Stray Thoughts

Things that tickle my fancy

Politicians could learn from Superbowl LI how to be more flexible

Op-ed submitted to Boston Globe after Patriots' Superbowl LI win. Pity they didn't take it, but here it is anyway. The message that it contains is rather important; like footballers, politicians need to adapt quickly to circumstances! When wide receiver Julian Edelman stuck out a hand and took that catch inches from the ground in Superbowl LI, he tipped the balance of the game dramatically. The Patriots had been flexible. They had changed ...

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My career in poetry

20th January 2017 I am stimulated to write this post by the news that the “celebrated American poet Joseph Charles McKenzie” has composed a poem to celebrate Donald Trump’s inauguration. The poem contains the immortal lines “With purpose and strength he came down from his tower To snatch from a tyrant his ill-gotten power.” Now I don’t know Mr. McKenzie, although I have no reason to think that he is not a real person. ...

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Awkward Objects

Posted on January 13, 2017

If ever I had combined my interest in science with that in mediaeval history, this wonderful-sounding conference, taking place in Helsinki this April (, would have provided the ideal vehicle. Its topic is “awkward objects” associated with the body; “including, but not limited to: undergarments; torture devices; codpieces;; ...

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Vale Leonard Cohen: that’s how it goes.

Posted on November 11, 2016

Leonard Cohen has died. Perhaps he should have received a Nobel Prize, or shared one with Bob Dylan, because he certainly produced some of the most memorable descriptions of the human condition to be found anywhere. The one that sticks in my mind is this: Everybody knows that the dice are loaded Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed Everybody knows the war is over Everybody knows the good guys lost Everybody knows the ...

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Rosetta and Bali: Coincidence or conspiracy?

Posted on November 2, 2016

Dateline: November 2nd, 2016. Staying on Bali, and idly glancing at the right-hand NASA topographic map of Bali from space, the similarity to the left-hand image of comet P67 taken from the Rosetta spacecraft suddenly struck me. Yes, I know that I have reflected NASA’s original published image of the comet about the vertical plane, but could it have not been reflected in the first place just to fool us? Are the published images of P67 ...

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IgNobel or Nobel – which has more value?

Posted on September 23, 2016

It may sound ridiculous to argue that a spoof IgNobel Prize could ever have more value than an actual Nobel. Of course, when it comes to real science, the Nobels are still the pinnacle. But perhaps, as I pointed out in this interview on the BBC World Service recorded on Sep 23, 2016, the IgNobels are actually more valuable when it comes to attracting attention to science and making it more accessible. Here is the interview (all 3 minutes of ...

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Are you over-exerting your brain?

In the days when I was an enthusiast for competition bridge, I read a book by the British writer Victor Mollo which featured a character called The Hideous Hog. One sentence from that book, describing the Hog’s excuse for making a mistake, has always stuck in my mind “Sorry, partner; that’s what comes of over-thinking.” Over-thinking can be a serious problem. The German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer (

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Rabelais in the modern world

Posted on August 11, 2016

Rabelais's rumbustious romp with the brief title  The Heroic Deeds of Gargantua and Pantagruel was written in the sixteenth century, with the first part being written in 1532. I am lucky enough to own a limited edition illustrated by the Australia artist Francis J. Broadhurst, and published in Australia just 420 years later. While most people know of the book only as a boisterous, bawdy extravaganza, it is in fact a devastating social ...

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What Nepal really needs to do about landslip disasters

July, 2016 After hearing a well-informed talk by the experienced Nepal road engineer Bleddyn Griffiths about his experience of the Nepal earthquake disaster, I suggested that we write a joint letter about both the science and the realities, which are linked in a more complex way than seismologists sometimes recognize. It was duly published in Geoscientist, the magazine for Fellows of the Royal Geological Society. Rather proud of this, really, ...

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Letter to “Times,” Thursday June 16 (2016), re food and Brexit.

Posted on June 16, 2016

At Theodore Zeldin's suggestion, supported and promoted by Paul Levy, here is a letter that I and 59 others signed, with food-related reasons for Britain to stay firmly in the EU. Sir, As people engaged in the food world, concerned about the cultural, nutritional and environmental effects of our food supply, and especially the quality of our diet, we urge Britons to vote to stay in the EU. Who would want this country to return to the time ...

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