Monday, 20 February 2012

So you want to start a Skeptics in the Pub?

Two years ago, when still living in Wales, I learned of the existence of Skeptics in the Pub. Crispian Jago made it possible for me to go along to one with the fabulous "Jourdemayne", and I was instantly hooked.

As soon as I got into the "skeptical circle", a common cry was: "Why isn't there a Skeptics in the Pub anywhere in Wales?" which promptly progressed to: "Why don't you start one?" Because I didn't have a clue how, that was why! . . .

. . . well, eighteen months after that I found myself co-founder of both Cardiff and Hackney Skeptics - with Dean Burnett and James Robson respectively, and obviously I could never in a million years have done either without them - and occasionally am one of the criers of "Set one up in Place X!" to other people. So it occurs to me that I really ought to write about how to go about it.

It's pretty simple. You need: a venue, a projector, a screen, a microphone, a collaborator, some speakers and an audience.

There is of course no right and wrong recipe for a Skeptics in the Pub; you can vary the ingredients, adjust the baking time and present as whatever dish you please. So this recipe comes with a strong pinch of NaCl and plenty of freedom to suit your tastes. Just be sure to grease the pan with enough C2H5OH for your audience's liking (that can in fact be none, if they are not drinkers).

(Incidentally, these measurements are in imperial, not metric. That is, groups and accounts listed are British, not worldwide. There are worldwide groups, however, and if you are not in the UK I recommend getting in touch with them.)

Whilst Still Thinking . . .

If you're not already a regular somewhere, get a feel for what Skeptics in the Pub actually does. Check out what events are taking place (scroll down Simon Perry's website and check the "Events" table on the bottom right), see when a bunch of interesting looking ones are occurring, and take a few days off work and travel around the country. Talk to the organisers and to visitors.

Before you start . . .

Get your prospective Skeptics its own e-mail address. You will end up needing it for the following as well as to keep it organised and separate from everything else in your life.

This sounds trite, but set up a Facebook group. Call it something like "Skeptics in the Pub in...." [your local area]. If possible, don't be too restrictive about what your local area is. I chose "Wales" as an umbrella term, since I didn't know where it was going to be. Let the skeptical community know and ask them to join - post on their walls. (Here are Cardiff's and Hackney's if that helps. Search around with "Skeptics" and "SITP" and so on in the Search box.) Like as not you will find various people who come along saying "Oh I've been longing for one of these round here!" I actually didn't "do" Facebook until I thought I might try it out for the very purpose of setting this up, and was actually pleasantly surprised by the effectiveness of groups, if not the intelligence of some conversations. Still, if you most absolutely do not do Facebook, you probably have a friend who does.

Start a Twitter account. This is pretty simple. Tweet to the generic SITP account and do a Skeptics search and follow a bunch of people.

Important: personally, there's no way I could set up a Skeptics in the Pub by myself, so if you're like me, let people know you are looking for collaborators. (You don't have to say "yes" to anybody!) Of course, if you can do it by yourself, no need!

And, especially, contact Simon Perry (@Simon_Perry on Twitter) who has the keys to the master website. This is where you will be able to put up events. Make sure that the "contact form" goes to your SITP e-mail address, not to your personal one, or you will end up flooded if it's successful! Keep a special folder handy on your computer for all the speakers' pictures and any documents and fliers you make.

If anybody discourages you at any point, please read this. Apparently it's been helpful.

Choosing a Venue

Your ideal venue possesses all of the following characteristics:

- A separate function room;
- Wherever guests sit, they need a good view of where the slides will be;
- Be calm and friendly;
- Be fairly quiet - not go in for loud music, at least not while you're talking;
- Sound and projector equipment for talks (you'd be surprised how many pubs have these);
- Be near a train station and car park;
- Serve a variety of drinks and do food until relatively late;
- Smell nice;
- Be licensed for under-18s;
- Have staff who are all in favour of a regular meeting taking place;
- Not want all their customers to get raging drunk;
- Be clean and well looked after;
- Have disabled access;
- Have an awful lot of spare chairs;
- Not charge you

I don't think I've yet found anywhere with all these characteristics! When it's a pub that isn't looking to hold drunken discos, but rather maintains a mature, civilised atmosphere and welcomes some guaranteed income on a weeknight, that's the main thing. One pub said they would charge us £100 for the evening unless they made £500 off our audience. I don't know if they did make that, but after our first night they never mentioned charging us again, so they must be pretty happy with us!

If the bar staff are unfriendly or uninterested, if the manager doesn't seem keen on the idea, don't go anywhere near the place. Also, if it's loud or dirty, steer clear. If it doesn't serve food, look up nearby outlets that do.

Strictly speaking, the venue doesn't actually have to be a pub. (I once received an objection that holding it in a pub excluded people whose religious faiths forbade them to enter pubs, which of course is a problem!) Hackney, for instance, is an attic rather than a pub!

I have to confess, this isn't my strong point because Dean and James found the venues in our cases. When I arrived on the scene at Hackney, James had already found our attic. Dean however took me round Cardiff for a day of surveying eight different places. Both of us wore science T-shirts, making it the nerdiest pub crawl that had ever taken place in Cardiff. I cannot more strongly recommend a day of such a pub crawl, or a read of his blogpost about it.

What Day?

Most Skeptics in the Pubs run on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday night. And most run regularly, such as the second Thursday of the month, or what have you. (Cardiff is the third Monday of each month, and Hackney the last Monday.)

Make a list of the nearest Skeptics in the Pubs to yours - or even all of them, if you have time - and write down when they are. Put them into a table and pick a day when you don't clash. (Sadly this is difficult in London!)

Monday is a very popular night, since it's an especially quiet night for pubs. I could not recommend a weekend night less. Pubs will be having other, noisier things to do then. So, probably, will your guests and speakers.

Check what is a good day for the pub, too. If they always hold a bingo night or a Happy Hour on Wednesdays, or invite bands along on Tuesdays, avoid this day.

I must apologise here to James, who had to change our day from Tuesday to Monday (and thus risk clashing with Westminster and London) because I have lectures on Tuesday nights. Well, he was crazy enough to take me on board as a co-founder . . .

Finding Speakers

You need to pick a few speakers well before you launch. In fact, I'd personally say always leave a few months between launching in cyberspace and launching in real life!

Pick a variety of different subjects - do not confine it all to one of, say, politics/the supernatural/alternative medicine/science. Don't shout out too loud that you are looking for speakers if you aren't prepared to cope with some possible slightly odd offers. If one of the talks you've seen seems to hit the perfect note, as Simon Perry's did for me for Cardiff's launch, then contact that speaker.

Handy resources: the 21st Floor's List of Speakers and Hayley Stevens's She Talks. (Sadly the vast majority of Skeptics in the Pub speakers are male. You can decide for yourself whether or not you want to make a special effort to encourage women, or more young people or more ethnic minorities or what have you along.)

It's good to kick off with somebody fairly well-known - but these people may be very busy, and may also charge you a lot (not all of them, but some do!). Don't start off with a string of people coming from far away, as the travel expenses and staying over will come to a lot. If you're lucky enough to have a "local hero", make sure you snag them!


So, you have your venue and plans - your Skeptics in the Pub is cooking! Now you want as many guests as possible!

I read a document - which I have since been unable to find - that your launch night sets the tone, and if only 8 people turn up to it, you're unlikely to have arranged much of a kick-off. I commented earlier that you should wait a few months between launching on the Internet and in real life. Pick a good time to launch: if it's just before Christmas or during the summer, everybody's going to be too busy. We timed Cardiff to kick off alongside the academic year to pull the students in. (In some places, students make up a large proportion of your attendees. In other places, there are virtually no students. It depends.) You may wish to include some fun gimmick for your launch such as a raffle or a competition to see who can come up with the most ridiculous idea for something or other.

When you've got your day, set it up as a Facebook event. Invite all your friends you think won't be offended. (Sadly, some will!) Tweet both the website event and the Facebook event like crazy. Mention it every day or two, at different times. Ask famous skeptics for a retweet. Don't hassle or spam anyone, but don't be embarrassed to say something you've already said this week.

Promote yourself through a variety of sources. Approach local newspapers. In fact, if you google "local newspaper [whatever area you live in]", you may come up with several more local rags than you even knew existed! Look for their contact forms and their events pages. List yours as an event. Write them a short note with some exciting or weird information - which the events are likely to contain! Put in very clearly what Skeptics in the Pub is. I personally like to explain that it's not about yelling "I don't believe you!" but that it is from the Greek word "Skepticos" meaning "to enquire or find out" - this was inspired by a beautiful interview with D J Groethe, which Tannice from Guildford Skeptics sent me.

You may well also find the council lists local events - add this. Approach the local radio (if you have any mates or mates of mates in radio or media, all the better). Print off some fliers - they can be hilarious or they can be very simple - and distribute them round shops, pubs, museums, libraries. Personally I feel very foolish and rude doing this. I have learned to have a look round, and then go up to whoever's behind the counter, smile very nicely, and ask if you can add your flier to their collection. If the person is remotely nice, invite them along!

Even supermarkets often have a "community noticeboard". I felt a particular satisfaction in placing an advert for Hackney Skeptics in my local Sainsbury's alongside an advert for psychic sessions. (By the way, do talk to the staff before you do this.) If you are a student, or know of any, see if you/they can get something into their student newspaper or find some other way to list it as a worthwhile event.

If you end up in an unfamiliar area - and quite a few organisers do - then make friends with local people to show you round and tell you where will accept fliers. I hope to meet a lovely lady named Sandra soon to distribute more Hackney fliers (which look amazing, by the way - not my artistry, sadly!).


Usually Skeptics in the Pubs charge £2 or £3 for expenses. Many are exceedingly apologetic about charging anything - "Our events are free; we just ask for X to cover the speaker's expenses". I'm less apologetic, personally, probably because I travelled for 3 hours there and back to Cardiff Skeptics and never claimed expenses for my tickets or petrol. If you've done a load of work for this - which you should have! - and the speaker has come all this way, people can afford what usually amounts to less than the price of a drink! Besides, it irks me to be asked for money when I've been told that something is free.

Money might be collected before the talk, or during the interval, or after - perhaps in a pint glass or similar. This involves having to go round all the audience members, and try to avoid missing anyone out, which personally I don't enjoy doing. At Cardiff, we neatly combined ensuring that everyone paid with welcoming everyone, by having a table at the top of the stairs people climbed, with me and often another person - often Dean's wife Vinny - sitting behind it.

I liked this system because it ensured not only that everybody paid, but that we met and greeted all our members old and new. When they paid, we stamped their hand and had a laugh offering them a choice of stamps - a Bah Humbug, a gingerbread man, a star or a squiggly thing. (Except on the first night when I printed out a load of mini-tickets!) Have a float of pound coins ready as lots of people will give you a fiver or tenner. Have a greeting line ready for everybody - "Hi! How are you?" "Hi, thanks for coming, £3 please!" "Thank you very much indeed! Would you like a hand stamp so I don't ask you again?" At Hackney, the Picturehouse staff take care of that, which saves us a job but also removes some of the friendly personable aspect of it. (That also means that they take a fee from us, but in return they give us great service, a glitzy venue, free drinks for us and free food and drink for the speaker, so I'm not complaining!)

Have a nice big money jar, and for goodness sake don't do what I did every Cardiff Skeptics night without fail and leave it lying around. I once left it in the pub overnight. Thankfully, Dean got over there the next day and it was on the windowsill untouched!

Some places are incredibly conscientious and publish their financial records so people can see where their donations are going. I haven't been treasurer at either place, but I can say I've never once had anyone be the slightest bit suspicious of our finances or remotely resentful of paying.


At least, you'll need a projector and cable - that preferably works with both PCs and Macs! - and a screen. You may be able to borrow these regularly, or may get donated old ones. (If you know of a good place to get them please let me know.) Before you launch, test them! You may end up needing the speaker's computer and the projector on a table in the middle of the front row of the audience. (There's nothing wrong with this. It gives the audience a place to put their drinks too.) Test it out, walk to the back of the pub and see how it looks from there. If, as in Cardiff, the speaker has the windows to the back of them, invest in a black sheet you can pin up!

Usually the speaker brings their own laptop - check this in advance - but it's good to have one of yours as well just in case theirs and your equipment refuse to speak to each other.

Also test the mike as these are notorious for failing. Another nice bit of equipment to have, if you've got/can afford one, is one of those clicky things the speaker can hold which moves between slides. (What's it called?) Of course, if it's a well equipped pub, they will have a mike and sound system of their own - the staff may or may not be willing to help you with it when it turns into a recalcitrant mystery!

Looking after the speaker

I give these tips more from the point of view of my own experiences as a speaker - which have on the whole been terrific; thank you to my many lovely hosts - than as an organiser. (If I fail on any, or I should add anything, let me know!)

Well in advance, ask them how they'd like to get there - by train or car or whatever. Lots will be very generous and book, or ask you to book, the cheapest train tickets available. Send them a map of exactly where the place is, so they can plan what time to leave. They'll probably want to arrive early to set up and get something to eat (or, if they're a new speaker, they may want to eat after the talk when they're less nervous!). Make sure you, or someone you trust, can arrive early too to meet them. Give them your phone number in case of emergencies (in fact, if you have a Skeptics talk of your own, don't give it at your own venue but keep it up your sleeve just in case the speaker drops out at the last minute!).

If they have travelled, they may need to stay over. If you or another organiser has a spare room, that's terrific. Some speakers, myself included, are happy to crash on a sofa - but not all. Look for fairly cheap hotels about the place - also feel free to post any good links to finding cheap rooms in the comments, please!

A travelling speaker will really appreciate having a map and directions from the station to the venue and the place they're staying in. Send these before the day they set off so they have time to print it out!

Ask in advance if and when they'd like to eat. If it's difficult to get from the station to the pub, and you have a car, it's really lovely to get picked up, though obviously only if this is feasible! If you're likely to arrive later than them, let them know. Upon arrival, ask them where they'd like to stand, so you can set up the microphone there, and check they're OK with the lights - it's awful if those are blinding or ruin the slides.

Before the talk - and I will love you forever if you do this for me - get a nice big glass of water they can reach when their throat dries up!

Be on hand for them. If the venue has several different rooms, don't scurry off with your mates into one whose existence they don't even know of so they spend the hour after their talk looking for you.

The Big Night!

Wow! It's actually happening! You're probably running around like a headless chicken - someone has to go and pick up the speaker from the station (their train has been delayed); you're either terrified that the seats aren't filling up (turns out twenty-odd of your audience are at the bar!) or delightedly bewildered that all your seats are full and there are still people coming in, and random pub visitors are asking "What's this?". Some clevercloggs turns up and responds to "Hi! Thanks for coming! Three pounds please!" with "I DON'T BELIEVE YOU!" or wants to discuss some minor objection or irrelevant philosophical point with you at extreme length. Everyone wants to know where the toilets are or where they can get food at once, interspersed with horrible moments of complete quiet where you feel you're standing there like a lemon supposed to do something and heaven knows what.

Don't start on the dot of 7:30 or whatever time you advertise - let people get last-minute drinks. It is a good idea to pop up to the microphone around that point and say hello everyone, thank you all so much for coming, we'll be starting in ten minutes, you can get drinks there and food there, toilets are that way, etc. Do go round and say "Hello, thanks for coming!" to as many people as possible. If they just smile vaguely and look blank, that's OK. If they look lost, it's OK to ask them "Hi, are you here for X Skeptics?" Don't talk to any one person all evening. It makes you look unapproachable.

When it's time to begin . . . Just get on and do it. I have started various introductions by hitting my teeth on the microphone and, once, when I was being introduced as a speaker, by walking into a projector and knocking my glasses to the floor. (A friend told me he once started a lecture by knocking over the lectern!) I have also tripped over the microphone wire, crashed to the floor, and had the microphone fall over and hit me. If someone as clumsy as me can do it, you can. It's your show.

Spend a couple of minutes introducing yourself and the idea of Skeptics in the Pub, how it began, how you came to launch this. Introduce anyone working with you. If you happen to know of other people also looking to start a Skeptics, ask them to raise their hands so they can meet each other in the break. Tell a funny Skeptic joke or story. Make any announcements that need making. Don't spend ages, but this is your moment set out your expectations for the evening and future evenings - you can establish, indirectly, whether you want this to be a shouty sort of group or a super-civilised one, for example. Tell the guests what's going to happen this evening - the usual format is introduction, speaker gives talk, 20 minute break for drinks, and then questions and answers; but of course there may be alterations or extras! It is also a good idea for the speaker's first slide to already be up by this time - either that or your own slide with a welcoming message and/or your website.

Then introduce the speaker, shut up, and let them get on with it!

There may be a bit of quiet hustle and bustle you have to deal with - people arriving late, or people jabbering at the back and preventing others from listening to the talk. Sadly you cannot focus your whole attention on the talk - keep an eye on your audience! If things go horribly wrong and they seem to be getting bored (unlikely!), have something up your sleeve for after the talk to make them laugh. This may also be your only chance to eat during the evening, and you will definitely need it.

Skeptics in the Pub is for dialogue and everybody is welcome to speak. But don't feel you have to let anyone abuse this. In the unlikely event that there's a troublesome person in the audience, don't leave it to the speaker to sort them out - you're in charge and have the right to run this how you like; tell them to either be polite or leave. The bar staff should be able to help you. (I once had an audience member who shouted annoying know-it-all comments throughout a talk I gave, but that's not nearly as bad as some scenes I've witnessed, such as an audience member giving a female speaker a lengthy flood of sweary abuse over the microphone.) Questions and answers is a particularly vulnerable time for this - establish with the speaker whether they want to pick the questions or whether you should. We once had a chap in the front row who kept asking questions without raising his hand, unaware that there were people behind him with their hands up and being made to wait for him again and again, and the speaker was too polite to ignore him. The speaker was conducting Q&A while I sat in the audience, so I opted to quietly go up up to him and tell him about the people behind him, and request that he wait. He looked annoyed, but didn't argue. Some people will frame an exceptionally long statement or complaint as a question - if this happens you may stop them and ask "What's your question?" If Questions and Answers drags on a long time - it once dragged on so long for me that I got a backache! - ask the speaker when they'd like to stop, and feel free to make some remark such as "Last question, please" or "Time for two more questions, and let's have them from people who haven't asked any yet."

If lots of people have come, celebrate this. If it's a few, make it cosy - for example, have everyone bunch up and speaker come and sit with them for questions and answers, and make each individual feel noticed and special. Tell the audience when the next talk will be and who it will be with (have this information on a slide). Encourage them to follow you on Twitter, join the Facebook group, and contact you if they can help with anything or have any suggestions. Have a notebook ready for e-mail addresses. Also have a not-too-tatty bit of paper and a pen ready for if anyone wants to be added to your e-mail list.

Thank the speaker and your audience for coming and bringing your dream into reality. You have collectively achieved something wonderful - especially you, the organiser - and you should be extremely proud.

And don't give up!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Ions are the 99%

Remember what you were taught in chemistry at school? It was very exact. Water is solid at 0°C, gas at 100°C, and liquid in between. Metals are solids; oxygen and nitrogen are gases. Gases like oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and chlorine are invariably molecules containing two atoms of each element. Atoms like their outer "shells" to be "full" and join up with other atoms to reach this stability. Oxygen is electronegative: it likes to grab electrons. You never hear of an oxygen giving up its electrons to some other type of atom.

But there is nothing universal about this.

These are what, by A level at any rate, we call "standard conditions" - 25°C, Earth's atmospheric pressure, Earth's gravity, and with all the protections of Earth's atmosphere from the violent radiation from space.

Of course, we learn that it's not like that everywhere. The pressure at the bottom of the sea, for instance, is intense - "if you went there, you'd end up the size of a chip," my Chemistry teacher told us when we were about 13. And up at the top of the atmosphere, in the ozone layer, you hear about photodissociation and ultraviolet light (the type that is dangerous if you're out in it too long) snapping ordinary two-atom oxygen molecules in half, leading to each single oxygen atom joining up with a normal two-atom pair to make a three-atom molecule of ozone.

But all this is just on our little planet Earth: a tiny, tiny place in our great Universe.

(The Pale Blue Dot.)

What about on other planets? Well, we know the gas giants, such as Jupiter, are made largely of hydrogen. Jupiter is almost 318 times more massive than Earth, though less dense; and its gravity is gigantic. It is therefore hypothesised that hydrogen in its core is likely to be solid, behaving like a metal. (If you look on the Periodic Table of the elements you'll see that hydrogen, H, actually rests right above lithium, sodium, potassium etc. - due to having one electron in the outermost "shell"; and arrangements in common like this create characteristics in common.)

(Jupiter from NASA/JPL/Cassini's Photojournal. The Great Red Spot is on the right. On the left is a black circle - it's the moon Europa's shadow. It's worth zooming in!)

But Earth and Jupiter are planets. That means they're compact, cold and - in our cases; not in the case of Mercury, for example - there is a protective atmosphere. Off a planet, this stabilising gentleness is gone.

In space, you often get one atom - or fewer - knocking about in every cubic centimetre (it varies, of course, for example whether you're near a star or in a nebula or inside or outside a galaxy, etc. etc. In the meantime, you might enjoy this little bulletin of interstellar medium facts, from a lecture in Ohio). At sea level, the "standard conditions" on Earth, you get 100,00,000,000,000,000,000 or so. Marcus Chown likes to remind us that atoms are so numerous that every breath that you take will contain an atom breathed in by Marilyn Monroe!

This of course makes it pretty easy for molecules to find and bond with each other. In space, to be able to do this is very rare.

Apart from on nice cool compact places like planets, the only places you're likely to find actual molecules are inside nebulae. It wasn't until last August that it was announced that molecular oxygen - the type of oxygen we breathe in - was discovered in space. Molecular hydrogen of course is better known, and carbon monoxide - the same type of carbon monoxide that is poisonous - is a good "tracer". That means that it's easy to find by its spectrum, so astronomers look for it as an indication of what else is going on around the place.

There is, according to the APOD I nicked it from anyway, molecular gas here. It's been able to form molecules because - although even though those dark "pillars", similar to the marvellous "Pillars of Creation", are devastatingly empty and thin compared to what we know - the environment is dense enough to block out a lot of light. ("Light" is a loose term for what stars give out. You've probably heard of ultra-violet radiation damaging your skin. That's the same type of thing as light, but it's a shorter wavelength we can see. Shorter still are X-rays. Hot stars and energetic environments give those out too. Longer include microwaves, infra-red, etc.) This does two things. Firstly, it allows the gas to cool and condense. Secondly, a lot of light in space (electromagnetic radiation) is "ionizing": it knocks the electrons' atoms right off!

99% of atoms in space are ions. Lone electrons, or (as "ion" usually means) a charged nucleus - a proton if it's hydrogen, or a ball of protons and neutrons if it's anything else. Some of these nuclei may retain some of their electrons. This completely changes their properties - they become much more affected by electric and magnetic fields, for example.

Stars are almost all ions - unless they're incredibly cool stars. So is most of the interstellar medium. All that radiation flying around is no match for poor lonely atoms. They might find an electron and combine with it, but chances are it'll be knocked off again before too long.

And this is the norm. The orderly, neutral molecules that make up the Earth we know behave as only 1% of the matter in the Universe behaves. The upper atmosphere is full of ions that bear the brunt of the stronger radiation from the Sun. By having their electrons knocked off, they absorb the energy and let the rest of the planet go relatively unmolested!

This ionization is what we noticed going on when we discovered the "Pea" galaxies: that oxygen, that really electronegative atom that loved electrons, was present and getting two electrons knocked off. (Of course there was a great deal more hydrogen, but oxygen shows up better in the spectrum.) This happens pretty frequently in space, of course, but things were really firing up in those peas!

One of the units I'm studying this semester is called "Astrophysical Plasmas". You'll have heard that matter is a solid, a liquid or a gas. If they taught you much science, you'll have heard of the fourth state: plasma. Plasma, as you've probably guessed by now, is the state of matter when some or all of the atoms' electrons have been torn off, whether by radiation or electricity or intense heat. It behaves like a gas - even in the centres of stars where it is millions of times denser than any environment you get on earth. Most of the Sun is a plasma, as is the solar wind that triggers the Aurora.

You'll have seen gorgeous pictures of the Aurora from the ground, for example this lovely picture from Alaska Photographics - and also this footage of the Aurora in real-time from the Bad Astronomer is breathtaking to watch.

Looking at it from space, you can see that it's going on very high up in the atmosphere . . .

. . . and, in fact, that the Earth's magnetic field direct the charged particles from the solar wind to form rings around the poles (in this case, the South pole - the Aurora Australis).

The Aurora is caused when charged particles strike oxygen and nitrogen in the magnetosphere of the Earth's upper atmosphere. The molecules don't zoom around in those dancing curtains. It's different areas being struck at different times - like the light from a torch moves around when you point the torch in different directions.

What happens is ionization, or excitation of an electron - the same mechanism, but without enough energy to actually kick the electron free! Two charged particles from the Sun strike, say, two nitrogen atoms. One loses its electron altogether - and becomes an ion, one of the "99%". The other's electron gets "excited", into a higher energy state, but doesn't actually lose the electron. Later, the nitrogen ion finds an electron (maybe the one it had before, maybe another) to recombine with. This releases energy in the form of blue light. The other nitrogen atom's electron also falls back into a lower-energy state, releasing red light. (This process is described here.)

The oddness of ions doesn't stop there. Our lecturer gave us the example of a gyroscope: that when you push it forwards, it will move left or right; and charged particles can behave in this counterintuitive way, too. (We write about parallel and perpendicular vectors quite a lot in Astrophysical Plasmas - and, if you don't mind, I'm not going to go into that here, for I may well make a fool of myself.)

I mentioned earlier that the properties change and that magnetic fields have an effect on them. Ions in a magnetic field will gyrate as if they are sliding along a spring: round and round (in opposite ways depending on their charge!), and along, sometimes at right angles to forces acting on them. And sometimes they will reach a point in the magnetic field where they are "mirrored" - it is as if they hit a brick wall and are bounced straight back in the other direction.

And this is what helps create the van Allen belts around our little blue planet.

The van Allen belts, although - like the Earth's upper atmosphere - help protect us from solar radiation, are dangerous areas spacecraft have to watch out for. They are lobes of ions from the solar wind and our own atmosphere that are held in place by the Earth's magnetic fields. Some ions travel along in a banana-shaped object from the North Pole to the South, and vice versa - because when they stray too near the pole, the Earth's magnetic field lines become closer and closer together, and eventually this causes the "mirroring" of the particle - and it will zoom back off in the banana-shaped orbit. It's a bit like a skateboarder on one of those amazing curved platforms in the park, who doesn't go quite fast enough to get to the top and rushes back down again. He speeds up as he reaches the bottom and zooms his way back up the other end - but slows again towards the top. It's a constant motion, like a pendulum; potential and kinetic energy swap places again and again as the particle goes back and forth.

Charges make particles do very strange things.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

We are unable to process your response

Scientific surveys are distrusted by many people and organisations. Sadly, due to the fact that surveys are not always particularly well written, this is not entirely without reason.

Many years ago, when working for a health and safety consultancy, I was shown a newspaper article about the enforced closure of a care home after they had failed an inspection on safety grounds, such as their banisters being a couple of millimetres too wide apart. "These people aren't interested in whether or not you've got a loving home," one of the very upset care workers was quoted as saying, "they're only interested in ticking little boxes."

More recently, the IT firm Atos has been the recipient of the outsourcing of decisions on sick and disabled people's welfare, taking these decisions out of the hands of GPs and others who know the welfare recipients, and placing it in the hands of a survey for which you have to score points to be declared unfit for work. LatentExistence describes it in more detail here, and this is one of the results of this procedure. (By the way, if I say anything too critical of this company, my entire blog may be shut down - this happened to CarerWatch and it took a lot of fighting and correspondence to find out that the entire forum, which is a pillar of sanity and support for many exhausted, poor and desperate people, was closed due to a link someone had posted many months previously. But I recommend Margaret McCartney's writings on them, too - sadly the BMJ article I had in mind, and which I believe is linked to here, no longer seems to be available.)

In other words, a badly thought out survey can have horrific - and fatal - results. It can of course also be fairly hilarious to those who have the time and ability to pick it apart, as bloggers did to the BCA's "plethora of evidence" about chiropractic being effective back in 2009.

I'm currently earning my pennies by doing some scientific data entry, which involves a bit of database testing. I'm actually finding it both fun and fascinating, and also discovering just how much thought has to go into writing a survey and its results. A simple "N/A" in a box where an integer is required means that query after query gets generated, multiplying the poor data manager's work. When you create a survey, study, or report, you have to allow for various responses.

The problem a lot of people cite (in my experience, anyway) with surveys is that they "don't give a holistic picture", "ignore the real person", "don't treat anyone as an individual", "reduce important things to tick boxes" and so on. The trouble with this is that a really large survey can't treat everybody, or anybody, as an individual, except for case studies. You need to state exactly what you want to find out, and how much. No survey can find out everything about everybody! And if what people say isn't representative of what's really going on, or the results don't make any sense - that's when you've got a problem.

If your tick boxes make people feel like that, this doesn't mean that surveys involving tick boxes are the problem, it means that the wrong questions are being asked - or, if it's multiple choice, that the wrong range of answers are being offered.

It's a pretty good idea, I'd say, to do a trial run of a survey, and find out where these errors are coming from. No planning can possibly think of everything that will go wrong. So do a practice run, change what you need to, and then have another go. (This is much better than, say, adding a new question halfway through what you are doing - this makes the whole thing a mess.)

Still, I would have thought that even a mobile phone company would have had the imagination to forecast the problems they created themselves with the survey they just sent me. I won't name the mobile company, but they've just offered me a new contract. I've accepted it, because it's a lot better than my current one, and also there isn't a minimum time on it. Let me make clear that they telephoned me while I was at work and I asked if they could call me back another time, which they did, exactly when they said they would - and they did not much underestimate the time the call would take, which was a big bonus. Anyway, next day I got the following message as follows:

MOBILE: "From [X]: You recently spoke to us on [Day X] and we'd like to ask you 6 quick questions about your experience. All your feedback is free."

MOBILE: "Question 1: Was this the first time we've spoken about a specific problem or query? Reply with Y for yes and N for no."

So far so good . . .

ME: "Y".

MOBILE: "Question 2 of 6: Is your query or problem now resolved? Reply with Y for yes and N for no."

ME: "Y."

First problem. I thought I'd better add to that . . .

ME: "Except I didn't have a problem/query. [MOBILE COMPANY] did."

MOBILE: "Error: We were unable to recognise your response. Please enter a number between 0 and 9 where 0 is 'poor' and 9 is 'excellent'."

MOBILE: "Question 3 of 6: That's good to hear. Overall how would you rate our advisor on a scale of 0 to 9 where 0 is 'poor' and 9 is 'excellent'?"

I know a few people who work for these companies and know that if you answer anything other than the top number, they get a bollocking and lose their commission. (Mobile companies are not always kind to their staff - I recommend a read of this experience Dean had with a different one.) So although it was annoying being rung up and I had to listen to the standard waffle, the guy was a good listener and answered - even anticipated - all my questions. So I decided to be generous.

ME: "9."

MOBILE: "Question 4 of 6. How would you rate the time it took before you spoke to an advisor where 0 is poor and 9 is excellent?"

I think by now it's clear that they have started off this survey by making a very specific assumption which needed clearing up before questions and answers could helpfully continue.

ME: "N/A. I didn't call you."

MOBILE: "Error: We were unable to recognise your response. Please enter a number between 0 and 9 where 0 is 'poor' and 9 is 'excelent'."

ME: "'Excellent' is spelled with two 'L's. Please take a literacy course."

MOBILE: "Unfortunately we are unable to recognize the response in your message. Please try again at another time."

By not allowing for a few very simple different situations, or employing a proofreader, or even allowing a Ctrl-C Ctrl-V to be used in designing error messages, this company has messed up its own surveying ability and wasted its own time and money as well as mine.

And this is why it's important to learn how to design a survey before you do one.