The state of art…

If you take a photograph of art, is that art too? Or is it just a photo of some art? When does it stop being art? Do you have to manipulate the photo before it becomes art; a change in the original intended emphasis of message?

What about if you then take a photo of the photo of the art, does that then make it art? I think it might, but then why does taking more photos of the photos of the art make it more art than just the original photo; surely the latter is “closer” to the original artwork than the 2nd+ generation photo?

But then, is it the degradation and graininess in the 2nd+ generation photos that makes it artsy? Why, if the original artwork is degraded would this be more artistic? What would that mean for the original artwork? Was it not degraded enough, or are we now talking about something different? If so, where was the disconnect? Was it capturing the light of the art on a film or CCD? How is this different from capturing it on your retina? Is it the depth of field that makes the experience better, you can achieve this with a photograph; what if it is the smell?

Would it mean that the original artwork needed to be more degraded to be art?

I’m just a scientist tying to make matter do what it doesn’t want to do, but clearly it seems that art is doing what matters.

The perils of positivity….

IN science and medical publishing, everything is positive. Less than 4% of articles deal with negative results. There is a perception that negative results are non-results; only positive results are worth publishing. Why is it that showing that something does something is so much more important that showing that something doesn’t do something?

Obviously, I expect some common sense in this; I don’t very well expect that a paper should be published just because you have demonstrated that drinking water doesn’t cause sunburn, this would be a deeply unsurprising discovery. But what if it is a study that demonstrates that a particular drug doesn’t do what people expected it to do? What if it is a biotechnology that doesn’t work for a whole swathe of biological research?

Online science forums (or fora) are replete with anecdotal evidence describing how time, and time, and time again research scientists make the same mistakes, or encounter the same limitations, in particular techniques. This is because no-one ever publishes such limitations, or at least, not more than 4% of the time.

So what is the problem? Well, science is expensive. Very expensive. It is expensive in material cost, and it is expensive in research hours. To have discovered that you’ve wasted a year doing work that elsewhere in the world someone once wasted a similar amount of time doing, only, 3 years ago, is deeply frustrating.

In coffee breaks around the world, many scientists have discussed the idea of a Journal of Negative Results, a compendium that can be consulted at the outset of a research project to determine whether a technique or approach has already been taken toward a research problem, but has been found not to work. Sometimes such negative results a mentioned, but only in passing, and only after an alternative technique resulted in positive results, which resulted in the subsequent publication. They are rarely keyword searchable and thus inordinately difficult to find.

As I mentioned, science costs a lot of money, far more money than is necessary. This is largely because the money isn’t real, there is poor ownership of it, it is monopoly money. If it were coming out of our own pockets, we simply wouldn’t pay the price we do, we’d demand more competitive prices. Consumable companies are free to charge extortionate prices for items that they are producing by the million. I have tubes in my lab that cost £3.75 each; they can only be used once, and invariably one or two of them can be wasted due to one problem or another. Kits are all the rage in research; pre-fabricated methodologies with all the reagents and instructions one needs to perform a particular experiment. The reagents themselves cost practically nothing in most cases, yet the kits can cost anywhere between £300 – £1500, and in many circumstances, afford you between 5 – 20 experiments.

Now this combination of expensive research is part of what leads to negative results being unwanted. There’s no real money in debunking an idea, it must come along side a positive result if it is to come at all. In the pharmaceutical industry, it is part of the reason why any new drug being produced is just too much of an investment to allow to fail, so the pressure is on to ensure, by hook or by crook, that the drug is licensed. Ben Goldacre writes at length about this in his recent book, and blog of the same name, Bad Science; this is most definitely worth a read!

Expensive research also prevents investment into rarer diseases, or any medications that run the risk of having a short shelf-life. One class of drugs that have fallen foul of this economic equation are antibiotics, and this is a rather long pre-amble into what I wanted to say in this blog essay (or blessay, and Stephen Fry attests to horribly calling it).

Continue reading “The perils of positivity….”

Too busy to gripe….

Oh man I’m so busy, where does all the time go?

Well Professor Brian Cox has some idea, or no idea, depending on which physicist you ask. Time was the subject of a recent Horizon episode you see.

Did you see what I did there? It’s called a link; subtle, wasn’t it?

Actually, I’m unbelievably busy at the moment, trying to get material together for a paper, prepare presentations, plan holidays and book flights; it’s all go over here!

But speaking of flights and going (you see that? Another link, woo!), one concept that particularly interested me about Brian Cox’s Horizon episode was that if time was thought of as a dimension, i.e. one dimension of perception, in the same manner that physical space around you represents such a dimension, then the speed at which we are moving through this time dimension is staggering; in fact, we are moving through it at the speed of light!

Ah, but we all remember our lessons in Relativity from school physics don’t we? Erm….don’t we? Anyway, wasn’t one of those iron-clad laws of physics something about not being able to move at the speed of light? This is true, says Brian Cox, except it is only true that you cannot move through space at the speed of light.

There is apparently no problem with moving through time at the speed of light. Furthermore, time travels at different speeds at different places in the universe; time is marginally slower for us on the Earth, as the gravitational force acting on the Earth warps time (remember Einstein, space and time, they’re linked: space-time); elsewhere, near stars, time is moving at a rather slovenly rate, and not at all in the vicinity of black holes.

The other thing that Brian managed to “make bitesize” is this idea of time slowing down as you speed up, such that it would appear to stop when moving though space (all be it impossibly) at the speed of light. You see, when you’re stood still, well, as stood still as you can be anywhere in the universe*, then you can move through time at the speed of light. However, as we are talking space-time, in trying and move through space, such as riding a bike, you are slowing your passage through time; the energy cost of moving through space is compensated for by a loss of energy from the time component, thus time slows. The faster you move, the more time slows, all be it imperceptibly; unless you are late for work and rush around, then time seems to move really quickly.

Which links me onto another point (yes, good isn’t it), perception. Time is as much perception as it is a universal inconstant. What time is it? Universal time? Earth time? Greenwich Mean Time? My time? Your time? They’re all different. In fact, Einstein once said that the only real way that you can share the same perception of time, is by sitting next to each other. This of course was almost certainly one of his outlandish ruses to chat-up women.

For which we forgive him.

* Earth rotates on its own axis, and orbits the Sun; the solar system orbits within the galaxy; and the galaxy orbits who knows what – we’re moving in lots of directions, and at great speed