Archive for August 2008


2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 31 August 2008 at 5:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

So, the Science Blogging Conference 2008 has been and gone. I managed to get to the Royal Institution, a place I have never been, without getting too lost. It’s a pretty impressive building, and recent renovation has made the interior seem like a cool place to visit.

Breakfast was on offer as the delegates arrived, but I had already eaten so partook in the usual milling about that tends to take place at these sorts of things. Amongst others I spoke to David Bradley from Sciencebase, although I didn’t manage to match the name to the site until I got home. Eventually we were called to the famous Faraday theatre, where lectures have been held since the early nineteenth century.

After an introduction by the Nature Network hosts, the first speaker was Ben Goldacre from Bad Science. As good a speaker as he is a writer, he talked about the concept of “microfame”, and how “everyone is famous for 15 people” (not 15 months, Mark Borkowski), by which he meant that feeling you get when you meet someone whose blog you really enjoy and go “oh wow, you’re so-and-so from so-and-so.com!” He also called for fewer science writers, and more science editors – people to facilitate scientists talking about their own work, in their own words. Amusingly it was at this point he realised, mid-anecdote, that the proceedings were being filmed and so he quickly skipped over whatever it was he was about to say. Hope no one was insulted!

Next up was a panel with three bloggers who blog about what it is like to be a scientist. I was actually surprised how many people at the conference were scientists who blog, rather than those such as myself who blog about science. As such, there wasn’t much in the way of advice that I could take away from the session, but I did agree with the panellists that scientists blogging about themselves is a great way to show the public they aren’t all weirdos who talk in a strange, made-up language to confuse everybody else. They are in fact people, just like you and me – though I won’t deny there weren’t a few “mad scientist” hairstyles around.

After a short coffee pit-stop was the first of the “breakout” sessions, for which you had to choose one of three parallel talks. I went for “There’s a giraffe on my unicycle: Can blogging unlock your creativity?” Let’s be honest, I was mostly there for the title.

The session itself turned out to be more about creativity in general rather than blogging in particular, but there was an amusing exercise in which we were asked to come up a list of things you can’t use a coathanger for. Answers ranged from the obvious (drink it) to the meta (run a creativity workshop). In the end, the point was to teach us to challenge our assumptions – after all, no one said the coathanger was made out of metal, so why couldn’t you make an ice-coathanger, melt it, then drink it?

Pausing for a very tasty lunch (with smoked salmon, no less – thanks Nature!) I then had to pick my second breakout session. This time I chose the slightly less crazily titled “Communicating Primary Research Publicly”, in which I learnt about a concept called Open Notebook Science. Some scientists have taken blogging to the extreme, and put everything they do online. All daily lab reports, even the experiments that went wrong, are uploaded to the internet for all to see.

It seemed to be quite a firey topic, with some of the audience questioning how one could possibly conduct research under such conditions – couldn’t anyone just come along and scoop your results? Jean-Claude Bradley, one of the people leading the discussion and a strong advocate for Open Notebook Science, disagreed. He saw it as a really true form of science, in which everything is documented and open for anyone to dispute or verify. It’s definitely something I’m interested in finding out more about, so look out for future posts on the topic.

The final breakout sessions were “unconference” sessions. These were proposed and voted upon by the delegates, and not part of the pre-planned schedule. I can’t remember what the other two on offer were, but I went along to “Bored of blogging”. Now don’t worry, I’m not actually bored of blogging, however I do find myself less motivated than usual to write on some days. I thought the session would be a good opportunity to find out how others keep on the blogging track.

It was run by a guy named Scott Keir, who began by introducing himself Alcoholics Anonymous style – “Hi, I’m Scott, and I’m bored of blogging”. As it was a much smaller session that the others I had been to, this got much more audience participation, in a similar style. People admitted to having not blogged for two days, two weeks, or even two months! Truly, truly shocking. Nothing huge came out of it, but it was an enjoyable session.

The final panel wrapped up various topics that had come up throughout the course of the day. Open Notebook Science came up again, and the discussion was even more heated. If it had been on a blog it might even have descended into a flame war! I’ll definitely have to look into just how divided scientists are over ONS.

As the conference drew to a close, I decided to pass on the offer of post-conference drinks, and just head home. Truth be told, I was knackered – a long, hot day makes me want to go to sleep! All in all though, it was an enjoyable day and made me look forward even more to starting the course at Imperial (just over a month to go now!) I also realised that Nature Network is definitely the place to be when it comes to science blogging, so I’m going to spend some time checking out their blogs. Roll on Science Blogging Conference 2009!

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 30 August 2008 at 7:12 am by Jacob Aron
In Education

Bit of a cheat this post, as most of the work has been done by someone else, but as I’m just about to leave for the Science Blogging conference I thought I’d quickly through this up. I’ll give a full recap of the days events tomorrow, and probably bump the weekly roundup to Monday. Ok? Now, on to the post:
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Comments Off Posted on Friday 29 August 2008 at 12:58 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

A team at MIT have created microscopic batteries built with viruses. The tiny batteries are half the size of a human cell and could have many applications such as powering implanted medical devices such as a pacemaker.

Microbatteries, each only four micrometers in diameter.

They could even be spun into fibres and then woven in to your clothes – although the researchers are still working on that, according to team leader Angela Belcher:

“We definitely don’t have full batteries on those [fiber architectures]. We’ve only worked on single electrodes so far, but the idea is to try to make these fiber batteries that could be integrated into textiles and woven into lots of different shapes.”

The batteries are made by genetically engineering viruses to form wires from individual molecules of materials such as cobalt oxide. The viruses have been specifically engineered to make them ideal for working at room temperature and pressure. They also can’t reproduce by themselves, and will only infect bacteria. They form a wire 17,000 times thinner than a sheet of paper that is packed together to make part of the battery.

The teams next goal is to work on applying thee batteries to curved surfaces, as well as looking at integrating the batteries with other biological organisms.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 28 August 2008 at 1:18 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

Space is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.

Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, makes a good point. The sheer giganticness of the universe is extremely difficult for us to comprehend. I find that even with adequate analogies, my brain still wants to dribble out my ears in protest at just how big it is. Even so I’ll give it a try. Let’s start locally, in our own solar system.

The Earth orbits the sun at an average distance of around 149,598,000 km – a distance known as one astronomical unit, or AU. In comparison, the average circumference of the Earth is just 40,041 km, or 0.0003 AU. Already, the mind boggles. Don’t Panic, as Douglas Adams’ Guide would tell us. We can use a trip to the chemist’s to help us understand.

Imagine we shrink the Earth to a circumference of 1 km. Forget about pesky things like changes in gravity or the question of where all 6.5 billion of us are going to stand – we’re just interested in making a new scale. On one side of our 1 km Earth is your house. On the exact opposite side is the chemist’s – at 500 meters away, it’s about a 5 minutes walk. The orbit of the Earth around the sun is now 3736 km – still pretty big, but we can visualise it. Roughly the same as the journey from New York to Los Angeles on the real Earth, it would take you a little over three and a half weeks to walk there from your house. That’s quite a few trips to the chemist’s.

Suppose the chemist’s decides to open a new branch, on the sun. Maybe head office decided they’d make a killing in the sun cream market, who knows. The trouble is they’ve closed your local branch on the 1 km Earth, and you really can’t be bothered to make the three and a half week trip to the new solar store. You call up head office to complain, and they agree to cut you a deal. They’re still going to open their new branch, but they’ve offered to shrink the solar system for you, so that the Earth is 1 km away from the sun. It’ll be twice the walk you had before, but it’s only ten minutes away so you can’t really grumble.

In other words, we’re now working at a scale of 1 km = 1 AU. The nearest star to the sun, Proxima Centuri, is about 4.2 light years away. A light year is exactly what it sounds like: the distance light will travel in a year. Light is pretty speedy at 300,000 km/s, and takes approximately eight minutes to get from the sun to us on Earth. Even so, Proxima Centuri is going to take you much longer to get to than the chemist’s. It works out that 4.2 light years is just over 265,600 AU, so in our shrunken solar system a walk to Proxima Centuri takes five years.

Time to kick things up a notch. The Andromeda Galaxy, the largest in our Local Group of galaxies, is 2,560,000 light years away. You’ve got some friends there, but you don’t see them very much because in a 1 km = 1 AU universe it takes 3 million years to walk and really, that’s hard to fit in to a day trip.

Thing is, they have some sort of magic communication device that can send messages across the vastness of space in an instance and they keep telling you about this great chemist’s, just round the corner from them. You borrow the magic communication device and call up the chemist’s to explain the situation. They’re very sympathetic, and shrink the universe for you down to 1km = 1,000,000 light years. We’re talking the better part of half an hour’s walk to get there, but it really is a very good chemist’s. Sure, your old chemist’s back on the other side of the Earth is now only a 0.000000000003 seconds away and you could walk there and back 15 million times in literally the blink of an eye, but let’s be honest – you never liked them anyway.

What does the universe look like on our new scale? Our current best estimate of the diameter of the observable universe is 93 billion light years. The observable universe is a subtly different concept to the universe proper. Since nothing can travel faster than light, we can have no knowledge of an object in the universe unless light emitted by it has reached us. The Big Bang, which created the universe, took placed 13.73 billion years ago.

“Hang on a moment,” you cry. “How can light have reached us from 93 billion light years away if there have only ever been 13.73 billion years for it to travel in?” The answer is expansion. The universe has been expanding ever since the Big Bang, and the space between galaxies and all other objects can expand faster than the speed of light.

It’s a difficult concept to grasp. The question that immediatly pops up is “what is the universe expanding into?”, but the truth is that there is nothing to expand into – it just expands. It’s a topic I plan to return to in the future, but for now let’s just stick to our figure of 93 billion light years.

After all this walking to and from various chemist’s, you’re probably pretty hungry. I’m going to steal another Hitchiker’s device, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. In the book the restaurant is at the temporal end of the universe, the end of everything, but I’m going to place my restaurant at the edge of the observable universe. Oh, and it’s a chain of restaurants so there is another one on the other side, separated by 93 billion light years. Even on our absolutely massive 1km = 1,000,000 light years scale, it would still take nearly two years to walk from one restaurant to another. That’s certainly a little bit further than a trip to the chemist’s.

2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 27 August 2008 at 11:36 am by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

Just A Theory has now been running for one whole month, so I thought I’d take some time to reflect on how well it is going. I’m happy that I’ve so far managed to post every single day, leading to a total of over 13,000 words published so far! I’m not going to pretend that everything I’ve written has been absolutely amazing, but I’m quite pleased with a few of my posts – these three on combating climate change, Prince Charles’ GM food bashing, and my review of The Genius of Charles Darwin in particular.

I’d be interested to know what my readers think. I know at the moment it is mostly friends and family (along with random Google searchers) checking out the site, so what do you guys think so far? I think my posts break down for the most part into three types: talking about science in the news (“This new thing has been discovered, isn’t it neat?”), talking about others talking about science (“Check this out, they’re getting it wrong/right”), and talking about science in general (such as the two posts on Euler’s equation this week). Which type of post do you prefer?

To encourage people to comment I’ve made it a bit easier by sticking a link to the form at the bottom of every post, in nice, big, friendly letters. Now you don’t have to scroll back up to the top of the post to make yourself heard! So, let me know what you think I’m doing well, and what I could do better.

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 26 August 2008 at 6:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Mathematics

You hopefully now understand the concepts that make up Euler’s equation, so let’s move on to how the equation arises. You may have already realised that for e + 1 = 0 to be true, it must also follow that e = -1, simply by rearranging the equation.

Think about that for a second. You’ve got a combination of three extraordinary numbers – e, i and π – numbers that seem to have no relation what so ever, and they combine to make -1. How can this be? Why don’t these numbers create a horrible decimal like 8.23487 or similar? Two of the numbers, e and π, cannot even be written down in full because they are infinity long, and yet shove i into the mix and we get the simple, beautiful result: -1.

It all stems from the exponential function, ex. A function is basically a rule for turning one number into another. You take your independent variable, x, and plug it into your function to get the dependant variable. A simple function might be f, where f(x) = x2. If you stick x = 2 into f, out pops f(2) = 22 = 4. The exponential function works the same way, just replace x with whatever number you are interested in. For Euler’s equation, x = iπ gives us the desired result.

Some functions can be expressed as lots of other functions – an infinite number of functions, in fact. This representation is often of a type known as a Taylor series, and for ex it looks like this (I’ve borrowed a graphic from Wikipedia to make it clearer):

I’ve mentioned factorials like 2! and 3! before, but a quick reminder: n! just means “multiply together all the numbers from 1 to n. The ellipsis at the end of the equation means that the pattern goes on forever. “Well how does that help?” you ask. “Now I’ve got an infinite amount of things to deal with, and we don’t seem to be getting any closer to -1!” Fear not.

You see, ex is actually hiding two other functions you may remember from school – the trigonometric duo, sinx and cosx. These two help you work out the length of a triangle’s sides from its angles, and they crop up everywhere in mathematics. When you stick x = iy (y is just another variable, like x) into our exponential function, it turns out that the Taylor series above becomes equal to two series added together – the series for cosy and isiny.

This means that eiy = cosy + isiny. Like so many things in mathematics, this equation has an alternate, geometric representation – in this case, eiy traces out a circle in the complex plane, a way of representing both real and imaginary numbers. Once more, Wikipedia has an excellent representation. They have used the Greek letter phi rather than the y I use here, but it means the same.

We’re nearly there now. We just need to set y = π, which represents a turn half way around the circle. This also happens to place us on the point where the circle intersects the real numbers at -1; in other words, e = -1. This is because cosπ = -1 and isinπ = 0. This what Euler realised, and although it is thought that he never actually wrote the expression e + 1 = 0, it follows directly from his result.

Euler’s equation summarises addition, multiplication, and exponentiation using five of the most important numbers in mathematics; e, i, π, 1, 0. It’s a truth universal in any language and to any culture. There is quite journey to get the equation, but one I believe is well worth travelling. I hope my explanation here leads you to agree.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 25 August 2008 at 7:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Mathematics

In the very first post on Just a Theory I mentioned Euler’s equation, considered by many to be the most beautiful equation in the whole of mathematics. I decided to share with you everything I know about this wonderful equation, e + 1 = 0. Let’s start with some of the more unfamiliar elements.

π: You’ve probably met π, written Pi and pronounced “pie”, before and perhaps you remember that it is the number you get when dividing the circumference of a circle by its diameter. This neat little Wikipedia animation demonstrates the principle. Pi has an infinite number of digits because it is an irrational number; this means that it cannot be represented by a simple fraction such as 1/2 or 365/789. I’m hopeless at remembering digits of Pi and normally stick to 3.14.

i: What is the square root of 4? In other words, what number must you multiply by itself to get 4? The answer is of course 2. What about the square root of -4? It can’t be -2, because -2 is also the square root of 4 – since multiplying two negative numbers results in a positive number. The answer is 2i, because i is defined as the square root of -1. i is an imaginary number – but that doesn’t mean it’s just made up. For example, many problem in electrical engineering can only be expressed using i.

e: Another irrational number like π, e is the base of the natural logarithm. What that means isn’t really important in this context – just think of it as another important mathematical constant like π. The numerical value of e is approximately 2.718.

Exponentiation: You should be familiar with the concept of raising one number to the power of another, such as 23 = 2 x 2 x 2 = 8. This is exponentiation. What does the strange beast e represent then? If you are trying to multiply e by itself times you might be left scratching your head, but all will become clear as Euler’s equation is explained.

What with it being a bank holiday, I’ll give you a break and leave it there for today. Hopefully you’ve understood these building blocks, and your ready to tackle the full equation tomorrow. If not, leave a message in the comments and let me know if you need further clarification.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 24 August 2008 at 12:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Psychology, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Going, going, found!

A new species of insect was found this week – on eBay. Dr Richard Harrington, vice-president of the UK’s Royal Entomological Society, paid £20 for a 40-50 million-year-old fossilised insect trapped in amber. After struggling to identify it he sent the purchase to Professor Ole Heie, an aphid expert in Denmark, who confirmed it was a previously undiscovered type of aphid.

Professor Heie named the insect Mindarus harringtoni after its purchaser, but Dr Harrington himself had wanted to go for something slightly more unorthodox. “I had thought it would be rather nice to call it Mindarus ebayi,” he said. “Unfortunately, using flippant names to describe new species is rather frowned upon these days.”

Because you can’t just have one…

If you are trying to lose weight, going for a small bag of crisps rather than a larger one might seem the obvious route, but researchers from the Technical University of Lisbon and Tilburg University in the Netherlands have found that this may not be the case. Participants in a study were asked to complete a questionnaire on body satisfaction and dieting, then weighed and measure in front of a mirror in order to active their “dietary concerns” – in other words, to get them to watch their weight. Along with a control group who had not had their “dietary concerns” activated, they then watched episodes of Friends (aside: why Friends? Perhaps due to its constant looping on E4…) and were asked to evaluate the adverts.

In fact, the researchers were watching their consumption of the crisps that had been provided. Available in large or small packaging, the study found the “dietary concerns” group given large packages at the fewest number of crisps. The conclusion was that large packages made participants think of overeating and dieting, but small packages were “innocent pleasures” that did not trigger dieting concerns. My conclusion: I now want some crisps.

Power adaptor tyranny could soon be over

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a few gadgets. When ever I travel anywhere I have to take a mess of power adaptors to feed my phone, mp3 player and Nintendo DS – I’m just thankful I don’t have a laptop to add to the mix. It’s also easy to forget to plug the damn things in, leaving me to play the “do I have enough battery life to make this call?” game. I’ve often thought of a solution – a “power pad” on my desk, where any electrical device would charge simply by being left there and forgotten about.

The technology exists – your electric toothbrush is charged not by wires, but by magnetic induction. Flowing electrons in a circuit generate a magnetic field which in turn induces electron flow in nearby circuits – bam, wireless electricity. I had assumed that the process was too slow to be of use with general electronics, and left it at that.

Turns out I should have got to work on a prototype, because MIT and Intel have found a way to make it work – and not just in close contact. They demonstrated a 60-watt light bulb powered by an energy source three feet away, with no wires in sight. The technology is at least five years away however, especially one-quarter of the energy is lost in transmission. In a world increasingly looking to improve energy usage, 75% efficiency is pretty unacceptable. Still, I can’t wait to get rid of those chargers.

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1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 23 August 2008 at 4:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry

Just a brief post today, although I will be making it up with a longer than usual weekly roundup tomorrow. All I have today is a game that challenges you to name all of the elements of the periodic table, in under 15 minutes. I mustered a meagre 24 out of 118, and missed out a few embarrassingly obvious ones. As a hint/bonus, I offer The Elements, a song by the most excellent Tom Lehrer.

1 Comment » Posted on Friday 22 August 2008 at 4:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong

David Bradley over at Sciencebase has written an interesting article on scientific stereotypes and the perception that science is only done by weird men in lab coats.

He mentions a survey performed by a team from Leicester University and Curtin University of Technology in Australia, where preliminary results have found that most children aged six to eight perceive scientists to be white, male, and endowed with crazy hair. Worryingly, many children say they don’t want to become a scientist when they grow up because scientists (supposedly!) never have any fun.

Lead researcher Tina Jarvis found that when asked to draw a scientist, boys never drew women and girls would only do so occasionally. Black and Asian children would also fall in line with stereotype and draw white scientists, rather than someone from their own ethnic background. Is it any wonder that science struggles to attract girls and members of ethnic minorities to the profession?

Perhaps not. I was listening to a discussion on PM on Radio 4 the other day, about how the elderly are discriminated against by “elderly people crossing” signs which depict them as frail and infirm. The guy from the road signs organisation (name escapes me, unfortunately) argued that whilst it would be possible to change to a more political correct sign, you would actually lose the usefulness of the sign.

Everyone knows what a frail old man with a walking stick represents, and I think it could be the same with the scientists. The children were asked to draw a scientist and sketched the stereotype so that they would be clearly understood. Marilyn Fleer, associate professor of education at the University of Canberra in Australia, agrees with me:

“Although there are still stereotypical responses given when children are asked to draw a scientist, if you interview them they will qualify their work by saying they had to draw it that way, so that you know what it is.”

The solution is to show children that the stereotype isn’t true, and all sorts of people end up as scientists. By encouraging them and demonstrating the fun in science, we’ll have a whole new generation of scientists – and I’m sure only some of them will have crazy hair.

2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 21 August 2008 at 2:58 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Right

The magazine Environment have published The Short List: The Most Effective Actions U.S. Households Can Take To Curb Climate Change. In it, the authors Gerald T. Gardner and Paul C. Stern discuss how people are willing to change their habits in order to use less energy, but either don’t know how or are acting ineffectively.

Most people emphasise visible changes, such as switching off a light bulb when leaving the room, but there are many “hidden” improvements to be made that can have a much greater effect on energy reduction. Gardner and Stern believe the media is partly to blame, with most information and articles offering advice in a “laundry list” format, with no indication as to the best actions to take. They propose to tackle this problem in a clear and logical manner: investigate different methods of cutting energy usage, and then rank them according to effectiveness.

They begin by looking at where our energy goes. In 2005 in the US, 38.6% of all energy use was by private motor vehicles – by comparison, the commonly attacked air travel was only 3.4%. The next largest use is in space heating, where 18.8% of energy goes to keeping houses warm. For the gadget lovers, TVs, computers and dishwashers barely break 3% when combined, so don’t feel too environmentally concious about that new HDTV.

Next up: what can be changed? It turns out there are a few surprises. Carpooling, commonly touted as a way to reduce vehicle emissions, turns out to be around a third less effective than buying a more fuel-efficient car. Upgrading from a car that gets 20 mpg to one achieving 30.7 mpg could save 13.5% of all the energy you use, whilst sharing your ride will only get you up to 4.2%. All in all, a more efficient car that is well maintained could save as much as one-fifth of your energy usage.

In the home, we see similar results. You could turn your thermostat down a bit at night in order to save 2.8%, but you’ll probably just forget or give up after a week or so. Install proper insulation in your attic however, and you can sleep easy knowing you’ll have saved up to 5% on your energy bill.

Encouraging efficiency rather than curtailment is the name of the game here. Improve the way your energy is used, and you won’t have to feel guilty about accidentally leaving the light on when you go on holiday. As an additional benefit, your electricity and gas bills will be permanently lowered – providing you remain in your house for long enough to recoup the initial costs of efficient replacements. It’s a similar idea to one I’ve discussed before [PDF].

So what are the top changes you can make? I’ve reproduced their list at the end of this post, but it isn’t as clear as it could be, so I’ll spell it out in the order you should follow:

Actions you can take now, with little or no cost

  1. Carpool with a friend.
  2. Replace 85% of all your old lightbulbs with energy savers
  3. Get frequent tune-ups to maintain your car.
  4. Turn down the thermostat two degrees during the day, and another two at night.
  5. Eco-drive by avoiding harsh acceleration and braking.
  6. Combine shopping trips to take fewer journeys.
  7. Cut your speed on motorways from 70 to 60 mph.
  8. Use a lower setting on your washing machine.
  9. Maintain the correct tyre pressure for your car.

Longer term actions, with higher costs

  1. Buy low-rolling resistance tyres to reduce road friction.
  2. Switch to a more fuel-efficient car.
  3. Seal heat-leaking gaps by weather-stripping your home.
  4. Install improved attic ventilation.
  5. Buy a more efficient heating unit.
  6. Swap to a smaller and more efficient fridge.
  7. Replace your boiler with a more efficient unit.

Better get started!

Click for a fullsize version
Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 20 August 2008 at 4:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has observed a wild dolphin “tailwalking” off the coast of Adelaide in Australia. Taught by dolphinarium trainers everywhere, but rarely seen in the wild, tailwalking is a trick where the dolphin launches itself vertically out of the water and then moves along the surface using only their tail. Incredibly, the dolphin (known as Billie) has been teaching the trick to others in her group.

Tailwalking in the wild

It appears that Billie learnt to tailwalk during a short time in captivity in the early 1980s. Trapped behind a marina and unable to return to the sea, she was captured and taken to the local dolphinarium. On her release to the wild three weeks later, she was branded with a ’3′ to make her easily identifiable.

She was never trained during her stay at the dolphinarium, but must have learnt to tailwalk after observing other dolphins around her. When she left captivity, she retained the skill and is now passing it on the others. Dr Mike Bossley, of WDCS Australia said:

“I have observed all the local dolphins over a number of years, and have watched Billie occasionally performing tailwalks in the years since her release, sometimes in the bow wave of large ships, which is an awesome sight!

“About five years ago another female dolphin called Wave began performing the same behaviour, but does so with much greater regularity than Billie. A third adult female dolphin has also been seen tailwalking.”

The scientists at WDCS do not know why the other dolphins have begun to tailwalk, since they are not rewarded with food as captive dolphins are, but they suspect it may be a form of play or communication. It could also suggest a form of “culture” amongst the dolphins – a behaviour developed by a group and passed between individuals, ultimately defining the group in the same manner as language in humans.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 19 August 2008 at 12:53 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Mathematics

If I remember anything from my days of learning foreign languages, it’s how to count. Not very impressive I grant you, but I can still knock out an “un, duex, trois” or an “ein, zwei, drei” when required. Counting is such a basic and universal skill that it is hard to imagine life without it, but certain aboriginal communities do not have words or gestures to represent numbers. A study by University College London and the University of Melbourne of children from two such communities has found the lack of words is not a hindrance to counting.

The study looked at children aged four to seven from two aboriginal groups, one speaking a langage called Warlpiri whilst the other used Anindilyakwa. Both have words for one, two, few and many, and Anindilyakwa uses numbers up to 20 in rituals but children are not taught these. As a control group the team also worked with an English-speaking indigenous community.

Professor Brian Butterworth of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience was lead author of the study, and details the difficulty in designing questions that the children could answer:

“In our tasks we couldn’t, for example, ask questions such as “How many?” or “Do these two sets have the same number of objects?” We therefore had to develop special tasks. For example, children were asked to put out counters that matched the number of sounds made by banging two sticks together. Thus, the children had to mentally link numerosities in two different modalities, sounds and actions, which meant they could not rely on visual or auditory patterns alone. They had to use an abstract representation of, for example, the fiveness of the bangs and the fiveness of the counters. We found that Warlpiri and Anindilyakwa children performed as well as or better than the English-speaking children on a range of tasks, and on numerosities up to nine, even though they lacked number words.

It appears being able to count is an innate skill. This could explain why children with dyscalculia, a form of dyslexia relating to mathematics, find arithmetic so difficult to learn. Even with our counting system of “one, two, three” to aid them, a lack of this innate skill causes sufferers to struggle. Professor Butterworth is conducting another study in order to find the differences in brains of people with the disorder.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 18 August 2008 at 2:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

As I have mentioned before, I am currently learning to drive. Recently I had to perform a three-point turn for the first time, and after completing the manoeuvre my instructor asked if I had been practising, as I had executed it so well.

I had actually never attempted a three-point turn before – at least not in real life. On the mean streets of Grand Theft Auto’s Liberty City however, I’ve had lots of practice whilst trying to avoid being caught by virtual police. Of course I’m not suggesting that a gamepad is any replacement for a steering wheel, but what the game had taught me was how to visualise the way a car must move during a three-point turn – something my instructor said many new drivers struggle with.

It seems that the American Psychological Association are inclined to agree with me. Research discussed at the APA’s Annual convention found that some video games “can have beneficial effects, improving gamers’ dexterity as well as their ability to problem-solve”. A study of surgeons found that gamers could perform advanced surgical procedures 27 percent faster and with 37 percent fewer errors. It seems that advanced gaming skills is a significant predictor of surgical ability. Conducting the research was psychologist Douglas Gentile of Iowa State University, who said:

“The big picture is that there are several dimensions on which games have effects, including the amount they are played, the content of each game, what you have to pay attention to on the screen, and how you control the motions. This means that games are not ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ but are powerful educational tools and have many effects we might not have expected they could.”

A study of young children also found that players of violent games became more hostile, less forgiving and believed violence to be normal behaviour, compared with players of more subdued games. I’ll have to admit my bias here, and merely point out researchers at Harvard have found the complete opposite. The question of the effect of video games on behaviour is still open for debate. Now, excuse me whilst I return to GTA to practice my three-point turns.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 17 August 2008 at 4:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Nanoscientist Chad A. Mirkin use a new technique called Polymer Pen Lithography to create the microscopic Olympic logos, shown below. The technology allows a single device to print at three different sizes and could be used in a range of industries, from computing to medicine. The Olympic logo perfectly demonstrates the use of these differing scales. The text is made up of around 20,000 dots that are 90 nanometres in diameter, whilst the Olympic rings and stylised athlete are made from approximately 4,000 dots that are 600 nanometres in diameter. The switch in scale is made possible by applying increasing pressure to the nano-pen, which causes the tip to deform and become wider. For finer work, it snaps back into place when the pressure is released.

Tiny Olympic logos, 70 micrometers long and 60 micrometers wide.

If you have a terrible singing voice, it might not be because you’re tone deaf – you could just be a bad singer! Neuroscientists at the State University of New York at Buffalo and at Simon Fraser University have suggested that poor perception of tone is just one possible explanation for awful singing. You could also have poor control of your vocal chords, the inability to imitate what it is you hear, or simply a bad memory. The research has shown that being unable to reproduce a note that you have heard is the most likely explanation – your ears, brain and vocal chords just can’t get coordinated. Something to bear in mind for your next solo in the shower!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 17 August 2008 at 1:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education

As promised, here are the answers to yesterdays test set by the Telegraph.
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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 16 August 2008 at 5:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education

The Telegraph have published an “adult revision guide” for those who think A-levels are getting easier to test their own knowledge. Let’s have a go at the Science section – the answers will be published tomorrow.
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Comments Off Posted on Friday 15 August 2008 at 1:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Yes, But When?

I love hearing about an idea so good that I can’t help but think “why hasn’t anyone though of this before?” – in this case, using hot roads to generate electricity.

Researchers at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute have been studying ways to extract energy from asphalt, a material used to cover roads which is extremely good at storing heat from the sun. They discovered that when asphalt is exposed to direct sunlight it reaches its highest temperature a few centimetres below the surface. Placing a heat exchanger (such as copper pipes filled with water) at this point would extract the maximum possible energy. The hot water could then be used “as is” for heating purposes, or sent to a generator to produce electricity.

One of the major problems with solar energy is where to put the panels. With this solution, we can effectively reuse existing land. Great Britain has over 3,300 square kilometres of road. Even if only half of this was used for electricity generation, it would be equivalent to demolishing the entire of London and using that instead. That’s quite a lot of spare land!

The building of wind farms is commonly blocked by local residents because they “spoil the view”, but no one will be able to complain about aesthetics in this case because the solar collectors would be underground. Locals would actually benefit in the case of dense urban areas as the extraction of heat cools the asphalt down, reducing the surrounding air temperatures in the process.

I think this an extremely elegant solution to the problem of energy generation – a problem that is becoming increasingly more important. One sticking point could be the question of efficiency. It’s great having all this spare energy generating land, but if it can’t produce enough energy to replace a few power plants then there isn’t much point. The WPI haven’t published any figures on the energy generated, but I will certainly be keeping an eye out for what could be a great future technology.

It could be that in 20 years time we all drive electric cars powered by the very roads that they drive on. What a great idea.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 14 August 2008 at 4:48 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology

What constitutes a brain? Scientists at the University of Reading have connected neurons from the foetus of a rat to a bank of electrodes which control a small robot. You can watch the robot learning to turn in this video:

This experiment has been widely reported by the media as a “rat-brained robot”. This instantly conjures up the mental image of a B-movie experiment gone horrible wrong – “Rat-Brained Robots…FROM SPACE!” perhaps – quite far from reality.

Neurons are the cells that make up the majority of the nervous system, including the brain. There are around 100 billion of these cells in a human brain. The robot is controlled by 300,000 rat neurons, less than 2% of the 21 million in a rat brain. Do these randomly connecting neurons make a brain? Clearly one neuron cannot be call a brain – it’s just a single cell after all. At what point do you go from a clump of neurons to a fully fledged brain? The Reading team themselves are unclear on this point, using phrases such as “brain material” and “brain culture” along with just plain old “brain”.

What is clear is this experiment is not “cruel”, as many commenters on the news websites seem to be saying. They haven’t cut the brain from a living adult rat and placed it into a robot in some kind of twisted transplantation – for one thing, I imagine they would have no idea how to hook up a rat brain to a robot. The neurons aren’t even physically attached to the robot, as their organic nature requires a temperature-controlled environment. Instead, communication takes place with the robot via Bluetooth.

So what’s the point of it all? Once the robot has learnt to navigate its environment and recognise its surroundings by forming connections between neurons, the researchers plan to disrupt these connections in an attempt to recreate conditions that cause memory loss such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. In other words, they aren’t trying to build an army of robo-rat slaves.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 13 August 2008 at 3:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong

Prince Charles has once again struck out at genetically modified crops because he believes they will cause the “biggest disaster environmentally of all time.” This of course comes after his extensive testing of the effects of GM crops on the environment. Oh no wait, it doesn’t.

The Prince’s latest outburst completely ignores scientific consensus – a study lasting from 1996 to 2006 found that GM crops provided both economic and environmental benefits. A short summary:

  • GM crops have resulted in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, a major contributor to global warming, because the crops need less attention and farmers can use their tractors less. In 2006 this meant a reduction of 14.8 billion kg of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of removing over 6 million cars from the road for a year.
  • Economic benefits to farms planting GM crops totalled $33.8 billion over the study period, with an increase of $7 billion alone in 2006. Of the $33.8 billion, 43% of this was due to an increase in harvest thanks to insect resistant and herbicide tolerant engineered crops. Nearly half of this income (49%) went to farmers in developing countries.
  • Since 1996 an extra 53.3 million tonnes of soybeans and 47.1 million tonnes of corn have been produced. This extra production has meant lower prices and thus more affordable food for everybody.

What opponents of GM crops don’t seem to understand is that by turning public opinion against research is condemning millions of people to starvation and death. Crops can be engineered to grow more easily and with higher yields, as has already been demonstrated.

To those who say this will lead to “Frankenfoods”, I ask what they think of selective breeding. For millennia, farmers have selected the crops with the strongest resistance to disease, the fastest growing time, or the tastiest fruits, and breed them to encourage these characteristics. This is nothing more than brute force genetic modification, since genes are what determine a plants characteristics! Almost everything we eat has been “genetically modified” since agriculture began – and not always for a “good” reason.

Consider the humble carrot. Eaten in the millions every day, this innocent looking root vegetable hides a dark, dark past, for it was not always as it appears today. The carrot, that most orange of side dishes, used to in fact be purple – or even black, red, or yellow. It continued to be so until patriotic Dutch carrot farmers – evil genetic scientists that they are – decided to genetically modify an orange carrot by selective breeding, making it tastier in the process.

So the next time your crunch down on a carrot – beware! Its genetically modified attributes will turn your brain to mush and your liver to pudding. Or maybe it won’t, I don’t know. Ask Prince Charles, because he’s the expert.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 12 August 2008 at 11:59 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology

You may have recently read about the discovery of the world’s smallest snake. With an average length of just 10cm it looks more like a worm than a snake and it was found by Dr Blair Hedges, a biologist from Penn State University, under a rock on the island of Barbados.

Or was it? It appears that residents of Barbados have been angered by Hedges’ claims of discovery, because the snake has long been known to locals in the area. The decision to name the snake Leptotyphlops carlae after his wife Carla has not gone down well on the island.

“If he needs to blow his own trumpet … well, fine,” said 43-year-old Barbadian Charles Atkins. “But my mother, who was a simple housewife, she showed me the snake when I was a child.”

“How dare this man come in here and name a snake after his wife?” said the writer who identified themselves as Margaret Knight.

Hedges’ has responded through the Associated Press, stating that whilst he sympathises with the Barbadians, standard scientific practice is for the first person to fully analyse and describe a species to name it. He pointed out that mostly newly “discovered” species are indeed well known to locals, and establishing a genetic profile in the laboratory is essential the true meaning of a new species discovery.

Who is in the right here? It’s a tricky one. There don’t seem to be any reports of a local Barbadian name for the snake, so whilst the existence of the snake may have been common knowledge, it appears that there was no thought as to whether it was particular member of one species or another. Having said that, if I saw a small snake in my back garden I’d probably think “hmm, interesting” and then not give it another moments thought. I certainly wouldn’t start checking out herpetology books in an attempt to discover a new species.

This lack of formal classification is precisely why a scientist needs to step in and do the hard work. I’m sure if there is a Barbadian name for the snake that people will continue to use it, because Leptotyphlops carlae is quite a mouthful. Oh, and apologies for the alliterative title. I just couldn’t help myself.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 11 August 2008 at 2:55 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education

How should GCSE students be taught science? The Confederation of British Industry thinks that more students should be taking “Triple science”, with separate lessons for physics, biology and chemistry and three GCSEs at the end. Currently only 7% of students take Triple science, with the rest taking Double or Single science GCSEs which combine all three subjects in to one set of lessons.

The CBI say there are not enough pupils learning science and the needs of industry, particularly the energy industry, are not being met. They propose that 14-year-olds who gain a Level 6 in their SATs should automatically be put forward for a Triple science GCSE – but with the option to “opt-out” and take Double science. Director-General of the CBI Richard Lambert said:

“Young people are missing out. They are doing better than ever in science tests at 14, but hardly any are going on to study Triple science GCSE, despite the opportunities and learning it offers. We need to create an environment in schools that reflects the importance of science, and the value of studying it. We also need to send an unambiguous message to young people who are good at science that science as a career can be fascinating and worthwhile, and will reward you well.”

Are pupils not taking Triple science because it isn’t being offered and encouraged, or because science is an unpopular subject? There is already a shortage of chemistry and physics teachers, and providing lessons in all three subjects would only increase demand – which is perhaps why Triple science isn’t currently widely taught. I think, however, that pupils impressions of science is as big a problem as the lack of teachers. When I was at school, cries of “Sir, when am I ever going to need to know this?” were a common occurrence in science lessons.

The problem is the usual one. Science is viewed as only for the scientists. It’s something alien, that “ordinary” people don’t need to know about. By the time pupils reach Year 10 and choose their GCSEs, they’ve probably already made their mind up about science, and the portrayal of science in the media plays a huge part in their decision. I think changing this is more important than quibbling over the choice of two or three GCSEs. Get more pupils interested in science and the depth can come later at A-level – after all, science A-levels are already split into subject, and are essential to a scientific career. The end result, an increase in British scientists, will be the same.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 10 August 2008 at 7:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Getting It Wrong, Physics, Weekly Roundup

The Guardian reports on the Advertising Standards Authority’s decision to allow Miracle Gro to advertise their organic compost as “100% chemical free”. The ASA’s reasoning is that viewers understand the word “organic” to mean no man-made chemicals are used in the manufacture of a product, so the advert is permissible. I’m not quite sure how a compost without any chemicals would be beneficial to plants, so it seems Miracle Gro are playing on the commonly held beliefs that chemicals, particularly man-made chemicals are inherently bad, and “natural” and “organic” products are free from such nasty things. Tut tut.

Scientists at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York have used graphene, a material made from carbon that is one atom thick, to create the world’s smaller balloon. They produced membranes innumerable to gas that measured from 1 to 100 square micrometres in area and 0.25 to 3 micrometres deep. A micrometre is one millionth of a metre, meaning around 1.5 million of these balloons could fit on your thumbnail. If only they could work out a way to write “Happy Birthday” on them. Until then, the suggested uses of the balloons include tiny weighing devices and pressure sensors.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 9 August 2008 at 10:46 am by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry

Organic food is becoming ever more popular as people aim for a green and healthy lifestyle, but research by Dr Susanne Bügel and others from the Department of Human Nutrition at the University of Copenhagen has found that organic food has no nutritional benefit over food grown with pesticides.

The researchers looked at carrots, kale, mature peas, apples and potatoes using three different farming methods. The first used only organic-approved products such as animal manure, the second added in as much pesticide as allowed by regulation, and the third swapped out the manure for as many fertilisers and pesticides as are legally allowed. The crops were grown side by side at the same time, to alleviate any changes in weather or season that could have affected the result. Dr Bügel said:

‘No systematic differences between cultivation systems representing organic and conventional production methods were found across the five crops so the study does not support the belief that organically grown foodstuffs generally contain more major and trace elements than conventionally grown foodstuffs.’

I’ve always been slightly sceptical of organic food, and cynically thought that there probably wasn’t much difference in some produce when compared to the non-organic variety. On the other hand I’ve also found that organic chicken “tastes better”. I’d like conduct a blind taste test at some point to see if that is actually the case…

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 8 August 2008 at 12:12 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics

It turns out that the Large Hadron Collider is not actually being switched on today – although that depends on you definition of “switched on”. It was my understanding that when the LHC had been cooled to nearly absolute zero,a very chilly 1.9 Kelvin (that’s -269.1 degrees Celsius), it would be put into operation. What this actually means is the scientists at CERN can begin firing proton beams through a small part of the LHC, in preparation for the first full circuit which is due to take place on September 10th – the official start-up date. They are testing the synchronisation of the LHC with the Proton Synchrotron (PS) and Super Proton Synchrotron (SPS), which get the proton beams up to the high energies required before injecting them into the LHC. Essentially, they’ve pushed the power button but it hasn’t finished booting up yet.

With that clarification out of the way I’ll get on to the real point of this post: what exactly is the LHC, and what does it do? Those of you who watched the LHC rap I put up yesterday may have some idea, so I’m sorry if my explanation is slightly less entertaining.

An ariel view of CERN, on the Swiss-French border. The biggest ring is the LHC itself, whilst the smaller rings are the Proton Synchrotron and Super Proton Synchrotron. Click for a larger image.

The LHC is the latest (and largest) particle accelerator to be built. A particle accelerator is exactly what it sounds like – it accelerates electrically-charged particles (such as the positively charged proton) to near the speed of light, and then the “Collider” part of the LHC steps in. Two beams are sent whizzing around the ring in opposite directions as they build up to speed, held on course by powerful superconducting magnets. Superconductivity allows the flow of particles with very little electrical resistance, but can only take place at extremely low temperatures – hence the cooling of the LHC.

A simulated collision in the LHC

When the two proton beams collide they explode into a mass of exotic particles. The particle the scientists are interested in finding is the Higgs boson. First theorised in 1964 by Peter Higgs (amongst other), the Higgs boson is basically a particle associated with the Higgs field, which tells other particles what their mass should be. The Higgs field covers the entire universe, and it’s as if heavier particles such as the top quark (one of the basic building blocks of matter) struggle to “swim” through the field, where as massless particles such as the photon don’t interact with it at all.

The trouble is, we can’t see this field. However, all fields have a particle associated with them (for example, the photon is responsible for electromagnetism) which means that if the Higgs boson is detected, this will prove the existence of the Higgs field and validate the Standard Model of particle physics. If the Higgs boson cannot be found, then something is wrong with the Standard Model, and a lot of physicists will be left scratching their heads. Hopefully once the LHC is in action it will be the former, and not the latter.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 7 August 2008 at 2:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Physics

Tomorrow should see (if all goes to plan) the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider, a massive particle accelerator which scientists hope will enable them to pin down the elusive Higgs boson. I’ll be posting more about the collider tomorrow, but until then, enjoy the LHC rap:

Yes, it’s pretty silly, but it actually has a decent amount of scientific content. See you tomorrow for something slightly more sensible!

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 6 August 2008 at 4:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Getting It Right

The internet moves pretty fast, so I apologise if you have already seen this. If you haven’t, then you’re in for a treat. The University of Nottingham’s Chemistry department has created The Periodic Table of Videos. The site has a video for each of the 188 elements, from hydrogen to ununoctium.

Each video is only a few minutes long, and gives you a quick overview of the properties of the element, as well as example experiments – many of which are considered “too dangerous” to be demonstrated in secondary schools any more. They are a highly enjoyable watch, and a great use of modern technology to teach people all over the world about chemistry.

The two main presenters are Pete Licence, who is great at demonstrating the explosive properties of sodium or the flow of liquid mercury and Martyn Poliakoff, who provides much of the hard facts from his office plastered with many periodic tables, including the periodic table of desserts. He also has the most wonderful mad scientist hair I have ever seen.

I haven’t yet made it through all of the videos, but I’m enjoying visiting the site for half an hour or so at a time as I check out some elements and brush up on my chemistry. I think this should be required viewing for all GCSE science students, and I can’t praise UoN enough. I hope they see a spike in their chemistry admissions next year! If I still haven’t convinced you, check out this trailer and you’ll hopefully be hooked.

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 5 August 2008 at 5:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Last night Channel 4 showed the first part of a three part series, The Genius of Charles Darwin. Presented by biologist Richard Dawkins, it celebrates the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s great work, On The Origin of Species. If you missed it, you can watch it on the Channel 4 website for the next 7 days.

I found the programme interesting, but not without flaws. I know that Richard Dawkins is a militant atheist, but the manner in which he presented was sure to immediately annoy any religious viewers he was attempting to reach. The statistic is that 40% of the UK population reject Darwin’s theory of evolution, and these would be the people best served by the programme. I imagine he lost quite a few of them after the following opening:

I want to persuade you that evolution offers a far richer and spectacular view of life than any religious story. It’s one of the reasons I don’t believe in God.

He might as well have said “the cultural and spiritual traditions you have been brought up with are wrong, and you should immediatly turn you attention to me, for I am far, far more intelligent than you.” In fact, this is more or less what he said to a group of 16-year-olds as he attempted to teach them about religion. He had a fair point; just because you were brought up with a particular belief system does not make that belief system right, and if presented with reasonable evidence to the contrary any rational person should change their mind. The trouble is he was so confrontational that the students weren’t at all receptive to his message.

I am not religious in the slightest, indeed I am no fan of religion in any form. However, religious beliefs are so ingrained into the people who follow them that anyone disrespecting those beliefs are not likely to hold their interest for very long. If Dawkins’ aim was to communicate science, then why not leave room for God as the creator of natural selection? If you choose to believe that then you can agree with evolution without compromising your beliefs. I fear that at times during the programme science took a back seat to Dawkins’ agenda, and atheistic evangelism is just as distasteful as the religious variety.

Once we get past all this there is some nice content. Dawkins chronicles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, and follows in his footsteps to the famous Galápagos Islands where Darwin made many of his incredible discoveries. When we go back to the students, Dawkins has taken them to a beach to search for fossils. None of them look very impressed or interested – hardly the sign of someone learning.

Dawkins then visits Darwin’s own house, and uses his piano to illustrate the vast length of time over which evolution takes place. At one end of the piano, the origin of life. At the other, modern day. Up until just over half way along the keyboard, life consisted of nothing but bacteria. Dinosaurs are about 10 notes below the highest, with their extinction a mere five notes later. Apes and monkeys arrive on the highest note, and the whole of human history occupies a space less than the width of a piano string. It’s a great explanation, and not a mention of religion in sight.

Later on in the programme, Dawkins is talking to genetics with Craig Ventor, one of the scientists who mapped the human genome. They discuss how similarities in genetic code between species provide one of the greatest proofs that all life on Earth is related. Ventor utters “to me it’s not a theory any more.” How I wish he hadn’t. Evolution isn’t “just” a theory, it is a theory. The theory of evolution is our explanation of the observed phenomenon of natural selection. By saying “it’s not a theory any more” you play right in to the hands of anti-Darwinism and those who love to say “just a theory”. To his credit, Dawkins also seems a bit annoyed by this, stating that evolution is fact – which it is, as well as a theory.

In the end we return to the students. A few already agree with evolution, others may have been convinced, but some still dismiss it in favour of their religious beliefs. If they didn’t before, they now see evolution as a direct challenge to religion – which it is not, even if both Dawkins and fundamentalists wish to portray them as such. Sadly, Dawkins has failed to communicate to them the wondrous ideas behind evolution.

Next week’s episode looks to be about evolution as applied to human society – a subject I found myself wondering about as I watched this weeks episode. Do our advances in medicine and technology mean that “survival of the fittest” no longer applies to the human race? I look forward to finding out – just please, leave the religion bashing at the door.

3 Comments » Posted on Monday 4 August 2008 at 3:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong

This BBC article on “flat-earthers” – people who genuinely believe that the Earth is a flat disc – lead me to the Flat Earth Society forum. I was both amazed and horrified at what I found. Let me direct your attention to the Flat Earth FAQ.

The FE’ers, as they call themselves, believe that the governments of the world are engaged in a massive conspiracy to make us believe the world is round. NASA is in on it, and used the money they saved from not building rockets to develop “advanced computers and imaging software” with which they created fake photos of Earth. What is the purpose behind the conspiracy? “Probably money” – although I’m not quite sure where the profit is in this.

So what does our flat Earth look like? It has a circumference of 78,225 miles and a diameter of 24,900 miles. I’d expect the diameter of a flat Earth to be close to the circumference of the real Earth through the North pole so that the distance from the rim to the centre was the same as from pole to pole, and it appears that this is actually the case. At least the flat-earthers have their figures right.

The sun and moon above a flat Earth

The sun and moon are both 32 miles in diameter and circle 3,000 miles above the Earth. I guess the moon must produces its own light, since it certainly wouldn’t be able to reflect the sun’s light, otherwise there would be no night on flat Earth, and we can’t have that. Gravity doesn’t come in to play, instead flat Earth accelerates constantly upwards (without any form of propulsion), providing us with that familiar sinking feeling. A vast ice wall runs round the entire rim of the disc, and is guarded on behalf of the conspirators. I could go on, but I won’t.

I don’t know how you can get through to people who believe in this nonsense. By the time you’ve got to giant ice walls, logic seems to have been thrown out the window (or perhaps off the edge) and conversation is reduced to sticking your fingers in your ears whilst screaming “I’m right, I’m right!” until you lose all sense of reality.

I also don’t understand why you would even want to believe in a flat Earth. Does it somehow improve your sense of well being, knowing everyone is wrong as they potter about with their round world delusions? Do you hope to advance human knowledge of flat Earth by conducting experiments and sending expeditions to the ice wall? I just don’t know. It saddens me to say it, but I don’t think there is actually any way of convincing these people they are wrong. All you can do is point out the flaws in their logic, and hope no one else falls for it.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 3 August 2008 at 9:47 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

I have decided that Sunday’s post will be a roundup of all the links that didn’t quite make the cut during the week. Enjoy.

The NASA Phoenix lander has found water in a soil sample on Mars. Previous probes had observed water-ice, but this is the first time actual water has been analysed by a probe. Apparently the White House has been briefed to expect a more “provocative” announcement than just the discovery of water, but I don’t think we can expect little green men any time soon.

A study of bees could help police hunt serial killers. The thinking is that bees create a “buffer zone” around their hive in which they do not forage for pollen, in order to avoid predators finding their home. Similarly, those who commit a series of murders tend to stay close to home, but not in the immediate area around their house. Scientists at Queen Mary, University of London tagged bees with coloured markers in order to track them as flew around a field of fake flowers filled with artificial nectar. Using “geographic profiling” – a technique used by police to hunt serial killers – they were able to identify the buffer zone and pinpoint the location of the bees nest. The study allowed them to refine the geographic profiling technique, which in turn will allow more accuracy for deceives in the search for a killer

Nearly all Spanish bank notes are contaminated with cocaine. I’d heard this one before (for British bank notes) but I didn’t actually think it was true. Chemists at the University of Valencia found the notes contained an average concentration of 155 microgrammes of cocaine, the highest in Europe. A full study has not been conducted on British notes, but data exists suggesting between 40% and 51% of bank notes are contaminated with 0.0011 microgrammes of cocaine per note.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 2 August 2008 at 3:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Yes, But When?

Imagine being able to “exercise” whilst sitting on the sofa with your feet up. It sounds too good to be true, but researchers at the Salk Institute have found two drugs that could allow you to do just that. The first, known as AICAR, allowed mice given the drug for four weeks to run for 44% longer than those left untreated – and without any exercise at all.

For the slightly more energetic amongst you, the second drug GW1516 lead to a 77% increase in endurance amongst mice who ran for up to 50 minutes on a treadmill whilst undergoing the treatment.

The scientists were looking for a way to active a genetic switch known as PPAR delta, which had previously been flipped in mice through genetic engineering. These engineered mice became super-runners, and also became resistant to weight gain. Dr. Ronald M. Evans who led the team at the Salk Institute’s Gene Expression Laboratory said “We wanted to know whether a drug specific for PPAR delta would have the same beneficial effects.”

Performance enhancing drugs are always a temptation for athletes, not just those looking to avoid exercising, but Evans is one step ahead of anyone attempting to use his research to gain an edge in sporting competitions. He has developed a technique that will detect both AICAR and GW1516 in blood and urine, and is working with the World Anti-Doping Association who hope to have a test ready for the Olympics in Beijing which are due to start next week.

So, if (and it’s the usual if) the drugs turn out to have no nasty side effects, one day you could be working on your muscles whilst relaxing in front of the TV. If only…

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 1 August 2008 at 9:42 pm by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review, Mathematics

Andrew Hodges’ inspiration for the title One to Nine was Sudoku, the immensely popular number puzzle. Hodges comments that newspapers insist the puzzles require no mathematical knowledge, in order to not scare away an often maths-phobic British public – indeed, Sudoku does not even require numbers, since substituting nine letters or symbols into a puzzle would leave the logic required to solve it unchanged.

Hodges describes logic as one of the most fascinating elements of ‘adult mathematics’, wholly different to the ‘school maths’ that newspapers try to distance themselves from. The book aims to provide an insight into this for those who may have been turned off the subject at school.

Unsurprisingly, the book is split into nine chapters, One through Nine. Each begins with a characterisation of the number; seven ‘needs sifting and sorting out’, whereas three ‘doesn’t just talk’, but ‘thinks big’. The chapter titles are a bit of a gimmick at times. Six is the first perfect number, so-called because 6 = 1 + 2 + 3 = 1 x 2 x 3, and this leads to a discussion of factorials. Six is 3! (pronounced ‘three factorial’) because 3! = 1 x 2 x 3., and the factorial of a number n is simply the product of all numbers from 1 to n. The chapter continues with probabilities, the Enigma machine, and Euler’s equation – all very interesting topics with links to factorials, but do they really relate particularly to six, more so than any other number?

Gimmicks aside, One to Nine is a whistle-stop tour of pop-sci mathematics, with sections ranging from black holes to game theory to musical harmony. Each topic is well described and often accompanied by many useful diagrams, although some appear to have been lifted straight from a .jpg file, complete with ugly compression artefacts – a bit more care could have been take in order to provide high quality images.

Numerous equations may discourage the casual reader, but they are always accompanied by a thorough explanation in the text. Stephen Hawking was told when writing A Brief History of Time that ‘each equation in the book would halve the sales’; I hope this is not the case else I will have already lost 75% of my readership! For those who really will not abide equations, relax – they can for the most part be skipped.

Sprinkled throughout the text are problems rated on a Sudoku-like scale, from GENTLE to DEADLY. I found these to be a welcome addition, but normally skipped over any that I was unable to solve in a minute or two, so as not to slow down the pace of the book. Placing these at the end of each chapter would have made me more inclined to give them a go.

Helpfully, all of the solutions are provided on the website for the book, along with further notes and comments. Unfortunately the book does not feature a bibliography or recommended reading list, so if you do become engrossed in a particular topic you will have to hunt out more information by yourself, but the website does go some way to assisting with this.

If you would like to learn how mathematics is used in a variety of scientific fields and are not too afraid of a few equations, One to Nine is a good place to start. In fact, Hodges’ appropriation of Sudoku is quite apt. If you enjoy the use of logic in a Sudoku puzzle, but have dreaded school memories of multiplication tables, perhaps One to Nine can show you the world through the filter of ‘adult mathematics’.

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