaxy or whether it's all over the place; whether it has various features that larger galaxies have - a core, a bar, any spiral features; and whether it's alone or among a lot of others, for which there are zoom buttons you can use to help (even so this can be a bit thorny, as galaxies that appear to be nearby can often be millions of light years further away, just in the same line of sight). There are also buttons to indicate whether it happens to be the same as the previous irregular - for the SDSS camera often focussed on more than one point in a galaxy - and whether it's not an irregular at all.

Waveney's initial results show some definite differences between irregulars and other galaxies - their blueness, for example, which is an indicator of heat and star formation. You can also look at their metallicity to see how old they are. For example, are irregulars basically very young galaxies who might eventually evolve into the spirals and ellipticals we know? Or are they simply the cosmic plankton, unobserved amidst the sharks and whales yet a bedrock of the ecosystem - because, perhaps, not enough gas happened to be a round where they formed? (Spiral galaxies, for instance, need to be a certain mass to become the complex rotating disk we're familiar with.)

The method Galaxy Zoo uses to gain a really accurate database is for lots of people to classify each galaxy. For example, 90% of people might think that something's a smooth elliptical; but the other 10% may claim that they can see signs that it's rotating, or disturbed. It's easily possible that neither sample of people was wrong. Although I can seldom resist talking about irregulars as if they're the animals we don't notice because they're small and unglamorous, galaxies do not have particularly fine lines drawn between definite types. There's a lot of argument on the forum over whether or not one type of galaxy turns into another, or whether it's just that some sit on a blurred line!

Waveney uses the same method: get as many people as possible to look at each irregular. You could say that 25% of people think this has some spiral structure, and therefore, in a sense, this is 75% an ordinary irregular and 25% a sort of proto-spiral. That may sound unscientific, but it's less so than trying to force it into a human-defined category when it genuinely doesn't belong to one.

He got the idea of turning this into a PhD thesis from a remark Chris made along the lines of "you've done half a PhD here". " I recognise this means I have done 10%," he writes cheerfully, "but it got me thinking – why not do it properly. I don’t want to do this full time, I have a very full time job – but could I do it part time. Does the Open University do part time PhDs – a quick web search yes it does…" There's nothing like simply looking at what you could do and what options are available!

As I said, he's looking at colour and metallicity, also the irregulars' masses and starforming rates. He's comparing these with equivalent samples of spirals, ellipticals and also the peas, the intensely starforming compact galaxies we amateurs found and studied in 2007 and 2008. None of the irregulars contains an active galactic nucleus, which suggests that they are all of low mass. (An active galactic nucleus is the activity surrounding a supermassive black hole in the centre of a galaxy - where stars and other matter whose speeds around the disk are insufficient to keep them in orbit forever, and which therefore pile up in the middle. When a huge amount of matter arrives in a small place this way, before it enters the black holes, it becomes unbelievably hot, and can outshine the entire galaxy.)

What else? Doubtless he has other plans up his sleeve. I only feel sorry that, in the early stages of the project, when Jules and I were also helping, my part - examining the irregulars' environment, i.e. how close they were to their neighbours - came to a standstill before I even started, because nothing I did with SQL actually worked. Months later, Chris told me that in fact my task wasn't possible with current tools - I am sure there are other avenues, but I am no programmer and am an unlikely candidate to find it out. Waveney has tactfully described me as being "in a supporting role". That does seem to be my role in most citizen science projects, and it does seem to be helpful to at least the people and the communication, if not the data itself. Perhaps one day that'll change. If not . . . well, supporting people are very useful.

You can keep up with what Waveney (who has stoically ignored the nickname of "Doctor Proctor" I couldn't resist giving him) in the Galaxy Zoo Library, and do give him some irregular clicks. If you're interested in the wider issues of citizen science and education, please note that the Open University is among the umpteen bodies whose funding is being slashed. Some of us at Galaxy Zoo, me included, have studied astronomy and (in my case) mathematics, inspired simply by what we're doing and discovering - and it's the only chance for so many people to combine study with their jobs, families, and other real-life commitments. Waveney's PhD thesis will bring new knowledge to the field of astronomy, not to mention be a shining beacon for people who thought their chance to learn and contribute was over. Knowledge is not a drain; it's progress - so let's not let it go.

Friday, 21 January 2011

A speech

I did not expect that a speech at a graduation ceremony would make me shiver all over, for a long time, as this did. But if there's one thing I recommend you read today, this is it.

It was by J. K. Rowling at the Harvard graduation ceremony of June 2008. I wonder if they expected her to talk about success and scholarship, maybe fame? Here is what she did talk about.

For those of you wondering, I love the Harry Potter books. (No, not the films. I've only seen the first, and a snatch of the second whilst walking past the TVs on display in Woolworth's many years ago, and I don't plan to see more.) One of the best quotes from them is from Sirius, who, sadly, failed to quite apply it himself - "If you want to get the measure of a man, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals." But that's not what J. K. Rowling talked about that day. I'll say no more - just hand you over to her. If you wonder after a few paragraphs what on earth chilled me to the bone . . . read on. As she says, we can think ourselves into other people's lives . . . and we really, really should.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Blaming the Vulnerable

Last week I was heavily criticised by someone online for leaving in the middle of a conversation. My willingness to stay and talk to this person were, in their view, proof of my integrity and goodwill. When I explained that I actually did have to leave, because I had to give someone with sight problems a lift, the response was to the effect that I must be trying to use guilt as a weapon, to sidestep the issue under discussion: "Oh, playing the emotional card now are we?"

My last few posts have focussed on science, a discipline in which a mature person accepts that human opinions have no bearing whatever on the truth. This post, I should warn you, while it contains a lot of information and stories, will be opinionated, subjective, and including some doubtless imperfect memories. So please take it with a pinch of salt if such is your desire. (It's sad that I have to include a warning like this, but it is amazing how many grown-up people cannot or do not choose to distinguish what type of argument is being put forward.)

The person on the Internet could not have known the problems the person I was driving had had. They did not know that they were left untreated for months between cataract operations, giving their eyes a sightedness difference of 20. Yes, I do mean the same measurement used for short versus long sight; most people's errors, as I understand it, are under one; my eyes are -7 and -8 which means I basically can't see a thing without my specs. Do try them on if you meet me. People find it quite an experience! How could this person behind a screen possibly know what life was like with such different eyes - the dizziness, the accidents, the frustration, the loss of self-esteem, indeed the loss of one's own identity? Well, they couldn't. I didn't expect them to. But what bothered me was the assumption that disability must be to do with attention-seeking rather than reality. Because I have seen so very much of that when it comes to dealing with vulnerable people.

I was, like so many, bullied at school. When I was 13, a classmate who was a friend - not a very reliable friend, but someone who I could have a conversation with occasionally, so a rarity - told me earnestly: "Alice, I'm sorry, but some people -" nervous laugh "really -" nervous, breath-catching, you-know-what-I-mean sort of laugh - "don't like you." In other words, I simply must be doing something to provoke their behaviour. It just must be my fault.

During university I suffered from a long-term illness. This meant that a couple of times I had to hand in my work a few days late. (It also meant that pretty much all my energy was expended just dragging myself to lectures, but that's another story.) My first set of housemates knew about my illness; sadly, they all graduated before I did, and my second set leapt to the conclusion that I was "taking the piss out of our degree". They were not the kind of people I could even tell that I was ill (or were observant enough to notice for themselves - though I made every effort to hide my symptoms as it was my greatest terror that people would find them, and therefore my company, distasteful). The idea that I might have a genuine reason for working slowly never even occurred to them. As far as they were concerned, it was simply obvious that I was a liar.

Jody McIntyre experienced precisely the same thing when he was dragged out of his wheelchair on the student protests. Despite the fact that he was in a wheelchair, according to many viewers, he simply must have been doing something to provoke this action. Maybe, for example, his wheelchair could be an offensive weapon. Now, I actually work in a charity that hires out wheelchairs and I knew no more about these contraptions than the next person until I started having to handle them. Have you ever tried to lift one of the wretched things up? There is a technique to it - pull up its seat to make it narrow, and get it at either end . . . oh, there's a catch. The person must be out of the wheelchair. They could hardly do such a thing themselves. OK, so his brother could have pushed him into a policeman, which would have been a lot more dangerous for Jody than the policeman and a highly unlikely scenario. OK, so it's pretty painful if someone in a wheelchair runs into your foot on the bus. I'm not sure this was any justification for manhandling someone far less able to fight back than your average protestor, however. Perhaps they thought, as so many do, that he was asking for it, and faking?

Laurie Penny addresses this. "The press has been trying to imply that, because Jody is a revolutionary activist and ideologue who has travelled to Palestine and South America, he cannot be a 'real' disabled person." She goes on to explain, "The attitude is that there are two types of disabled person: there are real disabled people, who are quiet and grateful and utterly incapable of any sort of personal agency whatsoever, and fake disabled people – people like Jody McIntyre, who are disqualified from being truly disabled by virtue of having personality, ambition, outside interests and, in this case, the cojones to stand up to a corrupt and duplicitous government."

Sadly, someone in a wheelchair who I know subscribes to exactly the same line of thought: she knows of people who fake a disability and therefore, she feels, the police were right to assume that Jody McIntyre was one of these and therefore somehow had the right to attack him. I suppose this is the same sort of thing as women who discourage other women from, say, going into science or a high-flying career; I've met or read of many women who say the most sexism they encountered was not from men, but from fellow women.

Or even of a boss I had when I was 18, who had wanted, when young, to be an idealist; but after encountering a great deal of dishonesty on the part of others had given up and decided to conduct himself and his company in line with the assumption that dishonesty is the only useful and even respectable way to do business. He loathed that about himself. And he hated my youthful idealism and was determined that I should become embittered and self-loathing, like him. Just like the prefects at school who bullied younger pupils on the grounds that "they did it to us, so why shouldn't we do it to them?" Perhaps I'm taking the comparison a little too far. To clarify, I'm talking about a tendency to focus on one's own experience and the perceived justice around that, rather than aiming at a higher justice for other people.

I'm not saying people never lie, or that nobody's on benefits for treatable conditions. But that is actually a tiny minority. People like Wagner from X-factor do the genuinely disabled a great disservice, and the consequences of being tarred with the same brush as "fakes" - in other words, to be a needless consumer, whose support can be done away with - can be terrible. Disability Living Allowance is being slashed; the Independent Living Fund which allows disabled people to get out of the house and not rely on full-time care is being slashed - a measure which may be unlawful by preventing a decent quality of life. In some cases, benefits can be a vital breathing space in order for a sick or otherwise troubled individual to recover and thereafter stop needing state help. To be on benefits also does not mean the state is necessarily supporting a person who could and would otherwise work; the money might be vital to get equipment and transport to get to work. By assuming mass fraud, and taking away a little (presumably in order to award further largesse to those who really don't need it, like bankers), you end up making a lot of people not only desperate, with their lives in inhumane crisis, but also wholly dependent on the state and ending up costing a lot more - when this simply need not be so.

But there's another issue here, too. Although that "emotional card" comment was basically any old throwaway insult, I think it reveals another fundamental misconception: that disability is an emotional rather than a practical issue.

Although of course many unpleasant emotions were felt and expressed - understandably! - by the person with sight problems, the very last thing someone with a disability needs is emotion. To be practical is what they need (in this case, to be given a lift - not a very emotional thing to do). The character Midori Kobayashi in Murakami's unforgettable novel Norwegian Wood has to deal with this misconception from relatives while caring for her sick father. Only 19 or 20 years old, her mother already dead and her father dying of a brain tumour, she eats like a horse in the hospital canteen, while the friend she brought to the hospital is unable to eat:
"Not hungry?" she asked, sipping her tea.
"Not really," I said.
"It's the hospital," she said, scanning the cafeteria. "This always happens when people aren't used to the place. The smells, the sounds, the stale air, patients' faces, stress, irritation, disappointment, fatigue - that's what does it. It grabs you in the stomach and kills your appetite. Once you're used to it, though, it's no problem at all. Plus, you can't really take care of a sick person unless you eat properly. It's true. I know what I'm talking about because I've done it with my grandfather, my grandmother, my mother, and now my father. You never know when you're going to have to miss your next meal, so it's important to eat while you can."
"I see what you mean," I said.
"Relatives come to visit and they eat with me here, and they always leave half their food, like you. And they always say, 'Oh, Midori, it's wonderful you've got such a healthy appetite. I'm too upset to eat.' But get serious, I'm the one who's actually here taking care of the patient! They just have to drop by and show a little sympathy. I'm the one who wipes the up the shit and collects the phlegm and mops the brows. If sympathy was all it took to clean up shit, I'd have 50 times as much sympathy as anybody else! Instead, they see me eating all my food and they give me this look and say, 'Oh, Midori, you've got such a healthy appetite.' What do they think I am, a donkey pulling a cart? They're old enough to know how the world really works, so why are they so stupid? It's easy to talk big, but the important thing is whether or not you clean up the shit. I can be hurt, you know. I can get as exhausted as anyone else. I can feel so bad I want to cry, too. I mean, you try watching a gang of doctors get together and cut open somebody's head when there's no hope of saving them, and stirring things up in there, and doing it again and again, and every time they do it it makes the person worse and a little bit crazier, and see how you like it! And on top of it, you see your savings disappear. I don't know if I can keep going to university for another three-and-a-half years, and there's no way my sister can afford a wedding ceremony at this rate."
Midori was dealing with impending tragedy. Disability, though, should not be tragic. It's only tragic when people make it so: by removing a small amount of support, or by regarding a disabled person as someone necessarily pathetic and helpless.

The Social Model of Disability urges a different way of looking at things. Some of it is a little annoying - asking us to change our language (page 5), which to me seems in some cases right and in others roughly as useful as painting all houses white because you happen to have heard that some pink houses are falling to bits. However, it does include something very important: that society and its systems and technology are adapted to make life easier for all of us, and we'd all be stunned and less able if certain things were lost. Take electricity, clean water, or clothing. Manufacturing and providing those is a business lots of us are in. It's only right for everybody to have them. They're nothing to do with emotion, but rather rights, comfort, efficiency, and basic dignity among others.

I wonder if all this sounds very demanding? Even for the most able-bodied, life and other people can be exceptionally stressful and seems to ask, every day, for more than you've got to give. I've worked with learning disabled people, I've cared about them and we've got to know each other. It's only fair; it can be a joy - and it can also be so draining that providing what they need comes at the expense of being myself and all the energy I've got. And believe me, nobody says thank you for that. To someone who works incredibly hard all day, satisfying the demands of people around them, who is desperately worried about their mortgage and is under the impression for whatever reason that disabled people are largely scroungers who are screaming for more money and for sympathy, it must engender real resentment. Even to someone who believes that most disabled people on benefits are genuine, it might be easy to feel defensive. Why are they constantly being told to change their language, when they've never said anything to offend? Why are they always being accused of things like "I take medicine because people like you won't accept me" (a signature on a web forum) and "disabilities are what other people turn your problems into" (a notice in an office) - when they are actually all for equality, often kind to others even while on the receiving end of selfish behaviour themselves? This is a slap in the face; it's hurtful; it makes them out to be hateful and that simply isn't true.

During the worst period of my illness I vaguely knew a girl in a wheelchair. She had a hoist over her bed and a carer who came to her room every day, of whom she spoke very offhandedly, as though the carer was a robot owed to her. All right, I'll be honest, I didn't like her. I thought she treated other people with contempt. Even had she not, it might well still have grated on me that her problems were visible and garnered support and sympathy from every corner, while my own were shameful, invisible, impossible to discuss, and that a couple of late essays made me get seen as a liar.

I grew out of this sort of resentment once I was healthier and had more resources to expend on other people. A few years later I met another girl who couldn't walk and was having trouble clearing out her room on her last day in halls. The university had promised to send someone to help her, but the said someone never arrived. I took it upon myself to help instead and was confused at the intensity of her gratitude; it was only what I would hope someone else would do for me in a similar situation, and it was my pleasure to help out a nice person.

So perhaps one's attitude to disability depends on familiarity, knowledge, and also what emotional resources they have of their own. One can't assume that someone without these is a bad person or an idiot. As I wrote about racism, when you do not meet such people, such a thing is theoretical and seems like an accusation, an imposition - which in turn gives one a very uncomfortable mixture of guilt and defensiveness, all too easy to turn into outright anger.

Last September, SCOPE claimed that disabled people were "invisible". My friend Joely wrote a terrific blog post about this. Was it true? Do people simply not think of those they know as "disabled", because it's a label that doesn't seem to apply to reality? Do they simply not think of problems that don't put you in a wheelchair as disabilities? When my charity had new banners made, the printers did a terrific job - but every single picture showed someone in a wheelchair. We explained to them that disability includes a far wider-ranging set of symptoms and people than this; and they went and re-did it to include people using various types of equipment, including a white stick. That, of course, doesn't include mental disabilities, but that wasn't the printers' fault obviously!

SCOPE wrote of their shock at people being "pushed to the fringes of society" - another accusation - but at least conceded to the BBC that "It's not that people are nasty, but they might not know what to say. The less familiar they are with disabled people, the more the embarrassment. The unwillingness to offend can cause the exclusion," and of course, not all houses have appropriate physical access.

This, again, is the "emotional" problem. OK, I can't speak for anyone but me, I know. But can I just tell you something? Picture me as ill again, unable to do some things, and in constant pain, and therefore by some definitions "disabled". Perhaps, because I've acquired this label, you'll suddenly be more worried about offending me. Let me assure you that such is very unlikely. I will not be offended if you ask me questions about my sickness, or if you bring it up in conversation. When I was too weak to go on particularly difficult walks, I was not offended that others did so without me. When someone cooked curry that was just the kind of fieriness to set my stomach off again, it meant I went hungry, but I was not offended because he had not known and I had not thought to tell him. If someone says "Alice, this food might be too hot for you," I will be grateful that you cared.

All this is easy to write; but in practice? I still worry about offending people by mentioning whatever disability or difficulty they have, unless they mention it themselves or there's a reason it needs to be brought up. If I see someone with a massive injury or physical difference from the rest of us, it's very hard not to look in curiosity and then I'm torn in half - is it ruder to stare or to pretend (probably badly) that you haven't even noticed them, and make them thus invisible and perhaps more alone? I don't know; I haven't actually been in that situation and would love to know the answer.

No, there's a few things that annoy me, but only a few. One is people assuming that I only wear glasses to be annoying, which is rare, but has happened. Women tell me scornfully that I ought to switch to contacts (which I really don't like, and that's my business); men tell me to remove them so they can look at my eyes, and then complain when I put them back on again. I've even been told "I prefer you without your glasses" which one does not realise is just the same as being told "I prefer you without your wheelchair". My landlord in Spain once had to go to do jury service. He had polio when he was young and one of his legs was barely more substantial than a piece of cooked spaghetti - he could pick it up, twist it round and put it next to his head as a pantomime telephone! Hilarious but not much good to walk on. He used crutches. He could prop himself up against a counter but that was it really. Unfortunately, to enter the courtrooms for jury service, he had to go through a metal detector. They told him to just pop his crutches on the conveyor belt and hop through on his own. He told them that was impossible. They affected not to understand. So he left the court and refused to do the jury service. That kind of thing is offensive. Innocent mistakes and curiosity aren't. The only other kind of thing I can think of is being accused of faking or exaggerating, or told that it was somehow my own fault.

That's the most sinister thing of all that can happen: to claim that, if someone has a problem, it's their fault. It can happen to bully victims. It happened to Jody McIntyre. It happens to the unemployed. It happened to the poor the Victorians called "undeserving". It happened to the countries Bismarck took Prussia to war with. It happens to rape victims. It happened - and this is where my imperfect memory comes in - to a woman I think with lupus, or some very unpleasant illness, whose extended family believed in reincarnation and previous lives. They said she must have been evil in one of hers, and this affliction was her reward.

And the reason for such a thing to happen, it seems to me, actually shows the most vulnerable side of the accusers: that they are afraid of having it happen to them. But if it's the victim's fault, then gives you the comforting illusion of control. If you don't do whatever provocative thing the victim did, and especially if you're careful to join the voices condemning whatever it was, the punishment won't happen to you.

That is a fallacy. It's superstition. Disability and sickness are entirely democratic and can and do happen to anybody. They're not for some inferior class of people; here's an article about disabled scientists, a profession that I personally regard especially highly.

But such a fallacy has particularly nasty consequences, which can include not only abandoning the vulnerable, but using them as targets for attacks. Fiona Pilkington and her daughter Francecca Hardwick are an all-too-obvious example. This week, debate abounds about Kenneth Tong's tweets targeted at anorexics. To me, the significant issue is not whether it's free speech or not, but that some of the most vulnerable people you can imagine, those least in control of what goes on around them, were made the subjects of this sustained campaign of aggression. (One could argue, having read the redoubtable Johann Hari's interview with him, that Tong himself is desperately vulnerable, and one less so would not have done this.) I can't help but feel that Jody McIntyre was attacked because he was the weakest person available. As Mark Thomas remarks in his recording "The Night that War Broke Out": "They didn't attack Iraq because they were strong. It was because they were weak."

So many problems, so many questions. You may feel it's all rather amorphous, and that many of the topics I've covered actually have nothing to do with each other. I think they do; but your guess is as good as mine. I may be wrong about a great many things. But at least I have now met dozens through my job at a charity, and for the vast majority greatly enjoyed their company. So I have one or two suggestions, none of which are very earth-shattering, but here goes.

Firstly, both sides need to drop the accusatory and defensive behaviour. The magazine Disability Now for instance is full of furious ranting which - while I can understand the need to let off steam - is often very shocking to read, and immediately makes me feel defensive simply for having a pair of working legs. Similarly, the media and government need to stop all this nonsense about fraud and scrounging. Not only is this behaviour counter-productive but it gives the impression of two opposing sides, "us" and "them", when in reality there is probably no such thing. The "other people" who won't provide this and that, or whose attitudes are wrong - who are they? Don't blame one individual or organisation for all the problems you've ever had. Many's the time when I was teacher training that I was on the receiving end of a flood of grievances about "you teachers"; apparently being a member of that group made me personally accountable for the failings of every single one. If that's not "dehumanising", I don't know what is.

Secondly, I am certain that there is a very real problem of disabled people "not having a voice". This is only too true for many vulnerable groups - take carers, for whom the statistics are horrifying. There are so many questions I have, some of which I mention earlier, which are probably silly - yet even silly questions need an answer. But is "having a voice" - say - more media attention, or is it simply more mingling with others who don't meet you? Familiarity can work wonders.

I have only one further suggestion, vaguer than everything else: don't be afraid. Don't be afraid of disabled people. They won't infect you with their problem, bite your head off or (usually) take you to court if you say "blind" rather than "visually impaired". Don't be quite so afraid of disability itself: if it happens to you, it doesn't mean you're helpless, unable to do anything, or any less of a person - your other abilities may in time grow stronger, to compensate, or as a challenge. Don't be afraid of what society needs to do to support disabled people: it can be done, and with a little goodwill between people it's usually not difficult, expensive or burdensome.

And if I have to leave you because I need to give someone a lift, then I'm not abandoning you, lying, manipulating your feelings or trying to accuse you of anything. I'm just giving someone a lift.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Where did the Big Bang actually take place?

I get this question every so often, and it suddenly occurs to me that I haven't used this blog to actually explain any science for quite some while.

In some cases, though certainly not all, the question is used almost rhetorically, by someone explaining why they do not choose to believe in the Big Bang. The most common theme is along the lines of: "But the Big Bang was supposed to be an explosion. Explosions destroy things and create disorder. That's the opposite of what you see around you in this ordered Universe." Or even to claim that scientists are lazy: "Nobody has ever even tried to find the centre of the Universe. Where is it?"

I've heard of an excellent article, I think in Scientific American, called something along the lines of "Seven misconceptions about the Big Bang" which I haven't managed to find (I bet somebody else finds it in 1 second after a Google search now I've said this, but there you go! *Update - check the comments.....). Because there are a lot of misconceptions about that subject.

It is true that not all scientists believe it happened. The brilliant Fred Hoyle, for instance - even though he discovered that elements are made by stars, rather than having been there forever, which does lead to the conclusion that the Universe must change over time. It was he who unwittingly coined the term, intended as a joke, on a radio show: he is supposed to have greeted George Gamow, another guest, with "Ah, it's the Big Bang man!" As occasionally happens with good jokes in science, the term stuck.

The word "bang" gives the impression that it must have been noisy, which in turn gives the impression of somebody outside, listening. This is where it gets very hard to imagine, unless you've had a little quiet time to get used to the idea: there wasn't any outside. Not only was it the moment when all matter and radiation were created. It was the moment when space itself was created.

Nor was it big. It was smaller than an atom. (Oh, when you've a moment, do play with this lovely representation of the size of all different things in the Universe!) At first, anyway. It expanded rapidly, of course. It's still doing so.

It was Gamow who realised how things must have been in the early moments of the Universe: that if it was expanding today, it must have been smaller in the past. His imagination allowed him to play the life of the Universe backwards, to when the Universe was tiny; and he also realised that it must have been unbelievably hot, for everything heats upon compression. Gamow and his students Alpher and Herman did groundbreaking work establishing the conditions there and what elements could have formed. They worked out what particles could have been there - mostly photons, but some protons, neutrons and electrons - and their results showed exactly the proportions of hydrogen and helium that make up the Universe today.

(It is of course a lot more complicated than that, since 96% of the substance of the Universe is not the baryonic matter - the matter we learn about and can touch - that I've described above, and there was that pesky business of inflation and other uncertainties. But if you're new to this subject, you can be forgiven for leaving these subjects for the time being.)

It's been possible to work out how long ago the Big Bang took place - not entirely straightforward as the expansion of the Universe has not been constant - and the best estimate, at the moment, is 13.7 billion years old. Galaxy Zoo's current project, Hubble Zoo, reflects that in its classifications. Take this galaxy:

As you see, they've given us a redshift. (Click the picture for a larger version.) Redshift is the stretching out of a light wave. Since space is expanding, the light waves are stretched out - if you have curly hair or a landline phone cord you can model this yourself! It's possible to work out how much waves have been stretched out because common elements found in stars and galaxies give very exact and recognisable spectra - patterns of light, like barcodes - and their peaks and troughs "move" to a measurable extent. You can tell how far the light's come, and how long it's been travelling for:

And therefore, how old the Universe was when that light left that galaxy:
It is fascinating to see, after thousands of classifications, how the galaxies change over time. Some of the most beautiful, ordered, intricate galaxies I've classified tend to be of low redshift - that is to say, near to us, or older. It does appear to be true that the Universe has got more ordered over time. Perhaps it will get more ordered still. Or perhaps there will be more and more galaxy mergers, and things will look less ordered. Or perhaps there are enough reserves of gas to keep the very disordered irregulars appearing for many billenia (yes, I just made up that word) yet. Or perhaps a great deal more will happen.

Hang on, I often hear, so all the galaxies are rushing away from us? Doesn't that mean we're at the centre of the Universe?

Yes, it does mean we're at the centre of the Universe. But it also means that everywhere else is also at the centre of the Universe. Because other galaxies are not only rushing away from us, but also from each other. From everywhere else. (Except of course their own local groups and clusters, which are gravitationally bound together.)

Take these smilies. You're the one in the middle:

The same five smilies, some time later:

The distance between each one has expanded. Now imagine you're at one of the other smilies. You'd still think everyone was rushing away from you. And at any of the others.

Because there isn't any centre to find, any location of an explosion. We're inside that. Everything is. The Big Bang took place right here, where I'm sitting. It took place right where you are, wherever you're reading this. It took place on the other side of the world. And on Saturn. And in the Sun. And in another arm of our galaxy. And in the next galaxy. And across the Universe.

So, various types of experiment and mathematical deduction give good evidence for the Big Bang having happened. And those who claim that we should be able to see it today are right. But not in quite the way they think.

So when you see a beautiful photo like this, the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, you're looking at a Universe much smaller than it is today. (Click for larger version, on Hubblesite.)

It's at this point that it gets quite hard to wrap one's head around a logical conclusion of looking at a beautiful field like this: that such a field will be there wherever we look, in a great sphere, 13.4 billion light years away. (Beyond that, no galaxies had formed and matter was too hot and dense to let light through.) All around us? Hang on . . .

As the Galaxy Zoo Forum admin, and great skeptic and astronomer, Edd, says:
The problem is that the distant universe is the universe in the distant past, when the universe was small. In some sense, the universe is smaller on the outside than it is on the inside. But it still has to go round us all the way. This screws completely with how things get smaller as they get more distant, and above a certain distance, which is not actually tremendously far on the cosmological scale, things start getting bigger as they get further away. This happens for things where light has been travelling for about 10 billion years to get here.
Edd goes into the mysteries of this a lot further than I'm going to; suffice to say, nobody has yet claimed to me that the Big Bang could not be because of this impossible-to-visualise, head-messing conundrum. I wonder if they ever will?

I myself got very confused about something to do with this, relating to the Cosmic Microwave Background. Let me explain first what that is.

I mentioned earlier that we can't see the first 0.3 billion years of the time of the Universe because there was too much stuff in the way. That was a slight oversimplification. To be precise, atoms had not quite yet formed and the Universe was a plasma. This is a state of matter in which electrons have been torn off their protons and neutrons due to extreme heat. The Sun and stars are just such a plasma; and the Universe was, too. That, of course, means that there are a great many more particles rushing around and getting in the way of light. That's just what happened in the early years of the Universe - and we can still see it today. (The discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background itself is a great story which I'll leave for another post!) Galaxies were able to form because of temperature fluctuations in this darkening fog:

(Good old Wiki.)

When the temperature had dropped enough for electrons to combine with protons and neutrons and make normal atoms, that's when light was able to shine through. And that's the point when we can start seeing what was going on.

Back to the confused point. I said earlier that the Big Bang took place right here, where we were. If it took place anywhere else, we'd be outside our own Universe. And that's impossible.

So how on Earth - or indeed how in anywhere you like - is the Cosmic Microwave Background 13.4 billion light-years away?

Bill - a beloved addition to the Galaxy Zoo team - explained it wonderfully simply. Light travels around the Universe. It can't stop moving. But it can't go outside the Universe, and it can't just wink out of existence. We are shown a slice of Cosmic Microwave Background from what to us is 13.4 billion light years away - or 13.4 billion light years ago. Now, if you go somewhere else in the Universe (if only we could!) - if we arrive there "now", we would see a different piece of Cosmic Microwave Background. Or if we go to that galaxy I showed you earlier, 5.931 billion light years away - and let's say that we go back in time 5.931 billion years - we would see a slice of Cosmic Microwave Background 7.469 billion light years away. As Bill put it:
Of course it represents material that was relatively close to us when the light left, but it's taken a lot longer for the radiation to get to us across the expanding Universe. So every location is in the middle of its own CMB sphere. Cosmologists wold love to sample someone else's, because there is a certain statistical error in properie sof the CMB whch is associated with only being able to sample one location in the Universe at one time (so-called cosmic scatter).
The discussion on the thread went, sadly, out of my understanding. I expect this post has at least been partly beyond the understanding of some readers - and, to others, grossly oversimplistic and perhaps with some mistakes of my own. Apologies to both! But I hope that some of it at least was useful and thought-provoking. One of the Zooites has as their signature: "The Universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine." It takes a huge amount of brain-bending to imagine some of it; but Nature was not created in order to be comprehensible to us. I just find it thrilling that any of it is!

Friday, 7 January 2011

1081 Apostrophes

That is, astrophotos, but a friend made a treasurable misread - often those (like lyrics you think you hear in songs) are much more enjoyable and thought-provoking than the original thing.

On New Year's Day 2011, Jules set the Zooites a challenge: that every day for a year somebody must post an astrophoto. And we did it. Here's the result.

(Click for larger version.)

My camera is pretty hopeless in the dark; the best it'll do of the Moon for example is a bright speck in complete blurry blue or black - or, even better, a wobbly streak where my hand moved. I took some of the pictures of the sun though.

As she says, there were 28 contributors - most of whom were far more assiduous and successful than me! - and a great many types of photo were taken of different types of astronomical phenomena. Which, of course, does include the Sun. Every so often, if the Sun is low on the horizon and possible to look at through mist or clouds (health warning: actually, you are not supposed to do even this - and never look directly at the Sun when it's bright; it can damage your eyes permanently), it strikes me very deeply that here is a star, a star like any one of those glittering lights in the skies above at night. And this Earth is what a Sun like that can support.

When every one of us was experiencing a cloudy night, we'd photograph our astronomy books, magazines, equipment, gadgets, Astrofest tickets (yes, we get very excited about things like that) and so on. That made up just over 10% of our total. Two of my favourites - and quite possibly some more once I've gone through the thread in enough detail - are going to be part of an astronomy slideshow I'm going to be showing prior to any Skeptics in the Pub talk I give. Here they are: Orion through the trees by Bill Keel and a gorgeous shot of the Moon by Infinity. Many thanks both for their permission and for e-mailing me their best sharpened versions of their artwork.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Cynical? This kind of reporting could be for you!

I don't know whether to be grateful or bloody mortified by the YourCardiff article that went out on 18th November and which I've only just seen - whoopsie! - having been alerted by the extremely interesting skeptic Peter Harrison (who would have been our December speaker had that miserable ice not got the better of him on a flight of stairs).

The author seems, as the comments thankfully point out, to be blissfully unaware of the difference between skepticism, cynicism and pessimism - they obviously weren't there for my nice little rabble-rousing, intended to be uplifting speech about Science is Vital, which included quite a bit of the philosophy from this post (which I know meant a huge amount to at least one reader - I don't know if they'd want me to say more). To say that "pessimism is alive in the capital" makes for a great opening sentence and spectacularly misses the entire point. I hope this is so obvious that I won't waste further words explaining. I'll just do what I often do and tell a story. One girl in the audience revealed during Q&A that she was an atheist from a very religious family, who were horrified at her nonbelief and constantly wanted to change her. She was here not only to learn but to make friends who liked her the way she was - and believe me, she was vibrant, passionate and lovely! Ray promptly invited her along to AHS. I hope the rest of our audience are getting similar enjoyment and ability to express themselves, even if less dramatically! To me, skepticism is quite the opposite of being weighed down by doom and gloom: it's setting yourself free.

I'm intrigued by the first sentence: "They never said it would happen . . ." Who never said it would happen? Well, I suppose "nobody said it would happen" - until Dean and I did - would be true. (Though on the other hand I've heard many comments of "Wales was just crying out for something like this.") And at least we're described as "selling out" our events. There's actually no particular limit; the room can hold 80, but there are far fewer chairs than that. (In fact we're thinking about seeing if we can borrow lots of plastic lightweight ones.) What really mortifies me is my apparently saying "I recruited Dean". I hope I didn't really say that. (To be fair, when interviewed I often get nervous and say things that I not only never meant to, but had never even occurred to me to think. But I don't think I said that in this instance.) I set up the Facebook group, and Dean was there before I knew what was happening. I hadn't a clue who he was, but he was bloody perfect, and apart from the website and networking bit, he does everything really. We're co-founders, but if anyone's essential, it's him. By the way, he's a neuroscientist as well as a comedian.

But then perhaps it's always a shock to read any description of yourself or your activities in print, until you get used to it. I am very pleased with one thing: they not only spelled our names right, but they linked to our webpage, Facebook group and Twitter account. I am sure it was a well-meant article; perhaps the editors rather than the writer wanted the "unpleasant personality traits" twist! I'm determined not to make the "cynical" or "pessimistic" bit self-fulfilling - critical thinking is the basis of the scientific method, and that's how humanity develops its technology, its healthcare, its education, and its civilisation. Yes, that includes pickiness, hence most of this post . . . but should anyone follow the links, they'll hopefully get a clearer picture for themselves.

It's not as if it's a unique mistake to make about skepticism anyway. It's sad how "belief" - whether of a deity, a dictum, a conspiracy theory or an advertised product - is often assumed to mean "happy" and "agreeable", while "disbelief" or even "questioning", "wanting to know more", is assumed to mean the opposite. The why of that will no doubt come into many posts - probably already has. I'll just say that I suspect the love of obedience has a lot to do with it.

Even if our entire purpose has been thoroughly misrepresented, it's nice that Cardiff has noticed we're here. And if anybody comes along and likes what we do, that's always a massive plus.