Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction


Me and Jonathan Ross

A week ago I was involved with what has been called a twitterstorm concerning the appointment of the UK media personality Jonathan Ross as tosatmaster – ie. master of ceremonies – for the Hugo Awards at the 2014 World SF Convention taking place in London in August this year. A lot was said both for and against him as toastmaster, and for and against the process that led to him being asked. After a rather fraught day (and longer for members of the convention committee – I am not one), Jonathan Ross stood down.

I am not going to rehearse most of the arguments for and against him, and I am certainly not going to delve into the ad hominem and, at times, hurtful comments made by both sides. That has been discussed far too much already. But, in thinking about this paroxysm, and about some of the reasons advanced for and against, I’ve come to realise that I’m viewing SF and fannish activities rather differently to some people in the publishing industry and elsewhere.

Specifically, a number of writers and publishers, including Sarah Pinborough and Danie Ware, saw Ross’ withdrawal as a missed  opportunity for ‘a huge boost for the whole community in terms of publicity and credibility, reputation and sales’. Oddly, except perhaps for the sales side in the short term, I think Ross would have represented a step backwards in all of those areas.

What are Danie, Sarah and others seeing in Ross as being a boost for SF? Ignoring the specific arguments for and against Ross as an individual, he is a major UK celebrity (though largely unknown outside the country). Having such a celebrity handing out the Hugos might have drawn in the press, which would have led to greater visibility, credibility in mainstream media circles and, maybe, increased sales.

But what kind of celebrity is Jonathan Ross? He’s a media figure, famous, at some level, for being famous. He is a product of UK celebrity culture which, at its root, is interested in fame only, not content. Yes, Ross is a comics writer and his wife is a Hugo winning scriptwriter, but neither of those are what will come to the mind of the press when they think of him. He would just be another celebrity adding media glitz.

The thing is, I think SF is far more than just another media phenomenon, and that measuring success in terms of media credibility and short term sales figures is, frankly, missing the whole point.

Science Fiction is different. It is not like other fictional genres, such as crime, fantasy and genre literature. It can have similarities to them, and has to play by similar rules if it is to tell workable and saleable stories. But it also has other concerns. At its best, SF not only tells stories about engaging and realistic characters, it also builds new worlds for those characters to live in, and poses realistic challenges about the future of the reader (or viewer of a movie etc.). This is not universal in SF, and this is not unique to SF – there are works in other genres that can do the same thing (though I would classify many of these, such as 1984 and The Handmaids Tale, as works of science fiction even if the authors might not have done that at the time of writing).

This gives SF a more important role than it being a simple media classification, as something where a short term sales boost at the cost of portraying it as just another celebrity-obsessed community, might actually bring long term damage.

This is why I spend much of my time working to build and promote the science programme at SF conventions. SF at its best goes beyond the world, beyond the simple medium and its content, and offers glimpses at other possibilities, at how science works and what its results are, at the threats and potentials of the future and in the world around us. Jonathan Ross has nothing whatsoever to do with any of that, and yet that is what I see as being the core of what SF is, and what SF does. The Hugo toastmaster should be part of that, someone who represents that broader context. It shouldn’t just be another media figure promoting just another media bunfight.

The credibility I seek for SF is not among arts correspondents on newspapers and TV, the kind of people Jonathan Ross would pull in. Thanks to the persistent gulf between the Two Cultures in much of the UK, these are issues they will not examine and cannot, in the short term at least, understand. Indeed, they might misunderstand SF and the Hugos completely, accidentally or otherwise.

A different kind of credibility is needed, one that goes beyond the usual silos of the media business because SF goes beyond those silos, allowing us to imagine different futures and, on that basis, change the present. This is why organisations like the Global Business Network hire SF writers to build ‘what if’ scenarios for the future, that help solve real problems today. One of GBNs greatest successes was the peaceful end of apartheid in South Africa (and discussed in Wired many years ago).

What other kind of fiction can do that?

And if the public face of that fiction just another media celebrity, will the chances of SF doing that again be increased or decreased? I think the latter is far more likely.

That is why, even without the reputational baggage that follows Jonathan Ross around, deservedly or otherwise, I think he was a very poor choice as Hugo toastmaster.

Leave a comment

Royal Institution: A Christmas ‘Christmas Lectures’ Update

Things have been a bit quiet here for the last 6 months or so on the issue of the Royal Institution’s trademarking of the term ‘Christmas Lecture’ (see here and subsequent related posts). The reason for this is that we – and when I say we, I really mean my friend the intellectual property lawyer – have done some more research, and it seems that things are rather more complicated than we first thought. I’ll copy the full comments from my friend below, but will start with a quick summary.

Firstly, it seems that many of the prima facie objections we might offer – that ‘Christmas Lecture’ is an overly broad term for it to be trade marked, for example – have already been brought up by the Intellectual Property Office. This meant that the RI’s application was objected to by them, and was originally rejected. The IPO is clearly doing its job.

Secondly, the RI wanted this trademark so much that they engaged Olswang, one of the most respected IP & media law firms in London, to act for them. After the initial rejection there was a long process including hearings and evidence taking, that resulted in the award of a trademark to the RI for christmas lectures in the field of science only. One of the key items of evidence that swung the case in their favour was a questionnaire that demonstrated that the public (quite how that was defined is unclear) associated christmas lectures with the RI.

The end result of this is that any attempt to challenge this trademark has to go up against Olswang, and has to provide evidence that will call into question what they have already done to support this trademark. That is going to be significantly more expensive than a simple challenge on the basis of what has already been discussed, because the IPO has already made those objections.

That’s why I’ve been silent on this – I’ve no idea what the next step should be or how it might be funded.

Also, as we have approached the Christmas period, I’ve not heard any reports of science-based Christmas lecturers being hassled by the RI. If so, it could be argued that they’re not defending this trademark that they have acquired at, it would appear, no little expense.

So that’s where things stand. Appended below is my friend’s report. Further documentation is available.

The IPO has sent me its file on the RI’s trade mark application – and interesting reading it makes too… In summary what happened is this:

29 June 2011 – RI makes its application

5 July 2011 – IPO starts assessing the proposed TM

13 July 2011 – TM examiner Sarah Philpot notes that she is objecting to the application. She writes to the RI’s trade mark agents, Olswang, explaining her refusal on the basis that the trade mark is purely descriptive

6 Sep 2011 – Olswang (for the RI) writes asking for an extension of time to file evidence in support of its application which the IPO agrees

11 Nov 2011 – The RI produces a 14-page witness statement with 28 exhibits from Dr Gail Cardew, Director of Science and Education. The exhibits are listed in what seems to be the IPO’s review of them, again commenting that they are evidence of descriptive use.

15 Nov 2011 – Olswang files an 8-page letter setting out the basis of its disagreement with the IPO’s rejection of its application

[The IPO shows] other uses of ‘Christmas Lecture’.  These are the results of the IPO’s own searches (see below)

15 Dec 2011 – Sarah Philpot again says in a note that the evidence does not overcome the IPO’s objection.

15 Dec 2011 – Sarah Philpot writes to Olswang rebutting the objections to the refusal of the trade mark – this refers to the evidence where lots of other uses of the term were found.

14 Feb 2012 – Olswang seeks a hearing before a senior trade mark officer and the IPO acknowledges this

It clearly took some time to set up a hearing

26 Sep 2012 – Stephen Lurvey at the IPO writes to Olswang confirming 13 Nov 2012 as the hearing date.

5 Nov 2012 – Olswang confirms that Kathtin Vowinckel will act on behalf of the RI at the hearing

13 Nov 2012 – Hearing takes place before Carol Bennett, hearing officer.

From the record of the hearing it is apparent that Ms Bennett took account of the 200 year history of the RI Christmas Lectures and evidence of the 40-year history of their being televised, together with survey evidence from the RI about the term. She agreed that the term had acquired distinctiveness through use but held that this was only in the field of science lectures.

19 Dec 2012 – Olswang write accepting that the trade mark should be limited to the field of science.

2 Jan 2013 – Carol Bennett writes to Olswang confirming that the trade mark will be approved on the basis of distinctiveness acquired through use, and provides a draft of how the trade mark will be advertised in the Trade Mark Journal

Several things strike me from this. Firstly, the RI really, really pushed this. When its application was rejected it sent a very long and detailed witness statement and a detailed submission on why its application should be allowed. When that was rejected it sought and obtained a hearing at the IPO, for which it obtained survey evidence about the public perception of the term.

Secondly, the RI did all this via Olswang. Olswang is one of the biggest name IP and media law firms in London and I would not like to hazard a guess at what all this cost the RI.

… We now know a lot more, but it does seem that all our potential objections have already been raised internally by the IPO and were the subject of a contested hearing. An application to have the trade mark declared invalid would in effect be seeking a re-hearing of that, and unless we could provide compelling evidence to add to the substantial list the IPO’s own examiners found then I am doubtful that we would get much further. It’s also clear that the RI has seen fit to expend a lot of effort (and I am sure a lot of money) on getting this trade mark and it would probably want to fight its corner so as not to risk wasting that.

In short, the RI does seem to have convinced the IPO that it really has managed to get public association with the term ‘Christmas Lecture’.

So there it is, we’re a bit stuck.

I’d be interested to hear any reports of the RI trying to enforce its shiny new trademark on scientists given Christmas Lectures this year. If it hasn’t, then it might appear that they have scored a rather pyrrhic victory, expending a lot of money on something they might have chosen not to enforce.

1 Comment

Ian Anderson: Thick as a Brick

The Sunday after the end of term there was a special show on at the Albert Hall: Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull playing Thick as a Brick at the Royal Albert Hall. I’ve been a fan of Tull’s special brand of folk/prog/rock since my days at college, and have seen them live on a number of occasions, most recently at the Moseley Folk Festival a couple of years ago. But I’ve never heard the concept album Thick as a Brick played live in its entirety before. In fact nobody has since about 1973 when Tull were touring with it. How could I not go!

It was a stunning night. Anderson’s voice isn’t what it was – he has trouble with the high notes – but he got along a couple of additional singers to help – indeed this fitted the subject of TaaB very well, with the newcomers playing some of the younger roles, and allowing Anderson to play more of the flute parts than would be possible if he had to sing instead. And Anderson’s flute playing has, if anything, become even more virtuoso!

The evening was rounded off with a stunning encore version of Locomotive Breath, which left everyone in the hall standing. Definitely a night to remember!


Leave a comment

Royal Society Show

Some people seem to think that academics don’t do anything in their long ‘vacations’. I think I’d quite like to go back to term term, as I’ve pretty much been non-stop ever since term ended at the end of June.

The main reason for this, and for my absence from these pages, is that I was running the Planck stand at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. This is a week long extravaganza, where scientists from about 23 selected teams show off their science to the public using exhibition stands set up in the Royal Society’s building, just off the Mall. I’ve been part of shows before, most recently last year’s Herschel exhibit, but this was the first time I had run a stand. The experience of being in charge is very different!

Things that were new to me, at least with respect to running the stand, was sorting the budget, ordering piles of stuff from many different people, getting artwork sorted from our excellent graphic designer and much more. The most stressful, from my point of view, was ensuring that everything we needed was going to be there on time. Mostly this worked, and, at the end of the Sunday before the exhibition opened, we had a stand.


I think we had one of the nicest stands, though I would say that. We had the centrepiece, which is a 1/4 scale model of Planck, we had videos running above, a Planck version of Chromoscope running around the side of the stand to the right, some examples of flight hardware in a display box, two touchscreens running appropriate games/demos, one of which can be found here, and even a telephone where you can dial up the sound of the Big Bang!

We also had lots of freebies – pens, fridge magnets, bookmarks, leaflets, and even papercraft models of Planck to cut out and build. All of those even arrived on time. However, what was meant to be the piece de resistance did not arrive on time. I ordered small inflatable beachballs with the Planck CMB map printed on them. I was promised delivery the Friday before the exhibition opened and they did not turn up. They also didn’t turn up on the Monday or Tuesday. By the Wednesday, my first full day away from the stand since it started, I was on to the suppliers playing – well not exactly Dr Angry, but certainly Dr Disappointed.

It turned out that the company was disappointed too, since our universes, and several other customers’ orders, were unaccountably being held by HMRC for no readily apparent reason.

They didn’t turn up until the Monday after the show had ended, and there are some production problems with them as well as the delivery issue. Still, some novel uses have already been found for them…


This is what happens when graduate students get to play with too many universes!

Despite the lack of beach balls, the show went very well. This is what was left of the stand late into the packing up process, as we awaited the van to collect the model.


According to the Royal Society we had over 11000 people through the front door, and a further 30000 who looked at our web material during the show, and you can still look at the stuff on the web.

The visitors were very varied, from 5 year olds to Fellows of the Royal Society and everything in between, so you have to think on your feet when answering questions. It was a lot of fun, but exhausting to be in charge. I’ll happily stand aside so that someone else can have that pleasure next time.

Leave a comment

Royal Society Summer Exhibition

Today is the day when we build our stand for the Royal Society Summer Exhibition.

There will be over 20 stands from all branches of science, including three from astrophysics, with scientists on call to answer your questions, do demonstrations and give you goodies.

You can also follow what’s going on with the exhibition blogs, videos, and there are even some online games to play.

Opens to the public on Tuesday, and it’s all completely free!


Royal Institution: A short reply

I got this at the end of last week from the RI. Interpreting it is likely meaningless Kremlinology, but it might indicate things are still moving.

Dear $ME,

Just wanted to drop you a quick line to say that we are assessing our position in response to concerns about the trade mark thoroughly, something which I’m sure you’ll understand takes time to do properly. We’ll get back to you in due course.



There have also been a few further steps in informal discussions about the law regarding this trademark.