May 5, 2021Comments are off for this post.

In Praise of Experts

I had my first dose of the Oxford–AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at 1pm yesterday. I found the whole experience impressive and surprisingly moving. After months of mistakes (both by the U.K. government and W.H.O.) bad timing and false economies it feels like we are finally getting our act together and hopefully sorting this thing out. Everything ran smoothly, from the SMS notification, to booking my appointment on the web, to actually turning up a few days later. Driving into the facility friendly volunteers helpfully ushered me to where I needed to go, checked details and ran through safety. The nurse who administered it was lovely and explained everything clearly including various side effects and the likelihood of them. The whole thing took less than ten minutes, with only a couple of people ahead of me in the queue.

I felt absolutely fine until around 22:30 last night when I started to experience symptoms. I could feel my body reacting to it, exactly like it’s designed to do. I got a mild fever, shivers, aches and pains and felt a slight swelling of the lymph nodes in my neck (these days I get that even with just a mild cold). The immune system is an amazing thing. I was torn between finding it fascinating and at the same time of course unpleasant.

I’ve had a broken night's sleep due to the fever and eventually took some paracetamol washed down with a pint of water at 5am. I’m feeling almost back to normal now at 10:30 with just a mild headache.

I know that not everyone gets these reactions and presumably in those who don’t the immune response builds more gradually. But for me it was reassuring to actually feel that something was happening.

For months it has felt like people who don’t know what they’re talking about have had far too much of a platform from which to rant incoherently about Covid. Some seem to have all but lost their grip on reality. I am absolutely not a fan of the government and of course we should be suspicious of corruption both in governments and multinationals and should scrutinise them. But the idea that there's some kind of conspiracy behind all of this just fails to stack up. It’s a naive fantasy. There is no coherent motive and the various theories swirling around in many cases cancel each other out.

I think in part what drives this is that some people feel the need for someone to blame for everything. They don't like to feel not in control. And they don’t feel comfortable accepting that reality is complicated and nuanced.

Yes of course lockdowns are awful and deeply damaging (and – honestly – we ALL hate it) but by far the most likely explanation is that these things just happen. I am not denying here the increase of virus transfer to humans caused by our unhealthy relationship with the natural world. But nobody wants this. It benefits no-one. And of all governments surely a Conservative government hates to shut down businesses the most. There is no believable motive here beyond a few PPE manufacturers and some contracts being awarded questionably. Maybe one might imagine some short-selling hedge fund benefitting, but that’s far fetched Bond villain stuff. The damage both to the economy and to our collective mental health is enormous. That’s the whole point and why we need to bring it to an end, right? We all want it over with, let’s at least agree on that.

The anti-mask/lockdown brigade frustratingly don’t seem to grasp the simple maths of exponential growth. The fact that the England at one point had the worst outbreak in Europe was due to the fact that we instigated lockdown too late and too loosely. But when we did finally shut things down the numbers eventually came down significantly (and dramatically more so since we started vaccinating). It’s precisely because of these harsh mitigating measures that the outbreak wasn't much worse than it turned out to be. But then the whingers use the resulting relatively small number of deaths (~128,000) as an argument that we shouldn't have lockdowns and mask wearing.

Would they be happier to pop on a mask in Waitrose if the deaths had hit 1.28million? When it’s already too late?

It is like complaining about the budget spent on building a safety fence on account of there having been no deaths from people plummeting to their death since it was constructed.

I wonder if it is just a small but vocal minority. Social media algorithms give voice to people with no academic credentials in the subject they are talking about, but they can do a lot of damage.

Dickhead Michael Gove famously asserted, “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts”. Well no, Mr Gove. I want to hear much more from experts and less from taxi driver politicians and individuals like Lawrence Fox. It is thanks to experts that we are going to science the shit out of this Covid problem.

Professor Sarah Gilbert at Oxford was awarded the RSA Albert Medal for her work on the Oxford vaccine but in a just world she and her team would be hailed as heroes outside of academia too. I wonder if enough people fully appreciate how complicated the genetic engineering of viruses is. It’s basically the Science of the Gods, but still we call them ‘boffins’ and treat them with mistrust. I find it utterly insulting that we treat experts in this way. Experts who gave us the modern world.

So this was running through my head while I was getting vaccinated and is why I found the whole thing moving: Brilliant people coming together and solving a massive and difficult problem. Humans really can be amazing and it is perhaps evidence that I spend too much time on Twitter – which too often boosts the wrong voices – that I lose sight of this fact.

Mute the morons and when you take that first sip of a pint inside a once again safe and cosy pub perhaps subtly raise your glass to the experts who made it possible.

Photo: The Jenner Institute Laboratories, University of Oxford, Old Road Campus Research Building © Make Architects

August 24, 2020No Comments

Taking a Covid-19 Test

[Edit: It came back negative. Not surprising but worth knowing, and hopefully useful information. I’d be more interested in an antibody test but that wasn’t on offer].

Did anyone else get one of these testing kits? I received a letter last week inviting me to take a home test. I suppose they want to figure out what proportion of the population has asymptomatic Covid. I am happy to help.

Lateness in the year aside, it all seems very well organised – so far. I am taking the samples tomorrow morning and a courier will pick it up during the day. Apparently they need to have it in the lab within 36 hours.

March 20, 20151 Comment

Solar Eclipse

On the one hand it's just a shadow, the shadow of the moon, so there's nothing magical about it at all (although some would beg to differ). But on the other hand it is, weather permitting, a momentary breakdown of the illusion that we live on a flat Earth with the heavens simply 'above' it. You can get a sense of being in space and of the vastness of things.

It's a shame astronomy doesn't get directly in our faces more often, but then I suppose if solar eclipses were common most people would ignore them the same way they ignore the Milky Way at night.

I'm hoping (obviously) for a break in the clouds. Sadly the world sold out of eclipse glasses before I even thought about it, and I'm not resourceful enough to source some dense lighting gels at short notice. Might have to try the pinhole method (meh) or, yeah, the Intertubes.

June 26, 20131 Comment

Elon Musk on the Future of Energy and Transport

Interesting lecture and Q&A from ‘21st century Brunel’ Elon Musk. Predictably he covers SolarCity, Tesla and SpaceX, though the Q&A is more interesting, covering energy storage, rocket airframe construction, reusability and manned flights to Mars. He also briefly mentions his tantalising Hyperloop concept.

February 22, 2013No Comments

Solar flare HD video footage

This is pretty spectacular. Actual video footage of a solar flare erupting on the surface of the sun. Turn the res up to 720p or higher on full screen.

via @jedrichards

November 5, 2012No Comments

Relativistic game engine from MIT Game Lab

A Slower Speed of Light is a first-person game prototype in which players navigate a 3D space while picking up orbs that reduce the speed of light in increments. Custom-built, open-source relativistic graphics code allows the speed of light in the game to approach the player's own maximum walking speed. Visual effects of special relativity gradually become apparent to the player, increasing the challenge of gameplay.

June 21, 2012No Comments

Bless You

The sensation of 'being me' at precisely 03:34 this morning felt a bit like being hit square in the face by an InterCity train made of condensed hay fever; ten carriages of pollen, dust and microscopic spores bonded with a potent histamine syrup. I awoke with the classic symptoms: an insanely dry and itchy throat, gunky red eyes and the commencement of thirty minutes or so of staccato sneezing. I trudged downstairs to wash my face, took a Loratadine tablet, drank a couple of pints of water and finally got back to sleep at about six o'clock.

Maybe it serves me right: Six months ago I moved out of London, having lived there for just shy of ten years. I never suffered from hay fever as a child nor in my teens, but it caught up with me two years after moving to the city (though the lay scientist in me must point out here that this is not proof of a causal link). To plagiarise Moonraker, my hay fever symptoms normally appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season at around the end of March, and then hang around being quite annoying till the end of July, presumably in rhythm with the annual cycles of the particular grasses and flowers to which I am allergic. But so far this year I have had hardly any symptoms at all, and I was privately feeling smug that moving out of London had helped to alleviate the problem, as I had predicted. (Again, of course it could just be that there are different pollens on the wind where I now live.) And as a result I've been neglecting to take my antihistamines.

One positive thing about hay fever is that its very existence is compelling evidence that God does not exist. Believers often state that the truly bad things in life, like wars or cancer, are "sent to try us", or that God in allowing (or causing?) these things to happen is testing our faith or indeed punishing us. This is arguably fair enough, but why then would this omnipotent supernatural creator also set out to design such a moderately irksome and inconvenient thing as hay fever? As a source of personal amusement?

Perhaps, as well as moving in mysterious ways, God moves in ridiculous ways too. An all-seeing Practical Joker Upon high. If he does exist then quite frankly he's a bit of a dick.

October 27, 20111 Comment

Seven Billion

BBC News - World Population Reaches 7 Billion

The BBC News website has today posted a great little tool for contextualising the world's population growth. Based on UN Population figures, being born in 1977 I was the 4,251,107,985th (4.2 billionth) person alive at the time. As you'll have seen in the news this week, the population has very recently reached seven billion. This is troubling.

It's a controversial and complicated subject but I'm firmly of the opinion that we're in big trouble unless we quickly stem this level of growth (through education and healthcare initiatives, for example). Nine billion is already an inevitability. This is surely the biggest single factor in the battle for environmental sustainability, yet few seem willing to discuss it.

If you've not seen it, Hans Rosling's TED talk on the subject is well worth watching.

July 31, 2010No Comments

Full of stars

Io and Europa Meet Again (NASA/Johns Hopkins University)

In this inward-looking media-obsessed world – where it's possible to become a celebrity simply by stumbling out of the right West London nightclubs, and where the prerequisites for fame no longer include having contributed some great act, painting, literature, architectural design, scientific discovery or such – it is perhaps unsurprising that few would list among their heroes the likes of Copernicus, Gallileo, Newton and Einstein.

Something I find both understandable in the context of modern society and its practicalities — but simultaneously most bizarre when considered from an objective point of view, is the widespread disinterest in the 99.99 recurring percent of everything that exists out in space. Frankly I can think of very few subjects quite as acutely intriguing.

Fortunately, whilst being in the minority, I'm by no means alone in my 'Nostalgia for Infinity', and recently a colleague pointed me in the direction of two entire astronomy courses that were recorded and put on the web for free by Richard Pogge at Ohio State University. They're both available as podcast feeds you can subscribe to, and there are accompanying web pages — which compensate to a degree for not being able to see the projections from original lectures:

I'm almost at the end of Astronomy 161 which has been accompanying me on my (not quite long enough) daily commute for the past three months. It's a little bit basic in places, aimed at the complete beginner, but Richard imparts a fascinating amount of detail both about the solar system and the history of astronomy, neither of which I was taught at school.

Highly recommended for those who like to escape the babble of human affairs from time to time.

May 27, 20102 Comments

Go for launch

Impressive time-lapse footage of Space Shuttle Discovery being prepared for launch (after pre-roll advert)


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