Posts Tagged ‘Science’

I’ve invited cosmology questions before, but I wanted to renew the call. I’ve got a Q&A article on cosmology coming out soon, so ask away!


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The following table has appeared on my Facebook feed a few times.


I have a few points to make in response. What follows is a critique of the table above, not of the Bible or Christianity. (more…)

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I can’t do a series on public speaking for scientists without laying down a few guidelines on Powerpoint. A quick note: the best lecturers I had during my undergraduate days consistently shunned Powerpoint, preferring the blackboard. (Overhead transparencies, thankfully, seem to be dying out). One of the reasons for this may be that equations are much less intimidating when they appear gradually, term by term, rather than all at once. Lecturers who used the blackboard also seemed to have more time to think about what they would present and how they would present it, rather than using time to prepare slides.

Powerpoint, as we all know, can be used well and can be used extremely poorly. Here are the laws of Powerpoint – if I were Emperor of astronomy, non-compliance would be punishable by firing squad.

Rule 1: Contrasting colours

If I see one more person put a yellow line on a white background …

The RGB colour model is part of the problem. The RGB model (as used by Matlab) assigns a colour by a fraction for Red, Green and Blue. For example: white (1, 1, 1), black (0, 0, 0), dark purple (0.5,0,0.5). While blue (0, 0, 1) and red (1, 0, 0) are clearly seen on a white background, green (0, 1, 0) is invisible. So you’ll need to use (0, 0.5, 0). Many “default” colours need to be darkened. If you’re using a black background, lighten the colours (especially red). If you’re using a background that is some other colour than black or white, stop it. Stop it right now. Or consult the nearest colour wheel and choose opposing colours, one dark and one light. Test your colours on a projector – they always look better on a screen or on paper.

And use thick lines on plots. And large labels. Or else.

Rule 2: Few words

It’s very difficult to read and listen at the same time. The words you put on screen should be keywords, and as few as possible. Don’t write a complete sentence unless you plan on saying it word for word. Don’t write: (more…)

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After many years of sitting through undergraduate lectures, I’m ready to give my definitive criteria for what makes a good lecturer. I’ve never lectured, but I know what I like!

My three criteria are these: confidence, enthusiasm and empathy …

1. Confidence
Nothing ruins a lecture faster than the thought: this person doesn’t know what they’re talking about. We’ve all experienced the frustration of being taught the wrong thing, and then having to go back and relearn something. Lecture courses take a lot of work: notes, exercises, summaries. I want to know that my hard work will be rewarded, that when I am confused, it is just me. If I just keep working and thinking, the fog will clear. If the lecturer lacks confidence, it sends the message that my confusion may just be a result of the lecturer’s confusion. The fog may never clear, because the fog is in the mind of the teacher. I might as well get a good textbook and teach myself. (more…)

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The speeches of great political leaders mark some of the great turning points of history. Perhaps the best examples are the stirring speeches of Winston Churchill, which were a great inspiration to Britain during the second world war:

… if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

Scientists rarely (if ever) need to be this dramatic. However, there are a number of lessons that we can learn from the great speeches of political leaders.

1. Be brief

On November 19, 1963, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Edward Everett delivered a two-hour oration at a ceremony to dedicate a new cemetery to bury the victims of the American civil war. Everett was a politician and a famed orator, and his speech was well received. After the speech had finished and a hymn had been sung, President Abraham Lincoln rose to deliver a brief dedication.

Lincoln’s two-minute “Gettysburg Address” is one of the greatest speeches of all time, memorised by generations of American students and carved in stone at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Everett himself commented to Lincoln: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

The lesson here is straightforward: Be sincere; be brief; be seated (F.D.Roosevelt).  Never, ever go overtime. Audiences always appreciate an early finisher, and there are few things more annoying than someone who goes overtime. (more…)

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It’s time for another series – one that I promised quite a while ago. I’ve spent a lot of my life listening to scientists give talks in one form or another – four years of undergraduate lectures, a few weeks worth of conferences, a few hours a week in seminars and colloquia. I have long pondered this question:

Why are scientists, with precious few exceptions, such appalling public speakers?

(Thankfully, my fellow bloggers are some of the exceptions!)

At every public speaking course I’ve attended, the attendees have complained that the advice given was too obvious. And yet, as I think over all the public speaking “laws”, I can’t think of a single one that isn’t regularly broken by scientists in front of an audience. If you are a scientist (or even if you have sat through enough university lectures), how often have you witnessed:

  • Speakers talking too quickly, too softly, and addressing their remarks to the front row
  • Monotone voices, and a single speed of delivery
  • No variety of content
  • Speakers who don’t emphasize the important points, and present a summary slide that would take 5 minutes to read
  • Talks that consist of a single, half-hour-long sentence, constructed by taking a normal talk and replacing all the full stops with “and”, “I mean” or “um”.
  • Mindless, nauseating, impenetrable, replaceable jargon
  • Half an hour of the back of the speakers head as he or she talks exclusively to the projector screen
  • Plots displayed: too small, too crowded, too briefly, in invisible colours, with lines too thin to see
  • Slides that look like an entire presentation has been swallowed and vomited back onto the screen
  • A speaker whose every word, tone, gesture, posture, expression and slide betray their complete indifference to their audience?

Why does it feel like a chore to attend a talk about astronomy when I’m an astronomer? I am constantly flabbergasted by the ability of speakers to make a subject in which I am intensely interested sound incredibly dull. In a profession where getting your work known in the community, sharing your ideas and generally making a name for yourself is of great importance, why do so many care so little about being interesting, concise, non-coma-inducing?

The best way to learn is by example. Over the next few posts I’m going to look at five professions in which public speaking is held in high regard. They are: (more…)

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Today I’ll be looking at a paper on the fine-tuning of the universe by Professor Fred Adams. He is professor of physics at the University of Michigan, where his main field of research is astrophysical theory focusing on star formation, background radiation fields, and the early universe.

Fred Adams published a paper in 2008 entitled “Stars In Other Universes: Stellar structure with different fundamental constants”. The paper garnered some interest from the science blogosphere and popular science magazines. Here are the relevant parts of the abstract:

Motivated by the possible existence of other universes, with possible variations in the laws of physics, this paper explores the parameter space of fundamental constants that allows for the existence of stars. To make this problem tractable, we develop a semi-analytical stellar structure model. [We vary] the gravitational constant G, the fine structure constant $\latex alpha$, and a composite parameter C that determines nuclear reaction rates. Our main finding is that a sizable fraction of the parameter space (roughly one fourth) provides the values necessary for stellar objects to operate through sustained nuclear fusion. As a result, the set of parameters necessary to support stars are not particularly rare.


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