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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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

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