Archive for November, 2014

Of Pahoa, pahoehoe and people

By Steven Miller, on 23 November 2014


Senior scientists often (used to?) say that, when talking to their fellow citizens about matters scientific, the public need facts, certainties, and anything to do with uncertainty should be kept well away from them. More nuanced takes on science communication aver that what people really need to know about is how science really works, and that involves notions that scientists are people just like them, with their various falibilities, their doubts and their uncertainties.

I’ve felt for a long time that genuine science communication had to adopt a much more intermediate and pragmatic approach: citizens do look to scientists to give them facts and reliable information – otherwise what is the point of paying them a salary, often from the public purse; but they can cope with the ideas of uncertainty and the limits to existing knowledge and what is knowable without going into a blind panic. Until now, however, I had not really seen it work in practice quite like that.

Whilst the rest of the USA is preparing for Thanksgiving Day (Thursday, November 26, this year), the little town of Pahoa on the Big Island of Hawai’i is wondering just how many Thanksgivings they have to come – including this one.

Hawai’i is an active volcano, and the Pu’u O’O vent on the eastern flank of Mauna Loa has been steadily pouring lava downslope into the sea for decades. Normally the lava flows east or south-east. But on June 27 this year, the flow turned dangerously north-eastward, toward Pahoa. And it has been heading for the town ever since.

The lava approaching Pahoa is known as pahoehoe. It is a smooth, sticky lava that generally flows slowly downslope. This is in contrast with the explosive pyroclastic flows of the sort that engulfed Pompeii in 79AD, which move so fast no one has a chance to get out of the way.

The main flow cut through Cemetery Road on the outskirts of town some time ago, burned down its first house earlier this month, surrounded the $3 million-plus, state-of-the-art, Waste Transfer Station, and is now stalled just short of the main road through the town centre. Given the relentless approach of the lava, one might imagine the townspeople to be giving a pretty good impression of Corporal Jones and Private Frazer in “Dad’s Army”. No.

Local citizens have been getting together with scientists from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) on a weekly basis since August 24 this year. I went to the meeting on November 20 along with some 300 Pahoa inhabitants – about half of the adult population. The update from the USGS started with a quiz about the three factors controlling lava flow – what is happening at the summit of Pu’u O’o, what is happening with the lava tube that carries the lava down towards the town, and the nature of the terrain over which the lava finally pours when it emerges from the tube.

November 20’s update was that although Pu’u O’o was producing about one third more lava than it had been two weeks ago, a break-out near the crater summit had robbed the lava tube of its lava and led to surface flows far upslope from the town. The terrain there was tending to take that lava away from Pahoa. But – and here the USGS were very clear – the future was highly unpredictable. Would the lava tube refill, leading to flows resuming towards the town? Not sure. If so, how soon would the flow nearest the town restart? Not sure.

The approach of the local USGS scientists as well as public bodies such as the health and rescue services, the National Guard, and the Mayor’s office has been to let local citizens know what they know and tell them what they do not know. Locals are also encouraged to use their own eyes, ears and – given the various smells of sulphur dioxide and burning that accompany the lava wherever it goes – noses. Representatives of the various relief bodies mix freely with the Pahoans to discuss, listen to eye-witness accounts and answer the questions that their expertise is best suited to answer.

Schoolchildren who have been forced to move school because of the poor air quality are to be among the first to be taken to see the main flow itself, when the situation is deemed safe enough to do so. That way they can appreciate at first hand why their island home makes so many demands on those who live there.

The result is that the people are generally well informed and, at the same time, feel involved with, and even in control of, their situation, insofar as anyone living with an active volcano can feel in control. Any Corporal Joneses have learned that “don’t panic” means just that. Any Private Frazers have been reassured that, whilst we are all ultimately “doomed, doomed”, it is “just not quite yet”.

In the meantime, Pahoa residents are also preparing for Thanksgiving. As Mayor Billy Kenoi said: “We just want some normalcy here.”

The Imitation Game

By Jon Agar, on 20 November 2014

The Imitation Game is film about the life of Alan Turing, ‘based on real events’ and taking as its main source Andrew Hodges’s biography, The Enigma of Intelligence. It is mostly set at the Government Code and Cypher School, also known as Bletchley Park. It was there that Turing, and many others, gathered to attack German coded messages.
The cultural interest in Bletchley Park has several motivations. There is the tragic story of Turing himself. Most powerfully Turing’s life and work has become an icon and rallying point in LGBT politics. This interest has motivated the best historical work on Turing in the form of Hodges’ extraordinary biography. (Here’s my UCL LGBT history week public lecture on Turing, very much in praise of Hodges’ account.) Second, there is the attraction of the secret, compounded by the fact that a silence, partly officially but also partly self-imposed, around Bletchley Park activities lasted until the 1970s (not the ’50 years’ after 1945 claimed by the film). The subsequent rush of information, all the more emotionally-charged for having been pent up so long, has given Bletchley Park extraordinary prominence. Third, there is a narrative, inflected with nationalism, that celebrates Bletchley Park as a distinctively British contribution to the defeat of Nazism: it was by brain-power not brute production (undercutting claims that it Russian and American contributions that were decisive), it is presented as amateur (it was anything but), and it is nostalgic.
At Bletchley Park, the signals intelligence, collected by outlying stations was channelled, and made subject to cryptanalytical attack. The messages coded using the Enigma machines were subject to human and machine (‘bombe’) analysis. The messages encrypted using a cipher machine codenamed ‘Tunny’ were processed by Colossus, the extraordinary electronic valve-based symbol-manipulating machine designed and built by the General Post Office team under Thomas H. Flowers. The first Colossus was built in 1943. Ten Colossi were in operation by 1945.

We should remember that Bletchley Park was an industrial operation: large-scale, a focus on speed and flow, with innovation and mechanisation at reverse salients. I made this observation in The Government Machine (2003). Other historians agree. Aldrich writes of the wartime sigint sites: ‘All of them were symptomatic of an industrial revolution in secret intelligence: both Bletchley Park and the outstations operated like factories, with three gruelling shifts each day’. Copeland describes the ‘two vast steel-framed buildings’ that housed the Colossi as ‘a factory dedicated to breaking Tunny’.

The Imitation Game gives little sense of this scale of operations.

But most of the complaints about the film’s inaccuracies have focussed elsewhere. Alex von Tunzwelmann has written an ace (pun intended) take down of The Imitation Game in a Guardian blog piece. She says, rightly, that the film missteps in many ways: presenting the revelation of the death of schoolfriend/object of desire Christopher Morcom to Turing as cold and brutal; misrepresenting Turing’s honesty with Joan Clarke about his homosexuality; inventing that Turing called the Bombe and later machines ‘Christopher’; and, by placing the spy John Cairncross in Turing’s team, suggesting that Turing was suspected at Bletchley Park as a Soviet spy.

There are plenty of other factual errors, from the major (Turing did not build a replica Manchester Mark I computer in his home, let alone call it ‘Christopher’) to the minor (Hugh Alexander, cryptananalyst and chess champ, did not attack the Bombe with a spanner).

But, I asked on twitter, do the historical inaccuracies matter when the bigger dramatic points work?

So far everyone – @rmathematicus, @HPSGlonk, @JamesBSumner, @NicksFlickPicks and @alexvtunzelmann – has said ‘yes’.

I think ‘no’, for this reason. The Imitation Game, aside from tragedy, is a dramatisation of Hodges’ central argument, that the cause of Turing’s profound inquiry into the materialisation of mind was the trauma of Morcom’s death. The scenes with ‘Christopher’ the machine, however much invented, run with this insight and present it as a cinematic, not documentary, truth. It is present too in the final scenes – also fantasy – in which the conflicted police detective (played by Rory Kinnear) has Benedict Cumberbatch take the Turing Test, an imitation game in which the impossible bind of hiding or revealing homosexuality is equivalent to saying or not saying a mind can be a machine.

If that was the biggest point, then The Imitation Game, despite its inventions, dramatised it well.

GCSA at 50 – some thoughts

By Jon Agar, on 12 November 2014

I enjoyed speaking at the Royal Society/CSaP event last night on fifty years of the post of Government Chief Scientific Adviser. I don’t think I’ve ever been on such a daunting and illustrious panel – mine had Lisa Jardine, Sir Robin Nicholson (GCSA under Thatcher), Sir William Stewart (GCSA under John Major) and Lord Wilson (Richard Wilson, Cabinet Secretary under New Labour). The other panel was equally luminous: Jill Rutter (Institute of Government), Geoff Mulgan (NESTA, and another key New Labour figure), Robert May (ex-GCSA) and Mark Walport (the current GCSA, arriving just in time from a meeting on ebola).

I talked about the history of the GCSA from Solly Zuckerman (appointed 1964) to John Ashworth (who stepped down as Chief Scientist, CPRS in 1981). If you are interested in what I said, I’ve copied my notes below.

It would have been great to have longer time to hear more of the personal experiences of offering scientific advice to power. Nevertheless there were some great anecdotes, sound criticism and useful advice. Stewart, for example, told a story about Major’s encouragement to pitch for more money for science. Wilson made eyebrows rise when he recounted the demise of the chief scientific advisor for energy, Walter Marshall, when he, more or less independently, sold four PWR nuclear reactors to Iran. (I didn’t know this extraordinary episode, but a quick search shows that it appears in a modified form in Benn’s diaries.) Wilson also told us how he had to coach Hermann Bondi to not start drawing equations when he gave politicians advice.

I was also struck by the fact that reminisences can conflict with what we, as historians, know from documentary records. I have a collection of advice offered by Nicholson to Thatcher in the 1980s, recently released at the National Archives, that are quite incendiary and paint a very different picture from the slightly rosy memories that surfaced. It did make me wonder for a moment about the uses of memories as testimony. If you formed your view of the GCSA merely from recollections the picture would be very different from one reconstructed from historical documents. It is a sharp reminder that historical memory is political.

I was also struck by the character of Whitehall’s institutional memory. Sometimes this can be very deep – Walport, for example, said twice that we are still in confict between the vision of Northcote-Trevelyan (the two authors of the report on the civil service that established the generalist-specialist split, see my book The Government Machine for some consequences) and the failed reforms of Fulton (which tried to raise the status of specialists in the civil service). But elsewhere, it was clear that Whitehall can forget what it once knew. Lord Wilson recalled Margaret Thatcher’s astonishing 1988 speech on climate change as if this was the first entry of this issue. But in fact, as I have researched, three 1970s chief scientific advisers had given the issue attention, and by the end of the decade ministers knew.

Finally, as always happens, I had plenty of things to say which were not, because the discussion went in other directions. One of these was Zuckerman’s list (compiled by me from from various sources) of characters of the ideal GCSA. Here they are:

1) Offer up sensible, reasoned, dispassionate advice
2) Be independent of vested interests
3) Keep in touch (in civil service and in science)
4) Answer requests for information. CSAs play this role in departments
5) Anticipate information that will be needed, and therefore commission research if necessary
6) Sometimes (!) manage staff
7) Should not be excluded from key discussions (cf Tizard*)
8) Be personally trusted by Prime Minister
9) Be personally trusted by Cabinet Secretary
(1-7 from Royal Institution address, 1984; 8-9 from Dialogue I)

Also there was much more to say about the specific issues each GCSA encountered, and what their influence in each had been. It would be fun to compare the record of GCSAs against Roger Pielke, Jr.’s four different roles he suggests science advisers can take: pure scientist, issue advocate, science arbiter and honest broker. (James Wilsdon at SPRU might be already doing this as part of his interviews with past GCSAs.)

A good event, but perhaps the historical memories, as we should always do, are best read critically.

As promised, here’s my notes (I had seven minutes):


Between the Cherwell-Tizard period Lisa has talked about and the appointment of Robin Nicholson (on my left) in 1981, there were four men who can be considered Chief Scientific Advisors.
Solly Zuckerman was a South African-born zoologist who had conducted the gory but necessary work of investigating the effects of explosives on bodies as well as operational assessments of bombing during the Second World War. He had already performed specific, sometimes informal, advisory roles to parts of Government, before he was appointed Chief Scientific Advisor to the Ministry of Defence in 1960. From then on, “No one ever more completely stormed every bastion of the British establishment” said Roy Jenkins. Interestingly he insisted on a change of name from ‘Chief Scientist’ (‘inappropriate, he thought, for someone who knew little about “hardware”‘**) to Chief Scientific Advisor. Zuckerman repeatedly stressed the requirement of an adviser to challenge received opinions and intrenched interests. His views could be ‘heterodox’, rejecting battlefield nuclear weapons for example against the view of chiefs of staff. In 1964 Harold Wilson wanted to make Zuckerman a minister of state, leading on disarmament issues. Zuckerman declined. But his role as CSA for MoD was also soon untenable, perhaps because Denis Healey and Zuckerman never quite saw eye to eye. The role of GCSA was therefore created for him. He also, and he never tired of telling people, was made Head of the Scientific Civil Service, a managerial responsibility (albeit an empty title) for 10,000 people – larger than the body of 3,000 administrative civil servants.

Zuckerman retired in 1971, but he continued to chip in his views about science and government right up through the 1980s (indeed he retained rooms in the Cabinet Office). His style was to be the trusted consultant, the challenger of received views, and relied on good, wide, informal networking. He was, as Henry Tizard had predicted on hearing of Zuckerman’s appointment, been the ‘courtier’ GCSA.
The technocratic Heath government brought in the era of the Central Policy Review Staff, the “think tank”, assigned the general task of wide and deep critical review. It was also led by a scientist, Victor Rothschild. Therefore it was a moot point whether there should be another GCSA after Zuckerman. The Treasury were against. So was Burke Trend, the Cabinet Secretary, who smoothly said Zuckerman was “sui generis”. Zuckerman insisted. Alan Cottrell, like Zuckerman a defence science adviser, was appointed, albeit as Zuckerman noted at a rank ‘one pip lower than mine’. It was the CPRS – a team of talents – rather than the GCSA that mobilised specialist expertise for the guidance of government.
The down-grading continued with Robert Press, who succeeded Cottrell. Also from the world of defence, appointed unofficial caretaker CSA between 1974 and 1976. In 1981 Zuckerman would write to Robert Armstrong saying Press was ‘really a note-taker … kept on to deal with nuclear weapon matters’, ‘he merely became a mouthpiece of the Aldermaston interests’

By now Rothschild’s customer-contractor principle had supposedly framed science’s role in departments, and in consequence more departmental CSAs were in place so that departments could better understand the contracts they would place. The dramatic expansion of the departmental chief scientific advisers had been Cottrell’s suggestion to Rothschild, and he remembers it as a proud moment in his oral history recorded by the British Library (at 50.55)

So in 1975 there was considerable debate about what to do when Press too retired. Was there no need for a GCSA? The Prime Minister – Harold Wilson again – was asked whether he wanted the GCSA replaced, the staff dispersed, replaced with someone even lower in rank. Wilson’s view – and this speaks to the relative insignificance of the GCSA – was that the post could be usefully sacrificed to counter impressions of empire building around the Prime Minister. Indeed the CPRS was enough. Word leaked out. There was a concerted campaign from MPs on the science select committee, Royal Society and Tam Dalyell. Stung, Wilson offered an avowedly cosmetic change. The new man, John Ashworth, could be called Chief Scientist, CPRS.

The authorised biography of Thatcher by Charles Moore records the following first meeting:

Thatcher: Who are you?

Ashworth: I am your chief scientist.

Thatcher: Oh. Do I need one of those?


Ashworth continued until 1981, when he was replaced by Robin Nicholson. But the whole issue of Chief Scientist was caught up in the bloody demise of the CPRS in 1983 at the hands of Margaret Thatcher. Again there was a transition point when everything was up for grabs. The Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology wanted a minister responsible for science and the CS CPRS turned into a GCSA. Thatcher needed persuasion. She herself had rashly declared early on that she, as a scientist, could take care of science policy matters. Now her first preference was to consult a group of adviser, not a single person. Divide and conquer? Or belief that she had the scientific background to make sense of diverse advice? But Nicholson was politically in tune with Thatcher’s values.

Nicholson, as Chief Scientist CPRS now became Chief Scientist, Cabinet Office, a free-standing role that gives us, once an office is built around him, the current GCSA.


* Henry Tizard, a key character in the story of radar and the main science adviser in Attlee’s administration, was excluded from the decision to proceed with Britian’s independent atomic bomb, and, even though he was chair of the Defence Research Policy Committee, excluded from much nuclear discussions thereafter. Attlee’s decision was taken by a secret committtee, and was an extraordinary breach of normal Cabinet decision-making. Tizard’s exclusion had consequences for shaping post-war defence research, as this paper which I co-wrote with Brian Balmer explored.

** Solly Zuckerman, Monkeys, Men and Missiles: an Autobiography, 1946-88, London: Collins, 1988, p. 194.