Why I have not asked to be a UK subject (yet?)

April 12, 2016
Screenshot from 2016-04-13 00:06:20I feel disenfranchised. As a citizen of a different EU country living in another, I am not allowed to vote in Parliamentary elections where I live (the UK), while exercising that right in my country of origin (Spain) has become increasingly difficult. When I recently vented my frustration at my friend Philip Howell, himself a Briton living in Germany, he asked the obvious question: Why don’t you apply for British citizenship? It was a good question. I certainly love the UK and I have made deep commitments to it – so why not? Answering it made me articulate some thoughts that had been lurking under the surface. Here is what I told my friend:
  1. The oath of allegiance. As a naturalised citizen, I would have to take it. Those who are born British only have to in particular cases – principally if they join the armed forces. Whether I believe in it or not is beside the point (after all, even Galileo admitted the Sun revolves around the Earth when it came to the rub). In fact, my deep love for this country probably means I would be quite ready to do a lot for it. The point is that a different standard of patriotism is required from naturalised citizens. I am not comfortable with that – in some senses it would make me feel more like a second-class citizen than I do now.
  2. I would lose some of my rights as a Spanish citizen. Although the UK and Spain have, relatively recently, signed a double-nationality agreement, when you become a citizen of a second country you have to give up some of your rights as a citizen of the first. In particular, you lose the right to seek consular assistance in your original country when you are in the new one. So I would gain some rights (particularly the right to vote in UK parliamentary elections) but lose others.
  3. Deep down, I do not believe in nations. I think the rights and responsibilities of citizens should be defined by our common humanity and our actual individual circumstances, not by some abstract legal constructs of nationhood and citizenship which often do not reflect the much more complex, multi-faceted reality of people’s lives. Somehow applying to become a national of a particular country seems like an endorsement of the very idea of nationhood – which has given us so many evils and does so much to distort every debate about how best to live together.

In summary, my current legal status as a citizen of Spain who is a permanently-resident, tax-paying resident of the UK I think reflects the complexity of who I am much better than the apparent simplification that would be afforded by becoming a UK citizen. That said, the potentially massive loss of rights I would incur if the UK left the EU would seriously reduce my options. Were I to decide to stay in the UK after such an event, I might decide that becoming a UK citizen is the better option. By doing this I would become, on paper, a much simpler entity – a British subject living on British soil. I think the primary motor of the whole Leave campaign is a yearning for simplicity in a world that has become too hard to understand for many people. But you cannot wish away complexity by writing on a piece of paper. My belief is that Brexit would not bring about that simplicity – it would lead to chaos and injustice for everyone.

The simplicity so many people yearn for can only be achieved via a cultural shift. We must move beyond trying to explain the present world using the categorisations that worked well in the past, but which are no longer relevant. Our ideal should be “Imagine”, not “God save the Queen”. I think giving citizens of an EU country living in a different one the vote might be a step in the right direction.

PS: When I expressed the above views to my friend Philip and asked him about his own situation he told me that he took up German citizenship four years ago. As a result, he did not feel disenfranchised as I do. All that was required from him was a more pragmatic attitude towards the symbolism associated with naturalisation than I manage to exhibit. I couldn’t help thinking that his attitude and mine fitted in with long-held national stereotypes: British pragmatism vs the type of Quixotic attitude only a Spaniard could manage to sustain for so long. Another layer of complexity or one of the dangerous simplifications I deplore?


Hysteresis and the European Institutions

November 14, 2015

Readig this interview with Yanis Varoufakis I was pleased to see him mention the phenomenon of hysteresis. Later on, he states

I wish we had never entered the eurozone, which is not the same thing as my saying I think we should get out.

This is exactly the type of comment that it is hard to get across, but it all becomes much clearer when one has an understanding of what hysteresis is. In Varoufakis’ own words:

The path that you take to somewhere, once you get to that somewhere, doesn’t exist anymore. We just can’t turn around upon the original path and find ourselves outside where we used to be.

This observation has important implications in many areas of political discourse. But where does the word “hysteresis” come from?

If you have played with magnets, perhaps as a child, you will have noticed that some metals, when in contact with a magnet, will themselves magnetise. For example, an iron nail stuck to a magnet will itself attract other iron objects. Sometimes this effect remains even after the material is removed: the iron nail keeps attracting other iron objects, so it has effectively become a magnet itself. This is one of the classic examples of hysteresis: the nail has been subjected to an external influence (the magnet) and has changed its properties (become magnetic) with the change remaining even when the original external influence has been taken away.

How does this come about? It turns out that a piece of iron is made up of many “magnetic domains” that is, regions of the sample where the magnetisations of different atoms are all pointing in the same way, leading to a net magnetisation of the domain. The magnetisations of different domains, however, point in random directions, which is why a piece of iron is usually not, by itself magnetic. However, application of an external magnetic field will orient the domain magnetisations, so that they all now point in the same direction. This makes the iron have a net magnetic field of its own. The thing is, the domains actually have lower energy when they are aligned, so when we then remove the applied field they stay in the aligned configuration.
An “energy barrier” was overcome by the external field. Once the system has gone over the barrier, you cannot take things back to the way they were simply by removing the field that took the syste to the state it is in now.

The same happens with the European Union and other international institutions. Their creation overcomes barriers and makes the participating countries change in ways that are irreversible. Going back to the situation where those institutions no longer exist does not take us back to the original state – it leaves us in a different state altogether. I think that is what Varpufakis means when he says that it is one thing to wish that bis cou try nad never entered the Euro, a d a different thing altogether to wa t it to get out. Reforming the Euro zone is tbe only way forward – dismantling it is not an available option anymore.

Quite horrified…

November 13, 2015

…after reading Christine Odone’s article complaining that her daughter is being overly encouraged into studying scientific subjects at school. She fails to see the poetry in science, its role as the ultimate challenge of authority and liberation of the human intellect.

I think, however, that if we use economic arguments to convince politicians that more of the population (e.g. girls) should be given access to, and encouraged to take up, scientific subjects then we are bound to antagonise the “arty types” who feel pressurised to do something for purely economic reasons, something they see no meaning in. It is, of course, quite circular: they don’t see the meaning because they don’t understand it (sadly, C. P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” is as relevant as ever).

Thousands of women and men lost their lives over many centuries trying to pursue science in the face of virulent opposition from religious authorities and others: Hypathia of Alexandria, Girodano Bruno, Miguel Servet… It’s a long and illustrious list. What would they say if they saw how we have now reduced the reasons for pursuing science to merely pragmatic and economic ones?

But of course if we make the effort to convince by appealing to the poetry of the Universe, the struggle to find truth in the face of authority, the liberating effect of reason and experimentation, then we lose the politicians and the captains of industry that ultimately will fund the efforts to do science and to extend its appeal to a wider and wider section of the population.

I just wish that self-declared “arty types” like Odone were able to see through what’s going on. The sad truth is that you cannot feel passionate about science if you do not have an understanding of it.

I Saw it There

October 6, 2015

My country was in flames and then
I saw it there: the British flag,
a friendly face.

It was the worst day of my life.

Huddled and cold we were.
The trip was long, the night was dark,
but a warm soup lit our hearts.

It was the worst week of my life.

Daily shopping, the school run,
read the papers, bask
in the warmest winter sun.

It was the worst month of my life.

Walking through the masses
my eye catches your eye.
A spark, an understanding,
a shared life – so many plans.

It was the worst year of my life.

Because it gave me hope it was the worst day of my life,
because I felt that warmth it was the worst week of my life,
because I was at home it was the worst month of my life,
because I became yours it was the worst year of my life.

Because I’m in despair, so cold,
unrooted and adrift in this barren land
in flames no more – just smouldering –
this land that they call mine.


Six O’Clock News, BBC Radio 4
Tuesday 6 October 2015

The Commons Science and Technology select committee returns

July 1, 2009

The fact that Science thrives precisely when scientists are left alone must be one of the most annoying aspects of modern society for politicians to contemplate – especially when one considers how expensive it is. The temptation to tell scientists exaclty what they ought to be doing with the taxpayer’s money must be really strong (and understandable). So it is good that the Commons Science and Technology select committee has returned to public life in the UK. Hopefully it will act as a check on the power of government over the scientific community in this country.

Eugenie Reich’s take on the Schön affair

June 19, 2009

Last month’s issue of Physics World contains an article by Eugenie Reich on the Schön affair. It is an edited excerpt of the book on the same topic that she has been working hard on for the last few years. I know that because she was already at it when I met her in Vienna in 2005.

Here is a quote that I guess sums up what the author has concluded about the celebrated self-correction properties of science:

The self-correcting process happened, but it was haphazard and disorganized, with a lot of self-doubt along the way. In comparison with the archetypal picture of scientists as an army of self-correctors marching in an organized way towards the truth, this was more of a guerrilla war.

I think Reich’s book will make compulsory reading for all physicists – particularly those involved in condensed matter research. After all, the unmasking of Hendrik Schön relied, according to the author, on the inspired actions of a few individuals who had to go, initially, against the mainstream. Our obligation
as researchers is not only not to commit fraud ourselves, but also to be vigilant about what our colleagues are doing – our collaborators and those whose works we cite in our own papers.

One interesting aspect of the Schön affair is that it happened, as Eugenie mentions, at a time when employees at Bell labs were subject to a lot of pressure. This brings to my mind the additional responsibilities of managers of research organisations to create the conditions under which honest, intelligent research thrives and ‘bullshitting’ opportunists have a hard time. This is particularly relevant to organizations like national or industrial laboratories that are outside of academia, as in them managers wield a lot more power than in universities. It seems that just the opposite was happening in Bell labs at the time of Hendrik Schön’s deceptions.

Greg Kochanski wrote a very interesting article on the way the performance review process worked at Bell labs. He emphasized how the positive effects of this management instrument could turn into the very opposite in times of difficulty – like those being experienced while Schön was working there. Coincidentally (or not?), Kochanski has a blog post on a closely related topic this month. He ventures that

There is a good argument to be made that it is the extreme level of competition in science that drives a lot of fraud and bad behaviour.  And it drives a lot of the self-delusion, too.  It’s much easier to, somehow, never get around to making those potentially embarassing checks of your results if you are in a hurry and under pressure.

Somehow it does not seem entirely improbable, but if so it is not devoid of irony. It would suggest that scientists lacking job security as well as moral fiber would be deliberately sloppy in their research in order to hang on to scientific careers whose meaning is completely lost once their publications can no longer be trusted. I guess it is possible: some people don’t know when to give up. On the other hand, Hendrik Schön seems to have been aiming much higher: he wanted not only to survive, but indeed to obtain the highest accolades… I guess there is only so much one can understand about the mind of scientists engaging in such behaviours.