May the force not be with you: Sandra Bullock goes for a spacewalk in Gravity. Photo: Warner Bros
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In search of the notorious Big G: why we still know so little about gravity

Gravity is pathetic and so is our understanding of it.

Gravity is pathetic. The Oscar statuette, for instance, has a mass of 3.85 kilograms but it is pulled down to earth by a force so weak that you can buy a £2.99 fridge magnet that can beat it. It’s shameful that the gravitational pull of the entire earth can be overcome by a cheap piece of magnetised steel.

Gravity is by far the weakest of the fundamental forces of nature (the fridge magnet puts the far stronger electromagnetic force to work). It is so weak that its strength is proving difficult to measure accurately. In late February, while Alfonso Cuarón, the director of the sci-fi film Gravity, was on tenterhooks waiting for the Oscars result, the world’s experts on gravity assembled just outside Milton Keynes in an attempt to sort out this most embarrassing problem.

Numbers such as the strength of gravity, the speed of light and the charge on an electron are known to physicists as the “fundamental constants”. They are in some ways the sticking plaster of physics. We can explain the origin of most things but we know the values of the fundamental constants only by measuring them – there is no way to work them out from a theory.

These days, most are very well defined – but not gravity. It is the only fundamental constant for which our uncertainty over its value has got worse over the years.

The gravitational constant is sometimes known as “Big G”. This differentiates it from “little g”, which describes how fast things accelerate towards Planet Earth when free to fall. The first accurate measurement of Big G was made in 1798. Henry Cavendish used a torsion balance, a device in which two lead weights are attached to the ends of a metal bar. The bar hangs horizontally by a metal wire attached to its midpoint. Cavendish then brought other weights close to one of the lead weights and measured how much the gravitational attraction between the weights twisted the wire. From that measurement, he calculated the strength of gravity.

Cavendish’s accuracy was five parts in 1,000. Over 200 years later, our accuracy stands at roughly one part in 10,000. Given that modern measurements use lasers and electronic devices and Cavendish used a mirror and a candle, it hardly counts as a great improvement.

What’s worse is that our measurements of Big G are getting less accurate. The latest measurement, reported at the end of last year, reduced the overall value by 66 parts per million but the uncertainty
of the value increased from 100 parts per million to 120 parts per million.

The measurement was taken by Terry Quinn, emeritus director of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Paris. At its meeting in February, he argued that it was time researchers admitted that everyone must be making some basic errors in their method and that they should give up on making any more unilateral measurements.

The experts now agree that future experiments seeking the value of Big G will be done in big collaborations, with the proposals for equipment and methodology being scrutinised by everyone in advance to minimise the chance of further embarrassment.

It will, they say, mimic the way that researchers worked together to find the Higgs boson. That gave us the secret of mass: the hope is that if the physicists all pull together, they can finally work out exactly what size of force brings that mass down to earth.

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 05 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's power game

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Why are online jokes funnier without punctuation and capital letters?

Academics and social media users weigh in on Twitter’s most unexplained phenomenon. 

The first person to notice it did so in 2010. “Sometimes I think a twitter joke is funnier if you omit punctuation,” tweeted @zacharylittle on 2 April. He was a pioneer. It took two years for anyone else to express the same thought, but they did so in droves. “I like not using punctuation like commas on twitter because its somehow funnier lol,” said @chxrliesheen, sans apostrophe. “I never use punctuation on twitter and tumblr I just think its funnier ok,” exclaimed @julieamarch. From then until now, people have been constantly questioning the phenomenon, but there are still no answers.

Why exactly are Twitter jokes funnier when they have grammatical errors, discard punctuation, lack capital letters, or are misspelled?

“There is a frisson, or sense of pleasure, from playfulness in language,” Dr Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, tells me over email – in which she demonstrates some of this playfulness herself. “writing wihtout caps, proper punctation, and leaving misspellings uncorrected also feels like private communication, like whispered kjokes, and therefore has the same potential thrill.”

Dr Hugh Rabagliati, a Chancellor's Fellow at the School of Philosophy, Psychology, and Language Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, warns me that most of his knowledge on the subject comes from “spending too much time on Twitter, rather than any obvious academic work”. It is true that research into the area is lacking – books about “internet language” get outdated quickly, and seem to focus on email and chatrooms, rather than more modern social media. “The misspellings [on Twitter] are often beautifully calibrated, like a very subtle malapropism, and the grammar errors are designed to make familiar material feel out of kilter,” he says.

Sometimes humour is found when grandiose sentiments are contrasted with train-wreck grammar, he argues, whereas other times the language can be exclusionary and people share it to prove they “get” the joke.

Perhaps the most famous Twitter user who has mastered the technique of the misspelled tweet is Jonathan Sun. Sun has gained 168,000 followers posing as an “aliebn confuesed abot humamn lamgauge”, and is part of what is known as “weird Twitter”, a subset of the site where humour is surreal and often bolstered by misspellings, a lack of punctuation, and grammatical errors. But while “weird Twitter” takes it to the extreme, many other arguably “normal” Twitter users will uncap the start of their Tweets or the word “I”.

“i’m not really sure why but i’ve been going out of my way to un-cap for ages,” one anonymous Twitter user told me via a direct message on the site. “i recognise that it is a stupid waste of time, ive had partners mock me for it.” Possibly, they theorise, they do this because they used to edit copy as part of their job. “it could be a reaction to that, to be completely armchair psychology about it.”

Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World reinforces this point. She argues that language users are always looking for ways to distinguish their voices and express emotion. “A bevy of authors – from the poet e.e. cummings to social media scholar danah boyd – have further personalised their identity by eschewing the normal capitalisations in their names,” she says. “When it comes to social networking sites such as Twitter, lack of capital letters lends a tone of informality that makes the messages feel more speech-like.”

It’s hard to admit that you’re deliberately making mistakes in order to look offhand, as you are essentially revealing you try-very-hard-to-look-like-you’re-not-trying-at-all. But Rebecca Reid, a 25-year-old journalist, admits this is why she used to uncap her tweets. “Honestly I literally thought it made me look cooler,” she says. “I saw my sister doing it, and she's a couple of years younger and very trendy, so I thought it was just what we were doing. So I copied her. This is so tragic from me. And after a while I realised that it wasn't making me seem edgy, it was making it seem like the shift button on my key board was broken.”

It is true that informality is important in written messages, as a 2015 study revealed that ending text messages with a full stop was perceived to be insincere, most likely because it is seen as a sign of aggression. Twitter jokes that are written similarly formally – with full stops and capital letters – might also seem insincere, or be less inviting or inclusive than those with deliberate mistakes, run-on sentences, or five-too-many exclamation marks.

“There's also a phenomenon that linguists have only started discussing in the last decade, called ‘Eggcorns’,” says Rabagliati. “Here the speaker has learned a misanalysed locution. The phenomenon is named from the case of a woman who had, all her life, misheard the word acorn as ‘eggcorn’. ‘To all intensive purposes’ is a similar error. These mistakes play on our fear that our knowledge of language might not be as robust as we want to believe – think about all those words that you've read, but never heard aloud. Plus, the errors are fun because they demand some backwards reasoning to reconstruct.” 

More academic research is needed for a final answer on the phenomenon, but one thing is certain. If uncapitalising things on Twitter is cool, writing an 800-word article about it certainly isn't. 

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