Ignoring science in politics

Nearly two years ago the Australian government passed a law banning the “super trawler” FV Abel Tasman from fishing in Australian waters. The ban will expire later this year. The campaign against the FV Abel Tasman was mounted by a coalition of fishing and conservation lobbies, strange bedfellows, but surprisingly effective.

Opposition focused on the size of the vessel, rather than the size of the quota. Politicians and activists ignored work by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority when it didn’t support their argument; the debate was not based on scientific evidence.

Casual disregard for the scientific method was widespread.

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The difference between climate and weather

The distinction has often been made intuitively. For example this quote from Robert Heinlein “Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get”. This makes sense; we know that winter is colder than summer, and that the UK has a terrible climate.

From this we can draw the following relatively simple definition for weather.

Weather is the here and now; it is the current state of the atmosphere. Is it raining? Is it windy? Weather varies on timescales of minutes to days. Storms, rainbows and sunny days are all examples of weather.

Climate is a bit harder to nail down. We speak of one summer being particularly warm. This suggests that our notion of climate is based on more than a single year’s weather. The exact length of time for climate is unhelpfully fuzzy, but a working definition would be:

Climate is the long-term average of the weather for a particular location and time of year.

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Ekman transport: icebergs and algae

Imagine it’s the late 19th century. You’re a famous Norwegian Arctic explorer, and you want to be the first person to make it to the North Pole. Fridtjof Nansen was in just this position when he proposed his second voyage; freezing a ship in the sea-ice to spend three years slowly drifting across the pole. It’s an interesting tale, but I’ll leave it to others to tell.
His relevance to this post comes from his observation that icebergs don’t drift downwind; rather they move at an angle to the wind. Nansen presented this riddle to Vagn Walfrid Ekman, who in turn presented his answer to the world in 1905.

Making science work – Professor Sir Paul Nurse

One of the best aspects of being in Oxford is the calibre of the speakers who pass through. This post is a brief discussion of my favourite talk so far.

On Valentine’s Day my wife and I went to listen to Professor Sir Paul Nurse give a talk entitled “Making Science Work”. An ambitious title, but I think once you’ve won a Nobel prize, been knighted, awarded the Legion d’Honneur, the Copley Medal, and elected as a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, you’ve earned the right to talk about pretty much whatever takes your fancy.

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My first paper

Very recently my first academic paper was published in a peer-reviewed journal. In my excitement I bombarded my Facebook friends with a link and no small amount of enthusiasm. Over the next few days I had the following conversation a number of times.

Friend: Congrats on getting your article published.
Me: Thanks! Did you have a read?
Friend: One of the following:

  • I tried…
  • Sort of. I think I understood the introduction, but after that I was completely lost.
  • A little bit.
  • Um… Hey, have you seen the Wiki article about Palladium coins?
  • I read the title.

At this point I was never quite sure what to say. These are clever people, but they couldn’t understand what I’d done. Is that my fault? Is this how it will always be? The accessibility of contemporary science is one of my reasons for wanting to write a blog like this, so my first paper seems like a perfect topic.

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The experience of being a scientist can be much like the duck pictured above; head down and focused on the details. Since arriving in Oxford I’ve come to realise that science without communication, while no less worthy, is much less useful. This then, is my attempt to come up for air and to not always be like the duck in the picture.

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