Monthly Archives: January 2016

BAHFest London Big Science 2016

Yesterday, I gave a talk at BAHFest London Big Science 2016, held at Imperial College. BAHFest is the Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses Festival, which invites speakers to give talks on plausible-sounding but totally bogus scientific ideas. The theme of the show was Big Science: every speaker made a proposal for a Big Science collaboration project in the vein of projects like CERN or the Apollo Missions… except unlike those noble quests, the dumber the idea, the better at BAHFest!

The event itself was super fun. I got to hang out with the other speakers before and afterwards, and they were all super lovely. I got to meet maths-themed-comedian Matt Parker, Simon Singh (again!), Zach Weinersmith of SMBC comics fame, and Helen Arney from Festival of the Spoken Nerd, among others. Matt Parker and Simon Singh even signed their books for me:

The binary just says “Tom.”

And of course the night wouldn’t be complete without a selfie with fellow ginger Zach Weinersmith!

And finally, an invitation to step up my Twitter game:

Oh yeah, that happened!

I was mentioned in a book

So here’s something fun I found out today: in Simon Singh’s The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets, a collection of maths references in The Simpsons and Futurama, well, see for yourself:

Not bad, eh? Turns out this was in the 2013 edition of the book, so it’s been over two years and I’ve only just found out! How did I find out? Well…

simon singh

Not bad at all!

Oh yeah and did I mention I’m talking at BAHFest tomorrow?


I’ll tell all after the show!

The Existential Crisis of Loot Crate

If it’s not clear already, I’m a nerd. And usually I’m ok with that. But something’s been bugging me lately…

I like nerdy academic disciplines like science, maths, and computing. I do vector calculus just for fun. But I also invest a lot of my time in, and thoughts and Tweets on nerdy media. I love Star Wars. I think deeply about the impact of the new films on the Expanded Universe. I’ve seen and enjoyed basically every comic book adaptation from the last decade (except Gotham. Fuck Gotham), including every Marvel TV show and movie. I actively speculate over the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve got a Zelda-themed Wii U. I’m only barely scratching the surface. I’ve already subjected this blog to an epic two-part rant about Pokémon (pretending to wrap it up in science hahaha)… and, of course, I was chair of Imperial College’s Science Fiction Society.

What I’m trying to say is, “nerd” is a label I wear with pride. A large part of my own self-identity is invested in enjoyment and consuming of various “franchises.” I like to maintain the illusion that despite these properties being created, owned, and propagated by massive TNCs, somehow I have a personal connection to them. They were made for me to enjoy. I’ve been rewarded for my devotion to minutiae of Marvel comic book continuity by their adaptations on the big screen, etc. etc.

So what’s been bugging me? Loot Crate.

What’s Loot Crate? How it works is, you pay a monthly subscription fee (up to £20 a month), pick from one of a small number of pre-set options, and once a month Loot Crate delivers to you a box filled with what it describes as “awesome geek and gamer gear.” What kind of gear? Mostly, it’s figurines, toys, posters, t-shirts, mugs, and other, generic, kitschy paraphernalia that other people apparently have room in their not-hovels for.

Car Boot Crate: An example of the kinds of things they send out each month.

Now, to be clear, I’m not having a go at Loot Crate, its customers, or anything like that. If you get pleasure out of using this service, that’s awesome. Enjoy your cool stuff. I’m jealous. I also think it can be a great present for your nerdy friend or S.O. What bugs me is what the existence and success of this business says about me and my interests.

Think about it. For a random collection of kitschy items from dozens, if not hundreds, of entertainment franchises and brands, spanning film, TV, comics, video games, board games, books, and more, to be a successful business model, an assumption has to be made: every single fuckin’ nerd likes exactly the same shit.

Now, to. be. clear. although presented caustically, that fact alone isn’t intrinsically bad. I’m just making it sound bad because it feels bad to me. If it doesn’t to you, that’s fine! And remember “every single fuckin’ nerd” includes me! For reference, this is my room:

And that's only half of it!
And that’s only half of it!

The thing about it that bugs me is it makes me question my autonomy. I have a worldview in my head of me choosing carefully, and with love, every franchise I follow. I’d like to believe I don’t like The Legend of Zelda because everyone else does, I’d like to believe I like it because it’s a good series of games. It was worth investing time into, because in exchange I’ve received a lot of joy from it. I’d like to believe I’ve made a similar choice for Back to the Future, Batman, The Avengers, Futurama, and all of the other myriad franchises I can look at the dozens of posters in my room to remind myself of.

But if you can hand out goodies from basically any of the franchises I mentioned, and loads more, and still expect the person buying it to be pleased with it, enough to spend £20 a month, then that has to bring into question the degree of autonomy involved in choosing to follow a franchise, right? Why do I love Ghostbusters? Because it’s good, or because being part of the Nerd Club requires that I like it? You have to be willing to ask that to yourself.

I know on some level I’m just being silly. There’s a few good counterarguments. Firstly, not every franchise I see in the Loot Crates interests me. I have no interest in almost all anime, I don’t follow most major video game franchises like FalloutCall of Duty, Skyrim… and I actively hate horror movies. There’s a lottery aspect to it: you’re not guaranteed to get what you want in the crate. That’s part of the fun of opening it, I imagine. (I do think it wouldn’t work if most people weren’t interested in most of the things in the crate, though.)

Similarly, there’s lots of franchises I like that aren’t “mainstream” enough in the nerd community to ever be in the crate: my favourite TV show right now is Steven Universe, a cartoon on Cartoon Network. I’d be very surprised to see characters from that in a Loot Crate. Why do I like that show? Because it’s amazing. No one told me to like that. (I told my friends to like it, though!)

On some level, talking at all about stuff this nerdy being mainstream is still surreal to me, even though we’ve accepted the Marvel movies dominating the box office, Game of Thrones smashing the Home Box Office, and eSports beating football in TV ratings. Nerd is mainstream now. Sure, I “liked it before it was cool.” Sure, I remember getting teased in school for playing Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, but you don’t get a bloody medal for that! That’s not something that makes me special; none of these franchises are.

So where does that leave Loot Crate? I think the take-home message is take pride in being a “nerd,” but keep it in perspective; you’re not the only one!

Women in Science: Hedy Lamarr

No, really.

Hedwig “Hedy” Kiesler is best known for a long career as an actress in Hollywood’s Golden Age, going by the stage name Hedy Lamarr, and having appeared alongside the likes of Clark Gable and Judy Garland in films throughout the 1940s. At the time she was marketed as the “world’s most beautiful woman” by her talent scout. As far as I’m concerned, being an actor in Hollywood’s Golden Age counts as having an interesting life, but for Lamarr, it counts among the less interesting parts of her career.

Her background merits a brief mention before I get to the science. She was born to a Jewish family in Austria in 1914, but raised Catholic. At 19 years old she married a wealthy Austrian arms merchant, Friedrich Mandl, who was also an ardent fascist. She would later describe him as being very controlling, and it’s likely she was being generous with that description, given that she engineered an escape to Paris in 1937 to be free of him. From Paris, she moved on to Hollywood, where she began her aforementioned film career.

She had been interested in science since she was a child, and her interest grew when she was married to Mandl, who would take her to business meetings, which often involved military science. At the height of her acting career, during the war, she tinkered with a few inventions. She followed through on one of them, which ended up being important in the history of radio technology. Her invention was called Frequency-Hopping Spread Spectrum (FHSS) technology.

Technically she wasn’t the first to come up with the idea, but (as far as I can tell) it was her version of it which ended up in US Navy ships and submarines. That didn’t happen until the 1960s, however (after the patent expired). Despite patenting the invention in 1942, the Navy was a bit slow to respond. It was of vital importance to their ships by the Cuban Missile Crisis, though. An updated version of this technology exists in several civilian applications to this day, including GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi.

What the technology actually does is provide a way to transmit radio signals without fear of deliberate jamming by enemy forces. Lamarr had radio-controlled torpedoes in mind when she worked on it. Had her ideas been implemented during the war, it would’ve been well, pretty useful, I suppose.

So, radio waves are sinusoids, or sine waves:

Sine of the times: One period of the function sin(x)

They are oscillating excitations in electromagnetic fields, which radio transmitters can generate, and receivers can detect. Signals can be encoded in these oscillations in clever ways I won’t get into here. These oscillations/sine waves have a frequency associated with them. which is just how many oscillations happen per second. This is measured in Hertz (Hz). BBC Radio 1, for example, transmits at a frequency of about 98 MHz, or 98 million oscillations per second. All radio signals are transmitted and received at a certain frequency (technically in a small range of frequencies). This is the number you dial your radio to to receive a signal. (98 FM in the BBC case. FM is a description of how the information is encoded in the radio signal.)

The “frequency-hopping” part of the name of Lamarr’s invention comes from the fact that the radio transmitter (pseudo-)randomises which frequency it transmits its signal at, in a way pre-determined such that the target always knows which frequency to receive signals from. So, many times a second, the frequency you’re transmitting at will change. This is useful because if you’re transmitting at a certain frequency, that signal can be jammed by someone else with a strong radio transmitter transmitting at that frequency. You could overcome this by just blasting the same signal louder, or over a larger range, but both of these are expensive to do.

What FHSS means, as far as potential jammers are concerned, is that you are transmitting over a very wide range of frequencies. This means if someone wants to jam the signal, but doesn’t know the sequence of frequencies the source and target have agreed on, then they need to jam a very large range of frequencies in order to stop the signal. You, however only need to transmit over one frequency at a given time.

She didn’t contribute much to the scientific community, but what she did contribute was forgotten for a long time. It was only in the 1980s that her achievements were recognised, and in 1997 she received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award, along with her co-inventor George Antheil. She died three years later.

I suppose I should end with some sort of “don’t judge a book by its cover” spiel. Yes, she was amazingly beautiful, and yes, clearly she was a talented intellectual, so all of those lessons apply. She’s not even the only actress I know of with a scientific side: Natalie Portman isn’t just Queen of Naboo, she’s a published author in a Neurology journal. (Erdős number of 5!) But the more interesting side of Hedy Lamarr’s story, for me, is how she escaped a clearly abusive relationship, not to mention impending Nazi occupation, and built a better life for herself. And that life happened to include science, technology, and invention, alongside stardom.

The Past Year

If you’ll indulge me a little introspection…

The word “Blog” comes from “Web Log”. Blogs are meant to be a form of diary. But I haven’t been doing much logging of my life on this blog. I’ve mostly been talking about things that interest me. The reason for that is I’m usually quite a private person. With that said, I think I’ll take the opportunity afforded by the new year to push myself out of my comfort zone for one post: a look back on 2015. So, y’know, this will get pretty personal.

2015 was, overall, not the best year for me. For the most part it was hovering around alright, and for one week it bumped up to excellent, but the low points really drag the rest of it down.

Without wanting to go into too much detail, the bad stuff started when I got rejected from the three PhD programmes I applied to. Now, the advice I had been given was to apply to as many places as possible (incidentally, I give you this advice: apply to as many places as possible), but I only applied to three, and paid big time for it. I didn’t even get interviews at any of them. The reason I had only applied to three was because my main plan for the next academic year was to win an election at my student union and become a sabbatical officer.

By the time the union’s election results were being announced in March, I had been rejected from everywhere, so when I saw that I had lost that election, too, and hence had nothing at all planned for after I graduated, well… I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to call it the worst day of my life. I know I should feel privileged that something as (on a big-picture scale) small as not having any plans for graduating is the worst thing that ever happened to me – no family deaths, no illnesses, no poverty… but the big picture is hard to look at from in the middle of it. It’s not a pleasant memory to recall, so I’ll move on.

Right after that election, I had to start worrying about my viva and thesis for my master’s project. It took me a bit longer than ‘right away’ to get over that result and those rejections, though, and both the viva and thesis suffered for it. They still stand as two of the worst marks of my degree, and I can’t help but feel the fallout from that ‘worst day’ had something to do with that. There was also relationship trouble plaguing me around this time, but I am definitely not getting into that here.

Then it was exam studying time. Only five exams stood between me and the end of my degree, but I wasn’t prepared for any of them. Studying proved more difficult than usual. I struggled to get out of bed on a lot of days. If I had had ten exams, like I did the year before, I probably would have bombed all of them. Only help from my parents and personal tutor got me through that period, and there was a non-zero amount of crying, but the hard work did pay off. Most of the exams went about as well as they could have, and I ended up securing much higher marks than anticipated.

And that was the worst of it. From there everything got a lot better. I got a great summer job teaching in a summer school. It was work I really enjoyed and engaged with, so I was very happy for the time I was there. I met some cool people, taught some great kids, honed my physics knowledge, and got a taste of the teaching life. During that time I also applied to, and was accepted to, a PhD at UCL, which is where I am now.

But the real highlight of the year was my trip in the summer to California. I don’t think it’s an understatement to call it the best week of my life. I spent 7 days with other physics students from Imperial touring California, seeing various physics places of interest like SLAC, NIF, UC Berkeley, JPL, Mount Wilson Observatory, not to mention tourist things like Alcatraz, a hike through Yosemite, road trips, Universal Studios, Pride in San Francisco, and more. But really, the trip wouldn’t have been the same without the people I went with. I had so much fun with them, it was unreal. It was also whilst I was on the trip (standing outside the National Ignition Facility, no less) that I got my results and found out I’d got a First for my degree, meaning all that bullshit earlier in the year had paid off. Well, some of it had paid off. Some of it was just bullshit. That’s life.

And then I started my PhD, which has also been a great experience. I’ve met loads of cool new people. Some of them I do the science with in a research group. Some of them I do kung-fu with. Some of them I just drink with. They’re all great people.

It’s been a year of highs and lows, and it’s certainly been an interesting year. I’d say more of the year was good than bad, it’s just a shame that the bad stuff had to taint the rest of the year. I’m optimistic for this year, though. This year will be the first year since 2007 that I haven’t had some sort of important exams (GCSE, A-Levels, undergraduate exams) to stress over throughout the year. (Instead I get to stress over my brother doing his GCSEs!) That’s the nice bit of the whole “9 to 5 desk job” thing (which my PhD more or less is for now) — there’s no homework or revising, just work! So as long as I can keep up with that, it should be fine(!)

Happy new year, everyone!