Jiva Technology

The strange story of pulsars and Jocelyn Bell Burnell

For anyone with the slightest interest in science, pulsars are incredible objects. They’re dead stars with magnetic fields as much as 20,000,000,000,000 times that of Earth. They spin at speeds of up to 25o million km an hour. And they pulse light at regular intervals, providing these amazing objects with their name and providing astronomers with lighthouses to navigate their way around the universe.

But for all heir amazing attributes, the story of how pulsars were discovered is just as amazing as the the pulsars themselves. They were discovered on a hand built radio array at Cambridge University in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a quite remarkable scientist who never received the accolades she deserved because she was a woman and because she was a mere PhD student, not a supervisor. Others got Nobel prizes for her discovery, she did not. In the ensuing press interest surrounding the discovery, she received questions as to how many boyfriends she had.

Its an instructive episode for a number of reasons. First of all, it shows that great science does not always arrive in a planned fashion. Secondly, we’d do well to offer credit where credit’s due and thirdly, we can never return to a situation where women in science don’t receive the respect they deserve simply because they’re women. We’d all like to think that we’ve moved on from episodes like this, but its only by reminding ourselves of what happened in the recent past can we make sure it doesn’t happen again.

In the meantime, the discovery of pulsars is a great example of the surprises that science can still spring upon us and the story of Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a great example of the proud history of women in science.

 

What happens to education if we have Universal Basic Income?

The threat of automation has given rise to a lot of chatter in the press about the merits Universal Basic Income (UBI). Its a simple idea, whereby all citizens receive an income from the State, whether they work or not. In theory, it replaces all other forms of state support, such as pensions, unemployment benefit and housing benefit, thereby radically simplifying the system. In a world where robots might be doing most of the work and therefore work might be scarce, the idea is to break the link between work and income. A number of trials are underway at the moment in Scotland, the Netherlands and Finland, designed to gauge the impacts of UBI.

Very little has been said about the impact of introducing UBI on education. For the most part, getting a good education has been about getting rewarding and fulfilling work at the end of it, but most of us will recognise the ambivalence many teenagers feel towards education, particularly as they near the end of their time at school. Its usually at that point that parents and teachers will resort to a mix of threats and encouragement about ‘your future’ to get students over the last few hurdles. But what if it doesn’t matter – you’re going to get paid anyway? What if you are going to have the time to study when you’re 26 or 36 or 76? Does that change what we study or more importantly, when we study? An honest answer would be, “who knows?”, but spending even a few moments thinking about it makes you realise the profound implications for education.

One thing is for sure, there will still be a need for scientists and engineers and artists and performers. How do you encourage some to study hard when others are at liberty to do nothing … although some might argue that this happens already. It becomes clear that impact of automation, artificial intelligence and robotics will have a profound impact on our society, but education is an area that has historically moved at a slow pace, for various reasons. It could be that we need to start thinking about some of these issues sooner, rather than later.

The introduction of Universal Basic Income could allow us the freedom to study subjects that we enjoy without the hindrance of it being valued in the jobs marketplace. In combination with social media, it could allows groups of citizen scientists, historians and engineers  to push back the boundaries of human knowledge at a faster rate, unfettered by formal structures. Or it could lead to a complete mess and the abrupt slowing of knowledge acquisition and growth as organisation and funding disappears. It feels like the sort of topic that deserves intense public debate, which is unfortunate given that the issue has arisen at an all time low for considered public argument.

What History can teach us about technology

Every now and then the argument resurfaces. Are some subjects more valuable than others? Are some degrees a good idea and others … well, worthless? The argument is usually framed as ‘technical’ or STEM subjects versus the liberal arts, where studying medicine is patently worthwhile and studying renaissance painting less so. It can feel as though science and technology has all the arguments – even if we’re talking about obscure mathematics or unusual chemistry that has no apparent application, we know from past experience that even the oddest topics can suddenly be found useful. Sometimes hundreds of years later. Riemann geometry anyone?

But there’s a subtlety here that is perhaps overlooked. Take for example the study of history. It feels as though we live in interesting times where technological and political upheaval is on the horizon. But is it so far outside the norm? Is this perhaps where historians can help us? May Beard is a fabulous example of a historian whose deep knowledge of long dead people and their customers is actually terribly relevant to the world we live in today. And I came across an example which struck me had equal bearing on a world staring down the barrel of artificial intelligence, bioinformatics and driverless cars. The first bridge across the Thames was built in 50 AD, around the site of the current London Bridge. The second wasn’t built until 1,700 years later. In the meantime, the gap was filled by numerous Thames ferrymen who plied their trade, were licensed and made a decent living from it. In the 1800’s, bridge building began nearest and a new technology (the bridge) displaced thousands of ferrymen jobs. The response of the government was interesting. They compensated the ferrymen for their loss of earnings and in some cases, continue to do so today.

What history offers is a toolbox, an understanding of examples from the past and a grasp of what would or would not be outside the norm. For the tech industry grappling with the cultural (and political) upheaval they’re about to unleash on us, perhaps a few students of history might be a useful addition to the armies of engineers and mathematicians. It shows that advanced skills have their uses and sometimes it pays to look beyond the obvious, to engage in some second and third order thinking to really solve a problem. Its one thing to create new science and new technologies, its quite another to get people to accept it. And if it fails to get accepted, that technology is another of those useless topics we were talking about earlier.

 

Your student loan: is it a debt, is it a tax?

Here’s a thing: the dictionary definition of a loan is simple, “a thing that is borrowed, especially a sum of money that is expected to be paid back with interest”. So far, so straightforward. On that basis, a student loan is money that you borrow to pay for your studies and associated living expenses and then pay back once you enter the world of work. Plus of course the interest, which is currently running at an eye popping 6.1 per cent.

But hand on a minute, why does every self-respecting personal finance commentator and newspapers ranging from the Financial Times to the Guardian suggest that your student loan isn’t actually a loan? Simple, because most people are not expected to pay it back. Current IFS estimates are that 83% of graduates won’t repay. And if 83 in 100 people who take out a loan don’t pay it back, then its no longer a loan in any real sense of the word.

Does any of this matter? Who cares if only a few people pay back the money? Well it does matter and it matters for a few important reasons that no one seems to be talking about. Student debt has already ballooned to over £100bn and sooner or later someone has to pick up the tab. Politicians have engaged in a classic classic fudge where they tell one group of people one thing (its a loan, we’ll get the money back) and another group of people another (don’t worry, you probably won’t have to pay). The money has already been spent on those shiny new campus building and extravagant Vice Chancellor salaries, so what happens when student debt becomes a problem for the Government or taxpayers who don’t go to university realise they’re picking up the tab anyway.

What’s more, why are we telling people to take out debt and then not worry about repaying it? It sounds like the definition of a bad habit to get into. Student debt appears to be yet another topic that we cannot have an honest public debate. This won’t go away if we don’t think about it, it just gets worse. There are only two solutions: most of the debt is picked up by taxpayers or most of the debt is picked up by students. What I fear more than anything is that the rules will change – we’ll start telling students its okay and they won’t have to pay and then switch as the debt mountain becomes too high. That, more than anything, would be the epitome of unfairness.

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