Archive for September 2008

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 30 September 2008 at 4:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

Like many others I have been following the financial turmoil following the failure of the $700bn Wall Street bailout with a mix of horror over the sums involved, uncertainty about the future, and schadenfreude towards the “fat cats”.

It’s also got me thinking about the similarities between business reporting and science communication. I’d like to think I know a thing or two about science, but when it comes to the financial section my eyes are as likely to glaze over as the next person. This means that whilst I can tell you a great deal about mathematical derivatives, I’m pretty much in the dark about their financial namesake.

This lack of knowledge allows me to place myself in the shoes of those who believed stories about the Large Hadron Collider destroying the Earth. It is easy for me to see the current crisis as a group of mad scientists (bankers) who spent vast sums of money on an experiment (sub-prime mortgages) that even they didn’t really understand, and now that it has all gone wrong we are being sucked into a (financial) black hole. These mysterious bankers use jargon such as “leveraging” and “securitisation” that I don’t understand, so I turn to the media for explanation – and I find it lacking.

Where can $700bn be conjured from in a matter of weeks? Why aren’t the people who caused all this trouble being fined or thrown in jail? Why weren’t they stopped in the first place? These question aren’t being dealt with by the media, or if they are the answers aren’t easily accessible to the layperson such as myself.

How should I apply these thoughts to science communication, and my writing on Just a Theory? I think keeping in mind my misunderstanding and frustration towards business news can help me avoid those same feelings in readers wishing to learn more about science.

For example, it’s easy to make the mistake of assuming too much background knowledge on the part of a reader, and whilst it would be impossible (and frankly, boring) to explain every single detail from first principles, it’s important to consider the entry point for a typical member of the public.

This is especially true when dealing with high profile stories such as the LHC, where even people who might not normally read science stories become hungry for information. Normally I don’t really care if the FTSE or whatever is down a few points (because I don’t really know what that means), but if the government buy Northern Rock then I want to know about it, and I want to quickly be brought up to speed. The same goes for the general public, who hear that the world could be ending next Wednesday and want to know why.

Another thing to think about: the experts aren’t always right. For years the bankers have tinkered with their models and acted on their findings – often resulting in huge financial gains. Now, as it all comes crashing down, it turns out the models were wrong. The public want to know why these “experts” were so off the mark, but the truth is that to the best of their knowledge, the models worked.

The same goes with science. In the past I have called evolution a “fact” – but really, it isn’t. It’s our best model of how living creatures came to be, and if one day science comes up with a better model, evolution will be replaced by a new “fact”. I see this as a matter of semantics, because I will happily accept any alternative theory that falsifies evolution with its improved scientific reasoning – and no, intelligent design, that does not mean you. Until that happens, I’m happy to call evolution a fact.

This idea that “the model could be wrong” isn’t always well communicated to the public, many of whom see science as attempting to hand down absolute truths from on high. When scientists change their mind, or disagree with one another, people often draw the conclusion that science is worthless and lose confidence in the word of scientists – in the same way that the bankers’ broken models have lead to a loss of confidence on the stock market.

Apologies if you find this post a bit rambling compared to my usual style – hence the new category, “Musings” – but I’ve had these thoughts swimming around in my head for a while. They’re still not quite all joined up yet, but I think bashing them out on the keyboard has helped a bit. Don’t worry though, tomorrow will see a return to your regularly scheduled science blogging!

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 29 September 2008 at 2:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment

It’s quite possible you already have significant amounts of dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) inside you. According to the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division in Newark, Delaware, this chemical has many industrial applications, and can easily enter the body. Indeed, it is often unintentionally ingested as it is found in many different food substances. It’s even used by terrorist organizations such as al-Quaeda.

This colourless and odourless substance is most often found in liquid form (large quantities have been reported in the world’s oceans, affecting the indigenous sea life), and can cause death if inhaled, although liquid DHMO is inert to human skin. Prolonged contact with DHMO in either a solid or gaseous state, however, can also lead to death.

There is also strong evidence to show that DHMO strongly contributes to climate change – indeed, some weather configurations can lead to sudden localised deposits of the liquid chemical.

A survey by US researchers Patrick K. McCluskey and Matthew Kulick found that nearly 90% of participants would sign a petition supporting an outright ban on the use of DHMO in the United States. Studies carried out elsewhere seem to agree with these findings; the majority of public citizens want to see an end to DHMO, but world leaders refuse to act. Continue reading for my suggested action to combat the spread of DHMO.

This pipeline has been contaminated by DHMO.

Well, you should probably just do nothing. Dihydrogen monoxide, more commonly known as H2O, or ‘water’ can be extremely dangerous if misused – it’s easy to burn your self in boiling water, for example – but I don’t think we need to worry about it.

I wrote this post because I myself was caught out by this oldy-but-goody science prank recently – the latest issue of New Scientist mentions it in the Feedback column. I read along going ‘oh, it’s already in my blood steam, really’ and ‘well I haven’t heard of this but it sounds pretty bad’, until finally, the penny dropped.

It’s a classic (albeit harmless) example of intentionally using science to confuse and miscommunicate. Leading the post with a headline highlighting the ‘risk’ to yourself or loved ones, mentioning terrorists/climate change and talking about the outrageous lack of political action are all designed to whip you up into a fury: ‘something must be done!’ you cry. No wonder so many people get swept along by scare stories such as the link between the MMR vaccine and autism; it’s just all too easy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go sweep my kitchen for traces of sodium chloride – did you know that in large doses, it can lead to heart disease?

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 September 2008 at 6:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

In “bad thing turns out to be good, but only in small amounts” news

Chocolate lovers rejoice; new research shows that eating 6.7 grams of dark (not milk, sorry Cadburys) chocolate a day could help protect against heart disease. A joint study by the Research Laboratories of the Catholic University in Campobasso and the National Cancer Institute of Milan investigated the link between the levels of C reactive protein in the blood and a persons chocolate intake. The amount of the protein in the body increases during inflammation, which is a risk factor for heart disease amongst other conditions. The researchers hypothesised that antioxidants in cocoa seeds could help fight inflammation:

“We started from the hypothesis,” says Romina di Giuseppe, lead author of the study “that high amounts of antioxidants contained in the cocoa seeds, in particular flavonoids and other kinds of polyphenols, might have beneficial effects on the inflammatory state. Our results have been absolutely encouraging: people having moderate amounts of dark chocolate regularly have significantly lower levels of C-reactive protein in their blood. In other words, their inflammatory state is considerably reduced.”

Unfortunately this isn’t an excuse to pig out just yet: 6.7 grams a day works out to a small square two or three times a week. Sorry!

Turns out, he couldn’t actually see the Great Wall

China conducted its first spacewalk over the weekend, in only the country’s third manned space mission. The honour fell to Zhai Zhigang, who’s words of welcome were broadcast live: “I am here greeting the Chinese people and the people of the world.”

Just three nations have demonstrated the ability to launch people in to space: the US, Russia (and the USSR before it) and China, who first sent a man into space five years ago. It seems that we have the beginning of another space race on our hands, with both China and the US aiming to send manned missions to the Moon by 2020. The last space race, although militaristic in origin, brought with it many technological marvels that still benefit us to this day such as frozen food and GPS tracking systems. Bring it on, I say!


An artist's impression of Dasornis, a gigantic bird which once flew over Britain.

Britain was once home to birds that were nearly the size of a small plane, a newly discovered fossil skull has shown. The species has been known for nearly 150 years, but the skull found on the Isle of Sheppey is one of the best preserved examples of Dasornis. This bird lived 50 million years ago and ith a 16 ft wingspan and a beak full of sharp teeth, it’s slightly more intimidating than its modern-day relatives of ducks and geese.

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3 Comments » Posted on Saturday 27 September 2008 at 10:52 am by Jacob Aron
In Education

Children as young as 11 are being turned off learning science, argue two reports released by the Wellcome Trust, funder of biomedical research and the largest charity in the UK. Published under the joint title of Perspectives on Education: Primary Science, they look at the past 60 years of primary science education, and suggest the need for change.

The first report was authored by Professor Wynne Harlen of the University of Bristol. She found that whilst it is important for science to be a core subject, the resulting SATs testing has had an impact on both learning and teaching. Judging schools and teachers on SATs results leads to “teaching to the test” and affects children’s understanding of science.

The second report, by Professor Peter Tymms and colleagues of the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University, drew similar conclusions. Tymms felt that children’s early science education was not having the desired effect on future results:

“We suspect that the current national approach to science in primary schools is not impacting on children’s scientific thought and curiosity as much as is possible. Despite the pass rates in public examinations later in secondary school, research suggests few students acquire a proper understanding of the science curriculum.

“The purpose of science in primary school should be to foster a sense of curiosity and positive attitudes in the young child. It should also guide the child in solving problems to do with the physical, natural and human worlds. There is now a strong argument for reconsidering the approach to science in English primary schools, and for doing this in a systematic, evidence-based way.”

Part of the problem is primary school teachers’ confidence in teaching scientific concepts. As most are not specialists in science, they can sometimes struggle to communicate ideas to pupils – indeed, there is evidence suggesting that some parts of science are “too difficult” for primary school teachers to teach. There does seem to be an improvement in teaching ability over time, however.

I’m not sure these findings apply only to science. Isn’t teaching pupils to pass exams, and only to pass exams, bad in every subject? I personally think that far too much emphasis is placed on a pupil’s performance in SATs, including streaming into different ability classes based on results. Really, they are designed to assess the quality of the teachers, not the knowledge of a pupil.

On the other hand, what other way is there to find out the ability of a teacher besides testing how well their pupils learn? Harlen’s report suggests “National tests should be replaced by moderated teachers’ assessment”, whilst Tymms calls for a debate on the purpose of science in primary schools, and the development of new approaches to teaching (without suggesting what these might be). It seems like a problem that won’t be solved any time soon.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 26 September 2008 at 9:36 am by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

If you’ve ever been to the Empire State Building, or any other similarly tall structure, you may have found yourself taking a rather long ride in a lift. Imagine then how long riding a lift into space might take. It sounds straight out of a sci-fi nobel, and indeed the concept of a “space elevator” (sorry for the Americanism, but “space lift” just sound a bit naff) was popularised by the great Arthur C. Clarke in his book The Fountains of Paradise.

A space elevator - it brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'lift-off'!

Here’s how it works: a satellite is launched into a geostationary orbit at a height of 35,786 km above the Earth’s equator. This orbit is so-named because at this exact height the satellite appears to remain stationary above a fixed point on the surface of the Earth, making it perfect to run a space elevator up to. The main problem is producing a cable strong but light enough to send anything up. Scientists at Japan’s Space Elevator Association believe that they are close to producing such a material, and building a space elevator.

The JESA is holding an international conference in Japan to try and lay out a timetable to construction. They believe that carbon nanotubes could hold the key to making the all-important cable. These special particles are much thinner than they are long, meaning they can be woven to incredibly strong fibres whilst also remaining relatively light.

Yoshio Aoki, director of the JESA and professor of precision machinery engineering at Nihon University thinks that the cable would need to be four times stronger than current nanotubes, but is confident that this can be achieved since improvements of around 100-fold strength has been made in the past five years.

Carbon nanotubes - one 50,000th the width of a human hair, but several millimetres long

A space elevator would be an amazing sight to behold, and perhaps the greatest ever feat of human ingenuity. Who could not fail to be moved by the sight of a cable reaching from the ground, far into space? Not I, for one. A space elevator would have many other (and more practical) benefits: easy and cheap access to space. Solar-powered generators could bring cheap electricity down to Earth, whilst rocket ships such as the inefficient Space Shuttle could be completely replaced. In their stead, space ships could be built with parts sent up into orbit on the elevator, and then launched from there.

Its all impressive stuff, but can the Japanese pull it off any time soon? I’d love to say yes, but I fear their November conference might be a bit too ambitious. Still, if they can build it, I can’t wait to ride it – even if it does mean hours upon hours of muzak!

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2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 25 September 2008 at 8:55 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology

The Daily Mail has a story about “research” showing that “women with lighter hair have more confidence.” Oh really?

The “study” was carried out by Mark Sergeant of Nottingham Trent University, who asked 200 women how they felt both before and after dyeing their hair. It turns out that participants “across the board” felt “elevated” confidence and mood levels, as well as more sexually attractive, with newly-made blondes reporting the highest increases.

What’s wrong with this research? Huge assumptions, for one thing. How can we be sure it was a new hair colour that contributed to a change in these women’s attitudes, and not simply a change? If you feel bad about the way you look changing any part of your appearance, whether it be by dyeing your hair, plastic surgery, or even buying new clothes, is probably going to make you feel better.

Then there’s that oh so important question: where’s the money? The “research” was funded by Clairol… a company which sells hair dye. The words “conflict”, “of” and “interest” spring immediatly to mind. Now, it could be that this “research” is entirely sound. It could be that blondes really do have more fun. Really though, if you saw a story saying that research funded by Big Cigarette Co had found cigarettes actually improve your health, are you going to believe them?

It’s certainly bad science, but is it bad reporting? To be fair to the Mail, I found this story not in their Science section, but in ‘Femail’. Since the second paragraph of the story is “Scientists claim their research shows that bleaching hair does wonders for a woman’s self-image”, however, I felt that it was fair game – especially as it was written by Fiona MacRae, the Mail’s science writer.

The cynic in me might say that the Mail only chose to go with the story because they would be able to accompany it with a bunch of pretty pictures of eye-catching blonde women. Maybe I should try that:

If you skipped straight to this picture of Scarlett Johansson, you've probably missed the point of the post.

Now of course if this was a proper scientific study of whether pictures of Scarlett Johansson get me more hits, I’d probably put the picture higher up for more impact. I would also publish another identical post, but without the picture, as a control. If I didn’t, it would be a pretty bad study as there would be no way of measuring an improvement, and I’d expect someone to pick me up on it.

The same logic should apply to science reporting. If you see a study that doesn’t have a decent control, or makes a lot of assumptions, why not ask the scientists involved to clarify their findings? If research is funded by an organisation with a vested interest in the results, why not point out to your readers that it might be worth taking with a pinch of salt?

Just because “scientists say” or “research has shown” something is the case, it doesn’t mean that it is true. After all, Otto Rössler – the guy who went to court to try and stop the LHC – is “a scientist”. He’s also pretty damn loony. Bad science does not have to mean bad reporting – just ask Ben Goldacre.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 24 September 2008 at 9:48 am by Jacob Aron
In Physics

Last week when it was announced last week that the Large Hadron Collider would have to be shut down for two months, I suggested that this could potentially conflict with the planned shut down in December. It seems that this is now officially the case. CERN engineers have stated that the collider will have to be offline until “spring 2009″ whilst they make repairs.

It’s a real shame considering the very successful launch on September 10th, where progress actually exceeded expectations. Still, the guys and gals at CERN are in it for the long haul – the particle collider took 13 years to build and another two to be ready for “switch-on”. It could also be years before substitutional results start to emerge from the experiment, so a few months delay is not the end of the world. Still, the downtime must be incredibly frustrating for all involved.

Many have called the LHC a cathedral of the 21st century. I’m not sure I like the “science is the new religion” implications, but in terms of sheer construction and engineering, it’s certainly an apt comparison. If you have checked out the facts and figures of the LHC, they make for interesting reading. Did you know that the LHC…

…is 26,659 metres long, but sends proton beams whizzing round 11,425 times a second?

…cooled to -271.3°C (1.9 K), but 100,000 times hotter than the sun when proton beams collide?

…will provide enough data to fill 100,000 DVDs a year?

Amazing stuff, but I guess we’re all going to have to wait until spring 2009 to see it in action.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 23 September 2008 at 1:22 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

A study has found that men who hold “traditional views” on women have on average a higher annual salary than those who believe in equality.

Beginning in 1979, men and women between the age of 14 and 22 were asked about their views on gender roles. Three more interviews were conducted with the same group between then and 2005, with a 60% retention rate of the 12,686 participants. This gave Timothy Judge and Beth Livingston of the University of Florida a large amount of data to work with.

Questions in the interviews included whether a woman’s place is in the home, and if a man should be the achiever outside of the home. Participants were also asked details such as their earnings, religious upbringing and education.

Controlling for different job types, hours worked and level of education, the researchers found that men with “traditional views” would take home an average of around $8,500 more than similar men who did not hold such views. With women, it turns out the opposite is true. Those who believed that they should be “stay-at-homes” earned $1,500 less a year than their “non-traditional” peers.

“These results show that changes in gender role attitudes have substantial effects on pay equity,” Judge said. “When workers’ attitudes become more traditional, women’s earnings relative to men suffer greatly. When attitudes become more egalitarian, the pay gap nearly disappears.”

The research also found some (fairly predictable) correlations with views on gender roles. People with parents who both worked held less traditional views, whilst married, religious people tended to be more traditional. As people grew older during the study, their views were also found to become more traditional.

In seeking an explanation for these results the researchers found that differences such as occupation or number of children were not a factor, so the findings could not be explained by the fact that in more traditional couples women were less likely to be working outside the home (and thus earn less). The conclusion was that the pay gaps do not just have an economic basis.

“Psychology has an important role to play, too,” said Judge. “Our country’s policies have been leaning toward gender equality for decades now. But, according to our study, traditional gender role views continue to work against this goal.”

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 22 September 2008 at 4:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

People who find themselves sensitive to scary images and sounds are more likely to hold right-wing political views, a study in Nebraska has found. Researchers asked 46 volunteers about their political views, and selected those with strong opinions on either side of the right-left spectrum.

They then showed the participants frightening pictures, such as a spider crawling across a man’s face, whilst also startling them with loud noises at random. Machines hooked up to their skin measured electrical conductance, combined with eye movement sensors to monitor subjects blinking, allowed the scientists to work out just how terrified they were.

Those more affected by the experiment were found to be more likely in favour of capital punishment and against abortion, views traditionally held by the right, whilst those people who weren’t as scared tended to more liberal views. John Hibbing, co-author of the paper published in Science, said that the research might not mean political views are a genetic trait, but they do have a biological basis:

“Now we can show that certain important political beliefs have a very deep basis,” Hibbing said. “We don’t know for certain that it’s genetic but we do know that there’s a predilection biologically that leads some people to experience the world differently from others. The relationships we found are far from deterministic — environmental events still play a vital role — but the fact that physical reactions to loud noises or to scary animals is at all predictive of political beliefs is remarkable.”

“Should extreme interrogation techniques be used on foreign nationals suspected of terrorist activities? Should the privacy of law-abiding citizens be sacrificed if doing so offers the potential for making the country safer? Our research suggests that the answers a person provides to questions such as these are in part traceable to how vividly they physically experience generic threats.”

Hibbing also suggested that this research might allow politicians to understand each other better – people with opposing political views to your own are not just being stubborn, but simply see the world in a different way. Somehow, I don’t think spontaneous hugging is about to break out in the House of Commons, but the study is interesting nevertheless. One thing that doesn’t seem to have been considered is the opposite causation: what if right-wing views are more likely to make you a fearful person? The concept doesn’t seem too unrealistic to me…

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 21 September 2008 at 11:16 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Ants from Mars

No, it’s not evidence of extraterrestrial life, but another example of creatures that will come for you in the night.

Seriously, I can barely write about this thing, I find it so creepy.

The newly discovered species of ant, Martialis heureka – which translates as contestant for silliest name ever: “From Mars! Wow!” – is a bit of an evolutionary throwback. Blind (because it has no eyes) and pale, its DNA has changed the least compared to its other ant cousins, ever since they emerged 100 million years ago. It won’t be popping up in your back garden any time soon however, as they live completely underground, and in Brazil. Thankfully.

Gamers are fit, but depressed

The stereotypical gamer image of an overweight teen with one hand on a mouse and the other in a bag of crisps may not be the case, a study by researchers at the University of Southern California, Palo Alto Research Center, and the University of Delaware has found.

They analysed 7,000 players of the popular massively-multilayer online role-playing game (MMORPG, to those in the know) EverQuest II. In the game, players join together to fight monsters and find treasure. One such treasure is the Greatstaff of the Sun Serpent, offered to those who completed a survey on their physical and mental health.

It turns out that adult gamers are actually fitter than a typical American, with a body mass index of 25.2 compared to the national average of 28 – though both figures are in the “overweight” category of the scale. The survey also found that the average gamer exercises once or twice a week, more than the general American public. The researchers suggest this could be because those with the education and wealth to afford expensive gaming machines are more likely to be health concious.

They also found that players were more likely to be in their thirties than their twenties, and older players spent more time with the game. Additionally, whilst less women play the game than men, those who do typically spent longer in game.

Unfortunately gamers were also more likely to be suffering from depression, and to be substance abusers. Scott Caplan, of the University of Delaware, suggested players “may be drawn to use the game to help deal with emotional distress.” The MMORPGs that I have played tend to take up a lot of time, and can be extremely addictive, so I can understand the correlation with drinking or drugs. Still, I always like to see some positive press on games – they’re probably represented in the media even worse than science is!

John Cleese on genes

Finally, John Cleese (who my brain still can’t accept as looking so old) tells us all about genes:

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1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 20 September 2008 at 4:34 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics

After all the fuss over the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider, it turns out the experiment will have to be shut down again.

The LHC has to operate at temperatures near absolute zero, otherwise the superconducting magnets that hold the proton beams in place won’t work properly. On Friday, around 100 of these magnets suffered a failure which caused a rapid rise in temperature, known as a quench. The magnets went up almost 100 °C, leaving them around a still comparatively chilly -170 °C, but much too hot to retain their superconducting properties.

The tunnel sector where the failure occurred will now have to be warmed up even further to allow engineers to perform repairs, and then cooled back down to its operating temperature of 1.9K. The process will take two month, says CERN spokesman James Gillies:

“A full investigation is still under way but the most likely cause seems to be a faulty electrical connection between two of the magnets which probably melted, leading to a mechanical failure. We’re investigating and we can’t really say more than that now. But we do know that we will have to warm the machine up, make the repair, cool it down, and that’s what brings you to two months of downtime for the LHC.”

As I recall, the original plan was to shut down the LHC over the Christmas period, presumably as researchers would be taking a break for some festivities. If they aren’t up and running until two months from now that will be approaching December, so I wonder if the planned shut down will still go ahead.

You can actually follow the temperature status of the LHC online. In the bottom left-hand corner, you can see that sector 3-4 has experience a spike in temperature up to nearly 100K. This page gives more detail, showing the spike occurring between lunchtime yesterday and midnight. I think it’s pretty cool that all of this information is accessible to anyone online.

As an aside, the Telegraph have a story about the difficulty in communicating the energy used by the LHC. Apparently, with a beam energy of 10 trillion watts, the LHC could defrost a pizza in just 30 nanoseconds, according to J R Minkel of Scientific American. Dr David Sankey of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory disputes his figures, saying that because the protons are arranged in bunches it would actually be almost 1000 times quicker, at 250 picoseconds. I’ll keep you up to date with an further LHC pizza news, as it happens.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 19 September 2008 at 2:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review

Even if you’ve never read a book by Terry Pratchett, you’ve probably heard of him. Creator of the Discworld, which floats through space supported by four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle, and last year diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Pratchett is the UK’s second best-selling author (after J.K. Rowling, naturally). Why though, am I reviewing his latest novel Nation on a science blog?

For one thing, Pratchett is no stranger to science. A few years back he teamed up with mathematician Ian Stewart and biologist Jack Cohen to write The Science of the Discworld. Both entertaining and informative, the book used the Discworld setting to explore scientific concepts, alternating between fiction and non-fiction. It was successful enough to spawn two sequels.

Nation, however, is straight fiction – and also Pratchett’s first non-Discworld novels in a while. Set 150 years ago, it’s about a boy named Mau who returns from the ritual that will make him a man to find his island home has been devastated by a great wave. His family, his people, his Nation, gone. He encounters Ermintrude, a girl from Britain who’s father is 138th in line to the throne. Shipwrecked on the island by the wave, she prefers to be known as Daphne, because Ermintrude is “exactly the kind of name that would invite a young man to tea and mess it all up.” Gradually, they are joined by other survivors from surrounding islands, who have turned to the great Nation to protect them.

Only, it isn’t really about all that. Nation is a book about science, it’s a book about quantum mechanics, the scientific method, and generally just having a good long hard think about why the world is the way it is.

Mau cannot accept that the gods would allow such devastation – and begins to wonder if the gods are really there. The voices of his ancestors fill his head with commands, but he begins to question them. Meanwhile, Daphne tries to understand the strange ways of the Nation, like a beer that is poisonous unless you spit in it then sing a song, by following the scientific method demonstrated by her heroes at the Royal Institute. Eventually the pair make a discovery that will turn the world upside down…

Pratchett is treading some familiar themes here – Mau resonates particularly with Johnny Maxwell from Only You Can Save Mankind and Brutha from Small Gods. All three protagonists find strength in their weakness, and find that people follow them because they view the world in a different way. Free of Discworld trappings, however, Nation is probably the most accessible book to anyone who hasn’t yet picked up a Pratchett. Most of all, I liked it because my first thought as I turned the final page was “hey, isn’t science amazing? Wow.” I’ll leave you with a quote, a character’s answer to a child’s question about belief in science and religion, and whether God exists:

“Perhaps. I just believe. You know, in things generally. That works, too. Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science.”

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 18 September 2008 at 4:27 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Scientists at the University of Southampton are launching the “largest-ever” study of near-death experiences – in which people with no heartbeat or brain activity see bright lights or feel as if they are watching their own body from on high.

The BBC reports that to test these “out of body” experiences, researchers will place images on high shelves in hospital resuscitation rooms – in such a way that only a person floating high above the ceiling could view them.

It all sounds a bit silly to me, but leading the study is Dr Sam Parnia, an expert in such matters, who explains that there is more to death than you might expect:

“Contrary to popular perception, death is not a specific moment. It is a process that begins when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop working and the brain ceases functioning – a medical condition termed cardiac arrest, which from a biological viewpoint is synonymous with clinical death.

“During a cardiac arrest, all three criteria of death are present. There then follows a period of time, which may last from a few seconds to an hour or more, in which emergency medical efforts may succeed in restarting the heart and reversing the dying process. What people experience during this period of cardiac arrest provides a unique window of understanding into what we are all likely to experience during the dying process.”

Apparently 10-20% of people who experience this type of clinical death report some kind of near-death experience. This study could help work out if people really do leave their bodies and float around the room, or if it’s just their brains making things up in much the same way as dreams. I know which outcome my money is on…

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 17 September 2008 at 6:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Coincidentally tying into yesterday’s post on Science Debate 2008, the new series of Horizon was kicked off last night by speaking to “leading scientists” about the scientific knowledge a President requires. What did they have to say for themselves?

Initially, not much. It seems they had all been bundled into a darkened room only to have spotlights shined into their blinking, deer-in-the-headlight eyes. I’m not entirely sure why the BBC chose to shoot their guests in this manner – its a toss up between wanting to appear “edgy”, and just being too cheap to build a set.

A few uncomfortable introductions: Richard Dawkins, James Watson (one of the discoverers of DNA), and others. Cut to the scientists scribbling random equations on blackboards. Oh good. Right, a bit of history: Kennedy was a good friend to scientists, who in turn helped out America by sending men to to the moon. Everyone else since then has been rubbish. Especially George Bush.

More meaningless equations, this time floating in the sky between buildings. What do they mean? It doesn’t matter, it’s SCIENCE! Really, does the BBC thing we have such short attention spans these days that if we don’t see something shiny every few seconds we’ll lapse into a coma of boredom?

Six minutes in, and it’s time for the programme to start. Apparently a President must understand e = mc2 in order to be able to push the nuke button. Funny, I thought it just took a finger – a thumb even, in an emergency. Oh no, turns out that the President is “shadowed by a uniformed officer”, holding a case full of launch codes.

Sorry, where were we? Right, science, but not too much science. Richard Garwin, designer of the first hydrogen bomb, shows us how how much enriched uranium is needed to start a nuclear reaction in a power station (yes, we’re on power stations now, do keep up), then mutters under his breath for a few seconds whilst working out how long the reaction would take – one millionth of a second. Beaming, he says “and you can calculate all that yourself!”

No! Not calculation! The science has gone too far! A horror-movie style musical stab plays as we cut quickly over the evil, evil numbers on the blackboard. The monster of mathematics has reared its ugly head, and we must move on sharpish before it devours us all.

There’s some nonsense about detecting Iran’s nuclear progress, with former CIA agent Robert Baer telling us that ninjas and James Bond will not be coming in and shutting them down. That’s not the way that world works. Yes, ninjas and James Bond were the actual words he used.

Oh right, science. Well, a President must also know about stem cell research. Sir Paul Nurse guides us through his laboratory full of duplicated equipment: thanks to the ban on federally funded research, one set of machines can be used for stem cell research, and the other (privately funded) can’t. The are even hooked up to separate electrical meters, so no American tax dollars go to those filthy anti-life scum. What does a President need to know? Some people don’t like stem cells, it seems. They even have signs saying so. Better watch out for them.

Physics, biology – isn’t there something else on our list we need to tick off? Ah: chemistry. We’re reminded of that “dreaded of science class icons, the periodic table” – apparantly “little could appear less interesting.” Really? Someone better tell the Periodic Table of Videos to shove off, because Horizon is back on the case.

Chemistry is all to do with photosynthesis. That’s what a President needs to know. Sorry, sorry, did I say photosynthesis? Silly old me, I meant climate change. Oh, but now we’re back to nuclear power. I guess we didn’t cover that in enough detail earlier.

At the end of the program, what does a President really need to know about science? The answer, it seems, is to choose a science advisor. Good to know. If you like, you can watch The President’s Guide to Science online with BBC iPlayer until next Tuesday, but frankly, I wouldn’t bother.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 16 September 2008 at 2:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Education, Science Policy, Yes, But When?

In our increasingly technological world, scientific understanding is a vital skill for any modern day politician. Our leaders need to know how to tackle problems like climate change and manage controversial research such as stem cell research. Science is becoming politicised more and more, and for the past eight years the President of the United States has been extremely anti-science. George Bush has vetoed bills on stem cell research – a technology that could be used to save millions of lives – and also refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which required signatory countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.

In less than two months time, on November 4th, America will elect a new “leader of the free world” in the form of either Barack Obama or John McCain. A self-styled “small group of citizens” decided in November 2007 that a presidential debate on science was required. They formed Science Debate 2008.

Thousands of scientists, engineers and others agreed with the need for debate, and submitted over 3,400 questions for the candidates. These were whittled down to 14 key topics, and submitted to the presidential hopefuls. Obama submitted his answers a few weeks ago, and now that McCain has provided his as well, we can compare the politicians views on science. You can read the full answers, or stick with me for a summary. Quotes are attributed to [O]bama or [Mc]Cain where appropriate.

Head to head on science.

Innovation: Both candidates were concerned with America’s slide from being a leading scientific nation. Obama pointed out that the US is 17th among developed nations for science and engineering degrees – down from third place 30 years ago. He promised increased funding for both research and teachers. McCain also promised more money for researchers and education reform, as well as the defence of American intellectual property around the world. He sees the nurturing of technology, particularly in communication, as key to solving “critical problems” [Mc] like climate change.

Climate change: Speaking of which, both candidates saw climate change as an important issues. McCain said it demanded “urgent attention” [Mc], and Obama believed “there can no longer be any doubt” [O] of human influence on the climate. They were also in agreement on policy: a carbon trading system would be put in place to reduce emissions by 60% below 1990 levels for McCain and 80% for Obama.

Energy: The candidates agree on the need for a sustainable energy policy. Both favour an increased reliance on nuclear power, in addition to renewables such as wind energy. Obama also highlighted the importance of a “more efficient use of energy” [O], utilising new technology to reduce waste.

Education: Obama and McCain both want to increase learning in science and maths by recruiting more teachers in the subjects and paying them more. McCain also spoke of encouraging private corporations to help “identify and maximize” [Mc] potential in students, whilst Obama promised tax credits for higher education in science.

National Security: McCain credited the military for driving forward technology that we all use today: the internet, GPS and Teflon, to name a few. He promised increased research funding for American forces, as did Obama.

Pandemics and Biosecurity: Both candidates emphasised that the US was not fully prepared to respond to attacks by bioweaponry, and pledged money for research into vaccination and detection technology.

Genetics research: In line with the general American attitude to GM food, both candidates favoured research into crops that could lead to higher yields, though Obama stressed the need for “stringent tests” [O] and “stronger regulatory oversight” [O]. They also agreed on genetic modification in humans, stating that whilst gene therapy had the potential to change lives, care had to be taken to avoid “genetic discrimination” [Mc].

Stem cells: An extremely controversial issue in the US, the candidates were divided on stem cell research. Obama “strongly support[s] expanding research on stem cells”, [O] and would lift the ban laid down by President Bush in 2001. He suggested that the “hundreds of thousands of embryos” [O] stored (unused) in fertilization clinics could ethically be used for research, because they would eventually be destroyed anyway. In comparison, McCain refused to “sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress” [Mc], hoping that adult stem cell research would one day rendered the debate “academic” [Mc]. Obama views adult stem cells as falling short of the “gold standard” of embryonic stem cells.

Ocean Health: Both candidates waxed lyrical on their love of the ocean (McCain was a former officer in the US Navy) but had little to say on actual policy. Obama is in favour of ratifying the UN Law of the Sea Convention, which in part refers to ocean conservation.

Space: McCain questioned “whether we can afford not to” [Mc] continue exploration of space, and pointed out that “space activities have contributed greatly to US scientific discovery, national security, economic development and national innovation” [Mc]. He pledged to make space exploration a “top priority” [Mc] and to minimise the gap between the decommissioning of the Space Shuttle and the launch of its replacement. Obama promised NASA “will inspire the world with both human and robotic space exploration” [O] and would help confront challenges such as climate change and energy independence.

Scientific integrity: The candidates took a swipe at George Bush as they agreed that “government decisions should be based on…scientifically-valid evidence” [O] and that “denial of the facts” [Mc] will not help solve “critical problems” [Mc] for the country. They both promised to appoint science advisers as key parts of their administration.

Research: Both candidates promised increased funding in basic research which they view as “the foundation for many new discoveries” [Mc], with Obama pledging cash “at a rate that would double basic research budgets over the next decade” [O].

Health: Understandably, the candidates focused mostly on the cost of the provision of healthcare, rather than the science, but both praised the “scientific and technological developments” [Mc] of US medical research.

Honestly, when it comes to scientific policy, it doesn’t seem there is a huge difference between the two candidates. The only clear difference of opinion I can see is on stem cells, with the candidates following the party policy that you would expect. Does this render Science Debate 2008 pointless? I think not. Their answers to the questions raised in the debate total over 10,000 words – words which have no doubt been put through the wringer of PR and policy making. Even if the debate doesn’t help choose a President, it has certainly got the candidates (and hopefully the nation) thinking about science again.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 15 September 2008 at 1:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

The cover story of the latest issue of New Scientist throws up some food for thought (sorry, bad, bad joke), and if you have a subscription to the magazine you can read the full text on their website.

The article suggests that in the average US household food consumption produces almost twice as much greenhouse gases as driving. Using “equivalent CO2 emissions”, a measure that includes other greenhouse gases along with the infamous carbon, a recent study found that 8.1 tonnes of CO2eq make up an average “food-print”, whilst a typical year’s car use emits only 4.4 tonnes of CO2eq.

Calculation of CO2eq figures is extremely complex. You have to factor in all of the energy used in getting food to your stomach, from the fuel used by tractors, to the refrigeration in supermarkets, and even the methane emitted by cows. Complicating matters further, it is difficult to translate these numbers from one region to another – because farming and food distribution methods differ widely in different countries, a steak eaten the US doesn’t necessarily have the same CO2eq footprint as one eaten in the UK.

You might think that eating local could help you cut down on emissions. Supermarkets are already trying to implement “food miles” labelling, but a study by Christopher Weber, an environmental policy researcher at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, found that transportation of food makes up only 11% of the total greenhouse emissions. Most of the energy goes in to food production – a whopping 83%. The title of this posts reflects that fact: a bowl of cereal will set you back 1224 grams of CO2eq, roughly the same as a 6 km drive in a typical gas-guzzling SUV.

It’s not even the cereal which is to blame here – it’s the milk. Cows have a huge carbon footprint, which gives weight to the argument of Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin of the University of Chicago, who calculated that switching to a vegetarian diet could cut your emissions by almost 1.5 tonnes of CO2eq. Some of my friends have already gone veggie for this exact reason, but I’m not quite ready to give up sausages just yet.

One solution is in vitro meat. Essentially, animal cells are grown in a lab to form edible meat, without having to feed and care for an actual animal. The concept horrifies many people, but I personally have no problem with it (as long as the meat still tastes good!), and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are offering a $1 million dollar prize reward to anyone who can bring in vitro meat to market.

Unfortunately for PETA, it seems that treating your chickens badly actually lowers their carbon footprint. Next time you’re in the supermarket, you might find yourself wondering whether to side with Jamie Oliver or Al Gore, since organic chicken require 10% more energy than their battery-farmed cousins because they live longer and are allowed to move about more.

What then should your average consumer do to reduce their carbon food-print? I’d recommended the introduction of vegetarian meals into your diet, without going full-on meat free. Vegetable curries are always a good option, and I’m quite partial to a mushroom risotto. Just stay away from the cardboard-like “meat substitutes” that vegetarians seem to sustain themselves on – I think I’d rather have global warming!

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 14 September 2008 at 3:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Evolution, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Brain drain?

A poll published by Shell claims that Britain could be “losing” 60,000 scientists a year. A sample of 4,000 children aged nine to 14 found that 10% are inspired by science but don’t intended to pursue their interest past the age of 16. Nationally, this could translate to 60,000 fewer scientists a year.

These figures seem pretty dodgy to me, in much the same way the music industry claims massively inflated figures of “lost revenue” due to piracy. More worrying is the finding that only 6% of children want to be a scientist when they grow up, compared to 20% footballers and 20% actors – no doubt a product of our celebrity obsessed society.

Suspect stripes

Research by Peter Thompson at the University of York has found that, contrary to popular belief, wearing horizontal stripes can make you look thinner, not vertical. He asked people to compare 200 pictures of women wearing dresses striped in both directions and identify which they thought was fatter. He found that to make the women appear the same size, the one wearing horizontal stripes had to be an extra six per cent wider.

Horizontal vs vertical - which makes you thinner?

There is one problem I have with this research – in the sample image, the stripes aren’t the same size, and the dresses are different colours. Without controlling for these factors, how does Thompson know it isn’t size or colours of stripes, rather than direction, that makes you appear fatter? Interestingly enough, none of the media reports I have read have mentioned this…

Aliens among us

Check out these beautiful pictures from Socotra Island. Isolated from the African mainland for the last 6 or 7 million years, some truly unique species have evolved. My favourite is the ominously named Dragon’s Blood Tree:

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 13 September 2008 at 3:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics

First there was a rap, and now the Large Hadron Collider has a game. Unfortunately it’s not as good as the rap, but it will teach you what the LHC is for, and how it works.

First, you must help accelerate protons up to speed, then adjust the magnets to get them following around the ring, and finally use quadrupole magnets (which I had never heard of, so it’s educational!) to focus the proton beams. Only after completing these tasks can you push the big red button and start the LHC.

Just in case you are still worried that pushing the red button might create a black hole and kill us all, a handy website has been created to put your mind at ease. Simply point your browser at for up the minute information on the status of the planet. There’s even an RSS feed!

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 12 September 2008 at 3:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Evolution, Getting It Wrong

“No” is the answer that immediatly springs to mind, but comments made yesterday by director of education at the Royal Society, Professor Michael Reiss, have kicked up a bit of media storm.

Speaking during the BA Festival of Science at an event entitled “Should creationism be a part of the science curriculum?“, Reiss has been reported by (amongst others) the Times, the Guardian and the BBC as calling for creationism to be taught in science classes. Today, the Royal Society has put out a press release stating Reiss’s views have been misrepresented by the media. He issued the following clarification:

“Some of my comments about the teaching of creationism have been misinterpreted as suggesting that creationism should be taught in science classes. Creationism has no scientific basis. However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis. I have referred to science teachers discussing creationism as a worldview’; this is not the same as lending it any scientific credibility.”

What Reiss is basically saying is teachers should be able to respond to pupils who bring up creationism in their science lessons and explain to them why it is not a valid scientific theory, unlike evolution. As we saw in The Genius of Charles Darwin, when Richard Dawkins spoke to science teachers about challenging creationism in schools they were almost terrified of the idea.

Ducking the question is not a solution. As I stated in my review of the programme, evolution is not the enemy of religion. It’s a point worth labouring: evolution is not the enemy of religion. If you wish, you can choose to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, who supposedly created the universe after “drinking heavily”, but evolution is not inconsistent with a creation myth. It doesn’t even contradict the idea that “man was created in God’s image” – God just took his time about it, starting with single celled organisms and letting it go from there. After all, he’s supposedly omnipotent and would know exactly which random mutations would lead to the human race.

I’m digressing. Creationism should not be taught in science lessons – that’s laughable. It’s right at home in a religious education class (or more properly, a personal and social education class), and science teachers could just deflect pupils’ questions to RE teachers. What’s wrong, however, with using those questions as a launching point for discussions on what we call “science”? Why is evolution a provable science fact, whilst creationism is not? Conversations such as these would go a lot further in improving a child’s scientific education than simply ignoring their questions.

Lord Robert Winston, also speaking at the BA Festival of Science, agrees that simply dismissing religion without discussion is “dangerous“, and criticises Dawkins and others for doing so:

“I would argue that the ‘God Delusion’ approach is actually very divisive because it is the one way surely of not winning over opposing views … Religious people can say, ‘look these guys just don’t understand us’.”

“We need to be much more sophisticated in how we handle these problems in our society and I don’t think the propositions of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and a number of other writers have really furthered useful healthy debate. I think actually they’ve limited it – that worries me”

You’ll never change anyone’s mind with simple “you’re wrong.” Show children the facts of evolution whilst pointing out their absence in creationism will allow them to make up their own mind – the approach taken by teacher David Campbell, who I praised at the start of the month, is definitely the way to go.

As for the media’s reporting on Reiss’s comments, I think journalists are often all too ready to whip up the debate between religion and science, especially when it comes to religion. Just a theory, of course.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 11 September 2008 at 2:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics

The most impressive moment of the Beijing 2008 Olympics was when Usain ‘Lightning’ Bolt not only beat the world record for the 100 metre dash, but actually slowed down to celebrate whilst doing so. A group of scientists from the Institute of Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Oslo in Norway wondered what Bolt’s record could have been if he kept up his speed. Led by Hans Eriksen, they analysed television footage of the race in their spare time.

By examining the footage frame-by-frame, they found that its possible Bolt’s 9.69 seconds record could have been improved to as low as 9.55 seconds. They began by creating a standard ruler – in the form of bolts on the rail of a moving camera – from which to take their measurements, and then read off the positions of Usain Bolt as well as those of runner up Richard Thompson. Along with these they noted the time on the screen clock.

The camera angle changes from almost front-on to parallel with the track during the course of the race, so the team had to factor the uncertainty of their measurements into the figures. They could then fit a curve to the data, and estimate the distance, speed and acceleration of both runners during the course of the race. They found that the pair are neck and neck for the first four seconds, and the gold medal is “essentially won” between four and eight seconds into the race, after which point Bolt started to slow down. Interestingly, Thompson was actually going faster than Bolt at this point, but he was too far behind to catch up.

Working on two assumptions, the team calculated two potential world records. The first, in which Bolt maintains the same acceleration as Thompson for the rest of the race, nets the runner a 9.61 second world record. If he had been able to keep his acceleration 0.5 m/s2 above that of Thompson, then the time would have been 9.55. They even mocked up a picture of Bolt’s potential win:

In this mock up, the projected Bolt (right) is even further ahead of his competitors than the real Bolt (left)

Given the uncertainties in the data however, the team speculate that 9.52 seconds “does by no means seem to be out of reach.” In fact, because there was no wind at Beijing, and the International Association of Athletics Federations allows a world record to stand with a wind speed under 2 m/s, “a new world record of less than 9.5 seconds is within reach for Usain Bolt in the near future.”

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 10 September 2008 at 9:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics

Two arms, two legs, a head and everything. Beams have been circulated both ways, so congratulations to everyone at CERN – the Large Hadron Collider works! Let the science begin.

I woke up this morning and began watching coverage of the Large Hadron Collider on BBC News. They kept referring to the gigantic machine as “this generation’s moon landing”, but the trouble with the comparison is that the LHC does not fair well on television. There is no “one giant leap” moment, no easy sound bite.

A large amount of screen time was devoted to a room of scientists clapping occasionally as the beam of protons made its way around the full 27 kilometres of the LHC circuit, with the BBC presenters helpfully chiming in “I don’t know what they’re clapping about.” They had Simon Singh on, who was doing his best, but as with most live news coverage it boiled down to “nothing’s happening, nothing’s happening…wait…wait…I’m just being told that nothing’s happening.”

On the newspaper/internet sides of the media, its clear that the LHC is big news. Most papers are running stories pretty close to the front page, and online the scientists at CERN are topping the “most read” charts. Obviously, there is a huge public interest in the LHC.

BBC Radio 4 is by far the leading source of information for those wanting to learn more, with a substantial number of programmes for “Big Bang day”. I didn’t catch Andrew Marr on Today (I’d been wooed by pictures to BBC News), but with the aid of iPlayer I’ve managed to check out most of the offerings. Some links (for the next seven days only, unfortunately) and my reviews:

Engineering Solutions

In the first dedicated programme of the day, Adam Hart-Davis talks to the scientists and engineers at CERN who built the world’s biggest machine. Its nice to hear directly from the people who worked on the LHC, even if much of the conversation consists of Hart-Davis’ astonishment at some large number. The programme also highlights the international nature of the project, with men and women from a number of countries contributing. Worth a listen in order to get a more personal feeling for the events at CERN.

Woman’s Hour

Woman’s Hour began with a recap of the days events so far by Andrew Marr, and then moved on to a discussion with four female scientists, including one from CERN. They talked about the need to get girls more involved with science, and to show that that subjects such as physics are not just for boys. The female population of CERN makes up only 10% of the total, so its an issue that needs to be rectified. The panel suggested introducing girls to female scientists, as well as showing them how science benefits their everyday lives, could help with this.

The programme also featured interviews with female scientists at CERN, who talked about balancing their scientific work with family life. A common theme was the difficulty in taking a break from a scientific career in order to raise a family; in a fast moving fields, a few years out of the loop could mean it was almost impossible to return.

Physics Rocks

Presented by CERN physicist Brian Cox, who before becoming a scientist played with the band D:Ream – their hits included the New Labour anthem “Things Can Only Get Better” – Physics Rocks speaks to celebrities about their interest in physics.

Guests included the actor Alan Alda and his friend, physicist Brian Greene, who collaborated with him to create the World Science Festival in New York. A huge fan of science, Alda had even designed a t-shirt for CERN. The pair talked about what the possibility of parallel universe could mean for us.

Comedian Dara O’Briain flaunted his BSc in mathematical physics, and suggested that experiments like CERN are great for improving interest in science, whilst John Barrowman (who will pop up again as Captain Jack in the next programme, Torchwood) thought that CERN is “science fiction” and could be creating a “mini-universe”. Not too sure about that one.

Its one of the more light hearted programmes on offer today, as illustrated by Cox on homoeopathy: “how big a particle accelerator would we need to detect bullshit?”, but he views this irreverence as essential to bringing science to the heart of our culture.

Torchwood: Lost Souls

As the first radio episode of the Doctor Who spin-off, I wasn’t expecting too much from Torchwood. A bit naff even at its best, the prospect of an “edutainment” episode did not inspire confidence. It seems I was right to be sceptical, as the first half of the programme mainly consisted of characters talking about just how fascinating it all is.

“Something’s going on at the LHC!”
“The LHC, what’s that?”
“Well, the LHC is…[insert Wikipedia article here]”

Slightly condescending, to say the least. As for the actual plot, it turns out the testing of the LHC has opened up a portal allowing neutron-devouring aliens to come through, leading to the disappearance of 12 people at CERN. There’s some nonsense about the LHC being a gateway to heaven, and then our hero Captain Jack utters the dreaded phrase “reverse the polarity!” This allows him to seal the portal by colliding beams of protons and anti-protons (the real LHC only collides proton beams) and find the Higgs boson in the process. Oh dear.

The episode at least had a few nods for Torchwood fans, with the neutron-eating aliens impersonating two characters who had recently died on the show, and a speech about just how wonderful the human race is in our pursuit for knowledge, did produce this nice little gem: “sometimes, just asking the question is the answer.”

All this, and I’ve not even covered half the programmes on offer. Simon Singh talked about anti-matter in 5 Particles, Front Row was devoted to the representation of physics in the arts, and even as I post this The Great Big Particle Adventure is airing more interviews with CERN scientists. Finally, The Genuine Particle is a satire set in CERN, broadcast at 11.30. I’m looking forward to catching up with the rest tomorrow. Well done Radio 4, for some excellent coverage.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 9 September 2008 at 2:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Physics

The Today programme had Professor Stephen Hawking on this morning, taking about (what else), the Large Hadron Collider. He reiterated much of what I’ve said this past week, namely micro black holes are unlikely to be produced, and even if they do crop up, we’re perfectly safe.

Hawking also agreed with my comments yesterday about the immediate benefits of the LHC, stating science for the sake of science is enough for now:

“Throughout history, people have studied pure science from a desire to understand the universe, rather than for practical applications, or commercial gain. But their discoveries have later turned out to have great practical benefits. It is difficult to see an economic return from research at the LHC, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any.”

He also pointed out that together the cost of the LHC and the space program (which Hawking also views as vital to the survival of the human race) cost less than 0.1% of world GDP – which we should easily afford. Hawking himself could be out of pocket, as he has a bet against the discovery of the Higgs boson – to the tune of $100. He thinks it would be more “exciting” not to find the Higgs, as it would mean something is wrong with the Standard Model of particle physics.

It’s good to hear from Hawking on the LHC. He’s arguably the most famous living physicist, even if many people remember him for his disability rather than his discoveries. Hopefully the general public will have read his books or seen him on TV, remembered him as an interesting and reasonably sane guy, and take his word for it – we’re not all going to die tomorrow, but we are witnessing an extremely important piece of science.

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2 Comments » Posted on Monday 8 September 2008 at 6:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Physics

It seems the media pendulum is swinging back in favour of the Large Hadron Collider, with both the Times and the Sun reporting the particle accelerator could lead to “improved cancer treatments, systems for destroying nuclear waste and insights into climate change.”

The claims, presumably put out by CERN as damage control, are pretty impressive. Apparently cancer cells could be destroyed using particle beams containing “protons, carbon ions and even antimatter.” Antimatter can be produced by the proton synchrotron, part of the system which accelerates beams before injecting them into the LHC, but I’m not really sure how that helps kill cancer. The LHC isn’t the first machine to create antimatter, so what is being done here that is new?

CERN will also use the proton synchrotron in a new laboratory investigating the interactions of cosmic rays and clouds. If cosmic rays fired into a “cloud chamber” form clouds, it could have “interesting implications.” Very promising, I’m sure.

I don’t really want to bash the guys at CERN, but come on. The similar wording in both articles indicates cribbing from a press release (although I can’t find one on CERN’s site) providing journalists with some tenuous links to hot issues in science, as away of getting some positive press for the LHC.

I’d rather see a spin on the actual science taking place at CERN, rather than some “maybes” around the periphery. Yeah, the discovery of the Higgs boson might not immediatly lead to some wonderful technological revolution, but that’s not what science is about. Imagine if Newton had publicised his explanation of gravity as “Great News For Farmers – A New Method Of Collecting Apples Is On The Way!” He had no way of knowing that his calculations would eventually be used to put men on the moon – that’s just not how science works.

CERN should be celebrating their efforts of discovery, not pandering to a fickle media – although if the LHC can make my whites “whiter than white”, I’m all for it.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 7 September 2008 at 2:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Mathematics, Psychology

Something doesn’t sound quite right

The type of music you like could be linked to your personality, suggests a study carried out by Professor Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University. Apparently fans of country and western are “hardworking, outgoing” whilst indie lovers are “low self-esteem, creative, not hard working, not gentle”. Sounds like a bunch of nonsense to me – what if you like both country and indie? I haven’t been able to find a published paper on the research, which might validate it a little more, but I’m not holding my breath.

Because I say so

In the latest of a series on statistics in the media, Michael Blastland talks about the pitfalls of causation and correlation. Just because event A occurred before event B, it does not mean that A caused B – and yet so many stories in the media report just that. One you should always watch out for, so have a read.

Fruit for thought

Finally, some amazing photos of fruit taken using a scanning electron microscope. The colours may be false, but its all still very pretty.

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3 Comments » Posted on Saturday 6 September 2008 at 6:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Physics

As we draw closer to the official “switching on” of the Large Hadron Collider, the mainstream media is increasingly running stories on the possibility of the destruction of the universe. A quick summary:

I can see the appeal of such stories. EARTH SUCKED INTO BLACK HOLE!!! is an impressive headline, and sure to shift a few newspapers. Unfortunately for editors, it’s just not going to happen. The LHC Safety Assessment Group have reviewed the dangers and found that there are “no reasons for concern.”

The LHC is the largest particle accelerator ever built, but that doesn’t mean that the collisions within it have never taken place before. In fact, cosmic rays have been colliding in the Earth’s atmosphere for billions of years, and have already generated the equivalent of a million LHC experiments. As you have probably notice, the planet still exists. Staggeringly, more than 10 million million – that’s 10,000,000,000,000 – LHC-like experiments are conducted every second across the universe.

The same goes for microscopic blank holes, which the media believe could sink to the centre of the Earth and consume us all. If that were true, it would have already happened, either here or else where in the universe. The continued existence of dense bodies such as neutron stars rules out this possibility, as they would attract “natural” microscopic black holes and be destroyed. Other exotic phenomena such as strangelets (hypothetical lumps of “strange matter”), vacuum bubbles and magnetic monopoles have also failed to occur during cosmic ray collision, so they’re ruled out as well.

All of these occurrence are what I mentally lump into the “too interesting to actually happen” category. They join things like alien invasions, teleportation and mind-reading. When you can make a decent sci-fi flick out of the concept, it probably isn’t going to happen.

So, why isn’t this being communicated by the majority of the mainstream media? The legal case filled by the likes of Professor Otto Rössler probably doesn’t help. Rössler, along with other scientists, submitted their case to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming that the LHC violates the rights to life and private family life which are provided under the European Convention of Human Rights. “Look,” says the media. “Even the boffins think this collider thingy will blow up the world. Someone stop the mad scientists!”

I have to wonder how many retractions will be printed come next Wednesday, when newspapers find that their offices are still around. Somewhere between none and zero, I reckon. The event will be ignored by the public at large, many of whom will say “oh, they just got lucky,” and continue to believe scientists will destroy us all.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 5 September 2008 at 3:54 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Evolution

Today is the European release date of Spore, the latest product of game guru Will Wright’s active imagination. Wright is the creator of incredibly successful titles such as SimCity, which allowed players to build and manage a city, and The Sims, which places you in charge of a virtual household and it’s occupants. The Sims series of games alone has sold over 100 million copies, so you might say they’re pretty popular.

Spore takes players in a new direction. Wright wanted to explore the ideas behind evolution and make gamers think about their effect on the world. In Spore, you begin life as a microscopic organism, fighting for your existences in a style reminiscent of Pac-Man. Succeed, and you can evolve into a land-based creature, that will eventually develop its own society and ultimately explore space and rule the galaxy.

It sounds pretty ambitious, and it is – the game was announced to the public in 2005, but has actually been in development for nearly eight years. Part of the problem in creating Spore was how to reflect the true nature of evolution, without having to wait for millions of years. The solution was to allow players to create their own creatures, using an intuitive “virtual clay” system, and then to modify them as the game goes along. You start off with a basic spine, which you can pull and stretch to any number of forms, and then add a variety of heads, limbs, and other appendages. Player created creatures are then uploaded to a central server and then downloaded into other players games, to create a diverse range of species for everyone to play with. It’s very easy to use – why not try it yourself?

I find Spore to be an extremely interesting form of science communication. On the one hand, creatures evolve up from a single celled organism, eventually becoming much larger creatures that can form a society – not too different from our own evolutionary history. On the other hand, because players are shaping the make up of their creatures at every step, rather than the game making modifications at random, Spore is actually an example of intelligent design. Of course, it would be hard to make the game work any other way – as mentioned above, no one wants to sit around for a few million years waiting for something to happen – but it does send a mixed message to players.

In the space phase of the game, Spore hits on another scientific controversy: climate change. Players can fly around the galaxy in a spaceship, contacting other species and terraforming planets. Adding water to a planet will introduce an atmosphere and clouds, where greenhouse gases can accumulate and cause the planet to heat up. Wright believes that by demonstrating such large changes in a short amount of time, players will find it much easier to grasp the concept of climate change, and how it can occur.

At the end of the day, many people will play Spore without thinking about the science behind the game. It’s not intended to be strictly educational, but Wright wanted to create an experience that would allow players to learn about scientific principles at the same time as having fun and telling their own stories. I’m interested to see if he succeeds.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 4 September 2008 at 5:37 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

A short post today, but before we get into it, you may have been wondering what the “Research Blogging” icon on the previous post means. Research Blogging is an organisation that “allows readers to easily find blog posts about serious peer-reviewed research, instead of just news reports and press releases.” A few other blogs I read use the service, so I thought I’d give it a go. A fair number of visitors seem to have come across from the website, so welcome to any new readers!

Right, and now for the actual post: whilst browsing today I came across this video of a Mitsukurina owstoni, or goblin shark – so called because of its snouts resemblance to the nose of a goblin. Little is known about this deep sea shark, which normally lives between 100 and 1000 metres under water. This specimen was found in Japan, but died shortly after being caught due to differences in water pressure.

The reason for me posting this video is this shark’s terrifying jaws, which pop right out of its face, to eat you in your nightmares (or perhaps just fish). It’s pretty cool, but I certainly wouldn’t want to meet one any time soon…

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 3 September 2008 at 5:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology

I often find myself frustrated with the stupidity of computers. If I’m performing a simple but repetitive task such as resizing pictures or uploading files, I begin to wonder why the computer can’t do it for me. All you have to do is click there, then drag that, then check this – surely the computer can learn this?

A team of computer scientists at Stanford university had the same idea, but set their sights on a task much more impressive than simple file management: flying a remote control helicopter. After “watching” expert radio control pilot Garett Oku demonstrate a series of stunts, the autonomous helicopter (controlled by a computer on the ground) was able not only to match the performance, but to actually better it as well.

The Stanford team pose with their helicopters. Graduate students Pieter Abbell (left) and Adam Coates (right) worked under the direction of Professor Andrew Ng (center)

The computer has multiple ways of observing the human-controlled flight. A system of cameras on the ground measure the position of the helicopter in the sky, whilst a sensor inside the craft tracks orientation during the loops and spins of the stunts. Data from multiple demonstrations is then fed into the computer, which calculates the ideal way to carry out a stunt. This is much more complicated than simply taking an average of a human pilot’s control input; this approach would soon result in a crash landing.

The key idea was to imagine that the expert demonstrations were nearly perfect, but not quite there. Perhaps on one run the helicopter goes a bit too wide, but on another it flies too low to the ground, and so on. By taking the best bits of each run, the computer can piece together the best possible stunt. It’s a bit like trying to view a large painting through a small hole – one viewing doesn’t tell you very much, but move the hole around and you can put together the image in your mind.

A plot of the helicopter's change in position during a loop. The coloured lines are the human-controlled demonstration, whilst the black line shows the much rounder ideal path calculated by the computer.

This clever software crunches the numbers 52,000 time a second, and enables the performance a range of difficult stunts with absolutely no human input. One of the most impressive is the “tic toc”, in which the helicopter points straight upwards and vibrates from side-to-side like the pendulum of a clock. Professor Andrew Ng, director of the research, called the stunts “by far the most difficult aerobatic maneuvers flown by any computer controlled helicopter.”

The team have a YouTube channel where you can watch the results of their experimentation, including the helicopter putting on a show all by itself:


Adam Coates, Pieter Abbeel, Andrew Y. Ng (2008). Learning for Control from Multiple Demonstrations ICML

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2 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 2 September 2008 at 3:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry

Everyone enjoys a good curry. I actually can’t think of anyone I know who doesn’t. I’m not a sadistic hotter-than-the-sun curry lover, more of a korma/tikka masala kind of guy, but there’s something about spicy food that really gets the taste buds going.

That something is a molecule called capsaicin (pronounced “cap-say-sin”) which is found in all varieties of chilli peppers. Capsaicin is hydrophobic, meaning that it repels water molecules – which means drinking water won’t cool your burning tongue after a mouthful of too-hot chilli, but if cold enough it might numb your mouth for a bit.

I cook a lot, and I’ve learnt to treat raw chillies more like radioactive waste than a tasty ingredient. My worst experience with capsaicin came when I decided to take a shower after preparing a curry. I didn’t know that I still had juice from the chilli (and thus capsaicin) on my fingers and the act of showering spread the substance all over my face and hands because the capsaicin does not dissolve in water. I began to realise this only once my skin started burning. In the end, I don’t think I got to sleep until the early hours of the morning thanks to the pain!

There was only one thing that provided any relief. Capsaicin will bind to fat molecules, so bathing your hands in a fatty substance can help to stem the pain – this is also why Indian meals are often served with an accompaniment of raita, a yoghurt based dish. My flatmate was amused to watch me cover my aching hands with anything I could find in the kitchen that contained fat – I tried butter, oil, and finally milk which worked best. I cursed myself for being a semi-skimmed drinker, rather than the full-fat variety!

At least the chillies I had used weren’t that strong, relatively speaking. The “heat” of a chilli is measured on a scale named after its creator, Wilbur Scoville. The more Scoville heat units (SHU) a chilli has, the deadlier it is! Pure capsaicin has a Scoville rating of 15 to 16 million SHU, whereas chillies you would normally buy in a supermarket are rated around 2500 SHU. Some hot sauce manufacturers even proudly display their Scoville rating on the packaging – check out this 600,000 SHU sauce!

Scoville’s original method for rating chillies was actually pretty unscientific. Known as the Scoville Organoleptic Test, it requires an extract of the chilli to be mixed with a water and sugar solution. This concoction is then given to a panel (normally of five people) to taste. If three out of the five agree they do not detect any heat from the chilli, then the ratio of dilution is the SHU rating. For example, if a certain chilli must be diluted with one part extract to 100 parts water and sugar, then it has a rating of 100 SHU.

This subjective test has since been replaced with a machine – known as a high performance liquid chromatograph – which can measure the capsaicin in a chilli. This measure can then be converted back to the Scoville units for comparison, although industry consensus is the modern technique yields a Scoville rating about 20-40% lower than the original method.

So, the next time you tuck into a tasty curry, whether it be a mild korma or a deadly phall, remember capsaicin, watch out for the Scoville rating, and always have a glass of full-fat milk on hand!

Comments Off Posted on Monday 1 September 2008 at 3:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Evolution, Getting It Right, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

As promised, here is the roundup for the past week

Live like a Pharaoh in Dubai

Would you like to share you home with 1 million other people? A Dubai-based firm Timelinks has announced plans to build a gigantic futuristic pyramid, designed to hold an entire city whilst only taking up 2.3 square kilometres. The Ziggurat, as it is known, is the latest in a series of wacky developments in Dubai. What’s more, Timelinks claim the whole thing will be carbon neutral. I’ll believe it when I see it – and not just as a rendered mockup:

Home of the future?

An evolving education

Here’s a great article from the New York Times we learn what it is like to teach evolution to highly religious students in America. Richard Dawkins could stand to learn a few things from high school teacher David Campbell, who starts his classes with the “evolution” of Mickey Mouse, from Steamboat Willy to the present day. A highly recommended read.

I’m not sure if I should say “Aww” or “Urgh!”

Finally, we have a video of Tan Tan, a giant panda giving birth to the first baby born as a result of artificial insemination in Japan in the past 20 years. It’s both cute and disgusting at the same time.

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