Monday, 14 April 2014

Interview with Scientist and Children's Science Author, Dr. Mike Goldsmith!

It occurred to me the other day, that I spend a lot of time here, not only navel gazing, but talking vaguely of psychology or vaguely of my spiritual leanings etc.  I hardly ever give you a perspective from another angle altogether: a scientific one.  During my guest season last year, I did have one science related post, by the wonderful Ryan Smith; but I’ve not really spoken to or asked questions of any proper scientists, have I?  A whole fascinating area of enquiry, for understanding the cosmos, and I’ve forgotten to mention it!!
 This is of course, due to my ignorance of many scientific things, unless they are being explained to me very simply.  It occurred to me too, that I should go back to basics and stop trying to read adult science books – I didn’t follow properly at school, so how can I expect to pick up anything complicated or advanced, when I don’t have a solid base in the foundational aspects, the building blocks, the beginner concepts, even?  I do believe the sum total of scientific knowledge I left school with was that (a) iron filings are attracted to a magnet (thankyou Mr Crombie, you were a lovely man); and (b) when you’re at the top of a hill, poised to roll down but you haven’t yet, you’re full of ‘potential’ energy (thankyou teacher I have forgotten the name of, but you were very grumpy and made me sit at the back of the class when I asked too many questions in physics; I read a horror book in disgust at my exile, because you couldn’t see me anymore).
 All this brings me to the fortunate coincidence of recently making a new friend: Dr. Mike Goldsmith – who has written and published over 40 (count them, blimey!) books of science information, for junior readers.  As well as many published scholarly articles, and a recent adult book on acoustics, and noise reduction.  Not only is he a really nice man (and way more succinct than me, as you’ll see – it’ll be a nice change for you all!), but he discusses horror, Dr Who and books with me on 2 different forums (lets bless the internet, for a small moment; and those Dr Who forums I was complaining about a few posts before).  We keep finding we have read the same thing, or watched the same thing.  So we chatted, and he was doomed to appear here from the moment he confessed he was an actual Doctor, not just a Dr Who username person; and was, to boot: an astrophysicist!
 Just in case you need more impressing before I ask him loads of impertinent questions, here is his bio and a pic, which I’ve borrowed from his website:
 Dr Mike Goldsmith has a Ph D in astrophysics from Keele University, awarded for research into variable supergiant stars and cosmic dust formation.
From 1987 until 2007 he worked in the Acoustics Group at the UK’s National Physical Laboratory and was Head of the group for many years. His work there included research into automatic speech recognition, human speech patterns, environmental noise and novel microphones. He still works with NPL on a freelance basis and has recently led a project to develop a new type of environmental noise mapping system. He has published over 40 scientific papers and technical reports, primarily on astrophysics and acoustics.

Since 1999, Mike has written 40 science books for children and adults, and has acted as a consultant on many more.

Mike's book on the history of noise - the first of its kind - will be published by OUP this autumn, and he is currently developing a practical guide to noise reduction for individuals.
That’s enough preamble from me.  I asked him some layman science questions, about himself, his interest in science, its place in the world, and impact on thought and progress.  And religion. 

  • Have you always liked science, from when you were small?
Yes, my dad was an engineer and made up science-based bedtime stories! I loved reading, and lots of what I read was science.

  • Did you have good science teachers at school - I had some very uninspiring and oddly angry science teachers, I kept getting told off for asking questions when I didn't understand...which I was sure was missing the point?  Was your love of science helped by or despite your teachers?
I went to lots of schools, so had many science teachers, none of whom were particularly inspiring, so I have to go for despite. Being encouraged to blow things up, as one was in the 70s, was what made science lessons fun!

  • Did you also always want to be a writer?  And I know you adore science fiction and supernatural stories - did you originally want to write fiction?  Or was science something you always felt your talent should feed into?
I always enjoyed creative writing at school and much preferred writing horror to any other type (even if the topic didn't really point in that direction!). But I never thought of writing for publication until 1978, (when I was 16), when a read a book by Patrick Moore called "Let's Look at the Sky: The Planets." A mere 20 years later, I did! What I really wanted though, from very early on, was to be a scientist - ideally an astronomer. That also took about 20 years to happen...

  • Why books for children, rather than heavy academic articles alone, or popular science books for grown ups?
Children have an amazing ability to focus on a topic and become expert at it: dinosaurs, football teams, trains... if a science book comes their way at that point it just might make science their focus - and the world is in sore need of more people who like science.

  • Do you think children find science easier to grasp than adults?
Yes: some adults have been put off science by dull or difficult science lessons at school, and, since there is no shame attached to knowing no science (as there is to knowing nothing about, say, geography, history, politics or art), they just don't "do" science. Children are more open-minded and are also very logical.

  • If so, do you think that might be partly to do with the plasticity of the young mind vs. the generally accepted idea that it becomes harder to take on new knowledge long term as you age? 
No, not in general: the kind of science usually included in popular science books (for whatever age) is not hard to process. But there are two exceptions: modern physics, where concepts like time "flowing" at different rates in different places, mass varying with speed, one object being at many places at the same time, are easier to grasp the younger you are, and mathematics, which firmly embedded, accessible, "second nature" memories of key numbers, approaches, concepts and techniques which are hard to install after childhood.

  • Do you also think it might be because of religious conditioning people received as children, that doesn't really inhibit their ability to reason through scientific concepts till they are older?  (Sorry readers, if I didn't put that very well - did you get what I meant?  This isn't meant to be an inflammatory question to get him to take a position - its something I've pondered on myself, and wanted his thoughts on it.)
Religious teachings provide slick-but-wrong answers to almost every fundamental question about the Universe, and so remove the perceived need for scientific enquiry. But (assuming that children learn science as well as religion), I'm not sure that is detrimental to reasoning abilities in itself. The real damage is done later in life I think, when religious attitudes lead directly to certainties about things - and not just scientific things. In watching debates between creationists and scientists, it's noticeable that creationists seek only ways to bolster their own position, while scientists seek ways to refine their own: scientists try to increase their understanding, creationists to defend theirs. One of the things that I find hard to understand is the mindset of religious scientists: in science, no-one would say: "these writings describe absolute scientific truths. We know this because they are extremely old, and because many people feel strongly that they are special. Although they have been copied, translated and edited many times, and contain a number of inconsistencies and contradictions, nevertheless the most recent version is completely reliable". But there are plenty of religious scientists so there is not a simple answer here.

  • Do you think that the more you study and become familiar with scientific concepts, the more likely you are to eventually adopt an atheist view?  I think some people are worried that if they pursue an understanding of science, it may strip from them beliefs they have found previously useful or comforting, or simply familiar; and that it may leave them feeling lonely? (Again readers, this isn't meant to be a contentious question, its a thought that I've had – a close family member is very reluctant to come to grips with evolution for this reason; to comfort her I tried to marry them both by saying, 'you can think of evolution as how and when God did it' because she isn't one of those 'the world was created in 6 days' literally Christians, she accepts it as a metaphor...but you see what I mean.)
I'm not sure. To begin with, I think a lot of scientists may regard their science and their views about morality/god/meaning as quite separate - especially in sciences like chemistry, engineering and physics. Science is A way of thinking for them, not THE way. Secondly, though I personally have no feeling that God exists, I understand that many people do have that feeling and I doubt that scientific training has a lot to do with whether they do or not. It's when religion trespasses onto scientific ground, such as in explaining the creation of universe of or life, the practical efficacy of prayer, the existence of miracles and so on that a good scientist rightly demands empirical evidence. If someone simply has a persuasive feeling of the existence of a God then science has nothing to say on the subject (well, I guess neuroscience might perhaps). Science has clear boundaries and is not designed or equipped to explain everything. However, whether belief in god/religion actually DOES comfort many people, as your question implies, is questionable. In some, perhaps most, cases such belief leads to vain and frustrating searches for the "meaning" of life, it leaves people baffled by random death, suffering and misfortune, it makes people worried and ashamed about "sin" and its consequences, it stops them from feeling free, it drains sex of some of its pleasure and loads it with guilt, it encourages people to waste their lives because they think that there is more to come after death, it discourages toleration.

  • Some people feel quite threatened, in terms of their worldview, by scientific developments.  (Instead of excited or interested.)  Do you think this is because they don't understand them properly, as they are usually taking their understanding from skewy simplistic media reports rather than a decent book, or a chat with a scientific person? Do you think science types could try and get out there more, explaining things more simply: more Brian Cox's, more Neil de Grasse Tysons, more Michu Kaku's etc??  Or do you think people might not want to pay attention because they don't want to change their way of thinking about a thing?
I think it's the latter: learning new things is HARD! I remember the real reluctance I felt about learning about computers in my teens - I realised it would be really useful to find out how to use them, but it meant learning new concepts and skills and starting off being bad and slow at it. Similarly, more recently when I had to learn more about Earth sciences for something I was writing - what a nuisance that was! And it's the same with lots of things - no-one can seriously think that a system of inches, feet, yards and miles is anything like as simple as a metric system, but even the BBC sticks to Imperial most of the time, just because it's there and it's an effort to grapple with anything new. The other problem is that science is a structure, not a set of facts, so the answer to "What is a Higgs Boson" cannot be answered unless the underlying bits of the structure all already known to the questioner. If they aren't, then the answer must include them too. I think science popularisers are already out there plenty, doing a great job!

  • Can I ask you to explain a few sciencey things for me, before you go?  Can you explain the Archimedes bathwater thing?  And the Schrodingers Cat thing?
Archimedes: King Hieron had a dodgy goldsmith (no relation. Well, let's hope not...) who'd made him a crown from some gold the King had given him. The crown weighed the same as the gold, but the King thought the goldsmith might have mixed in some silver to make the weight right, and pocketed some of the gold. So he asked Archimedes for help. Archimedes knew that silver is less dense than gold: that is, a crown (or cube or sphere) of silver+gold weighs less than a crown (or cube or sphere) of gold of the same size. On the other hand, if you have two crowns, one of silver+gold and one of gold, that weigh the same, the gold+silver one will be bigger. So: Archimedes took the crown and balanced it against a lump of pure gold - so he now had two objects of the same weight. If the crown proved to be bigger than the lump then it must be less dense than pure gold. What did "bigger" mean for objects of different shapes? It meant "larger volume"- so all Archimedes had to do was to discover whether the crown had a larger volume than the lump of gold. He took a large bowl brimful of water, submerged the crown in it and measured the amount of water that overflowed. This must be equal to the volume of the crown. Removed crown, refilled, placed gold lump in, measured the overflow again, and finally compared the two lots of overflowed water. The crown had displaced more water than the pure gold lump, therefore it had a larger volume. Since it weighed the same as the lump, it could not be pure gold.

Schrödinger's cat: Objects do not have exact positions, energies or velocities until they are observed. A negligible effect for things on a human scale, at subatomic levels this leads to a very different world. For instance: make a hole in a screen and shine a light on it. The light will make a distinctive circular pattern on a second screen just behind the first. Make a neighbouring hole and the pattern changes - thanks to interference effects, this pattern is not simply a double version of the first, but something new, with various blurry rings and blotches. Nothing odd yet, but now turn down the brightness of the light. Soon, it will be so dim that just one photon will be in transit at the time (as a simple calculation or measurement would confirm). The blotchy two-hole-pattern is still there (albeit very dim and dingy). Cover one hole. The originally one-hole pattern appears - again, all as would one would expect. But there is a weirdness here: remember, there is just ONE photon in play. It cannot split - it's like a little bullet or cannon-ball. So it must go through one hole or the other - it can't go through both. Yet it will make a different pattern on the screen depending on whether there are two holes available or one. In other words, the photon's behaviour is affected by BOTH holes, even though it only goes through ONE. This makes no sense - you can get through your front door whether or not your back door is open. So there must be something wrong with our analysis, and this error is in saying that "the photon must go through one hole or the other" We do not know this for sure, because we cannot see it happen (if we add in a detector to see what DOES happen, the photon is "used up" by the detector and never reaches the viewscreen). We believed it because we thought it made sense but now we find it does not, so we should no longer believe it. The only logical conclusion is: the photon's position is only decided when it is detected - in other words, when we see the pattern on the screen. Hence the cat: "common sense" says: every cat is alive or dead. But put one in a box with a poison gas canister. Connect the canister's valve to a radioisotope with a 50:50 chance of disintegrating (and hence killing the cat). Close the box. Like the photon, the radioisotope only "decides" whether it's gone pop or not once someone has looked in the box. The cat's state depends on the radioisotope's "decision", so it too remains undecided until someone looks in the box. So, until the box is opened, the cat is (to steal the name of a particularly nice X-files episode) deadalive.

  • Almost lastly - what drew you to your current work on acoustics, and noise, and noise reduction?  Is there a personal reason for that? (I hate noise - as opposed to sound; so I'll be attempting to understand your book!!)
Initially, just chance: I applied for a job at the National Physical Laboratory and acoustics was the vacancy they had. But the reason I soon loved it is that it's the ultimate mix of various sciences and other disciplines: psychology, music, physics, electronics, architecture, biology, engineering, metrology, medicine, history, mathematics, law and materials science are all indispensible to it. More recently, I've become interested in noise as a major social problem, the partial solutions to which lie within our grasp.

  • What is the most hopeful - in terms of the Earth's future - scientific discovery or innovation, in your opinion, in the last few years??
For the next few centuries, two things: the unravelling of the genome and hence the chance to cure vastly more diseases and the development of thought-controlled technology which should lead to major developments in many areas, from an "internet of things" and advanced prosthetics to telepathy-like communication systems and intuitive access to computer systems and the data they contain.
For the next few millennia: the discovery of significant deposits of ice on the Moon, which will enormously facilitate the use of the Moon as launch-station, factory and colony, leading on to exploration of the Solar System and beyond.

  • Lastly - I had a poor grounding in science but I'd like to understand more - MUCH more!!  And I think children's books are a good place to start with something I had a poor grounding in.  If I were to start on one of your many - over 40! – books: which would you recommend to get me going?
I'm really pleased with one of the most recent: Science Ideas in 30 Seconds: 30 Breakthrough Theories for Junior Geniuses Explained in Half a Minute. The illustrations (not by me, I should say) are just wonderful! The book I'm most proud of is Albert Einstein and his Inflatable Universe, with fantastic cartoons and diagrams by the great Philip Reeve (who is a brilliant writer as I'm sure you know). The aim was to clearly explain relativity (and some quantum theory) in the context of Einstein's exciting and inspiring life. 

If you’ve enjoyed this interview, please do look at Dr Mike’s website, where there’s more:

I’m still struggling with Schrodinger’s Cat (is that the same as the tree that falls in the woods but it only does that if we hear it…which makes it a very solipsistic tree, needing constant validation for its actions, invisible unless observed??!); and the idea of the moon as a base for mass space exploration!  If I can persuade Dr Mike to explain some more stuff to us later, I shall!  Until next time.  And thankyou, Dr Mike!

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