Friday, August 28, 2009

Francis Collins and his God – but no, not more of that New Atheist stuff…
[Well, not really. This is the pre-edited version of my latest column for Prospect.]

The unanimous praise for President Obama’s scientific appointments is faltering. When in January he offered the position of surgeon general to the ‘media doctor’ Sanjay Gupta of CNN, many considered it a lightweight choice. In the event Gupta declined, and Obama’s new nominee, Alabama community physician Regina Benjamin, has raised no eyebrows.

But the nomination of Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health, the US biomedical research organization, is more controversial. At face value, Collins looks an obvious choice: former leader of the Human Genome Project, he has a proven track record of large-scale management, and commands respect from peers by remaining scientifically active rather than becoming a pen-pushing adminstrator. Geneticist Eric Lander has called him ‘a superb choice for an NIH director’, while others praise him as a ‘scientist’s scientist.’

So what’s the problem? In a nutshell, Collins’ 2006 book The Language of God. He is outspoken, even evangelical, about his Christian faith. Even that might not have been a problem if Collins had not appeared to equivocate about ‘old-time religion’ issues such as the interpretation of the Fall and the possibility of divine intervention in evolution. Some scientists are troubled by what one can find on such issues on the website of the BioLogos Foundation, established by Collins to reconcile science and religion.

Collins will step down from BioLogos before taking up his new role, and some of his colleagues offer reassurances that they have never seen his scientific judgement clouded by his religious beliefs. But with the crippling religious opposition to stem-cell science in researchers’ minds, this may not be enough to dispel concern. Collins has become a figure of almost obsessive loathing among the ‘New Atheist’ scientists seeking to combat the religiosity of American life.

Biologist P.Z. Myers of the University of Minnesota, whose Pharyngula blog is a flagship of New Atheism, calls Collins’ BioLogos ‘an embarrassment of poor reasoning and silly Christian apologetics’ and worries that ‘he will use his position to act as a propagandist for Christianity.’ Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker calls Collins ‘an advocate of profoundly anti-science beliefs.’

But Myers offers what might be in the end a more compelling reason to question Collins’ appointment: ‘he represents a very narrow, gene-jockey style of research, which… often exhibits a worrisome lack of understanding of the big picture of biology.’ He’s not alone in fearing that Collins’ enthusiasm for ‘big science’ – especially genomic stamp-collecting – will leach funding from smaller but more intellectually guided areas, such as environmental and systems biology. Collins will initially have plenty of cash to spread around – the NIH was granted a one-off sum of $10.4 bn as an economic stimulus until September 2010 – but things will get leaner, and it will take boldness and vision to find space for innovation rather than more safe but dull genome-crunching.


It’s disconcerting astronomers almost to the point of embarrassment that a scar the size of the Earth has turned up unexpectedly on Jupiter. The dark ‘bruise’ in the giant planet’s dense atmosphere is evidence of some gigantic impact, presumably an asteroid or comet. The last time this happened, in 1994, it was widely anticipated and supplied a cosmic fireworks display both exhilarating and sobering: the fragmented comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 ploughed into the planet, leaving a trail of scars each of Armageddon proportions. But this wasn’t exactly a case of ‘there but for the grace of God’, so much as a reminder of Jupiter’s role as our guardian angel. The strong gravitational tug of the gas giant is thought to suck up many lumps of wandering debris that would otherwise pose a threat to Earth. Some researchers even think that the existence of a big brother to mop up impactors could be a condition of habitability for Earth-like planets around other stars.

All the same, we’d like to see such events coming. But no one foresaw the dark smudge in Jupiter’s south polar region until it was spotted by an amateur astronomer in Australia on 19 July. Word spread almost at once, and within less than a day two large infrared telescopes in Hawaii had seen the same spot, glowing brightly with sunlight reflected by the material thrown up through the jovian atmosphere.

We still don’t know what caused it, however. It could have been a faint icy comet, or a rocky asteroid. Jupiter also acquires blotches from storms, but none tends to look like this. It’s going to be tough now to figure out how big the impacting body was, or how much energy was released, especially as Jupiter’s winds will soon wipe away the traces. The similar ‘holes’ left by Shoemaker-Levy 9 were probably made by fragments several hundred metres wide: on Earth, that wouldn’t wipe us out, but it would make an almighty bang.


Has anyone visited the Meta Institute for Computational Astrophysics recently? It’s well worth it: led by some heavyweight astrophysicists, it hosts seminars for specialists every Friday, as well as regular public talks and outreach events open to all. But you won’t get there by air, road or rail, because MICA exists nowhere on Earth. It is the first professional research organization to be based exclusively in virtual reality, in Second Life. The potential of virtual worlds to bring together scientists for meetings and conferences without leaving their desks has been much heralded. But MICA takes that more seriously than most. Its seminars happen in a pleasant, wooded outdoor amphitheatre looking conspicuously like the Californian coast. It has to be said that the audience is rather better looking than it tends to be in reality too.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The weather forecast
[Here’s the pre-edited version of my review of Giles Foden’s new book Turbulence, which appears in the latest issue of Nature.]


Giles Foden
Faber & Faber, 2009
353 pages, £16.99
ISBN 978-0-571-20522-6

It’s a rare enough thing to encounter a novel based around one of your favourite obscure scientists; but when two of them appear in the same book, you feel Christmas must have come early. Add to this a plot that hinges on one of my pet nerdy topics – fluid dynamics – and I couldn’t help suspecting that Giles Foden had written Turbulence especially for me.

The result is compelling. Whether it fully works as fiction is another matter, to which I’ll come back. But Foden’s book one of the most attractive additions to the micro-genre of science-in-fiction for a long time.

Fluid dynamics features here in the context of weather prediction. That may seem like deeply unpromising material for a gripping story, but Foden has dramatized what has been called the most important weather forecast every made: that for the D-Day landings, the invasion of continental Europe at Normandy by the Allied forces towards the end of the Second World War. General Eisenhower, in overall command of the operation, had to be sure that the crossing of the English Channel would not be disrupted by bad weather. And he needed that information about five days in advance – a length of time that stretches today’s forecasting techniques to their limit, and which was in all honesty beyond the capability of the primitive, pre-computer prediction methods of meteorologists in 1944. Adding to that the need for a low tide to evade the German sea defences, the task confronting the Allies’ weather experts was all but impossible.

Foden tells this story through the eyes of Henry Meadows, a (fictional) young academic attached to the forecasting team led by British meteorologist James Stagg. The process by which Stagg and his fractious colleagues, including the brash American entrepreneur Irving Krick and the arrogant but astute Norwegian Sverre Pettersen, made their decision occupies the final third of the book. Stagg and Pettersen both published their own accounts in the 1970s.

Before that, Meadows is sent to rural Scotland to glean some vital clues about forecasting from the leading authority of the day, the difficult genius Wallace Ryman. Ryman is a fictionalized version of Lewis Fry Richardson, who Foden rightly calls ‘one of the unsung heroes of British science’ (he is perhaps best known for his work on fractal coastlines). Like Richardson, Ryman is a Quaker whose experiences in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit in the First World War have convinced him that war must be avoided at any cost. He therefore shuns collaboration with the military, and Meadows has to pursue his mission by stealth – an attempt that he mostly bungles in spectacular style.

In Scotland Meadows also runs into the second wayward genius in the book, this time without a pseudonymous disguise: Geoffrey Pyke, the man behind the Habbakuk project to build gigantic aircraft carriers out of ice reinforced with wood pulp. This so-called Pykrete is extraordinarily resistant to impacts and melting. There is also a fleeting appearance by ‘Julius Brecher’, a döppelganger for Max Perutz, who assisted Pyke during the war. This part of the plot may strike readers as far-fetched if they don’t know that it is quite true.

The more serious problem, however, is that Habbakuk feels like something Foden couldn’t resist cobbling on simply because it is such a striking tale. It’s certainly entertaining, and the portrayal of Pyke rings true, but there’s no real need for any of it in the plot, despite the framing device that has Meadows recounting his wartime exploits on board an ice ship built in 1980 for an Arab sheikh. When Meadows joins Pyke in London only to see the project terminated a week later, it feels like a cul-de-sac.

One could carp at a few other points of creaky plotting or narrative – Foden sometimes seems over-concerned to ensure that the reader gets the point, telling us twice why ‘Habbakuk’ is misspelled and revealing the purpose of a subplot about blood analysis in three successive encounters on the same day. But these are quibbles in a book that does a splendid job of animating a buried story of scientific endeavour and triumph. It is no mean feat to make meteorology sound both heroic and intellectually profound.

In any book like this, one has to ask whether the author succeeds in creating scientists who are fully fleshed individuals. In some ways Foden complicates his task by making Meadows explicitly withdrawn (the result of a childhood trauma in Africa) and awkward. One might argue that Meadows’ constant recourse to the turbulence metaphor and his narrow frame of reference skirt the caricature of a dry scientific life. Brecher similarly refracts everything through the prism of his own research topic (blood), while Ryman is the crabby boffin and Pyke the dotty one. But there’s motive in all this. Through Meadows we sense the dour, buttoned-up character of wartime Britain. And when he talks about turbulence and hydrodynamics, there is none of the breezy ‘beginner’s guide’ flavour that is the usual hallmark of undigested authorial research. Foden had the immense benefit of advice from his father-in-law Julian Hunt, one of the world’s leading experts on turbulence and meteorology and, fittingly, a recipient of the Lewis Fry Richardson medal for nonlinear geophysics. Skilfully balancing fact and fiction, Turbulence is a tale that is dramatic, intelligent and convincing.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Don’t call me sir

The Financial Times has a little article on the Royal Society Science Book Prize, on the back of an interview with Jared Diamond. In the process, they have given me a knighthood. Kind, but more than a little unlikely. I suspect I have been granted it on loan from Tim Hunt, who is chairing the judging panel. He can have it back now.