Archive for July 2008

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 31 July 2008 at 9:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

At just past 9am tomorrow morning in the UK, a solar eclipse will begin. Solar eclipses occur when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun. The moon casts a shadow on the Earth as it passes, causing the sun to appear to dim and even vanish momentarily. Unfortunately for those of you in the UK, the eclipse will not be “total” – meaning a complete blackout of the sun – it will be more like 20% coverage, so only a slight dip in light levels.

Total solar eclipse in 1999

To see a total eclipse you would have to be on the “path of totality” -in this case northern Canada, central Russia, western Mongolia, India or China. These lucky countries will experience a moment much like the image above. You can check out the path with this handy Google Map.

A word of caution: as you should know, looking directly at the sun is extremely dangerous, and can damage your eyes. Even during an eclipse this risk is still present, and the safest way to view one is through indirect methods such as pinhole projection. Be safe when observing an eclipse!

On a slightly lighter note, I leave you with this not very scientific, but classic, Jaffa Cake advert:

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 30 July 2008 at 2:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology

Following on from yesterday’s story on Virgin Galactic’s latest airborne creation, we have the Martin Jetpack (the site is pretty slow at the moment, presumably due to all the current media attention.) Not a jetpack in the truest sense as it is powered by large duct fans rather than an airplane-like jet engine, it can nevertheless reach six feet into the air. The designer, Glenn Martin, expects to eventually reach 8,000 feet – although it would normally be operated much lower at between 1,500 and 2000 feet at a top speed of over 60mph.

Harrison Martin demonstrates the Martin Jetpack at AirVenture

The machine was revealed to the public at the AirVenture air show yesterday, where it was piloted by Martin’s son Harrison who has been testing the craft in secret since he was 15 years old. Now 16, his demonstration took place just a few feet off the ground, and he was assisted by helpers holding him down on either side.

Glenn Martin plans to sell the jetpacks for $100,000 dollars each, and will begin training the first 10 Rocketeer hopefuls next year in New Zealand where Martin lives. His website states “all owners are required to pass the Martin Aircraft Company approved training program before receipt of their aircraft,” and that although a pilots license is not necessary, “to attempt to fly any aircraft without professional instruction is extremely foolhardy.”

I can’t help but agree with him. I am currently learning to drive, and find handling a vehicle in two dimensions difficult enough. The prospect of strapping two large fans to my back and navigating the skies is frankly terrifying, and unlike yesterday’s promised of mass spaceflight, I’m not sure that we will every see jetpacks in use by the general public – if only because governments will never fully allow it. On the other hand, the media was equally as doubting of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, and now millions of people fly in planes daily. Perhaps the personal jetpack is just waiting to take off.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 29 July 2008 at 5:28 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

Yesterday Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson’s private spaceflight company, unveiled WhiteKnightTwo, designed to carry the smaller SpaceShipTwo 15.5km above the Earth before flinging it (along with its cargo of six passengers and two pilots) on its journey into space. The new WhiteKnightTwo has been christened “EVE” after Sir Richard’s mother.

WhiteKnightTwo on the tarmac

WhiteKnightTwo is based on the prototype White Knight, which together with SpaceShipOne won a $10mil prize in October 2004 when it was successfully launched to the edge of space, at 100km above the Earth. This success lead to Virgin Galactic commission the spaceship’s designer Burt Rutan to develop WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo with his company Scaled Composites.

WhiteKnightTwo is to begin test flights in the coming months, so it can be ready to carry SpaceShipTwo into the sky. Scaled Composites are nearing completion on the craft and they expect it to join its larger sibling in 2009.

SpaceShipTwo is launched with the aid of WhiteKnightTwo

Around 250 seats have been sold on Virgin Galactic flights so far, at a cost of $200,000. Sir Richard and his family plan to be aboard the maiden voyage which is set to take place in late 2009 to early 2010. Personally I wish them all great success, as going into space has always been a dream for me. I just hope the prices fall to affordable levels in the next few decades!

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 28 July 2008 at 7:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

One of my science communication pet hates is stories about scientists discovering “the formula for x”, where x is a successful sitcom, why people vote, or happiness, just to name a few.

The latest culprit is PR agent Mark Borkowski who claims to have found a “scientific formula” for fame. The formula itself is given as follows:

F(T) = B+P(1/10T+1/2T2)


F is the level of fame;

T is time, measured in three-monthly intervals. So T=1 is after three months, T=2 is after six months, etc. Fame is at its peak when T=0. (Putting T=0 into the equation gives an infinite fame peak, not mathematically accurate, perhaps, but the concept of the level of fame being off the radar is apposite.);

B is a base level of fame that we identified and quantified by analysing the average level of fame in the year before peak. For George Clooney, B would be a large number, but for a fabulous nobody, like a new Big Brother contestant, B is zero;

P is the increment of fame above the base level, that establishes the individual firmly at the front of public consciousness.

Not that it really matters, but this is terribly unclear. A more correct way to write it would be F(T) = B+(1/(10T)+1/(2T^2))*P, eliminating any ambiguity as to what each symbol means, but as with all of these stories scientific accuracy is not high on the agenda. Borkowski has made the same two mistakes that always crop up in these formulas – unmeasurable variables and confirmation bias.

The unmeasurable variables in this case are F, B, and P. T is time, where the units of T are periods of 3 months – not exactly orthodox, but still completely measurable. F, B and P however are measures of fame, for which I know of no scientific units. Perhaps fame is measured in the units of star power – solar luminosity.

Yes, I’m being facetious, but it is an important point. One of the greatest tools available to a scientist are the standard units of measurement known as SI units. I’ll talk about them in more depth another day, but they include metres, kilograms, and seconds – quantities we are all familiar with. This common set of units allow scientists to communicate their findings in a meaningful way, and the results of not confirming your units can be disastrous, as NASA discovered when they mixed up feet and metres, causing an unmanned spaceship to crash.

The other problem, confirmation bias, is an interesting one. It basically amounts to “people believe what they want to believe”, and it’s definitely in action here. Borkowski wanted to match Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame with his own 15 months of fame:

I started to wonder if Andy Warhol – an artist by calling but a master of the stunt and the soundbite – was right; does everyone get 15 minutes of fame? It occurred to me that it should be possible to look at fame statistically, to analyse the evidence we have all witnessed in the media, to see if fame’s decline can be quantified. The answer, I discovered, is that it can be, and that Warhol was partially right – but the first spike of fame will last 15 months, not 15 minutes.

In looking at fame “statistically”, it turns out that 15 months is exactly right! Well done, Borkowski.

This formula fits the data remarkably well, giving a precise numerical value to the 15-month theory: if I put in T=5 (corresponding to 15 months after the peak), it gives F=B+P(1/50+1/50), which works out at F=B+.04P. In other words, up to 96% of the fame-boost achieved at the peak of public attention has been frittered away, and the client or product is almost back to base level.

Of course, if you put in T = 6 (i.e. 18 months) you get F = B + 0.03P (rounding off the decimal point). Three months later, it appears our Big Brother contestant hasn’t really got much less famous than they were after 15 months. What about after two years, when T = 8? In that case, F = B + 0.02P – fame doesn’t really appear to be dropping off very quickly, does it? The claim that ‘the study showed pretty conclusively that any specific boost to fame is sustained for approximately 15 months…’ isn’t remotely conclusive – in fact, I’ve just show that you can reach an entirely different conclusion by choosing different values of T.

The reason I hate these formula stories with a passion is that they damage the public perception of science. The ideas they offer are meaningless, suggesting that all scientist do is sit around dunking biscuits in a quest for perfection. That story is nearly a decade old, so the junk equation is clearly not a new concept, and I don’t think we will be rid of it any time soon. So, the next time you see an article proclaiming that science has once more advanced, and we now know how to calculate the cuteness of puppies or the magic of rainbows, please do the only sensible thing – ignore it.

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 27 July 2008 at 5:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

Welcome all, to Just A Theory, my own little corner of the internet. Hopefully you are here because you have at least a passing interest in science. I love science. I love opening a newspaper to read about an amazing new discovery, with the potential to change the world. I love watching documentaries about passionate people explaining their ideas. I love the beauty of Euler’s equation, which communicates a world of mathematics in just seven symbols. I even love science fiction, despite its propensity to get the science wrong.

I think my passion for science stems from simply asking the question ‘why?’ By the time I was 7 years old, my parents had clearly had enough of answering ‘why?’ and bought me a copy of the Oxford Children’s Encyclopedia. A fantastic set of books, I still have my copy, although it has been horribly abused with broken spines, ripped pages, and everything else that makes a book lover weep. I like to see its dishevelled state as a testament to how many times I read it, as I enjoyed learning about exciting concepts such as black holes and gravity for the very first time.

Most children like learning about science (after all, who doesn’t like blowing things up in experiments) but many are turned off when the fun gives way to SATs, GCSEs, and endless learning of facts by rote. When they grow up and become adults, exposure to science is often in the form of scare stories – hardly inspiring.

It’s such a shame that these people are turned off to science. Science provides so much for us, but it is also very misunderstood by those who benefit from it every day. Part of the problem is the majority of scientists are not expert communicators. The stereotype of a bearded man in a lab coat who wanders around in a world of his own is of course exactly that, but not completely untrue. When you have devoted your entire life to one area of study, it can be very hard to explain your ideas to a media that thrives on sound bites.

In October I will be starting a course on Science Communication at Imperial College. I hope that this will lead me into a career as a science communicator, someone who can take these grand ideas and present them so they will be understood, appreciated and enjoyed by the public at large. As such, I had been planning to start this website for a few months now, but as is so often the case I put it off until the proper motivation arrived, in the form of Science Blogging 2008. I’m looking forward to the extensive programme, as well as meeting other science bloggers. Of course, I’ll post a full account after the event next month.

I hope that you enjoy Just A Theory, and find it both informative and entertaining. Feel free to leave a comment with any thoughts or suggestions you may have. Your first comment will be held in a queue for moderation before appearing on the site – annoying, I agree, but comment spamming is almost as bad as the email variety. Once it has been approved, any further comments will be published immediately. Thank you for visiting, and once again – welcome.