New lab tests

We need a scientific government for a scientific age.

Over-achiever of the year so far is surely the US energy secretary, Steven Chu. Not content with working 80-hour weeks in government, he has squeezed some scientific research into his schedule. His latest discovery, the result of a collaboration with two other physicists, has just been published in the prestigious journal Nature.

The research is the most accurate test yet of Einstein's general theory of relativity. It's not going to win Chu a Nobel Prize - he's already got one anyway - but it is an impressive piece of work. Relativity says that time slows down when gravity is strong. A clock placed in the lobby of a skyscraper, for example, will gradually slow compared with a clock on the top floor, where earth's gravitational pull is very slightly weaker. Chu and his colleagues have tested this to show that Einstein's prediction is accurate to seven parts per billion.

Chu's achievement is a warning against those who think impressive science is the preserve of expensive projects. There were no trips into space for Chu's experiment: it was all done in a standard physics laboratory. In the age of the Large Hadron Collider, the Human Genome Project and the orbiting white elephant known as the International Space Station, there's still a lot you can do with a prepared mind and a well-equipped university laboratory.

Not that science doesn't need grand projects. Chu would be the first to argue that we need big science as well as small. And he gets to make that argument where it matters: at the heart of government. With Chu's appointment, Obama made it clear that science is not a peripheral issue, but a major player in addressing the issues that politicians face today.

Chu's UK counterpart, Ed Miliband, read philosophy politics and economics. Miliband's shadow, Greg Clark, is also an economist. It's true that the science minister, Paul Drayson, has research experience - a PhD in robotics and years spent in industry - but, well, he's the science minister. In this day and age, experienced scientists should be working in roles where their political clout goes beyond divvying up the research budget. Here's an idea. Scientists repeatedly score significantly higher than politicians in surveys of public trust. I'd like to take this opportunity to tempt a few of our most eminent minds out of the lab for a spell. If a Nobel laureate can work at the heart of US government and still participate in the odd scientific breakthrough, the same could happen here. We could have a scientific government for a scientific age. The campaign slogan practically writes itself.

Michael Brooks is a consultant to the New Scientist

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II

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An alternative Trainspotting script for John Humphrys’ Radio 4 “Choose Life” tribute

Born chippy.

Your mole often has Radio 4’s Today programme babbling away comfortingly in the background while emerging blinking from the burrow. So imagine its horror this morning, when the BBC decided to sully this listening experience with John Humphrys doing the “Choose Life” monologue from Trainspotting.

“I chose not to choose life: I chose something else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got Radio 4?” he concluded, as a nation cringed.

Introduced as someone who has “taken issue with modernity”, Humphrys launched into the film character Renton’s iconic rant against the banality of modern life.

But Humphrys’ role as in-studio curmudgeon is neither endearing nor amusing to this mole. Often tasked with stories about modern technology and digital culture by supposedly mischievous editors, Humphrys sounds increasingly cranky and ill-informed. It doesn’t exactly make for enlightening interviews. So your mole has tampered with the script. Here’s what he should have said:

“Choose life. Choose a job and then never retire, ever. Choose a career defined by growling and scoffing. Choose crashing the pips three mornings out of five. Choose a fucking long contract. Choose interrupting your co-hosts, politicians, religious leaders and children. Choose sitting across the desk from Justin Webb at 7.20 wondering what you’re doing with your life. Choose confusion about why Thought for the Day is still a thing. Choose hogging political interviews. Choose anxiety about whether Jim Naughtie’s departure means there’s dwindling demand for grouchy old men on flagship political radio shows. Choose a staunch commitment to misunderstanding stories about video games and emoji. Choose doing those stories anyway. Choose turning on the radio and wondering why the fuck you aren’t on on a Sunday morning as well. Choose sitting on that black leather chair hosting mind-numbing spirit-crushing game shows (Mastermind). Choose going over time at the end of it all, pishing your last few seconds on needlessly combative questions, nothing more than an obstacle to that day’s editors being credited. Choose your future. Choose life . . .”

I'm a mole, innit.