Thursday, 28 March 2013

Guardsmen and Bunny Ears

Melvyn Bragg and three scientists were discussing water today on "In Our Time" (BBC R4). In the preview on the Today programme Melvyn mentioned that water was the second commonest molecule in the (I think) universe. Today presenter Sarah Montague jumped in to ask what the commonest is. Melvyn admitted he was a bit thrown by that but promised that he would make it one of his first questions at five past nine, turning a difficult moment into a plug.

The Today programme's co-presenter Evan Davies quickly pointed out that Nitrogen was the commonest. Sarah M then queried whether this was the commonest element or molecule. A good question. All seemed keen to show they had some knowledge of science - but probably only revealed their lack of it. On the programme it was confirmed that Nitrogen is the commonest element - but molecule? I'm not sure the confusion was cleared up.  But there is a greater confusion: are we discussing our world, our own solar system, or the universe? Recent probes have emphasised that we have not travelled far at all so far - just rephrase that would you, Ed - um, up to now, even in this possibly minor solar system.

Terms are rarely properly defined and confusion reigns. Words seem inadequate to describe science. We soon descend into talk of atoms bonding with "bunny ears", of guardsmen, of piles of oranges. This sort of topic probably needs TV images - but then instead of attempts at rational discussion we would no doubt get pretty pictures and endless repetition.

Was I the only one to be distracted rather than helped by the repeated "bunny ears"? Was I wrong to notice the "I know this is difficult but are you still with me?" upspeak? I liked the accents, though. Was there a New Zealand one there, or have I been watching too much crecket?

Anyway, Japanese history next week, much more comfortable for Melvyn - and many listeners.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Pedestrian Thinking (and other diversions)

Lots of road signs roundabout at the moment - signs of spring?

Not sure about:
even if we are in a
but comfort myself with all the signs for

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Cockroaches and Related Instincts

"In Our Time" (BBC Radio 4) on Alfred R. Wallace (and Darwin, evolution etc): I'm not picking on a slip here - every broadcaster makes them and maybe my ears deceived me anyway - but "professor of cockroaches and related instincts"? Now that does sound interesting, Melvyn.

Soon Steve Jones has us wandering (or was it wondering?) in the philosophical fog - but it is still great stuff, if it is the sort of stuff you like.

All women experts last week on literature but none this on evolution.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Absolutely Important!

It used to be that there were some adjectives that were said to be "ungradeable", or "ungradable" *(looks better, but both acceptable). With most adjectives you could say "fairly" or "very" or "quite" (I'm talking about BrE here) or even "slightly". And you could use "more" or "less" with them and make comparatives and superlatives

But the ungradeable ones weren't like that. If something was "unique" it couldn't be more unique than something else. Less absolute than the one-off "unique" but also ungradeable were adjectives like "vital", "essential" or even "perfect" (though the latter was sometimes used with "more" or "less" as indicating a quest for that impossible perfection). These were thought ungradeable because, as one's English teacher used to say, "Well, is it essential, or not? It can't be slightly essential, can it?" Just about the only thing you could add to these "ungradables" was "absolutely", which, logically, might have been unnecessary, too.

Now, however, even with wordsmiths and broadcasters, anything seems to go. We not only hear ungradeables graded but we have eg "absolutely" used with gradeable* adjectives. It is not only "absolutely vital" but "absolutely important". This sounds like the sort of thing foreigners, but not educated native speakers used to say: "very delicious", comes to mind but now I hear it all the time.

Is it part of the word inflation I've often talked about? I mentioned both that but also ... um ... something else as well, too.

*"Ungradable" and "ungradeable" both look ok to me but "gradeable" doesn't. Comments?

Monday, 18 March 2013

Unnecessary Apostrophes - O Spring!

I've had some enquires about this little spring poem but as I still own the world-wide copyright, I'm going to publish it here as well.

O Spring!

Friday branches shred the air
Monday a cloud of cherry blossom
springs long-expected surprise

(from "Unnecessary Apostrophes and Other Short Poems")

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Yes, Melvyn. So, (not) ...

"In Our Time"(BBC Radio 4) this week was on Chekhov. Last week I noticed, along with several people in the Twittersphere, that there was a good deal of use of "So..."  to answer Melvyn Bragg's questions.

I suggested it might be because the scientists on that programme seemed to want to give the impression that they were making* a cohesive, logical presentation, rather than answering a chairperson's questions. These might or might not be relevant, or even correctly phrased, so we'll carry on ...

From a listener's point of view there seemed to be a lack of engagement with the questioner and the questions. It seemed slightly unfair on our chairman, even slightly condescending, perhaps?

This week there was engagement, disagreement, even argument but on more equal terms. MB did not back down with the experts - three women, interestingly - but stuck to his point, made them hurry up or backtrack. They answered directly, sometimes a with yes or no, and once or twice with "Yes, that's a good way of putting it."

They weren't always pleased: one said "It isn't as simple as that!" But MB came back with "Well, we haven't got much time." One of the experts said they had only scraped the surface of the subject. "It's a good surface you've scraped," said Melvyn, to finish.

Interesting comparisons? Two cultures, male, female experts, interactions?

*Make or give a presentation? Used to be "make a speech" but "give a talk / presentation / address" etc. But now I'm confused. I also had to avoid repeating "give".

Friday, 8 March 2013

Melvyn Bragg Flattery Controversy

In response to the overwhelmingly negative reception of the last post, with suggestions of fawning and flattery, not to mention criticism of it's grammar and punctuation, the management has considered re-instating the IWS (Irony Warning System) Four Star notation. However, this has proved impracticable, due to lack of adequate staff to deal with world-wide media traffic.

With the goal of total transparency always before us, it has been decided that a general statement should be made to cover all future and past posts on this site, viz:

These posts may contain traces of irony and humo(u)r.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Wanted: Renaissance Man / Woman / Person

Warning: this post may contain traces of irony and humo(u)r.

Melvyn Bragg is admirable on "In Our Time" (BBC Radio 4). I don't hear a lot of admiration expressed for him: many people make mocking, snide remarks about his wonderful hair, but I have no such hang-ups.

And I do admire the way he copes with literature, philosophy, anthropology, linguistics and even, um, science - ok, I know linguistics is the scientific study of language etc, but I mean quantum physics, or superconductors or, today, absolute zero (no caps, @GuardianStyle?).

I also appreciate the way he really tries to make science understandable for himself and the intelligent lay-person. He tries to strip away jargon and pin the experts down to something that can be expressed and understood.

Often, however, the experts and, dare I say it, the scientists in particular, fail to come up to his standards. Language (or their use of it) does not seem capable of expressing the concepts, or even the data. So they are fall back on analogies, mundane examples of footballs (round ones, ok?), oranges or plates and so on, or into absurd terms and concepts like "the Big Bang".

This was coined by Sir Fred Hoyle, I believe, to mock the silliness of the idea that time and space and matter came into existence at one moment in the past. (But unfortunately it caught on, not just as a simple, headline term but also perhaps as the sort of simplistic concept or answer that people seem to long for.) So where did the original matter come from? Where did this intense explosion occur? If space did not exist, where did it happen etc? But the data, as we have it and understand it, seems to point to expanding universe, so, they tell us, it must have had a starting point etc. Aren't  we getting into irrational territory here, dare I say? People will fall back on the big G word in a moment. Surely, the situation is is, is that we just have only a tiny amount of data and don't really understand it? So we are forced into these silly and simplistic phrases and concepts.

Melvyn gamely battles on against this sort of thing, trying to make them speak clearly and understandably. He isn't really a renaissance man, equally at home with science and arts but he's pretty good. If only the scientific experts could have some of his art or language skills.

Give the man a medal, I say,  or make him a "Sir Bragg", or something... Oh, have they?