Not so new: K-pop band Big Bang perform in Seoul, March 2012. (Photo: Getty)
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The Big Bang theory is not as modern as you think

We have fooled ourselves into thinking that modern science began with Newton but Grosseteste wrote his treatise in 1225.

The first principle of science, the physicist Richard Feynman once said, is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool. This month, two very different publications illustrated the importance of Feynman’s point.

The first was a report by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) called Engineering Our Future. This repeated the common complaint that Britain faces a future skills crunch and needs to train more scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

It is ironic that anyone should have to point out the law of supply and demand to the CBI, which seems to have fooled itself into thinking that government-subsidised training is the answer. The reality is that young people aren’t tempted by poorly paid, unrewarding positions. If filling these roles matters so much, making wages in the sector more competitive would surely be more effective (though it might hurt profits).

The second report, which was far more interesting, illustrated why we should let students study whatever they find engaging. It came from a project, based at Durham University, analysing the writings of Bishop Robert Grosseteste.

Grosseteste wrote the treatise De Luce (“on light”) in 1225. It seems to be the first attempt to apply a set of laws – the laws of physics – to describe the structure of the known universe. Grosseteste postulated, centuries before Newton, that light’s interaction with matter is central to giving substance to things and he used sophisticated (for his time) mathematical arguments to describe how light fills space. He didn’t stop there: he went on to apply his theories to the creation of the universe.

Grosseteste suggested that an explosion of primordial light caused the universe to expand into a huge sphere, with the expansion gradually reducing the density of matter in the universe. As the Durham scholars have pointed out, it seems that the basic elements of our cherished Big Bang theory have been around for almost eight centuries.

Analysing Grosseteste’s work required collaboration between Latinists, philologists, medieval historians, physicists and cosmologists – illustrating that science training is not the only source of intellectual progress.

Furthermore, the project demonstrated how effectively we have fooled ourselves into thinking that modern science began with Newton. On the contrary, even through the so-called Dark Ages, human beings have always been inquisitive, deductive and skilled at using their observational powers to advance their understanding of nature and science.

The project highlighted the value of intellectual curiosity and creative flair. These may even be more valuable than scientific training. Looking back to the CBI report, perhaps we don’t need more science-themed education but a drive for schools to nurture “soft skills” such as critical thinking and collaboration alongside pupils’ formal training. Then, wherever students end up, they will thrive.

The CBI has also convinced itself that Britain’s prosperity lies in tempting people into narrow science and technology careers. Yet the best opportunities often come when disciplines are crossed.

Take the British film industry. Here we have artists, scientists, programmers and cinematographers working together to create something that reflects our humanity – and producing multimillion-pound profits, too.

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 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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“Stinking Googles should be killed”: why 4chan is using a search engine as a racist slur

Users of the anonymous forum are targeting Google after the company introduced a programme for censoring abusive language.

Contains examples of racist language and memes.

“You were born a Google, and you are going to die a Google.”

Despite the lack of obscenity and profanity in this sentence, you have probably realised it was intended to be offensive. It is just one of hundreds of similar messages posted by the users of 4chan’s Pol board – an anonymous forum where people go to be politically incorrect. But they haven’t suddenly seen the error of their ways about using the n-word to demean their fellow human beings – instead they are trying to make the word “Google” itself become a racist slur.

In an undertaking known as “Operation Google”, some 4chan users are resisting Google’s latest artificial intelligence program, Conversation AI, by swapping smears for the names of Google products. Conversation AI aims to spot and flag offensive language online, with the eventual possibility that it could automatically delete abusive comments. The famously outspoken forum 4chan, and the similar website 8chan, didn’t like this, and began their campaign which sees them refer to “Jews” as “Skypes”, Muslims as “Skittles”, and black people as “Googles”.

If it weren’t for the utterly abhorrent racism – which includes users conflating Google’s chat tool “Hangouts” with pictures of lynched African-Americans – it would be a genius idea. The group aims to force Google to censor its own name, making its AI redundant. Yet some have acknowledged this might not ultimately work – as the AI will be able to use contextual clues to filter out when “Google” is used positively or pejoratively – and their ultimate aim is now simply to make “Google” a racist slur as revenge.


Posters from 4chan

“If you're posting anything on social media, just casually replace n****rs/blacks with googles. Act as if it's already a thing,” wrote one anonymous user. “Ignore the company, just focus on the word. Casually is the important word here – don't force it. In a month or two, Google will find themselves running a company which is effectively called ‘n****r’. And their entire brand is built on that name, so they can't just change it.”

There is no doubt that Conversation AI is questionable to anyone who values free speech. Although most people desire a nicer internet, it is hard to agree that this should be achieved by blocking out large swathes of people, and putting the power to do so in the hands of one company. Additionally, algorithms can’t yet accurately detect sarcasm and humour, so false-positives are highly likely when a bot tries to identify whether something is offensive. Indeed, Wired journalist Andy Greenberg tested Conversation AI out and discovered it gave “I shit you not” 98 out of 100 on its personal attack scale.

Yet these 4chan users have made it impossible to agree with their fight against Google by combining it with their racism. Google scores the word “moron” 99 out of 100 on its offensiveness scale. Had protestors decided to replace this – or possibly even more offensive words like “bitch” or “motherfucker” – with “Google”, pretty much everyone would be on board.

Some 4chan users are aware of this – and indeed it is important not to consider the site a unanimous entity. “You're just making yourselves look like idiots and ruining any legitimate effort to actually do this properly,” wrote one user, while some discussed their concerns that “normies” – ie. normal people – would never join in. Other 4chan users are against Operation Google as they see it as self-censorship, or simply just stupid.


Memes from 4chan

But anyone who disregards these efforts as the work of morons (or should that be Bings?) clearly does not understand the power of 4chan. The site brought down Microsoft’s AI Tay in a single day, brought the Unicode swastika (卐) to the top of Google’s trends list in 2008, hacked Sarah Palin’s email account, and leaked a large number of celebrity nudes in 2014. If the Ten Commandments were rewritten for the modern age and Moses took to Mount Sinai to wave two 16GB Tablets in the air, then the number one rule would be short and sweet: Thou shalt not mess with 4chan.

It is unclear yet how Google will respond to the attack, and whether this will ultimately affect the AI. Yet despite what ten years of Disney conditioning taught us as children, the world isn’t split into goodies and baddies. While 4chan’s methods are deplorable, their aim of questioning whether one company should have the power to censor the internet is not.

Google also hit headlines this week for its new “YouTube Heroes” program, a system that sees YouTube users rewarded with points when they flag offensive videos. It’s not hard to see how this kind of crowdsourced censorship is undesirable, particularly again as the chance for things to be incorrectly flagged is huge. A few weeks ago, popular YouTubers also hit back at censorship that saw them lose their advertising money from the site, leading #YouTubeIsOverParty to trend on Twitter. Perhaps ultimately, 4chan didn't need to go on a campaign to damage Google's name. It might already have been doing a good enough job of that itself.

Google has been contacted for comment.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.