Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction


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Syrian Nerve Gas: The Cockup Theory

There seems to be no good reason for Assad to have launched a chemical attack in Damascus on civilians just 15 minutes away from the hotel where UN inspectors were staying. There is even less reason why the rebels should mount such an attack on their own people, assuming they had access to such weapons.

So what is really going on?

My guess is that this is a cockup of epic proportions.

Someone in a Syrian rocket artillery unit got the wrong delivery. The shells, as far as we’ve seen, are not clearly marked as chemical munitions. In the heat of battle you don’t check parts numbers against some catalog – you load ’em up and ship ’em out to the place you’ve been shelling for a while.

And then the horrifying reports start coming in.

There are also many other ways this could have happened by accident. If this is the case then I’d worry a lot about the security on Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, but a cockup seems to make more sense than deliberate action by anybody on either side. But it doesn’t help the political objectives of anybody in this situation to admit to it. Assad would have become a butcher through stupidity. The West would have no causus belli. Russia would be selling weapons to incompetents.

If this was an accident, those responsible are likely to have been severely punished by now. I wonder if there’s any evidence of summary executions in the artillery or logistics corps of the Syrian Army?

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Astro-statistics in the real world: from counting deer to counting war crimes

Imperial is the proud home of the Imperial Centre for Inference and Cosmology so we get to hear a lot about ‘astrostatistics’, some of which is the advanced inferential methods that applies Bayesian statistics to complex problems and a multitude of data, but some of it is the simple old completeness and reliability type stuff that is bread and butter for survey astronomers like myself.

I was thus rather amused to hear, just before my interview on The Material World in March, that a similar completeness and reliability approach was being used to do a census of deer in part of the UK (though the headline of that story is actually rather misleading given the research, which was just in a limited area – listen to the show for more details).

Rather more sobering is that statistical techniques not far from these are being used to asses the true scale of civilian killings in conflicts where war crimes are rife, from the dreadful things happening in Syria right now, to the older, and possibly less recorded, atrocities in Peru over the last 30 years. Some more details about the statistics being used in this work can be found here and through links on that page.


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UK Science funding: renewed threat?

Worry report from THES that the current ring fence* for science funding in the UK is under threat amid the Treasury’s continuing quest for savings. And this comes at the same time that there are numerous reports to the effect that austerity economics, as practiced in the UK, has failed.

Time for BIS to grow a backbone and call the spade the Treasury is using to bury us a bloody shovel. And time for more people to get involved with Science is Vital.

*A ring fence that most of us on the inside would have to admit is rather leaky, with cuts to capital spending, continuing erosion thanks to inflation, and poorly motived, rarely admitted changes to Research Council priorities leading to cuts in, for example, astrophysics.