EU Politics: Facts and Prejudice

June 8, 2016

With the coming EU referendum here, in the UK, I am having to dig out of the Net lots of information for the benefit of Facebook friends and fellow Facebook group members so I’ve decided to start putting some of it up here for more general consumption.


The EU is where old failed politicians go to die.


The vast majority of EU politicians are Members of the European Parlient (MEP’s – similar to MP’s). The MEP’s elect the President of the Commission (similarly to how MP’s elect the Prime Minister) who then appoints his/her commissioners.

MEP’s are not particularly old. In actual fact, a 66-year age gap separates the youngest from the oldest MEP in the European Parliament that came out of the 2014 elections. The youngest MEP is 26 years old. The average age of MEP’s in the current European Parliament is about 50 – the same as in Westminster.

More importantly, tje perception that once you are an MEP it is a stable job which will last for life is very mistaken. Only about half of the MEP’s got re-elected, with the other half going on to do other things with their lives. As a point of comparison, two thirds of Westminster MP’s were relected at the 2015 election.  So being a Westminster MP is a much more secure job than being a European MEP.

Data from:



European History Lesson Number 1: The British Save the Day

June 2, 2016



May 29, 2016

note290516_01.jpgWe are curious because curiosity gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage: curious people knew where there were dangers, where to find food, where to find shelter. A curious person held a branch on fire rather than running away from it – not because she or he guessed it could come useful for cooking, for heating, or as a weapon or a source of energy –  but because they were intensely curious about it. It’s our most useful instinct.

Curiosity-led scientific research is the collective embodiment of human curiosity. It is helping us to survive and develop as a species. The moment we stop doing it will be the beginning of the end for our species.

We must fight to enshrine social support for curiosity-driven research. That’s research we do because we want to know, not because we want to achieve something. That’s the type of research that will save our civilisation from global warming, from hurtling meteorites, from dangerous microbes – from everything that, without our curiosity, we would never even have known about.

La inteligencia de las máquinas — Miguel Ángel Quintanilla Fisac

April 29, 2016

Estos días estamos celebrando en el Instituto de Estudios de la Ciencia y la Tecnología el seminario anual de doctorandos, en el que los estudiantes exponen y discuten los avances que han conseguido en sus investigaciones durante el último año. Allí se tratan multitud de asuntos relativos a nuestra cultura científica y tecnológica y se […]

via La inteligencia de las máquinas — Miguel Ángel Quintanilla Fisac

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?

Thank you, Professor Eco

February 21, 2016

Umberto Eco has died aged 84.

There are few intellects I admired more than Eco’s. The tiny bit of his work that I had the good fortune to read shaped much of my worldview and even some of my deepest feelings.

My PhD thesis on unconventional superconductors opened with a quote from The Name of The Rose: «Nessuno ci impone di sapere, Adso. Si deve, ecco tutto, anche a costo di capire male.» I asked an Italian colleague, fellow physicist Natascia Andrenacci, to look for those sentences in her copy of the book so I could quote the original (I asked her in an email if she owned one; she explained that everyone in Italy did). I then asked a friend, Caroline Turner, to check that my English translation made sense: “No one demands that we know, Adso. We must, that is all, even at the risk of being wrong.” I had come across these sentences first in Spanish. I felt the English edition did not make them justice. I think the author of “Mouse or Rat?” would have appreciated my vicisitude.

The Name of the Rose could be intepreted as a post-post-modern parable of scientific research. As William of Baskerville explains to Adso, our theories may be wrong, but they allow us to reach a truth, described by a better theory, that we would never otherwise have reached. That truth, of course, is subject to the same relativism and so on ad infinitum. But there is something to find out, and that’s what matters.

I always thought the ideas in “Mouse or Rat?”, his collection of essays on translation, could also be adapted as a vindication of the hopefulness of science from a postmodern perspective. In Eco’s view, exactness cannot exist in translation, but loyalty and faithfulness does. Is that what we are doing when we describe the physical world: translating God’s design (speaking metaphorically, of course) into a description that could never really capture it, but might at least constitute an honest, coherent attempt? I always wondered if Eco had ever written on this subject or at least entertained similar ideas. I should have written to him to ask, but I didn’t. Now I’ve missed my chance.

Even more important to me than Eco’s ideas was the way reading him can connect us with some very basic features of what it is to be alive, and human. In Foucault’s Pendulum the main character, when he realises that all is lost for him, focuses on his young son, and imagines him having his special moment, that instant when being, place and time itself combine together to produce an intense awareness of the sensory wonderness of our world and our being sentient beings in it. He wonders what will make it for his son. Observing a little ant, maybe? Eco’s monumentally important point is that, above and beyond any Popperian, rational arguments against magical thinking and conspiracy theories like the ones pursued by the main character’s tormentors, their way of thinking misses the very point of what fascinates that “diabolical” horde: the inherent trascendnce in our being in this world. Such transcendence is not achieved by reason, be it through the (diabolical) discovery of hidden networks of conspirators or the (scientific) unveiling of fundamental laws of nature, but by raw sensory awareness and self-awareness. It’s not a thought, but a feeling.

Many years later, when my daughter was born, I wrote her a poem (as sentimental parents do) and wondered what wonders she would see today. The poem mentions a little ant as an example of what something wondrous could be for a little baby. I now realise I was channelling Eco without even noticing it.

Like Richard Feynman, Eco teaches us not just that to think deeply is fun, but that we must think deeply because it is fun.

Thank you, Professor Eco. I wish your special moment, whenever that was, and whatever it consisted of, was as eye-widening and intense as any could ever have been.

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.