Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Hubble the Democrat!

I've often remarked that astronomy is a very democratic discipline - here we have the proof. As part of the International Year of Astronomy, the good folks at Hubble are inviting the public to vote for one out of six targets at which to point the telescope in early spring. There are three galaxies, a starforming region and two nebulae. In their words:

"Hubble's Next Discovery -- You Decide" is part of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), the celebration of the 400th anniversary of Galileo's observations. People around the world can vote to select the next object the Hubble Space Telescope will view. Choose from a list of objects Hubble has never observed before and enter a drawing for one of 100 new Hubble pictures of the winning object. The winning image will be released between April 2 and 5, during the IYA's 100 Hours of Astronomy, a global astronomy event geared toward encouraging as many people as possible to experience the night sky. Vote by March 1 to swing Hubble toward your favorite target.

Come and vote here.

(Credit: APOD.)

Personally, I don't think they should be showing which is in what place. If someone's favourite isn't doing well, they'll probably choose a different one instead. That's not quite as democratic as I'd have hoped. Oh well . . .

Just in case that isn't quite enough voting for you, if you're a member of the Galaxy Zoo Forum, come and nominate your favourite weird galaxy for the Hubble Heritage Team to consider studying here.

Hat tip: Bill Keel on the Galaxy Zoo Forum.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Lecture in Bristol

Update, 8th July: I have been astonished to discover that people are still downloading and listening to this talk. If you'd like to hear it, it is just over 35 minutes long. It details why Galaxy Zoo was first thought of, takes the audience on a quick tour of what the SDSS telescope can see and some Zoo 1 galaxy classifications, and tells of some of our findings and our projects of the future.

Download it here, and scroll down this post for some of the slides.

Last Friday I gave a lecture to between 50 and 60 people at the Bristol Astronomical Society. It came about as a result of another lecture I'd given three months before, to the West Wales Astronomy Group - Rick Nowell spotted the topic and very kindly arranged it.

It was a shorter sort of journey than usual to Bristol - that is, four hours rather than eight on the train - and the Bristol Astronomical Society are very friendly and well established. They meet in the Sixth Form Club at Bristol Grammar School, on the hill near the university and some wonderful old buildings. The Sixth Form club is a colourful spacious room. Rick came to pick me up at the station, but had to depart to get some very scary (and heavy) equipment; so I was met by Aziz, who was running the show that evening. Apparently it is unusual - "interesting", in Aziz's words - for the speaker to help set the chairs out. I immediately made an executive lifelong decision: in the unlikely event that I become a world famous speaker much in demand, I shall continue to help set the chairs out.

Rick and Aziz quickly chatted before the lecture. The other speakers were all getting 10 minutes. "And Alice is getting . . ." ". . . ten hours." (I am sure I could talk about Galaxy Zoo for that long, but I would have run out of slides.) As luck would have it, I managed to crash the laptop as I began. The projector froze on the desktop background; it was a picture of a NASA plane above the clouds. I welcomed the patient audience to an evening all about an aeroplane with "NASA" painted on its tail. A kind soul, whose name I am probably supposed to know, stepped up and informed me quietly that this only ever happens when they have an extremely distinguished speaker. I laughed and said it happens whenever I come near technology. He reassured me that Wolfgang Pauli had exactly the same tendency. There's hope yet . . .

Anyway, you can read more on the Galaxy Zoo Forum and Blog. You can either download the podcast of the talk on Rick's website, or from the blog (thanks Kevin!). People not only wanted a podcast, but they wanted slides . . . I don't want to provide the whole lot, not just yet. I don't want to give away my whole "product", because this is - so far - the only professional lecture I can give (though of course I adapt it to each audience and to each new piece of news). But here's a selection.

I usually start by explaining what a galaxy is, and talking about light years and looking back in time and the Hubble Deep Field, and showing various pictures of the Milky Way such as this and this. However, this was an audience of astronomers who didn't need that. So I began with the SDSS telescope: this map of its sky coverage, zooming in towards the Plough to M51.

I adapted a few slides, including the first of the following, from Zookeeper Bob's lecture to us at Herstmonceux. But I made this presentation, so nobody else is responsible for any errors!

One of the forum pedants has asked me if the figure of -80 degrees is correct, as that is a lot warmer than the temperature of liquid nitrogen. That's what I've been told; it may be they are not cooled to liquid nitrogen's temperature, or that the figure should have been in kelvin. He's contacted SDSS to ask; I look forward to the answer!

This is the point of my error when I say that Kevin was Chris's student. The top left picture is from a meeting some of the team had in Portsmouth. I can't show you a picture of the whole team, because not only have they never once all been together, none of them has even met everybody else!

This prepares them for Galaxy Analysis! The next few slides were screenshots.

This was one of my attempts to show how weird the anticlockwise bias seems to be - that wherever we look we see more. If we look in one direction and see clockwise, and the other anticlockwise, that's a bias pointing somewhere. But to see anticlockwise no matter where we look indicates something really freakish.

Some of our discoveries, such as the peas and rings. I usually talk about the forum first - but I wanted to show how our discoveries led into each other. In a sense, the Voorwerp and the red spirals between them - the whole business of the gas - explain the red spirals/blue ellipticals situation. If I understand it correctly, this is something of a revolution in understanding of galaxies.

This picture shows the typical scenario - and what we used to think . . .

That was from the Guardian article. It's also one of the things about Galaxy Zoo of which I am proudest.

This is some of the things that we're working on ourselves, a not-top-down project. I made a slight mistake with the asteroids; apparently I managed to say there were 7000+ unknown ones in our sample. Actually it's just 7000 generally, many of which are known. (I'm not desperate to put myself down, but I am a stickler for accuracy, and I'm reporting what people are reporting to me! I wouldn't want anyone to walk away with the wrong idea!)

Some lovely Irregulars. If you haven't seen Waveney's irregulars project yet, please come along.

It's in the above link that Kevin said that. It makes me shiver . . .

And this was the penultimate slide I showed them - the final one being the credits slide. I'm spotting a pattern - the public tends to laugh at this while astronomers tend not to. I plan to survey this and find out . . .

There were lots of excellent questions after the talk, but we didn't have permission to podcast those. Ask me as many more as you like. Rick then gave a talk about the peas, which sadly isn't podcasted, but which included his Object of the Day on Markarian Peas. We also had some announcements about the International Year of Astronomy, and a talk about Aziz's recent trip to Saudi Arabia. We nipped outside to have a look at the Orion Nebula through a telescope later, and apparently, while Rick and I got ourselves a well-earned drink, the others had a committee meeting whose agenda involved future policy on podcasting! Hopefully Rick will be able to podcast a lot more.

Very many thanks to Rick for taking a lot of trouble to organise this talk, and then to record and produce the podcast. I feel very lucky.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Sixth formers at Galaxy Zoo!

Great news advertised on the Galaxy Zoo Blog. If you're doing A levels in the UK, you can apply for a Nuffield bursary to spend a summer working at Galaxy Zoo!

It's not the first time young people have been involved - besides some wonderful ones on the forum, of course, we've had Ciaron, a sixth former who helped out with ring galaxies.

Work experience is a chancy business. When I was in sixth form (I will resist the temptation to wallow in annoyance that we were never even told Nuffield bursaries existed!), there was only one environmental place available. Two people applied, so it went to the guy doing Geography. (Nothing to do with the fact that the teacher in charge had once caught me climbing out of the window, obviously!) I ended up going to what was then called Hyder, which seems to have been renamed Welsh Water. I was disappointed at the time, but in fact it was a wonderfully informative experience, and I've been interested in water chemistry ever since. They not only later helped me out with a totally unrelated A level Chemistry project, but also with my university dissertation many years later. During my teaching course, I read an interesting paper which pretty much stated that people choose a science career very early in life. It studied some 12-year-olds who went on science and engineering school trips; those that decided, as a result of these visits, to be scientists, had not changed their minds several months later. So I don't doubt these two lucky young people will have their lives changed by this coming summer.

It looks as if Galaxy Zoo is going to develop a lot of educational aspects. More on that when they get around to announcing it, but I'm already thrilled. The best of luck to you sixth formers out there - go and apply! I am green with envy - but wish you a wonderful summer which broadens your horizons by many light years, and brings many galaxies and much happiness to your lives.

Friday, 16 January 2009

Book Reviews

One thing I'd like to do with this blog is to write the occasional book review. I wrote one on Amazon two years ago for the book that got me into astronomy: "BANG!", by zookeeperChris, Sir Patrick Moore, and Dr Brian May. I stand by what I said about it then, though I don't recommend typing out an Amazon review whilst having a chat with the family. It doesn't make for a mature writing style.

As a child I read and wrote constantly. These days, when I do, I ask myself, "Why don't you do this more often?" I love books. I planned, when teacher training, to have a "library" of great and also entertaining science books available in my classroom - and found out during my course that not only were children not expected to read, we were discouraged from encouraging them to do so. What a shame. Books shouldn't be work. They give you a rest and make you grow. As the protagonist Kitty puts it in Anne Fine's "Goggle-Eyes": "Living your life is a long and doggy business. And stories and books help. Some help you with the living itself. Some help you just take a break. The best do both at the same time."

To the following photo, add several cups of tea, something unhealthy like chocolate or Pringles, and a few foot-high piles of books randomly scattered around, and you have purr-fection! (Oh, and never get your cats to pose when they're in whizzing loony mode. They stayed there for about two seconds eating their cat treats, then started a fight. They do curl up with me when I'm reading, but never when I have a camera to hand.)

I'll mostly write about books I love, so let's have our fun now. To start with, Stephen Pile's "The Book of Heroic Failures" lists the worst ever review written as being for a performance titled "A Good Time". Next day, the following review appeared in the newspaper: "No".

My grandmother trumped that. She often annotated her books - which helped me choose a poem ("Afterwards", by Thomas Hardy) to read at her funeral. On the flyleaf of Thomas Pynchon's "Vineland" she wrote: "Unreadable Free Book". (I tried to read it . . .)

Nigel Rees's collection of "Eavesdroppings" contains something similar. The person who sent in the eavesdropping explained that they were in the audience of a "well meant but rather pretentious" play. After the lukewarm applause, one woman in the row in front of him turned to her companion and said, "Well, Emily, all I can say is, I hope the dogs haven't been sick in the car."

Izzy, stop licking the computer screen. The mouse icon is not edible.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Just some random good stuff!

Three little stories bearing absolutely no relation to each other, but which I can't resist sharing!

Firstly, Suw Charman-Anderson joined the forum to ask us some questions for a great article which appeared today. I sent in some answers, none of which appeared in the article - but that's OK, because my job is the social side and this article was very much about the collaborative science we do. It devoted an awful lot of coverage to our wonderful Waveney, especially the Irregulars project. Thanks for a great article, Suw! It made my day! (But why do they never use SDSS galaxies for the pictures?)

Secondly, anyone who likes cats must watch this weather forecast. It was so good it also made the Telegraph. Turn your speakers on. Knowledge of German not required; but do keep an eye on the bottom of the screen!

(I wonder why such an incident is so special? Just because it's so unusual? Thinking about the world we share with the animal kingdom, it shouldn't be unusual really! Perhaps it's so appealing because it reminds us what life really is!)

Finally - I wonder how many trouble-causing journalists get a computer game made in their honour? My best score so far is 13. I never heard what they did with the guy after they arrested him . . .

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Bad Mathematics? (part 2)

Yesterday, I meant to write a short introduction to a wonderful piece of writing often known as "Lockhart's Lament", but which I prefer to call by its original title, "A Mathematician's Lament".

Paul Lockhart, explains Devlin's Angle, is a self-taught mathematician who now teaches grades K-12 "subversively" - i.e. "the real thing". Apparently Devlin's Angle is the first place the "lament", written in 2002, was actually published; though it has apparently been quietly circulating through the mathematical and teaching communities and appearing on other blogs for some time.

Let's say that yesterday's post was what maths seems to be, and Lockhart's Lament is what maths actually is.

I struggled a little at first. I could only conclude that I had never had the slightest idea what mathematics was. Then pieces began sliding together, like those of a jigsaw puzzle. And the picture they made was a great blast of light, as overwhelming as a Shakespeare tragedy. Yes, I was lazy at school, and stubborn. I could have got further than I did. But I had fallen into the same trap millions of other bored students had - of thinking of mathematics as a set of rules, as I had been told it was, not as a set of patterns to discover. I had thought that to think up anything for yourself in mathematics must require years of dedicated postdoctoral study - not that it is as simple as working out things for yourself about characters in a book or flavours in a recipe.

It's so simple. The method maths teachers use tells you everything before you can think it out for yourself. But if you work something out for yourself, you care, and always remember.
In place of discovery and exploration, we have rules and regulations. We never hear a student saying, “I wanted to see if it could make any sense to raise a number to a negative power, and I found that you get a really neat pattern if you choose it to mean the reciprocal.” Instead we have teachers and textbooks presenting the “negative exponent rule” as a fait d’accompli with no mention of the aesthetics behind this choice, or even that it is a choice.

Maths is like everything else - "rules" are what we invent, to organise what we discover. They're a conclusion, not a driving force. Same with definitions. It drove me mad in History to have to learn the definitions of "Benthamism" and "Utilitarianism" without being allowed to see any examples. Not to mention learning the pluperfect subjunctive for Spanish without the least idea how to have a proper conversation (and once I was in Granada doing that, all that grammar was suddenly much easier to learn as part of the package). Definitions are not a starting point but a tool we develop as we go along.

Why on earth do we teach maths like that? Because, evidently, few teachers - and certainly not the government (Lockhart's Lament presents a similar enough story to my own experiences that I make no apology for generalising) - have the faintest idea what mathematics education has the potential to be. As Lockhart puts it,
Everyone knows that something is wrong. The politicians say, “we need higher standards.” The schools say, “we need more money and equipment.” Educators say one thing, and teachers say another. They are all wrong. The only people who understand what is going on are the ones most often blamed and least often heard: the students. They say, “math class is stupid and boring,” and they are right.

Fear of maths is blamed, which we try to address with fancy textbooks and desperate cuteseyness. Popular culture is blamed, which in my opinion just makes everybody feel helpless and alone. Popular culture has as much power as we choose to give it. Nobody's going to be able to come and say, "Maths is cool" and have the whole population believe them, because the real culprits here are cowardice and a lack of imagination.

If I hadn't seen the Bertrand Russell bit, I'd blame standardised exams, which expect all pupils to have reached point X by age Y, and allow for neither particular weaknesses nor strengths nor interests. But obviously the problem has been going on for longer than that. It's basically a lack of freedom to learn things for their own sake. Learning is so important that it's been hijacked by commercial, utilitarian forces, who miss the real point of knowledge:
". . . [I]t is far easier to test someone’s knowledge of a pointless definition than to inspire them to create something beautiful and to find their own meaning."

(Now if that's not also true of curriculum-worshipful science teaching, I don't know what is.)

Well - people tell me it's never too late to learn. I do have some maths textbooks. But I don't know what anything in them means, because they present the rules first, and then the exercises, and never any explanations or challenges to think. I suppose I could figure some of them out, back to front. In the meantime, I am taking up a challenge Lockhart left in his paper (I do hope he won't mind if I post this small scanned snippet - I've been prowling around trying to discover how to contact him to ask, and I am happy to delete this if necessary):

That was a mean trick, Dr Lockhart! Now, imagine that the longest side of the triangle is the base - just as in the original triangle. (If you haven't downloaded the document, get on with it, it's well worth it - the original triangle is on page 4.) That makes it easy to draw a line from the tip to the base. Notice that that gives us three small triangles, which - if we fold the piece of paper - we'll see are all equal! The three of them take up exactly half the box; two of them are part of the triangle, and the third is not. That means that triangle takes up exactly a third of the box.

But what if the triangle was just a bit more or a bit less slanted? Aha. That was where Dr Lockhart was clever. He made one of the sides of the triangle (I'm afraid I can't remember what the sides of the triangle are called, apart from the hypotenuse, which Tom Lehrer has ensured I will never forget) exactly a third of the way across the rectangle. What if it isn't? What if its tip isn't in the corner?

Well in that case, I'm not sure the chopping will work at all. I reckon you'd just have to give the triangle a box of its own, and measure its height and width and compare it to the height and width of the original box. But I may be wrong.

I also tried - feebly - to solve the pyramid in a cube challenge, but apparently I got that wrong too.

So my interest is kindled, my appetite awoken. I now know what I've missed. Is it better or worse? It hurts a lot more now. But it's still good, I'd rather know. And I've got something to aim for now, if only I knew where to start looking. Paul Lockhart's suggested method of teaching mathematics is the following, although he sadly consigns it to impossibility because "it's too much work!":
So how do we teach our students to do mathematics? By choosing engaging and natural problems suitable to their tastes, personalities, and level of experience. By giving them time to make discoveries and formulate conjectures. By helping them to refine their arguments and creating an atmosphere of healthy and vibrant mathematical criticism. By being flexible and open to sudden changes in direction to which their curiosity may lead. In short, by having an honest intellectual relationship with our students and our subject.

But I have no such teacher. Nor do most people. Where can we find one?

I have a plan. But I can't do it myself, because I have neither the maths nor the programming skills (something else to aim at perhaps). I suggest a website like the Galaxy Zoo Forum dedicated to mathematics. Not to listing rules, but to exercises available of the kind Lockhart suggests, at all different sorts of levels. On this website, we'd be able to draw and measure shapes and do calculations easily; graph paper would turn on and off at a command; playing would be the process, rather like galaxy classifying. The freedom to waste time and make mistakes and go off on tangents is essential, because it's not a test, it's a journey in as many different directions as you wish to travel at once.

As a lot of the explanations would be in words, not proofs or symbols, it would need people, not machines, to give feedback. That's where things would get harder. That would be where the forum came in. I wonder if such technology will ever be available to all? Well, I certainly didn't imagine Galaxy Zoo would ever be available before it was.

There are a couple of threads on the forum you might be interested to read: a Maths Problems one and one I started about the Mathematician's Lament. I said in the latter that Lockhart's suggested teaching methods are very similar to how we teach each other at the zoo - I hope you'll agree!

There is so much more I could say about this excellent document - but I think reading it for yourself is the best thing. I've lost count of the number of times I have. It took me several months to stop sniggering nastily about the fictional art teacher at the beginning:
". . . I’ve got a degree in Painting myself, but I’ve never really worked much with blank canvasses. I just use the Paint-by-Numbers kits supplied by the school board.”

Friday, 9 January 2009

Bad Mathematics? (part 1)

I'll tell you something about myself: I was a little horror at school. Looking back, for some years, I had no idea why the teachers hadn't strangled me. I constantly interrupted their lessons with questions and different angles and complications. It wasn't until I tried teaching myself that I realised how inspiring and indeed flattering it is if a pupil does this - because they're listening, and thinking! (A lot of other kids thought it was just because I "got away with everything".)

Except in Maths. My main interest in Maths lessons was imitating the teacher, who had a funny way of shaking her head, and passing notes. What I learnt, I learnt from daydreaming and looking around the room. We had a fantastic classroom - full of origami shapes and a row of Marmite pots of different sizes and brilliant graphs on the walls. (Then in year 10 they started expanding the school and knocking the good classrooms down, exiling us to a blank-walled Portakabin, where I passed even more notes.)

It simply made no sense to me. I didn't care. It was a bunch of rules to memorise, not logic, not intellectual satisfaction. And I couldn't memorise the rules, any more than I could memorise a novel in Mongolian. Oh, I might get a few sound sequences right, but I'd be as likely to muddle them up as not. I loved graphs, statistics and percentages, because those have always made sense. I can add up the shopping bill without any trouble at all, and I do well in multiple choice exams because I know what the answer should be - but proving it? No way. To this day I have no idea what "sine" and "cosine" mean. Although when I was 14 or 15, I discovered that "tan 89" is multiplied by 10 if you change it to "tan 89.9", and again at "tan 89.99" and so on . . . I asked my mother what "tan 90" would be and she said, "It's infinite". I realised that that meant two of the triangle's lines were parallel, so they never joined up. That was satisfaction.

Of course, I ended up with a C at GCSE, and that ended my prospects of studying physics. I accepted the evaluation of myself as someone who was fundamentally hopeless at maths, and resigned myself to eternal confusion and dissatisfaction with many concepts in Chemistry. What is a zero order reaction? Why, if you double the concentration of something, does the reaction rate square? That's illogical. My mind rebelled. "Don't worry. Just plug in the numbers!" kind friends reassured me. And a university lecturer said of calculus: "Don't try to understand it, just learn it, that's much easier."

Well, I memorised what I could, then forgot it as soon as the exam was over. In my first year, as we caught up with algebra, I sat next to a 25-year-old Chinese student. She said in horror, "We learnt all this in primary school!" and zipped her way down the page within a minute or so. Not only could she do it, but she could remember that far back! I had always been uncomfortable with mnemonics and memory techniques at school. I felt they were an insult to the fascinating world we live in. If you really know and understand something, you remember it without that kind of thing. And it also means you are simply learning it for the exam, not for its own worth, which is so infinitely greater - and therefore are free to forget it the minute the invigilator collects the papers.

I remember another experience I had: my boss asked me to imagine a fictional wind turbine, and told me its value fell by so many percent in such and such a time, so what would it cost in a year? I answered correctly immediately. He asked me what formula I had used. I said, "I don't know. Instinct." He was furious. "Instinct is bad. You must not use it," he told me many times, and summoned me to his desk for a lecture. He made me and my colleague apply a formula. Well, needless to say, I have no idea what that formula was and am not hugely interested!

Have I convinced you how much I hate maths yet?

I hope not, because I regard maths with the same sorrow and yearning as I regard an unrequited love, a forgotten beautiful book, a star I see in the sky that I long to reach out and touch. As one sometimes makes a fool of oneself in unrequited love, I made an utter prat of myself on Georgia's website last night, trying to use geometry to work out the number of jelly beans in a jar. I felt I had the answer at my fingertips. I was sure that by turning half the circumference of the jar into the jar's area, I should get a good estimate . . .

And I don't think I'm alone in this. People are interested in how many percent of people think this, in whether a drawing containing an illusion really measures the same as that. Logic problems, Sudoku, the Enigma challenge in New Scientist, comparisons such as how many times so many cars would stretch around the world . . . I think people are interested in numbers and patterns. But they don't admit it. (As Paul Sutherland reported, I said the same about science recently. But I think it is even truer of mathematics.) Why?

The BBC wrote an interesting take on popular culture and blamed "traditional education", as if tradition itself was a bad thing (anyone who automatically condemns all "tradition" should watch Holy Week processions in Spain). And a couple of years ago, a quantum physicist named Stefan Huber at Sussex University said to a few of us Chemistry teachers-to-be that mathematics is like learning a language or a musical instrument - there is no such thing as being fundamentally good or bad, it is simply a matter of practice. But schools and exam boards go by instant results, and if you don't instantly catch on, they direct you to study "arts" A levels and give up on you. That was very, very true, at least for me. (I was certainly expected to beat instant results out of the pupils I taught. There was no such thing as giving them time. If they didn't all achieve the two "learning objectives" by the end of the lesson, I was in big trouble!)

Since September, I have also devoted a surprising amount of time to drawing circles, rectangles and triangles. All of a sudden I am realising how much there is to find out about these objects and their relationships with each other. I just wish I knew where my compasses and a ruler had got to! This was invigorated the other day when I read in David and Judith Goodstein's "Feynman's Lost Lecture" that a circle outside an equilateral triangle will be twice the diameter of a circle inside it, and I was overcome with the need to check this out - and try it out on other shapes, too. But it is mostly because of a wonderful document Chris sent me in September, called "A Mathematician's Lament".

This is a 25-page pdf file so may take a few minutes to download. It is worth every second - one of the most thrilling and thought-provoking pieces of writing I have ever read, and the same kind of burst of light as the end of a Shakespeare tragedy. I seem to be writing an awful lot more than I'd actually planned, and my tabby-and-white-and-ginger monsterkin Izzy is licking the screen and walking on the keyboard and purring demandingly at me, so I'll split this post into two parts and write my take on the document tomorrow. Let me know what you think of it. It answered an awful lot for me.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Not much changes in 58 years.

Quite by chance I stumbled this evening upon the 1951 edition of Jacob Bronowski's "The Common Sense of Science". I'd never heard of it, but the title intrigued me. See what you make of the introduction:

I came to England when I was twelve, and when I landed I could speak, rather badly, two words of English which I had learnt on the channel boat. I did not read English at all easily for two or three years after. The first writers in whom I was able to distinguish what my patient schoolmasters called style were, I remember, Macaulay and Joseph Conrad. I do not remember now whether at that time I was also able to distinguish between their styles. I read greedily, with excitement, with affection, with a perpetual sense of discovering a new and, I slowly realised, a great literature. But I was handicapped then, and I have been ever since, by the disorderly way in which I fell upon my masterpieces: Dickens cheek by jowl with Aphra Behn and Bernard Shaw, and elsewhere leaving tracts of neglected literature by the century. To this day I have not read the Waverley novels, and in consequence I have remained rather insensitive to historical romance, particularly if much of the conversation is in dialect.

I make these confessions because they seem to me to bear on many stories besides my own. The difficulties which I had are not mine alone, and they are not in any special way literary difficulties. At the bottom my difficulties in facing a strange literature are precisely the difficulties which all intelligent people today have in trying to make some order out of modern science.

We live surrounded by the apparatus of science: the Diesel engine and the experiment, the bottle of aspirin and the survey of opinion. We are hardly conscious of them; but behind them we are becoming conscious of the new importance in science. We are coming to understand that science is not a haphazard collection of manufacturing techniques carried out by a race of laboratory dwellers with acid-yellow fingers and steel-rimmed spectacles and no home life. Science, we are growing aware, is a method and a force of its own, which has its own meaning and style and its own sense of excitement. We are aware now that somewhere within the jungle of valves and formulae and shining glassware lies a content; lies, let us admit it, a new culture.

How are we to reach that culture, across its jargons, and translate it into a language which we know? The difficulties of the layman are my boyhood difficulties. He opens his newspaper and there stands a revelation in capitals: THE ELECTRONIC BRAIN, or SUPERSONIC FLIGHT, or Is there life on Mars? But capitals or itallics, the revelation remains in code for him. The language is as strange to him as The Anatomy of Melancholy was to me at fifteen. He has only the smallest vocabulary: a smattering from other popular articles, schoolboy memories of the stinks lab, and a few names of scientists sprinkled at random across history. His history, which might have given an order to it all, is the most maddening of his uncertanties. I knew no English history, and therefore I would not make sense of literary development. How well I recall the helplessness with which I raced a list of names such as Marlowe and Coleridge and H. G. Wells. I could not make any historical order of them. It is hard to visualise my difficulty; yet just this is the difficulty which every reader meets when he sees the names of Napier, Humphry Davy, and Rutherford. These three scientists were contemporaries of the three writers, and they were by no means lesser men.

I think a lot of educators could do with reading this now. We constantly fret about how to "make science relevant to children's everyday lives", but from the way it is taught, you might think it was always there by magic - the answers which you can check in the back of a textbook, and make sure you revise for your exam. Constant fusses are made about science seeming uncool and remote, but in my experience these are merely pressures put on student teachers - no analyses or tentative attempts at a solution such as the above tend to be offered.

He's not kidding about it being hard to read in an unfamiliar language. I arrived in Granada, Spain, aged 21 with (thanks to exam-orientated university teaching) a knowledge of the pluperfect subjunctive but barely the ability to ask for a cup of coffee. And reading books in Spanish, even those I'd read in English such as Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits", was virtually impossible. I did manage the whole thing out of sheer determination, but I could never have told you about Spanish styles, authors, or much history! And I have to say that until a couple of years ago, when I became immersed in the culture of science as I never had at university, I wouldn't have been able to say much about the history or literature or people of science either.

I'd say that Bronowski's analysis might just as well be talking about today, except for one thing. That is all these writers he talks about, with whom in 1951 people were evidently expected to be familiar. That is definitely no longer the case. I hadn't even heard of a couple of them. I was glad I hadn't bothered to pick English as an A level, ten years ago now, when I discovered that the students spend the entire two years only studying eight texts! GCSE's, of course, were worse. As was history. We went into "depth" in a few topics, but a broad overview was never given. I would have loved a timeline, a chronology, to dip far and wide. The more you read, the more you can read - like taking exercise. But that's not expected now. When I was 13, my English teacher suggested we "try to read 15 pages a day for homework". I was devouring entire novels in a single evening back in those days. Reading and history themselves are such chores now - no wonder the methods that (to judge by the broad knowledge of so many older people I have met, though I am sure it does not apply universally) got people familiar with a wide range of authors and a sense of history 58 years ago never do seem to have caught on in science.

I may be way off the mark - I'd be interested to hear your thoughts.

Exactly why never to open Chris's website and take a deep sip of tea at the same time

. . . is to be found by the title here.

On a more serious note, I'm hoping to blob - sorry, I mean blog soon about the International Year of Astronomy and Galaxy Zoo's contribution. Sirpeppy had a wonderful idea which I hope we might follow through on - and on which I hope you will post your ideas too. When Chris hinted that Galaxy Zoo might be getting involved, I thought it was time to move things along a bit, and it might happen! More on that soon, rather than all these tedious little hints, I hope. We can't sort anything until the zookeepers get back from their AAS conference.

Update: Aha! Jules has had Idea No. 2! I think some of us will be better placed to do that than others - anyone giving talks, for example.

Update II: Ideas are trickling in. Well done all and thanks. And please keep it up.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year! I couldn't resist putting together this rather bad montage of all our favourite astronomical objects for today's Object of the Day. I mentioned the International Year of Astronomy which must be launching round about now amidst the fireworks. They have a set of opening ceremonies in rather random countries - not the UK, sadly - and hope to "[make] it possible to reach out to 97% of the world’s population". We haven't heard much about it at Galaxy Zoo yet. I was very proud that one of our younger members thought up an international event, though I hope the Galaxy Zoo server won't melt this time!

Wishing you all an astronomically happy and successful 2009. Oh, and welcome to anyone who's found my blog from Galaxy Zoo. I finally got around to mentioning it today. That video did it.

Update: Check out the top astronomy pictures of 2008.