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Cultural effect of The Big Bang Theory Ken Perrott Nov 08

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I have often thought that we just don’t get enough science in our popular culture. Perhaps people would understand and be more supportive of science, for example, if we had a regular TV soap opera based around the life and work of scientists.

So I feel a little vindicated by the news reports that there is a current resurgence of interest in physics among A-level and university students in the UK. And  The Big Bang Theory, a California-based comedy that follows two young physicists, is being suggested as an important factor (see Big Bang Theory fuels physics boom).

Some students are saying as much:

Tom Whitmore, 15, from Brighton, acknowledged that Big Bang Theory had contributed to his decision, with a number of classmates, to consider physics at A-level, and in causing the subject to be regarded as “cool”. “The Big Bang Theory is a great show and it’s definitely made physics more popular. And disputes between classmates now have a new way of being settled: with a game of rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock,” he said.

And so are some of the experts:

Institute of Physics (IoP) spokesman, Joe Winters, said: “The rise in popularity of physics appears to be due to a range of factors, including Brian’s public success, the might of the Large Hadron Collider and, we’re sure, the popularity of shows like The Big Bang Theory.”

Alex Cheung, editor of physics.org, said: “There’s no doubt that TV has also played a role. The Big Bang Theory seems to have had a positive effect and the viewing figures for Brian Cox‘s series suggest that millions of people in the UK are happy to welcome a physics professor, with a tutorial plan in hand, into their sitting room on a Sunday evening.”  [Prof. Brian Cox who has been fronting a series of very popular science documentaries Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe.]

Brian Cox

Apparently there has been a 10% increase in the number of students accepted to read physics by the university admissions services between 2008-09, when The Big Bang Theory was first broadcast in the UK, and 2010-11. Applications for physics courses at university are also up more than 17% on last year.

Jim Al-Khalili

I know documentaries of the type presented by popular scientists like Brian Cox and Jim Al-Khalili (who has made Secret Life of ChaosChemistry: A Volatile History, Science and Islam,  Atom,   Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity, and others) are invaluable in motivating and inspiring young people. But there is something special to be said for soap operas. And The Big Bang Theory is a very entertaining and effective soap opera.

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Institute of Physics in hot seat Ken Perrott Mar 05

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The UK Institute of Physiscs (IOP) is currently the darling of the climate change deniers, but has upset its own members. The Guardian has found their submission to the UK Parliamentary “Climategate” Hearing was prepared by a small clique, including a well known climate change denier. Now members are protesting. Some may even resign. The IOP may be forced to withdraw their submission.

Climate change politics can be a poisoned chalice for scientists. Trained to deal with objective reality and to test statements and ideas against that reality they are ill-equipped to confront the prejudice, misinformation, emotion and outright nastiness of the political world.

Unfortunately “climategate,” the hysterical anti-science campaign organised around the release of selected stolen emails from the Climate Research unit of the University of East Anglia, is beginning to bring that political world to the scientists themselves.

UK Parliament “climategate” hearings

Looks like the staid old IOP may become the latest victim of “climategate.” Mind you, they did bring it on themselves with their submission to the recent Science and Technology Committee of the UK Parliament inquiry (see IoP’s evidence submission). They succumbed to politicking in their own ranks and used decidedly authoritarian, undemocratic procedures in preparing their submission. This has caused a backlash from members, and reporters from the UK Guardian have been exposing the kerfuffle. The Institute’s leadership have been forced to backtrack a little on their submission and may yet be forced to withdraw it, at least in part.

Never mind – the climate change deniers loved the submission. Reading those sources your wouldn’t have known that it was only one of 55 submissions representing all points of view. It was heavily promoted in the denier echo chamber on twitter and blogs – even in New Zealand. The local popular blog, Kiwiblog, uncritically reproduced sections (see Institute of Physics on Climategate).

Perhaps, though, this promotion has gone too far. Lord Mockton’s climate change denial organisation, SPPI, has now reproduced the submission, given it a pretty cover and made it available from their own web site. An “official document” in their reprint series! I should think this will be the kiss of death, credibility wise, and cause even more consternation to institute members.

Who wrote the submission?

The Guardian reports that the evidence for the submission “was drawn from an energy industry consultant who argues that global warming is a religion” (see Climate emails inquiry: Energy consultant linked to physics body’s submission). They also found “the submission was approved by three members of its science board, but would not reveal their names. The Guardian contacted several members of the board, including its chairman, Denis Weaire, a physicist at Trinity College Dublin. All said that they had little direct role in the submission.”

Three members out of 14! (Governance Science Board).

The Guardian was “unable to find a member of the board that supports the submission. Two of the scientists listed as members said they had declined to comment on a draft submission prepared by the institute, because they were not climate experts and had not read the UEA emails. Others would not comment or did not respond to enquiries.” (See  Institute of Physics forced to clarify submission to climate emails inquiry).

Apparently the report was prepared by the IOP’s Energy Group and the Environment Group was left out of the loop! While environmental and climate scientists generally overwhelmingly accept the IPCC conclusions from their review of climate science, energy and mining scientists are usually less accepting. Understandable given their commercial environment. Terry Jackson, the founder of the IOP Energy Group and Director of the Independent Climate Research Group in Bangor  (a denier group) publicly promotes naive climate denial arguments (see Sammy’s right, man is not responsible for global warming, Pouring cold water on global warming, and Scientists see signs of global cooling). This might provide an idea of the orientation of those physicists who approved the submission.

The IOP’s “clarification” to members

After protests from members the IOP produced a statement “clarifying” their position (see IOP and the Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into the disclosure of climate data). It said:

“the Institute’s position on climate change is clear: the basic science is well enough understood to be sure that our climate is changing — and that we need to take action now to mitigate that change.”

And

“these comments, focused on the scientific process, should not be interpreted to mean that the Institute believes that the science itself is flawed.”

However , members were not satisfied. The Guardian reported “the statement appears to contradict sections of the original submission, which suggests the emails showed scientists had cherry-picked data to support conclusions and that some key reconstructions of past temperature cannot be relied upon.” (See Institute of Physics forced to clarify submission to climate emails inquiry).

And several IOP members have written open letters of protest. Andy Russell (see Dear Institute of Physics…) detailed his objections to the submission and finished with:

Finally, I am confused as to why the Energy group was tasked with preparing the statement and not the Environmental Physics group, who would have been more aware of the particular issues in this case.

I realise that a small clarification has been issued but if the IoP continues to stand by this statement then I will have no other option but to reconsider my membership of your organisation.

Ian Hopkinson (see A letter to the Institute of Physics) made the following specific complaints:

1. Item 1 mis-represents the current scientific practice of sharing of data and methodologies. Currently methodologies are generally shared by publication in scientific journals not by the explicit sharing of computer source code. Raw experimental data from third parties is not routinely shared. To imply that the researchers at CRU are acting out of step with current practice is false.
2. Item 4 specifically casts doubt on the historical temperature reconstructions based on proxy measures whilst not acknowledging that such reconstructions have been repeated by a range of research groups using a range of methodologies, as described in the IPCC 2007 report.
3. Item 5 accuses the researchers at CRU of “suppression” of the divergence between proxy records and the more recent thermometer based record. This is ridiculous, the CRU has published on this very divergence in Nature.
4. Item 6 makes no recognition of the un-usual circumstances that CRU found themselves in, subjected to a large number of Freedom of Information requests, culminating in the publication of a substantial fraction of their private e-mail correspondence.
So, an ongoing saga. I wonder if IOP members will be calling for their own inquiry into unethical behaviour in the leadership. (That’s all we need – another “climategate” inquiry!)
Are we going to see the IOP withdraw their submission to the parliamentary committee?
And how are they going to explain the republication of the submission as a reprint of Mad Mocktons SPPI denier group?
See also:

The IOP fiasco

Physicists’ message to world leaders in Copenhagen: Institute of Physics Press Release

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