The Octet Rule

The Octet Rule expresses the idea that atoms like to have eight electrons in their outermost shell, known as the valence shell. This provides something like an explanation for many chemical phenomena – for a start, the noble gases which make up the right-most column of the Periodic Table don’t usually bond with anything at all, because their outside shells are already full. The next column in, the halides, is extremely reactive because their valence shells have seven electrons, so they only need one more to bring them up to the magical number, eight. Over on the other side of the table we find the alkali metals, which are extremely reactive because in their electrically neutral form, they only have one electron in their outside shell, floating all on its own, and only weakly attracted to their nucleus – especially in the larger atoms, where the electrons are further out. If they manage to lose that electron, which doesn’t take much, they are immediately left with the eight electrons in the shell underneath, and the octet rule is satisfied.

The same thing happens when the alkaline earth metals, in the second column of the Periodic Table, lose two electrons, so they are also reactive but not so dramatically as their neighbours. Similarly, the elements in the sixth column can get a full shell by gaining two electrons. They can do that in two ways – either they acquire a pair of electrons and make off with them, allowing them to make compounds with metals by ionic bonding; or they share a pair of electrons with another non-metal, to form covalent bonds. If an oxygen atom shares two of its electrons with another atom, that effectively brings its total up to eight, which is why oxygen atoms often bond with two other atoms, as in water. With a carbon atom, it takes four electrons to fill up its valence shell, so every atom can bond with as many four other non-metal atoms, a property which makes possible the vast array of complex molecules required for life as we know it. On the other hand, it would take some doing for carbon to satisfy the octet rule by ionisation – it would pretty much need to gain or lose four electrons all at the same time, which is why carbon is not usually found in ionic compounds.

So far so neat, but if you haven’t studied so much chemistry that this stuff is already second nature to you, you may have a sense that this explanation is lacking a step or two. What on Earth is an ‘electron shell‘? Why would it want to have eight electrons in it anyway? And how much can we rely on this rule? Unfortunately there are no easy answers to any of these questions, so what follows are some quite difficult answers.

An electron shell is an abstraction – it refers to a collection of electrons in similarly-energetic ‘orbitals‘ around an atom. I put ‘orbitals’ in quotes there because it’s a technical term, with connotations that are misleading here. Electrons don’t exactly orbit atoms, because they’re not exactly particles – they’re more like waves that carry electrical charge. When they’re attached to an atom, they exist as standing waves around it. The fact we call them orbitals is a holdover from the ‘solar system’ model of the atom, proposed by Rutherford, which was superseded almost as soon as it was introduced, but which lives on in the popular imagination because it’s so much easier to imagine than the quantum mechanical truth.

When we talk about a full outside shell of electrons, we mean there’s one pair of electrons in a simple, spherical orbital (called an s orbital), and three more pairs of electrons in orbitals shaped more like hourglasses (p orbitals). Exactly three of those are physically possible, each pair being at right-angles to the other two.

So there’s an explanation for the shape of the orbitals, having to do with the fact that electrons exist as standing waves around atoms. That still calls for an explanation of what it means for them to get ‘full’, though. Why is there space for two electrons in each ‘s’ orbital, not just one, or more than two? This has to do with a property called spin, and the Pauli Exclusion Principle. Spin is a particularly abstract property for a thing to have, although it is related, somewhat obscurely, to the familiar observation that things sometimes spin around. If you imagine that every electron spins on the spot, and they can either spin clockwise or anti-clockwise, you won’t go far wrong, although scientists usually talk about ‘spin up’ and ‘spin down’ rather than ‘clockwise’ and ‘anti-clockwise’. The reason spin is important here is because the Pauli Exclusion Principle tells us that no two particles with the same quantum numbers can occupy the same space. Spin being a quantum number which can take one of two values, that means that exactly two electrons can occupy any given orbital. If you want an explanation that makes more sense than that, you’ll probably need at least one degree in physics, chemistry or preferably both. Sorry about that. One other thing to note here – when that valence shell is full, the atom is stable because, in a sense, it becomes inert. It’s left with the same electron configuration as one of the noble gases.

I should probably mention here that there are also electron shells with eighteen or thirty-two electrons in them, which is the main reason why the Periodic Table isn’t a rectangle, but they’re never the outermost shell; they have less energy, and hence smaller radii, than the s and p orbitals. The reasons for this, once again, are abstruse and quantum mechanical, and I won’t get into them here. The consequences bring us back to my fourth question above – how reliable is the octet rule? The answer is ‘not very’. It applies most of the time, especially for elements in the first couple of rows of the Periodic Table, but further down, when d and f orbitals start to become important, electrons from the lower shells can sometimes form bonds too, and things get significantly more complicated, with such weird chemicals as bromine pentafluoride. The Octet Rule is particularly useless for dealing with transition metals, which can typically lose one or more electrons, from different shells, and can sometimes gain extra ones too.

Chemistry, I find, is full of handy rules to which there are important exceptions; more than any other science, learning chemistry is like learning a language.



  1. How many electrons does iodine need to gain to get a full outside shell?
  2. How many covalent bonds can a carbon atom form before its outside shell is full up?
  3. Why is potassium even more reactive than sodium?
  4. Nitrogen gas is very stable, thanks to the number of bonds in every N2 molecule. How many bonds must that be, if each atom of nitrogen gets a full outside shell by sharing electrons?
  5. If oxygen forms ions by gaining two electrons, and aluminium forms ions by losing three, what must the formula of the ionic compound aluminium oxide be, in order for the charges on the oxygen ions and the aluminium ions to balance out?
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Buffalo Bots

It is well-known that Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo, or to put it another way, Buffalo bison bully bison. It is also a common problem that police police police – as Juvenal put it, ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ We might ask, which police police police? The answer is, of course, that police police police police. And so on.

The words ‘buffalo’ and ‘police’ belong to a class of words which can be used, on their own or in combination, to construct grammatically correct sentences of any length. Any word that is both a plural noun (some buffalo) and a transitive verb (to police buffalo) does the job – I call these ‘buffalo words’. For reasons yet unknown, approximately half of these words are kinds of fish.

I wrote about this in more detail, with a full list, in this Everything2 post. I am following up here because I have been making Twitter bots to explore sentences made in this way. First, we have the Buffalo Buffalo Bot, @BuffaloDice, which tweets sentences consisting only of buffalo words, often with punctuation. I can’t totally guarantee that all of these sentences are grammatically correct, given the punctuation and the use of the capitalised ‘Buffalo’, but I challenge anyone to prove that any of them are not.

My second bot is the Buffalo Haiku Bot, @BuffaloHaiku, which tweets haikus consisting only of buffalo words, if a haiku is any three-line verse with five syllables in its first and last lines, and seven in the second line. They also contain nature imagery, as is traditional, since at least six of the known buffalo words are kinds of animals.

The third bot is Buffalo Queries, @BuffaloQueries, which asks questions about buffalo words, like ‘When do people buffalo cod?’ and ‘Why people dice?’

The first two are adapted from programs I originally wrote in Perl and put on Everything2 as toys: Buffalo Generator and Buffalo Haiku Generator. All three are now written using Node.js, Node-Twitterbot, and Node-Cronjob. They’re pretty simple programs, around 60 lines long. I’m happy to release the source code if anyone’s interested.

A fun job for anyone with an interest in computational linguistics would be to make an automatic parse tree generator to generate all parse trees for any given buffalo sentence, taking into account the fact that some buffalo words have additional grammatical roles, like ‘pants’ (an adjective), ‘smelt’ (a past tense) and ‘police’ (a noun adjunct).

All images in this post, as well as profile pictures and banner photos, are taken from Wikipedia; I can’t think where else to credit them, so: Buffalo Queries profile pic; Buffalo Buffalo Bot profile picBuffalo Haiku Bot profile picBuffalo Queries bannerBuffalo Buffalo Bot bannerBuffalo Haiku Bot banner, also appears above.

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Can ‘the centre’ hold?

This week’s Conservative Party Conference saw Theresa May attempting the fascinating manoeuvre of claiming the ‘centre ground’ by combining far-right xenophobia with economics seemingly slightly to the left of Labour under Ed Miliband.

The whole concept of the centre ground has always been questionable, and perhaps May’s surreal yet straight-faced take on it will help put the idea to rest. When Jeremy Corbyn was first standing for Labour leader last year, there was a lot of talk about how Labour can only win by claiming the centre ground, but very little analysis of what the phrase was actually supposed to mean. You might assume that it would be some kind of averaging of the political views of everyone in the country, but apparently advocating for nationalised railways and public services is ‘far left’ even though the majority of people in the country support it, so that can’t be it.

It seems, instead, to be something more like a triangulation of the views acceptable to the big media outlets. Take the average of the ideas of the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Times and the Sun, and you have the officially approved centre ground, more or less. While there’s no denying that chasing this worked rather well for Tony Blair, there are a few problems with this as a long-term strategy for a party of the left. One is of course that most media outlets are controlled by a small number of very rich people, all invested in making life easier for very rich people. Another problem, perhaps more fundamental but also related to the right-wing tendencies of the mass media, is that the Tories have historically had very little interest in chasing after the centre ground.

The Tories, instead, constantly push their perspective, working to demonise groups that it is convenient for them to demonise and to normalise measures that would once have been seen as absurdly right-wing. In other words, their strategy is to pull the ‘centre ground’ towards them. When Labour fails to make strong counter-arguments, they are reduced to chasing the centre ground as it recedes ever towards the right, in the direction of removing support for those who need it and blaming less-privileged groups for the problems in society.

Whatever else May’s Conservatives have done, they have spectacularly pulled the rug out from under the self-proclaimed ‘moderates‘ of Labour’s right wing. By cementing their long-term scapegoating of migrant populations with the kind of xenophobic rhetoric and policies that have historians shifting uneasily in their seats, they have shown up the folly of ‘taking people’s concerns about immigration seriously’ by promising controls on immigration and so on, rather than persistently, forcefully pointing out that most of those concerns are based on falsehoods pushed by right-wing media and politicians, and that the things people are blaming on migration are almost all the result of economic mismanagement.

You can’t out-xenophobe Ukip, unless you’re prepared to become May and Rudd’s Conservatives. People who are convinced their problems are caused by immigrants will just vote for the parties they believe are genuinely opposed to immigrants, not a party that promises controls but looks like it’s pandering. It remains to be seen whether they can be convinced that problems like overstretched public services and depressed wages can be solved through social democratic policies by a government that actually wants to solve those problems, but Labour’s alternative strategy has been an unmitigated disaster, so it’s probably worth trying.

The new economic direction that May and Hammond are taking the Conservatives in exposes the folly of Labour’s right wing from the other direction. Eds Miliband and Balls had five years in which to point out that the economic crash was caused (indirectly) by deregulation that the Tories were at least as keen on as Labour at the time, and absolutely nothing to do with Labour ‘over-spending’. They had five years to make the case that austerity was a political choice, pushing the damaging consequences of the financial crash on those least able to afford it while letting those responsible off the hook; to point out that it was having the opposite effect from what George Osborne was claiming it was supposed to, and that a wide array of mainstream economists agreed it was a terrible idea. Instead, they broadly agreed with the Tories about economic policy, promising just a bit less austerity if they were elected.

Now even the Tories have at last disowned Osborne’s disastrous economic strategy, after six years of ballooning debt, falling wages, stagnant productivity and the slowest economic recovery for almost a hundred years. Remember, this is a strategy that Balls almost entirely went along with – although to be fair, some of the changes Hammond is making are in line with the tweaks Balls wanted to make. Other changes are more in line with John McDonnell’s approach. Osborne’s strategy was always going to come crashing down sooner or later – yet Corbyn’s competitors in last year’s leadership election were united in believing that Labour lost under Miliband and Balls by being too far to the left.

Labour failed as an opposition in the last parliament, by missing almost every opportunity they had to oppose. They allowed the Tories and right-wing commentators to shape the debate about migration, about economics, about welfare and more. Some in the party still see hope for its future in chasing after a ‘centre ground’ framed by the right: they still think it is safer to pander to fears about immigration, rather than allaying them with facts and promises of much-needed investment; they still see neoliberalism as the only economic philosophy that stands a hope, even as its failures become ever more painfully apparent. However difficult the Labour Party’s position is right now,  such an approach is simply untenable. Those in the party have a choice of uniting in opposition to every destructive, divisive thing the Tories stand for, or chasing a strategy of attempted moderation that hasn’t won them an election or an argument in more than a decade.

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The A Word

The A Word is a beautifully shot, dramatic and deeply problematic BBC series about the family of an autistic child. That description might give you a clue what makes it so problematic: despite the autism theme, it’s really not about the autistic kid, Joe, at all. Joe himself is played quite convincingly by 5-year-old Max Vento, but the character is extremely thinly drawn. He’s autistic. He likes music, and music facts. That’s all you need to know; it’s all the viewer ever gets to know, really.

So the drama is all about the effects of Joe’s autism on his family, including two uncles and a grandfather. More specifically, it’s almost all about the arguments that stem from or in some way relate to the realisation that the kid is autistic, and that’s a lot of arguments. They also manage to find quite a few other things to argue about, though. It’s been suggest that the ‘a word’ of the title is not ‘autism’, as we might first assume, but ‘arguing’.

The parents are presented as deeply ignorant of autism in the beginning, but very willing to learn. That could have been a nice setup for a series designed partly to help the viewer learn about autism, but it wasn’t. Though the parents do have some educational chats with specialists and each other, they’re pretty light on detail, and they include some fairly questionable stuff.

So the series isn’t a helpful educational resource on autism in any straightforward sense. Where it might have some value is as an extended game of Bad Autism Parenting Bingo: they do practically everything that parents of autistic children (and adults) should never do. They neglect their other child; they talk about Joe in front of him, as if he’s not there; they argue, often about Joe, where either or both children can hear them; they attempt to bully professionals into providing the help they think they need; they avoid disclosing Joe’s autism to his school, although it must already be perfectly obvious he’s not like his classmates; they force him to take part in activities he clearly has no interest in; and they jump on any sign of ‘normality’ and refuse to let it go, because they remain convinced throughout that autism is something laid over the top of Joe’s inner self, rather than accepting it as a fundamental part of who he is.

Unfortunately there is no sign that the writer of the show, Peter Bowker, realises this is what they are doing. It seems more like he wanted the parents to seem flawed, but loving and well-intentioned, which is fine – but I worry that many viewers will watch without realising the magnitude of the mistakes they are constantly making.

Having said all this, there quite a bit about the series that I appreciated. It’s set among the rugged hills of the Lake District, and filmed to make the most of it. Doubtless the Cumbria Tourism board were delighted. The acting is mostly strong, with Christopher Eccleston excellent as ever, as Joe’s grandfather – who I read as being quite clearly aspie himself, something I was genuinely surprised the series never explored. Some of the characters were just about likeable enough for me to care about the drama they kept inflicting on each other.

Unfortunately the shallow treatment of autism really lets The A Word down. Right up to the last episode I kept hoping that at least one of the parents would come to accept or at least understand that their son just is autistic – that’s who he is, it’s not something he has, and certainly not something he suffers from. If the parents’ total failure to grasp this wasn’t bad enough, it’s also suggested that he’ll always be heavily stigmatised, and there’s no point hoping for acceptance in our society. In a world populated by people like this show’s writer, perhaps such pessimism is justified.

However, the BBC has commissioned a second series, and maybe it will partially redeem itself yet. Certainly the National Autistic Society keenly collected feedback on series 1, and Bowker is on record as saying that series 2 will be “both about being the family with a child that is different in a small community as well as being a part of the wider ‘autism community’ and all that this entails”. The fact he said ‘autism community’ rather than ‘autistic community’ rings some alarm bells, but if the series does acknowledge that there is such a thing as an autistic community, it will be breaking new ground. While more and more autistic characters have been making their way into TV and film, they are almost always shown as isolated; the fact that groups of autistic people can and do get together to share experiences and socialise is very rarely mentioned.

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Common Podcasting Mistakes

Most of the art of making a good podcast is also the art of making good radio, and I’m not here to teach you that (but please use a decent microphone, edit it at least a bit). However, there are a few important things that are specific to podcasts. Some of these may seem obvious,  but they’re all things that a lot of people get wrong.

  1. Compression
    There is almost no benefit in giving a spoken word mp3 at a higher bitrate than half a megabyte per minute*, and there are plenty of disadvantages. Putting out a podcast twice as big as that wastes your bandwidth and ours, and many people thinking about downloading it will be pushed for space on their devices. Until I upgraded my phone’s storage I hardly ever downloaded podcasts bigger than 50MB for this reason.
  2. Episode titles
    If at all possible, give every episode an informative and concise title. The date it went out is not informative. You don’t need to include the name of the podcast in the title of every episode, and you definitely don’t need to include the word ‘podcast’; bear in mind that podcatching software often truncates titles if they’re too long, so if you want to tell us which episode number it is, maybe just put ‘#73’ instead of ‘Episode number 73’.
  3. Podcast titles
    Your potential listeners are likely to be looking up your podcast in an alphabetical list, if they ever actively feel like listening to it. So only include the word ‘The’ or the name of your broadcaster or production company in the title if you’re really convinced we’ll expect it to be there. If you call it something completely different from what we think of it as being called, we will be confused.
  4. Episode descriptions
    Try to come up with a couple of sentences describing every episode. It doesn’t have to say much, but if it just says ‘Analysis of news and current affairs’, your audience will be sad. If your description is just a transcript of the entire episode, it’s really great that you’ve got a transcript up, but I don’t think that’s the place for it.
  5. Music
    This one’s arguable, but be aware that – much more than for radio – quite a lot of your audience will be trying to get to sleep, if not during the episode then shortly afterwards. If you’ve ever been jolted back from the very edge of sleep by sudden jangling noisy music, you’ll understand why I wish more podcasters would either ditch their end-of-show jingles, or at least swap them for something short and gentle.

I hope these tips are helpful. My list is doubtless coloured by the fact I use Podkicker to listen to podcasts, and other software will make different things seem like problems. I’d be curious to hear about other people’s experiences, especially if you think some of these things are not mistakes at all.

I comment on most of the radio and podcasts I listen to: @OolongListens

* Audacity exports mp3s this big when set to 64kbps, although I can’t make sense of that mathematically.

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The bean family, also known as the legumes, leguminoseae or papilionaceae. One of my favourite plant families. Their flowers are beautiful, very distinctive and pleasingly perky; and I like seed pods that really look like pods. There’s also something charming about the unfolding, trefoil leaves at the end of every branch, and I’m a fan of plants with tendrils.

White clover flower (or flowers, depending on where you draw the line)

On top of all that, their specially adapted root nodules house nitrogen-fixing bacteria, producing nitrogenase to draw unreactive nitrogen from the atmosphere and transform it into compounds that other plants can use. Before the Haber-Bosch process was invented we had to rely heavily on legumes and lightning to get our nitrogen fix. This is why crop rotation usually includes a phase where fields are planted with legumes.

As well as peas, the family includes all kinds of beans, lentils and peanuts. Making protein requires nitrogen, so most protein-rich plant-based foods are either legumes or the seeds of larger plants, like nut trees. Unfortunately, the seeds of legumes are also rich in oligosaccharides, complex carbohydrates that humans cannot digest, but which our gut bacteria can – producing methane and other gases. Besides the food crops, legumes also include broom, gorse, clover, vetch, laburnum and lupins.

Continue reading Fabaceae

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Asianish Kale, Carrot and Broad Bean Feast

I made a large vegetable dish last night which turned out particularly well, and I’ve had a request for the recipe from one of the people who ate it. I didn’t measure anything, I’m afraid, so all the quantities are going to be pretty vague. I was feeding five, but probably made enough for seven or eight (we had it for lunch today, as well).

I really should have taken a photo, but I was too busy eating.


  • Most of a bulb of garlic, chopped quite finely
  • About an inch and a half of ginger, chopped at least as finely
  • A healthy shake of turmeric
  • 6-8 medium-large carrots, quartered and sliced
  • Big bag of kale, in small strips
  • Large bowl of fresh broad beans, removed from their pods
  • Two red peppers, sliced
  • A courgette, quartered and sliced
  • A little Chinese vinegar
  • Tablespoon of miso
  • Teaspoon of mustard (Dijon)
  • Enough sunflower oil
  • Rice, cooked in the normal way


  1. Prepare all the vegetables.
  2. Heat oil to a medium-high temperature.
  3. Add garlic to a large frying pan or sauce pan, stir until just starting to turn brown (a minute or two).
  4. Add carrots and ginger along with some turmeric, and stir enough to keep it all from sticking.
  5. Steam, parboil or microwave broad beans (I microwaved for around three minutes with a little water, and discarded the water – I think this removed most of the bitterness from their skins).
  6. Add broad beans, courgette and red pepper to pan. Turn down to medium heat. Add a couple of splashes of vinegar.
  7. Mix the miso and mustard with a little warm water and a little vinegar to dissolve.
  8. Add kale to the pot, and stir thoroughly. Like other brassicas, kale only needs a few minutes to cook, and starts losing its flavour and gaining a sulfurous aroma after that.
  9. Turn off the heat and toss the miso mixture over the vegetables.
  10. Serve with rice.
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Royal Society Summer Exhibition

I made it to the last day of this year’s Royal Society Summer Exhibition on Sunday: a fascinating collection of scientific exhibits and scientists happy to talk about them. It’s a pleasing format, especially if you’re interested in hearing scientists talk about their work – which is one of my favourite things.

I wanted to share some notes on what I learned.

Killer Fungus

Killer FungusMedical Mycology & Fungal Immunology

Apparently around a million people are killed by fungal infections every year – more than malaria. Most victims are those with compromised immune systems, including those with AIDS and transplant patients who have to take immunosuppressant drugs to prevent their bodies rejecting their new organs; one of the intriguing thing about fungal diseases is that many of them are caused by fungal organisms which live on us all the time, but hardly ever cause problems. However, the number of otherwise healthy people who are badly affected by fungal infections seems to be growing. Fungal diseases and the human immune system’s ways of responding to them are poorly understood, so far, compared with our understanding of bacterial or even viral diseases.

I have a long-standing interest in mycology in general, but like most people, I’d never given all that much thought to fungal diseases in particular.

4D Science

X-Ray Tomography

Tomography is the process of turning a series of 2D slices into a 3D image. The people from the Manchester-Harwell X-Ray Imaging Facility are pretty excited about getting to use an X-ray ’10 billion times brighter than the sun’ to extend this into the fourth dimension, showing how things like crystal structures change over time. That lets them track exactly what happens as batteries charge and discharge, or when ice cream melts and refreezes, and they had some nice little 3D-printed models to demonstrate it, as well as a Lego light-tomography machine that works by casting shadows from a model on a tiny turntable.

Antimatter Matters

Trapping Antihydrogen at CERN

Antimatter is almost exactly like normal matter except that it has the opposite electrical charge, or possibly it travels backwards in time (the two interpretations look surprisingly similar in practice). When a particle and its antiparticle collide, they annihilate, releasing a burst of energy; and when new matter is created out of a burst of energy, it comes along with antimatter, allowing the universe’s total electrical charge to be conserved.

It is puzzling that the universe as we know it consists almost entirely of matter, when matter and antimatter are usually created in exactly the same quantities. It looks as if this didn’t hold in the early universe, or somehow the antimatter was destroyed while leaving normal matter behind, which suggests that the universe is troublingly asymmetrical, and nobody knows why. This is a long-standing problem in physics, known as ‘CP violation’, and not very much progress has been made in solving it since I was studying the subject seventeen years ago.

There is currently a fiendishly difficult experiment ongoing at CERN, in which scientists are making molecules of antihydrogen by colliding antiprotons with positrons (antielectrons), and trapping them in order to study their behaviour. The experiment is so difficult because antihydrogen atoms are electrically neutral, so you can’t contain them in an electrical field; you need to use enormously powerful magnets to control them, and even then, they need to be cooled to within half a degree of absolute zero or they’ll escape.  If antihydrogen atoms turn out to behave any differently from hydrogen atoms in terms of the way they absorb and emit radiation, that will give us some valuable hints about CP violation.

Silk Acoustics

The Spider Silk Violin

One of the fun things about the 21st century is that new materials are being created all the time, with interesting properties and applications, including biomaterials incorporating things like spider silk. Luca Alessandrini is exploring the acoustic properties of some of these materials as part of his interdisciplinary research, and has created violins out of some of these novel materials.

The exhibition was a little on the crowded side, so I didn’t get to see nearly everything. Some of the things I’d have loved to get a chance to spend more time on include computational cosmology, quantum secrets of photosynthesis, morphogenesis and surgical robots. At least I have the internet…

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A Coup without a Clue

Jeremy Corbyn (photo CC by Plashing Vole
Jeremy Corbyn speaks (photo CC by Plashing Vole)

Here’s the thing about Corbyn: as far as I can tell, his analysis of what’s gone so wrong with British politics, and specifically the Labour Party, is absolutely spot on. So are his prescriptions for how to fix it. None of the attacks he’s faced have addressed these. None of his attackers have ever put forward anything approaching an alternative vision, or even a serious critique of Corbyn’s analysis or policy programme. Whether this implies a total acceptance of the status quo, or simply a failure of imagination, I’m not sure.

I’d be interested in reading such a critique, or about a significantly different, plausible left-wing policy programme. Maybe he’s missed something, you know? Maybe I’ve missed something too.

I’ve seen some criticisms from Greens, of course – Corbyn’s default assumptions tend a little bit towards the statist, although McDonnell’s actual economic policies push strongly towards decentralisation; maybe he slightly understates the importance of the environment; that kind of thing. But I’ve seen very little from Labour that really goes beyond ‘BOO, UNELECTABLE’.

That’s just not good enough. Millions of people in the UK (the DK, I should say) are impoverished, disempowered, alienated from the political and economic systems, and hopeless about them. The vote to leave the EU is widely and, I think, rightly, seen as a symptom of this.

That makes the right wing of the Labour Party far more culpable for the way that vote went than Corbyn’s supposedly lacklustre campaigning. They’ve let the working classes down for decades by refusing to foster hope for anything better than what we’ve got, or to rebuild institutions that would allow us greater control of our own lives.

This lecture from a few weeks ago (available as a podcast and a transcript) is the clearest expression I’ve encountered of exactly where Corbyn’s coming from. Given the time and space, he is capable of expressing himself very compellingly. I’d be interested if anyone could articulate where they think he’s going wrong – in terms of ideas, rather than just delivery.

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The House of Calabash


An impressive range of squashes.
A remarkable range of squashes

We met Mr. Chang when we were standing outside his house near the Forbidden City, admiring his squashes. He asked us some friendly questions – do you play music? (a bit) Speak French? (seule un petit peu) What’s the English name of these squashes? (bottle gourds) – and ended up inviting us inside. We’d finished our touristry for the day, we didn’t have any urgent reason to be anywhere else, and he seemed nice enough, so we took up his invitation.

Inside he had more squashes and other plants growing with the help of an impressive amount of natural light, along with a large number of dried bottle gourds, or calabashes, that he’d grown. He’d clearly moulded the space over the decades, with a surprisingly labyrinthine system of steep, narrow stairs, walkways and small rooms tucked away around a courtyard-like central living room.

Narrow, twisty stairways alive with plants.
Narrow, twisty stairways alive with plants

He showed us some of his daughter’s artwork – she was off studying art – as well a painting of his own, a fairly accomplished landscape with birds in the classical style. Then he told us about the ballet school he was setting up in Beijing, the first of its kind, with French ties – he was a dancer along with everything else, and he’d lived in France for many years. He spoke better French than English, lapsing into it when he couldn’t remember the word for something, so our conversation was in an odd mix of English, French and occasional Mandarin. He had a day job working for a big company.

A line of bottle squashes
A line of bottle squashes

After we’d been there for a while I reached to get a card to write my contact details on, only to realise I didn’t have my wallet. I ran back to where we’d come from in case it had somehow fallen out of my pocket, but eventually realised it must have been taken by a pickpocket among the crowds thronging out from the Forbidden City. I came back to Chang’s to cancel my credit cards; we swapped emails, and he gave us ten calabash seeds to take home.

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