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The limits of science: Michael Brooks

Author and NS science columnist

History tells us there is no reason to think some things lie beyond scientific explanation; scientists have a good track record in transgressing boundaries. One of the few boundaries yet to be challenged is the strange nature of quantum mechanics – atoms existing in two places at once, for example. Richard Feynman said no one can understand how it can be like that. But it is likely we’ll eventually find a theory that lies beneath quantum theory, and that the root of such oddities will be exposed. It’s worth pointing out that “explain” and “prove” are two different things. Exactly how life on earth got started can’t be proved: the fossil record doesn’t contain the earliest chemical progenitors of life. Nor can we prove our hypothesis about how the universe began – all we can do is line up the evidence and decide whether we think it’s convincing (it is).

As for keeping things off-limits, where’s the fun? And there would be no point. If you want something explained, the best thing you can do is tell scientists they mustn’t look into it. There’s no harm in understanding; if need be, you can ignore the inconvenient truths. Neuroscience has made it clear that humans don’t have free will, but that’s not going to make us reform the justice system, any more than our understanding of relative harm is going to make a government reclassify alcohol as a class A drug.

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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 07 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The Science Issue

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Goldsmiths diversity officer Bahar Mustafa receives court summons in wake of “#KillAllWhiteMen” outcry

Mustafa will answer charges of "threatening" and "offensive/ indecent/ obscene/ menacing" communications.

In May this year, Bahar Mustafa, then diversity officer at Goldsmiths, University of London, posted a Facebook message requesting that men and white people not attend a BME Women and non-binary event. There was an immediate backlash from those also enraged by the fact that Mustafa allegedly used the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen on social media. 

Today, Mustafa received a court summons from the Metropolitan Police to answer two charges, both of which come under the Communications Act 2003. The first is for sending a "letter/communication/article conveying a threatening message"; the second for "sending by public communication network an offensive/ indecent/ obsecene/ menacing message/ matter".

It isn't clear what communciation either charge relates to - one seems to refer to something sent in private, while the use of "public communication network" in the second implies that it took place on social media. The Met's press release states that both communciations took place between 10 November 2014 and 31 May 2015, a very broad timescale considering the uproar around Mustafa's social media posts took place in May. 

We approached the Met to ask which communications the summons refers to, but a spokesperson said that no more information could be released at this time. Mustafa will appear at Bromley Magistrates' Court on 5 November. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.