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December 13 2012

Science Podcast - Pheromone attraction, insect diversity, smart rocks, and more (14 Dec 2012)

Spatial learning with help from pheromones, counting insects in a forest, making smarter rocks, and more...

July 30 2012

Brunel's Great Western railway given preservation head of steam

English Heritage lists or upgrades status of dozens of bridges, tunnels and other structures along 'god's wonderful railway'

Dozens of bridges, tunnels, viaducts and station buildings that were part of the original Great Western railway are being listed or upgraded to ensure their preservation.

Begun in 1836 and dubbed "god's wonderful railway", the structures are testament to the genius of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Victorian engineer who Kenneth Brannagh played in the Olympic opening ceremony on Friday.

One of the newly listed structures is Box tunnel in Wiltshire which was, according to railway legend, deliberately aligned by Brunel so the rising sun would shine through it every year on 9 April, his birthday. In the 20th century the tunnel was linked by secret lines and tunnels to a complex of military stores and shelters, burrowed into a hill already honeycombed with old quarry works.

The line, which brought trains thundering across England, from London to Bristol and later on into Wales – originally on the huge wheels of Brunel's broad gauge which gave a smoother ride but was more expensive and was eventually abandoned – was regarded as a marvel from the start. Brunel, typically, had a hand in everything from surveying the route to designing decorative ironwork for the stations.

Turner's famous 1844 painting Rain, Steam and Speed shows a locomotive crossing the Thames over Brunel's Maidenhead bridge, which is believed to have the longest and flattest brick arches ever built, and is being upgraded to the highest Grade I, an honour shared by only 5% of listed buildings.

The portals to other tunnels – as grand as entrances to mansions or the Roman arches Brunel sometimes consciously evoked – Fox's Wood, Saltford, Chipping Sodbury and the Severn tunnel are also being listed. So are the ventilation shafts at Chipping Sodbury – essential in the age of steam in a two-and-a-half-mile tunnel, and topped with battlements to make them look prettier from the nearby Badminton estate.

The modest footbridge at Sydney Gardens in Bath, recently identified as the last of Brunel's cast-iron bridges on the railway, is upgraded to Grade II*, along with the tunnel portals at St Anne's in Bristol and the Twerton Wood near Bath.

"It is just such a masterpiece by the mighty Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a railway project of international importance," said Emily Gee, head of listing at English Heritage. "It is highly engineered, and yet he maintains such a respect for the landscape and history of the places he takes it to."

The heritage minister, John Penrose, said: "Our railways and the historic buildings that go along with them are a wonderful and emotive part of our national heritage, symbolising for many of us a sense of romance, history and adventure. And nowhere more so, perhaps, than on the Great Western railway."

The listings and upgrades of one station – the modest stone building on the island platform at Swindon – four viaducts 12 tunnel structures and 26 bridges including the wonderfully named triple arched Silly bridge in Oxfordshire, almost double the number of listed structures on the line. Railway history enthusiasts hope the entire Great Western railway will eventually become a world heritage site, but so far the government has not formally proposed it to Unesco.

Those listed were chosen from more than 500 buildings and structures considered in extensive consultations between English Heritage, Network Rail, local authorities and railway and engineering history groups. The decision was taken against listing three stations, Maidenhead, Taplow and Newbury, and four bridges because they have been extensively altered or rebuilt.


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May 30 2012

Which is easier to tune, humans or machines?

In this new Velocity Podcast, I had a conversation with Kate Matsudaira (@katemats), Vice President of Engineering at Decide.com. This conversation centers mostly on the human side of engineering and performance. Kate has some great insights into building an environment for human performance that goes along with your quest for more performant, reliable, scalable, tolerant, secure web properties.

Our conversation lasted 00:20:00 and if you want to pinpoint any particular topic, you can find the specific timing below. Kate provides some of her background and experience as well as what she is currently doing at Decide.com here. The full conversation is outlined below.


  • Which is easier to tune for performance, humans or machines? 00:00:30

  • To achieve better performance from people, how do you teach people to trade-off the variables time, cost, quality and scope? 00:02:32

  • What do you look for when you hire engineers that will work on highly performant web properties? 00:05:06

  • In this talent-surplus economy, do you find it more difficult to hire engineers? 00:07:10

  • How do you demonstrate DevOps and Performance engineering value to an organization? 00:08:36

  • How does one go about monitoring everything and not slow down your web properties with monitoring everything? 00:12:56

  • Does continuous improvement help deliver performant properties? 00:15:14

If you would like to hear Kate speak on "Leveling up - Taking your operations and engineering role to the next level," she is presenting at the 2012 Velocity Conference in Santa Clara, Calif. on Wednesday 6/27/12 at 1:00 pm. We hope to see you there.


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March 28 2012

How to get the most from your 60p first-class stamp – video

London's Science Museum provides some ingenious tips on how to put that pricey first-class stamp to work

With the announcement yesterday that the cost of a first-class stamp will soar to 60p at the end of the month – the biggest price rise for 37 years – Britons will need to think hard to squeeze the maximum value for money from every item they put in the post. To achieve the necessary efficiency savings, every letter, every package, every postcard, will have to do more work.

Inspiration is at hand in this wonderful educational video from London's Science Museum.

Whistling the theme tune from Postman Pat, a Royal Mail worker pushes a package through a letterbox on an industrial estate, triggering a seemingly endless train of energy transfers that starts with the sun and a magnifying glass lighting a fuse and finishes with a tank crushing a mechanical toy dog.

Along the way, potential energy is converted to kinetic energy and back again in a sequence worthy of Wallace and Gromit. There are nine glorious minutes of foaming, sawing, burning and floating, with each manifestation of energy transfer leading to the next. Eggs are broken, a venus flytrap snaps shut, a rocket rises into the air and hot tea melts through what appears to be a chocolate teacup.

And all for the price of a first-class stamp.

Our thanks to the ingenious people at Engineered Arts Ltd for this wonderful video, and to Guardian multimedia editor Jon Dennis for spotting it on the museum's website.


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November 07 2011

Design and invention can power us out of recession | James Dyson

To tackle our biggest problems, we need to inspire bright young people to develop ideas – as the James Dyson Award shows

Nature or nurture? Inventiveness relies on both. A vibrant economy built on the export of new technology must have inventive companies and institutions at its heart, but also encourage the people who develop the ideas; we need more engineers. Ideas create wealth, and the intellectual property they develop not only improves lives, but will also power us out of recession.

The world buzzes with talk of microchips, touch screens and processors; but clever, tangible design and engineering are often forgotten. We face challenges of epic proportion – global warming, energy shortages, growing populations. Engineers can develop the solutions that ease them. I'm dizzy hearing about the Silicon Roundabout; hi-tech should not be confined to the digital world – our biggest problems require a response grounded not in the cloud but in tangible form. The allure of digital should not distract us from the bigger challenges.

Apple is an example of the required balance – it combines the digital with the functional. Microchips still require expert materials and precise assembly; Apple still develops ideas and manufactures the well designed hardware.

As we rebalance our economy away from the City towards making things, we must rediscover our inventiveness. The government should not pick winners (a dangerous pastime), but focus on investment in ideas, robust education fostering academic as well as practical skills, and a culture in which inventiveness is encouraged.

Inventive companies must keep inventing, creating jobs in research and development and exporting the resulting technology. George Osborne set the tone in his "budget for making things" – rising exports of hi-tech goods are imperative. Increases in the research and development tax credit, bolstering the enterprise investments scheme and measures for the patent box show he can see the value of inventiveness, and is challenging business to do the same.

But inventiveness depends on inspiring bright young people to develop ideas and use their intelligence in a productive way, like making something work better. Unfortunately, there are not enough young people taking up the challenge in Britain. In 2007 just 6.2% of British graduates read engineering, compared to 12.8% in Germany and 40% in Singapore.

These choices begin at school – with subjects like design and technology. This is practical and creative, but is at risk of being removed from the national curriculum by the government. To be a technology powerhouse we must strengthen our practical education, and combine it more closely with rigorous subjects such as science and maths.

We must direct more young people towards careers in engineering through these subjects – encouraging their natural inventiveness. Too often the education system stifles them. Unlike Edison, they aren't allowed to fail, and then learn from that failure. Engineering is a worthwhile career. But it's no surprise that in the UK the top career choice for girls aged seven to 16 is hairdresser or beautician, while only 1% wanted to work in science and engineering. Scientists and engineers are perceived to be "geeks"; this intelligence isn't revered and it's seen as odd.

Education can encourage engineers, and the government can help business – but to bring it all together we need a culture that celebrates design and invention. Grand schemes like the HS2 project and the proposed airport for the Thames estuary go a long way towards showing young people what is possible. The projects themselves are not the crux of the matter. It's what they represent – large-scale endeavours to help the economy, encourage employment and drive invention.

Over the past six months, my foundation has been challenging young people in 18 countries to develop problem-solving inventions for the James Dyson Award – and on Wednesday we will announce the winner. They have responded with a host of ingenious solutions: from a mop bucket that only dispenses clean water (why do we clean our floors with the same dirty water?) to a device that extracts water from thin air, overcoming the problem of droughts destroying crops (a growing problem as a result of global warming and population growth).

The ideas are inspiring and are a startling sign that ingenuity is alive and well. We will know the winner later, but the important lesson Britain can take from it, even on this scale, is that we face stiff competition – not just in the James Dyson Award, but in the global economy too. Our competitors have good ideas and the talented young people to develop them. We must not become complacent.


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September 26 2011

Four short links: 26 September 2011

  1. BERG London Week 328 -- we're a design company, with a design culture built over 6 years, yet we're having to cultivate a new engineering culture that sits within it and alongside it, and the two have different crystal grains. It's good that they do—engineering through a design process can feel harried and for some projects that does not lead to good outcomes. And vice versa. But it throws up all kinds of questions for me: do we really want two domains of engineering and design; what is the common protocol—the common language—of engineering culture, and indeed of our design culture; how do these lattices touch and interact where they meet; how do we go from an unthought process to one chosen deliberately; how is change (the group understanding of, and agreement with a common language) to be brought about, and what will it feel like as it happens. I think more and more businesses will have to explicitly confront the challenge of reconciling design with engineering, novelty with constancy, innovation with repetition. Science is doing something once in a way that others might able to reproduce, however long it takes. Business is doing it the same way a million times, as fast as possible.
  2. Why We Love The Things We Build -- psychological research to look at people valuing the things they build. Lots of interesting findings: participants thought others would value their origami creations highly, despite assigning little value to the amateur creations of others and incomplete items were not valued as highly as completed items. (via BoingBoing)
  3. Gut Flora Social Network (New Scientist) -- although there's real science behind it, I think it's mostly a callous play to get web journalists to say "this social network is a bit shit". (via Dave Moskowitz)
  4. The Unintended Consequences of Cyberbullying Rhetoric (danah boyd) -- actual research on bullying and cyberbullying, indicating that those involved in cyberbullying don't think of what they're involved in as bullying, because that implies power relationships they don't want to acknowledge. Instead it's all part of the "drama" of high-school.

September 08 2011

The boffins and the luvvies

Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, generated headlines in the United Kingdom recently for what one major paper there called his "devastating critique" of the English education system.

His remarks came in the course of delivering the prestigious MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. While he aimed for the most part at reassuring the high-level executives in his audience that they have nothing to fear from the coming merger of the Internet with TV, Schmidt also made a point of chastising British schools for inadequately promoting technological literacy.

English scientists have invented three of the most powerful technologies the world has ever seen, Schmidt said — photography, television, and computers — yet England has failed to maintain global leadership in any of those fields. A principle reason for that failure, he said, has been "a drift to the humanities" in the curricula of British schools. The nation lacked the expertise required to capitalize on its innovations because engineering and science education hadn't been "championed."

Schmidt added that over the past century the United Kingdom had stopped nurturing its "polymaths," meaning individuals who can successfully span the gap between science and art. The result is a distinct and hostile split among young people who position themselves on either side of that gap, and who refer unflatteringly to one another, Schmidt said he's learned, as "boffins" and "luvvies," respectively.

Given that the attention of computer executives is directed relentlessly forward, Schmidt may not have realized that he was echoing with remarkable fealty the language and logic of a debate that has been repeatedly engaged on British soil literally since the onset of the Scientific Revolution, and that has continued among American educators for more than a century.

When Francis Bacon proposed his famed scientific method in 1620 he did so with a specific agenda: to replace what he saw as the fruitless musings of the Greek philosophers with experimentation that would produce knowledge of practical use to humankind. The ancient philosophers, Bacon wrote, were "prone to talking, and incapable of generation, their wisdom being loquacious and unproductive of effects."

Bacon's call for practical science was soon taken up by a host of followers, but it was also resisted by those who felt the classic philosophers remained the fonts of true wisdom. This became known as the debate between the Ancients and the Moderns. The standard argument of the Ancients was that the Moderns could only see as far as they did because they stood "on the shoulders of giants." The Ancients also shared the conviction of their heroes that the products of techné would always threaten to become ends in themselves, overwhelming the pursuit of virtue. Among those who took up the Ancients' cause was Jonathan Swift, light-heartedly in "The Battle of the Books," more mordantly in "Gulliver's Travels."

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Despite the success of the scientific method, the ancient philosophers remained the mainstays of traditional pedagogy during the ensuing two centuries. The assault on that tradition was renewed as the Industrial Revolution flowered, notably in an 1880 lecture by Thomas Henry Huxley. Known as "Darwin's Bulldog" for his aggressive defense of evolutionary theory against its religious opponents, Huxley spoke on the occasion of the opening of Mason Science College in Birmingham, one of the first institutions of higher learning in England where the study of the natural sciences was explicitly given priority over study of the humanities. Huxley favored that shift enthusiastically. "For I hold very strongly by two convictions," he said. "The first is, that neither the discipline nor the subject-matter of classical education is of such direct value to the student of physical science as to justify the expenditure of valuable time upon either; and the second is, that for the purpose of attaining real culture, an exclusively scientific education is at least as effectual as an exclusively literary education."

The poet Matthew Arnold rose to the defense of the classics in an address at Cambridge University two years later. Huxley was mistaken, Arnold said, if he believed that educational tradition necessarily excluded the teaching of natural science. Well-educated persons will be conversant with the science of Newton as well as the philosophy of Plato — they will be, in other words, polymaths. Arnold insisted nonetheless that most people simply aren't interested in the minutia of scientific processes. What most of us hunger for, he said, is to understand beauty, meaning, and right relationship with other human beings. These were subjects in which the classic philosophers had no peers.

The most obvious predecessor to Eric Schmidt's remarks was C. P. Snow's famous "Two Cultures" speech in 1959, also delivered at Cambridge University. Snow, a physicist turned novelist, mourned the fact that "a gulf of mutual incomprehension" had developed between the world of literature and the world of science. "Thirty years ago," Snow said, "the cultures had long ceased to speak to each other: but at least they managed a kind of frozen smile across the gulf. Now the politeness has gone and they just make faces."

Snow went on to attack his literary friends for their insularity, much as Bacon had attacked the ancient Greeks for theirs. Scientists were constantly searching for discoveries that would alleviate suffering in the world, Snow said, paving the way for a brighter future. Literary types, by contrast, acted as if they "wished the future did not exist."

Although Schmidt in his speech urged the nurturance of polymaths, it was clear that he was most concerned about the science side of the equation. He mentioned with approval President Obama's proposal last June for a stimulus program that would train 10,000 new American engineers annually. For the United Kingdom's economy to thrive in the digital future, Schmidt said, its schools need to "reignite" students' interest in science and math, just as its businesses need to hire engineers at all levels, including the very top. Google has followed that policy and prospered.

Few noticed a telling moment in Schmidt's talk that — unintentionally, I'm sure — put a somewhat different spin on that message. It came just after he'd been introduced, when he departed from his written script to mention the news of Steve Jobs' resignation. What he said may have confused his audience, since he referred to a section of his speech he hadn't yet delivered, the section in which he talked about the need to nurture polymaths who could bridge the gap between art and science. Jobs, Schmidt said, "was the only person I've ever known who has been able to actually merge the two worlds completely, with an artist's eye as well as the definition of what great engineering is ... From my perspective that's the perfect example of the kind of union we should see in the future in other companies and other collaborations."

Schmidt, who holds a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering and a masters and Ph.D in computer science, didn't mention that Jobs had hardly followed a boffins' standard career path, having dropped out of one of America's most artsy liberal arts colleges to seek enlightenment in India. The moment was telling because it provoked an unavoidable comparison between Schmidt's workmanlike presentation in Edinburgh and the fabled charisma of Jobs, and also between the creative imagination that Jobs brought to Apple's products and the incredibly powerful but ultimately mechanical algorithms that drive the Google juggernaut.

Schmidt's description of Jobs as the only person he'd ever known who completely merged the worlds of technology and art testifies to the difficulty of achieving such a merger. This is not to say that creativity doesn't exist at every level of technical enterprise. Technology is art — sometimes good, sometimes not so good — just as art is technique. And of course the argument can be made that technology advances rather than retards the humanities in countless ways.

Nonetheless, the tension between what Hannah Arendt described as the vita activa and the vita contemplativa is a constant in our personal as well our professional lives. Like Schmidt, we long for a harmonious mixture of the two. The evidence over the centuries suggests the struggle will be ongoing.

Schmidt's full MacTaggart lecture is available in the following video. His aside about Steve Jobs begins at the 9:11 mark. His critique of the UK education system begins at 41:49.

Associated illustration on home and category pages: Science clip art by Vintage Collective, on Flickr

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July 06 2011

A chance to meet real live scientists | Royal Society Summer Science Live

The Royal Society's Summer Science Live Exhibition deftly manages to combine fun with the opportunity to meet scientists and chat about their work

I'm staring at the exhibit list: "Improved Pump" (boring), "Large Map" (even more boring), "Barometers" (ok, vaguely interesting). Not exactly what I was expecting from the Royal Society's 2011 Summer Science Live Exhibition. Thankfully, I'm looking at the wrong poster. The no doubt thrilling "Large Map" exhibit was part of the Royal Society's 1863 Exhibition. Instead when I arrive I'm greeted, not by a large map, but by a medium-sized scientist. He's wearing a synthetic skull cap adorned with electrodes, conductive jelly oozing from his scalp.

And this is what Science Live is really about: meeting the scientists and seeing their research in action. The team from the UCL Ear Institute quickly explain how they use electroencephalography (EEG) to detect electrical activity in the brain. The EEG allows them to measure a patient's response to auditory stimuli, such as the word "dog", amid background noise.

"Live" is the name of the game and, sure enough, I look up at a real-time EEG readout. It twitches up and down as the skullcap-wearing scientist cheerfully explains the purpose of the research. By measuring responses under different conditions, the team can help improve the positioning of cochlear implants and assess hearing difficulties in children too young to talk.

But something else has caught my eye. Across the room I can see a Scalextric track, complete with traffic lights, and can't resist. I wander over and ask the team from the University of Southampton about their research. Like a schoolboy, I'm trying to be polite as they explain "one of the most interesting problems in engineering": how to control traffic lights. I just want a go on the Scalextric.

At last I've got the controller in my hand. I'm the bright orange Nissan 350Z. Dr Simon Box is the white Ford Focus (gutted). We start zipping round the track and, joy of joys, the traffic lights change from red to green as we approach the first junction. Dr Box explains how a computer controls the lights to optimise traffic flow, even dealing with conflicts such as two cars approaching from different angles. Apparently this technology is already out there (given my experience with traffic lights I'm dubious) and, in the future, they hope to implement yet more sophisticated algorithms for controlling the flow of traffic.

Dr Box even convinces me that variable speed limits are a good idea. Still, I can't let him win me over entirely ... I ask if understanding the maths behind traffic jams is any consolation when he gets stuck on the M25? No, thought not.

Science Live isn't all non-stop fun (unless you spend all day on the Scalextric). These are real scientists presenting some of their latest research. Like some warped version of an 18th century cabinet of curiosities, the scientists are as much a part of the exhibition as the experiments. To that end, I make a beeline for the Interpreting Climate Predictions stand. Eager to hear something juicy, I ask Dr David Stainforth to give me his take on models of climate change. The response: "We know they are all wrong".

I splutter, fumbling for my notepad. What a scoop! A climate change denier at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition?

Of course not. Dr Stainforth goes on to make clear that climate change is real and that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to reduce its impact. His point is that, while all models predict an increase in mean global temperature, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the specifics. For instance, if atmospheric CO2 doubles, how high should I build my seawall in Brighton, as opposed to Great Yarmouth? If atmospheric CO2 triples, will I see mass migration from London to Madrid, or the other way around?

At this point I imagine George Monbiot, standing in the corner, nodding vigorously, or perhaps shaking his head in contempt. Either way, while Science Live is obviously entertaining, it is also a showcase for "open science". It's certainly refreshing to discuss the challenges of interpreting climate data with real scientists (a far cry from the University of East Anglia freedom of information debacle).

By the end of the day I've captured a (Beany Baby) fruit bat in the library and tried my hand at spotting bombs in an x-ray machine. But it's the scientists who are the real stars of the show. You can do the experiments and then chat with them.

Children in particular shouldn't be afraid to question conclusions and offer alternatives. Science Live is a great platform for the researchers of the future to learn this.


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November 14 2010

My bright idea: Innovation is born when art meets science

The technology and design guru argues that for invention to occur, scientists must embrace the art world

A graphic designer and computer scientist, known for his work on the online computer game Second Life, as well as the author of bestselling self-help book The Laws of Simplicity, John Maeda has made great use of dual educations at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and art school. Drawing from his experiences in these two disciplines, the 44-year-old has come to believe that too stark a distinction is drawn between science and the arts. It is Maeda's conviction that scientists need art and artists in their professional lives in order to invent and innovate successfully, and with a particular focus on education he has toured the world to promote the idea that government-approved "Stem" subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths) should be widened to include art; "turning Stem into Steam," as he puts it. This week Maeda, who is president of the Rhode Island School of Design, will expound on these ideas at an experimental installation at London's Riflemaker gallery, where he will "dispense wisdom from a sandpit". See Riflemaker.org for more on this eccentric project.

Why does science need artists?

We seem to forget that innovation doesn't just come from equations or new kinds of chemicals, it comes from a human place. Innovation in the sciences is always linked in some way, either directly or indirectly, to a human experience. And human experiences happen through engaging with the arts – listening to music, say, or seeing a piece of art.

So to help them become more humanist, you'd parachute artists and musicians into laboratories?

Which already happens to some degree with artist-in-residence programmes in scientific labs. They're usually very small, but these programmes are seen as quite desirable by scientists. Because all scientists are humans, and they are humanists inside, and by bringing that part out, innovation happens more naturally.

Can you think of an example where an injection of the arts has helped the sciences?

I recently saw something in Time magazine, a famous Nobel laureate chemist making molecular models out of clay. It shows how these more fluid, abstract materials traditionally belonging to the artist lend themselves better to ways of thinking about the world, as opposed to some kind of ball-and-stick model that shows a constrained view. Art helps you see things in a less constrained space. Our economy is built upon convergent thinkers, people that execute things, get them done. But artists and designers are divergent thinkers: they expand the horizon of possibilities. Superior innovation comes from bringing divergents (the artists and designers) and convergents (science and engineering) together.

Such as?

Look at Apple's iPod. A perfect example of technology – an MP3 player – that existed for a long time but that nobody ever wanted, until design made it something desirable, useful, integrated into your lifestyle. Look at the success of Mint.com [a colourful money-management website] which has recently been sold. It's an app in which 80% of the experience is what you see, how you touch it. Not the technology. I'm also interested in how art and design links into leadership. Because leaders now are facing a very chaotic landscape, things are no longer black and white, things are harder to predict. What better mindset to adopt than the artist's, who is very used to living in an ambiguous space? Real innovation doesn't just come from technology, it comes from places like art and design.

George Osborne recently announced protection in the higher-education cuts for the so-called Stem subjects, but not the arts. Is this blinkered?

You know, it's easy for politicians to look at the measurability of a science and maths education. I mean, fill out 100 questions, you get 100 right or 50 right or zero right, it's easy to measure. There's no test that can give you a score from zero to 100 on the question, "Is this student a good writer?" And society's so focused on measurement. It's awkward and sad. Singapore or Japan are highly known test-taking countries focused on science and engineering, yet are desperate to find innovation. And where are they looking? They're looking to the west for new ideas. It's kind of like a dog chasing after its tail a little bit – this weeding out of the idea that expression, something that exists in the intuition space, can matter. I mean, it's ironic that the people who talk about these kind of things [cuts to the arts] are all counting on things to carry their message – like images, the written word – as givens.

Do you think that scientists tend to lack humanity?

Scientists would say otherwise. But scientists strive to be pure, to live in what's called a "concept space". And by doing so they tend to move away from the core humanist principles that actually put those two arms and legs on them in the first place. The best scientists that I've met are those that are humanists and scientists at the same time.


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March 09 2010

Wheel deal

Despite its wobbly beginnings, the capital's giant ferris wheel has become a much-loved symbol of London. And even urban sprawl seems beautiful from the top

Tony Blair officially opened the London Eye on 31 December 1999. But it was only after a number of technical glitches had been sorted out that the public was finally allowed aboard in March 2000 – 10 years ago this week. Since then, well over 30 million people have taken the vertiginous but breathtaking half-hour journey, in air-conditioned capsules, up and around what was, until two years ago, the world's biggest ferris wheel. That honour now belongs to the Singapore Flyer; with a height of 165 metres, it outranks the London Eye by a full 30 metres. But, while the Flyer looks like a gigantic version of a 19th-century original (the first of the breed, designed by George Washington Ferris, began revolving at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago), the London Eye is a fighter jet to Singapore's biplane. The Eye has since become as much a part of tourist London as Westminster Abbey, the Tower and Big Ben; a friendly curiosity, an urban eye-catcher, and an engineering wonder to compare with the Eiffel Tower.

When it was first announced, though, it was hard not to think that the London Eye was going to be some sort of Victorian throwback, an enormous music hall-era fun-fair ride among London's new wave of challenging millennium monuments– Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge and the Millennium Dome itself. At the time of its opening, the joke went that the Eye was a perfect symbol of contemporary British political culture, going around and around uselessly and getting nowhere in the process.

When, however, the design by the architects Marks Barfield was unveiled, most doubts were cast aside. The husband-and-wife team had come up with a striking and rather beautiful hi-tech big wheel. It wasn't just the high-spec design that drew attention, it was the bravura manner in which the Eye's prefabricated components were brought up the Thames on river barges to Jubilee Gardens, and the week-long drama during which, inch by inch, the giant wheel was raised from the river and up into place alongside County Hall. Now, every view in and through Westminster, and along the Thames, was changed. Suddenly, this spidery and beautifully resolved ferris wheel crowned Victorian terraces, filled unexpected views along avenues of plane trees and sat like a tiara atop government offices.

Perhaps its best aspect is that it also offers awe-inspiring and uninterrupted views over London. From up top on a clear day, the entire city can be peered down upon and encompassed. The patterns of London's growth can be seen spreading into subtopia and the green belt like rings marking the age of venerable trees. Rides on the Eye in rain, snow or at night offer their own haunting attractions.

Of London's deafeningly trumpeted rival millennium projects, the Eye has been, perhaps, the most endearing. The Dome was undermined by the unforgivably crass and soulless Millennium Experience exhibition of 2000; it was many years before it redeemed itself as today's O2 music venue. The Millennium Bridge linking Tate Modern and St Paul's Cathedral wobbled, and it was some while before its virtues could be discerned. Tate Modern became almost too popular for its own good, a heaving cultural souk – acutely in need of its planned extension – where art can occasionally be seen between massed heads and shoulders. Other millennium projects, such as the refurbishment of the Royal Opera House, were fine things, yet tame in terms of fresh design.

The London Eye was always a brave and daring adventure, a throwback to 1951's Festival of Britain, held on the same site – an era when Britain could still claim to lead the world (just) in supersonic-era design and engineering. It looks to the past as well as the future.


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February 11 2008

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