Archive for October 2008

Comments Off Posted on Friday 31 October 2008 at 11:15 am by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment

Olives could turn out to be more than just a tasty snack or delicious pizza topping – or rather, their stones could. Often discarded in the cultivation of the olive for oil or other uses, it is estimate that every year the olive growing industry produces 4 million tonnes of olive stones as waste. Scientists at the University of Jaén and the University of Granada, both in Spain, have demonstrated a method of extracting bioethanol from the stones.

Bioethanol is a renewable source of fuel that can be produced from many kinds of waste plant matter, but it has recently come under fire. Turning fields over to growing fuel instead of food has seen grain prices rise and increased the threat of hunger. Nevertheless, the push towards bioethanol continues, with the UK government mandating that by 2010 all cars run on 5% biofuel. Thus, producing energy from an unwanted food by-product looks increasingly attractive.

The fuel was extracted by first blasting the stones with high-pressure hot water and then adding enzymes to break down the organic matter into sugars. This mixture was then fermented with yeast in order to produce ethanol, with a maximum yield of 5.7 kg per 100 kg of olive stones.

They won't be powering your car just yet.

If this process could be applied to all 4 million tonnes of stones produced each year it would result in 228,000 tonnes of ethanol. Government figures for 1997 (the only ones I could find, unfortunately) indicate that 22,243,000 tonnes of petrol were sold that year. Unfortunately for olive producers, this means that waste stones would only be able to provide around a fifth of the UK’s bioethanol needs in 2010 – let alone any other countries.

It’s not all doom and gloom however. This research shows that energy can be extracted from the most unlikeliest places, and will perhaps encourage others to seek out other forms of energy from waste bio-materials.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 30 October 2008 at 6:32 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Hearing about a disease in newspapers and on TV makes people overestimate its severity and the risk of catching it, a study from McMaster University in Canada has found. Diseases such as anthrax and SARS are considered to be more deadly than other similar afflictions with a lower media profile.

“The media tend to focus on rare and dramatic events,” says Meredith Young, one of the study’s lead authors and a graduate student in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour. “When a certain disease receives repeated coverage in the press, people tend to focus on it and perceive it as a real threat. This raises concerns regarding how people view their own health, how they truly understand disease and how they treat themselves.”

The researchers conducted three experiments in order to discover the effect media reporting can have. In the first, 53 undergraduate psychology students were asked to rate 10 medical conditions for level of seriousness,the likelihood the condition represented a disease, and the chances of someone catching it.

Of the 10 conditions selected for the study, five had a heavy media profile (anthrax, West Nile virus, avian flu, SARS and Lyme disease) whilst the other half were less well known (tularemia, yellow fever, hantavirus, lassa fever and human babesiosis) but chosen to closely match one of the widely reported diseases. The results were a strong correlation between the perceived seriousness of a disease and its media profile.

The team wondered if a more medically knowledgeable study group might show different results. The experiment was repeated with 43 first year medical students, and surprisingly the findings were very similar. It seems that even a more medically oriented person is susceptible to the influence of the media.

Interestingly when more details such as symptoms or method of transmission were provided along with the name of the disease, participants rated high and low profile diseases much closer.

“Another interesting aspect of the study is when we presented factual information about the diseases along with the names of them, the media effect wasn’t nearly as strong,” says Karin Humphreys, one of the study’s authors and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour. “This suggests that people can overcome the influence of the media when you give them the facts, and so objective reporting is really critical.”

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 29 October 2008 at 11:12 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Musings

And no, I don’t mean the falling sales of organic food in times of economic hardship.

In the past I’ve talked about the comparisons between the reporting of business and science, and discussed the economic effect of biodiversity loss. It seems that environmental campaigners are increasingly grasping hold of banking metaphors in order to engage with the public.

Today the WWF, in conjunction with the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network, published their Living Planet Report 2008 under the banner of an “ecological credit crunch”. The phrase, now so engrained in the public mind, instantly conveys a message: we’re in trouble.

The demand the human race now places on global resources exceeds the planet’s “natural capital” by about 30%. If this rate of growth continues, we will need the equivalent of two Earths to sustain our lifestyles. In other words, more than three quarters of the global population are now “ecological debtors” – we’ve borrowed from the Bank of Nature and can’t afford the repayments.

“Continued ecological deficit spending will have severe economic consequences,” said the Global Footprint Network Executive Director, Dr Mathis Wackernagel. “Resource limitations and ecosystem collapses would trigger massive stagflation with the value of investments plummeting, while food and energy costs skyrocket.”

America and the United Arab Emirates are the biggest borrowers, with the largest ecological footprint. The UK comes in at 15th, but still uses the same amount of natural resources as 33 African countries put together. That’s 33, folks.

Something needs to change. Capitalism is based on the concept of eternal growth; if we’re not moving forward, we’re moving backwards. As these figures show however, we’ve already grown too much. You can’t reach for infinity by using finite resources – yet we’ve blindly ignored this fact since the days of Adam Smith.

“We are acting ecologically in the same way as financial institutions have been behaving economically – seeking immediate gratification without due regard for the consequences,” said Zoological Society of London co-editor Jonathan Loh. “The consequences of a global ecological crisis are even graver than the current economic meltdown.”

The banks are semi-privatised. Climate change denial is no longer seen as valid point of view. In less than one week from now, the most powerful nation in the world will elect a new leader. We have the opportunity to changed the way we work, to move away from the days of eternal growth and in to a more sustainable model.

It won’t be easy, but it must be done. I have no idea how though. Capitalism, like its partner democracy, prevails because it is the least worst system compared to the rest of them. How can we move away from that? Ultimately, the answer must be an energy-based economy. I’ll trade you five hydrogen-bucks for a cup of ethically and sustainably produced coffee, buying a product for the actual cost of the energy used to make it. Can it be done? The WWF believes so.

David Norman, director of campaigns at WWF said: “We humans have been very good at creating problems – but we can be equally good at solving them. A sustainable world is not an unachievable goal. As the world looks to restore its economies we must build in long term environmental as well as economic sustainability.”

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 28 October 2008 at 10:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

It’s normally football that is known for dramatic challenges against the referee’s decision, but new research out of the University of California, Davis suggests that things may be about to change. A team at The Department of Psychology and the Center for Mind and Brain found that professional tennis referees are more likely to call a ball “out” when it is “in” than vice versa.

The mistake arises because of the way a person’s eyes and brain interpret moving objects. Scientists already know that the people can make mistakes about an objects position, depending on its motion and the motion of other objects in the area. The team decided to look for a real-world example of this phenomena, and settled on tennis due to a new rule allowing players to challenge a referees decision.

If a player makes a challenge and the referee is found to be incorrect, the player is allowed to make further challenges. If the ref was right all along, however, the player is no longer permitted to question their judgement. This means that knowing when a referee is more likely to have made a mistake can give a player the advantage.

There are two kinds of mistake a tennis referee can make. As the ball flies towards the edge of the court, the referee must carefully observe where it lands. If it’s behind or on the line – even by a tiny fraction – then the ball counts as in. When the referee judges a ball to be out when it was actually in, this is known as a “predicted” error, whilst a ball judged to be in when actually it was out is called an “unpredicted” error.

If a referee was completely unbiased, we would expect them to make both kinds of errors equally. After all they’re only human, and a few mistakes here and there are not to be unexpected. By analysing 4,457 tennis points randomly drawn from Wimbledon 2007 the scientists discovered 83 referee errors, and observed that 70 of the errors reported the ball in being shifted in the direction of the ball’s motion, a predicted error. In other words, referees are calling the ball out instead of in much more than the other way round.

This suggests that players should challenge close-calls as often as possible, because the referee is more likely to have made a mistake. On the other hand, if a player believes the ref has erroneously called a ball in then they should keep quiet – because there’s only a small chance that they’re right! The authors suggest that ideally every shot in a tennis match should be objectively reviewed by instant replay – but given that this is unlikely, the adoption of clay courts (on which balls leave marks) as used by the French could solve the problem all together.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 27 October 2008 at 10:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

Last week a team of NASA engineers, astronauts and geologists took a new lunar rover prototype for a spin in the Arizona desert. The Small Pressurized Rover was tested in the 11th annual Desert RATS field tests. Research and Technology Studies, that is – no rodents here!

The Small Pressurized Rover in action.

The design differs from the old Apollo lunar rover, because it allows the crew to sit inside a pressurized environment and drive about with the need for bulky spacesuits. The new rover was put through its paces with day-long trips around the desert to determine performance. Although these are some of the longest trips the prototype has made, this week the team will shift gears and begin three-day testing.

The original Apollo rover, on the surface of the Moon.

Although I understand the need for more versatile equipment, I’m kind of sad to see the Apollo buggy bite the moon-dust. It has a kind of retro-futuristic feel, looking kind of like someone knocked it up in their backyard in a spare afternoon, and it just looks pretty stylish. The new rover, whilst it might have increased functionality, just looks a little bit awkward. You certainly wouldn’t catch me puttering about the Sea of Tranquillity in one.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 26 October 2008 at 7:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Does your name decide where you work?

When I first read the press release that psychologists in Belgium have discovered that a person’s initials have a link to the company they work for, my immediate thought was “yeah, whatever.” I thought that the conclusion had probably come about because some letters in the alphabet are more common than others, so a Mr E was more likely to work for E Inc. simply because there are more “E”s floating about than any other letter.

On reading the actual paper however, I can’t fault their methodology. It really does seem that a persons name can unconsciously effect their choice of work place. The phenomena is known as the name-letter effect, and has been demonstrated in other areas, for example a Jack is more likely to live in Jacksonville than in Philadelphia. It just goes to show that whilst scepticism is healthy, it’s not always right!

Now you seem them, now you don’t

The Daily Mail have some wonderful pictures of camouflaged animals. Yes, it’s a bit of a fluff piece, but they’re really quite something. My personal favourite is this one:

I'm not telling you what it is, you'll have to guess!

It came from outer space

A couple of weeks ago, The University of Western Ontario Meteor Group caught a falling meteor on camera. The team of astronomers are now looking for local residents who might have seen meteorites break off and crash to Earth.

The meteor streaks across the sky in this time-lapse image

Videos of the meteor are available online. I’ve never managed to see one of these space rocks in real life, so it’s pretty cool to be able to catch one on film.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 25 October 2008 at 6:33 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Physics, Yes, But When?
Spec-tape-ular: visible light is generated in this 30-second exposure of peeling tape.

A paper in the latest issue of Nature has revealed that peeling sticky tape can produce X-rays.

It has been known since 1939 that tape can produce visible light when peeled. This is called triboluminescence, and is due to the energy released during the breaking of the chemical bonds between the two layers of tape.

The research by a group of scientists at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of University of California in Los Angeles found that in addition to this visible light, tape could also produce X-rays and radio waves, both forms of electromagnetic radiation but with different wavelengths to that of light.

The equipment used in the experiment

They used an interesting looking set-up (left) to search for the X-rays. An automated peeling machine removed the tape with a measurable force, whilst a detector looked out for an X-rays that were emitted. All of the equipment had to be placed in a vacuum, as the X-rays cannot normally be generated otherwise – which means that you’re safe when reaching for the office supplies.

The X-rays are produced as electrons jump from the main roll to the sticky side of the peeling tape. When they hit the other side they slow down, losing energy in the process. This energy has to go somewhere, and it just so happens to come out as X-rays.

It’s not all fun and games however, as the X-ray tape could have useful applications. Medical X-rays are made using costly and bulky equipment, but with some refinements the team believe that inexpensive X-ray machines could be produced for use by paramedics, or places where access to electricity is limited – all you need is a bit of tape. The researchers have applied for a patent on the concept. They were able to produce an image of one of the team’s thumbs:

An X-rayed thumb, produced using tape.
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Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 October 2008 at 7:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

Buzz Aldrin, the second man to have ever walked on the Moon, has suggested that the first astronauts sent to Mars shouldn’t plan on coming back.

In an interview with AFP, he compared a Martian expedition to European explorers heading for America knowing that they would not be returning. His argument is that since Mars is a much more hospitable place than the Moon, a one-way trip makes sense – especially considering the time taken to get there.

At between 55 and 400 million kilometres (depending on the arrangement of the planets around the Sun), Mars is much further than the 0.38 million km to the moon. Aldrin made the trip with Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins in just 8 days in 1969, but a Martian mission would be in transit for around a year and a half.

“That’s why you [should] send people there permanently,” said Aldrin. “If we are not willing to do that, then I don’t think we should just go once and have the expense of doing that and then stop.”

He asked: “If we are going to put a few people down there and ensure their appropriate safety, would you then go through all that trouble and then bring them back immediately, after a year, a year and a half?”

As I mentioned earlier this week, NASA already have plans for a return to the Moon. They hope to apply the knowledge gained from this experience into a manned mission to Mars, to take place around 2030 or 2040.

Life support systems and other equipment would be sent in advance by unmanned rockets, followed by half a dozen people. Aldrin suggested others could join them in later missions to make a colony of 30.

“They need to go there more with the psychology of knowing that you are a pioneering settler and you don’t look forward to go back home again after a couple a years,” he said.

“At age 30, they are given an opportunity. If they accept, then we train them, at age 35, we send them. At age 65, who knows what advances have taken place. They can retire there, or maybe we can bring them back.”

I tend to follow the British government’s official view: manned space exploration is an unnecessary expense and risk, and we should focus our efforts on improving the probes we send out. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel something stir when I think how much of an achievement a colony on Mars would be.

Perhaps Aldrin is right, but would anyone volunteer to leave the planet and never return? I think required reading for any potential Martian is the Mars trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson, an epic tale of the colonisation of the Red Planet. Even if you’re planning on keeping your feet firmly on the Earth, I highly recommend it.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 23 October 2008 at 5:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

The Blacksmith Institute and Green Cross Switzerland have released a list of the worst pollution problems facing the world today. It’s unranked, as it reflects equally “the most serious environmental issues that impact communities around the globe” – particularly in the developing nations, where the The Blacksmith Institute works in cleaning up pollution hazards.

This injury was caused by chromium, a carcinogenic used by the leather tanning industry in India. Photo by Blacksmith Institute.

It’s founder Richard Fuller had this to say:

“Our goal with the 2008 report is to increase awareness of the severe toll that pollution takes on human health and inspire the international community to act,”

“Remediation is both possible and cost-effective.”

The full list is covered in detail on the Worst Polluted website:

A bucket of water from a contaminated source in India. Photo by Blacksmith Institute.

The list follows previous top 10s in 2007 and 2006, which profiled the world’s most polluted places. Also suggested are a number of sub-lists, included the four least addressed pollution problems and the four most likely to affect future generations. Interestingly enough, in most cases the polluting industries are locally owned and of fairly small scare. Only rarely is a large US or European multinational corporation responsible.

The Blacksmith Institute are calling for a “global effort” to identify polluted places, and the provision of resources to clean up the sites. By publishing the list they hope to raise awareness of the issues facing communities in the developing world, and the effect pollution can have on health, particular children’s. Some estimates say environmental factors contributed to 40% of death worldwide.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 22 October 2008 at 7:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

India’s unmanned moon rocket Chandrayaan 1 was successfully launched today from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in Sriharikota, an island off the coast of Andhra Pradesh.

Chandrayaan 1 on the launch pad. The name is Sanskrit for 'moon craft'.

It will take about eight days to reach its destination, the Moon. It’s mission: detailed mapping of the lunar surface, and analysis of the distribution of mineral and chemical elements.

The chief of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), Madhavan Nair, called the launch a “historic moment” for India.

“Today what we have charted is a remarkable journey for an Indian spacecraft to go to the moon and try to unravel the mysteries of the Earth’s closest celestial body and its only natural satellite,” Mr Nair said.

The entire mission is expected to cost 3.8bn rupees (£45m), much less than Japanese and Chinese probes sent to the Moon last year. India is keen to keep up with its other space-faring neighbours, leading to an Asian space race in much the same way the US and USSR competed during the Cold War.

The spacecraft will move to increasingly higher orbits in order to get to the Moon.

One objective of the mission is to look for water in the form of ice on or just under the surface of the Moon, particularly at the poles. The presence of water could make a permanent base on the Moon more likely, although such a mission would be far, far into the future.

America, the only nation to have sent men to the Moon, have announced plans for a return in 2019. The Russians also intend to land humans for the first time by 2025, and establish a base by 2027-2032. Whatever happens, it seems that the Moon will be much busier in the coming decades.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 21 October 2008 at 9:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Last night Channel 4 broadcast Extraordinary Animals in the Womb, a sequel to last years plain-old Animals in the Womb, in which the reproductive process of dolphins, elephants and dogs were investigated in detail. This time it’s the turn of sharks, penguins, kangaroos and wasps.

Using a combination of real footage, computer generated imagery, and good ol’ fashioned models, the film tracks the baby animals from conception to birth. The effect is stunning; you feel like you’ve somehow gained x-ray vision and the ability to see directly into the animals’ wombs.

The animals really are extraordinary. They might well have chosen to call the documentary “Aren’t Animals Pretty Damn Amazing?” – that’s how I felt as I watched. We learn that male sharks shoot “sperm bullets” into the female to impregnate her, and the fetuses eat their unborn brothers and sisters in order to survive in the womb. Kangaroos leave the womb after just a few weeks gestation and crawl up to their mothers pouch, where they will suckle for 6 months as they continue to develop. The male penguin incubates the egg, not the female, who must return to the sea after the stress of laying.

The fascinating facts pour thick and fast, but it’s never too much to take in. What some might find too much, however, is the parasitical wasp. This nasty little creature lays its eggs in an unsuspecting caterpillar, and when the larvae develop they eat their way out of the poor thing whilst it is still alive. It’s a genuine “watching through your fingers” moment. What’s worse, a “biological weapon” in the form of a virus originating from the wasp’s DNA rewrites the caterpillars brain, and it actually sticks around to help it’s unwelcome guests as they transform in cocoons.

As the program tells us, when Charles Darwin found out the lifecycle of these wasps, it shook his belief in a benevolent God. They were also (unsurprisingly) the inspiration for the movie Alien. The narrator is quick to point out however that “nature is morally blind”, and these reproduction strategies exist simply because “they work”.

Initially the film roars along, with “24″ style transitions between the four species’ storylines (sorry, no Jack Bauer though) and intriguing hooks that keep bringing you back for more after the ad breaks. Unfortunately, past the hour mark I began to feel things were a little dragged out – a shame, as I thoroughly enjoyed it for the most part.

It’s available to watch online until November 20th, so if you have a spare hour or so, I definitely recommended it. Just be prepared for a slightly meandering ending, and watch out for parasitical wasps!

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 20 October 2008 at 11:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong

The Daily Mail is not alone in reporting that “new research” has shown 10.04pm is the best time to be creative, but I’m going to pick on them because their story is particularly bad – and the comments on their website are particularly illuminating.

A survey of 1,426 adults found that people feel most inspired at 10.04pm, whilst 4.33pm was a creativity low point. Additionally, 44% of respondents said that taking a shower would help get the creative juices flowing.

So, where have these results come from? A well regarded university, or a knowledgeable think-tank, perhaps? No, the “research” was conducted by the hotel chain Crowne Plaza. Of course, this means that their “study” is not available for peer review, or indeed just to be read. Googling, all I could find was reports similar to the Daily Mail one, rather than any actual figures.

So, is this science? No, it’s simple polling for a hotel firm. I’m not sure of their motives, but I’m pretty sure they want to sell more hotel rooms, not increase the boundaries of human knowledge. Why then is the Daily Mail reporting this as “science”?

Well, for one thing they seem to be mixing up these result with an earlier study by the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan – a genuine research institute. The way the story is written, it almost seems that this university has done the research, not the hotel chain.

By presenting the “findings” with this headline, the Daily Mail are misleading their readers about the role of scientists. Take a look at some of the comments on the story:

So now we know. Is this really what we pay for Scientists to use their brains.
The world has starving people and famin areas diseases for which there are still no cures and these people waste time on such trivial issues. Says a lot for their brainwaves at whatever time of day.

And at 10:05 it is all over, so back to bed!!

Isn’t it amazing what wonderfully useless information these experts come up with after years of research.

This cynicism is understandable. If scientists did come up with such useless findings as “10.04pm is the magic creativity time” I would be as sceptical as these commenters. By dressing up what amounts to nothing more than marketing as “science”, the Daily Mail does a disservice to both its readership and real scientists.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 19 October 2008 at 5:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

Now that’s what I call a sticky situation

The world’s longest stick insect has been discovered in the rainforests of Borneo. A member of the species Phobaeticus chani, the specimen measures 56.6cm, beating the previous record holder Phobaeticus serratipes by over a centimetre.

As you might imagine, it looks like a stick.

If you want to check it out for yourself, it will soon go on display in the Creepy Crawlies exhibition at the Natural History Museum.

‘Perfect shower’ is far from it

Yet another “formula for” story, with “scientists” developing a “mathematical formula” for the perfect shower. Apparently “The balance of privacy, pressure, time and temperature in the shower all need to be carefully moderated to create the perfect shower experience.”

The “research” was of course sponsored by someone – surprise surprise, a shower manufacturer. Neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis of Mindlab International had some nonsense to spout which I won’t bother repeating here.

You know what the worse thing is? They didn’t even include the bloody “formula” in their press release.

What does space smell like? Steak, apparantly

News about the aroma of space is doing the rounds at the moment. Supposedly NASA have hired fragrance firm Omega Ingredients to recreate the smell of space, to help astronaut training feel more realistic. Right…

Astronauts de-suiting after a space walk have reported “particular odours”, such as fried steak and hot metal. Surprisingly, the Sun is alone in reporting that this is most likely “non-scents”, with Sir PatricK Moore weighing in:

“These odours may have come from astronauts’ suits or spaceships. The vacuum of space is unlikely to have its own scent. It is more likely to be reacting to man-made equipment. There is nothing in space and nothingness cannot really have a smell.

“Boys or girls attempting to go to space because they think there is fried steak flying about might be disappointed.”

That looks pretty hot

And finally, some beautiful pictures of the sun (our star, not the newspaper discussed above, that is), perfect for brightening up any cold autumn morning. Enjoy.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 18 October 2008 at 10:16 am by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry

I’m away in Cambridge this weekend, so today I’ll have to leave the science to Mythbusters’ Adam Savage, who explains how gases can effect the sound of your voice:

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 17 October 2008 at 10:49 am by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology

Will computers ever be able to talk to us? The Turing Test, posed by the mathematician and Bletchley Park cryptographer Alan Turing, is meant to answer the question. Turing suggested that if a human conversing (via on-screen text) with both another human and a computer could not tell which was which, then for all intents and purposes the computer had succeed in acting like a person.

He predicted that by the year 2000 a computer with 125MB of memory would be able to fool 30% of people during a five minute conversation. It appears that here in 2008 we’re still not quite there – but we are getting close.

The Loebner Prize, now in its 18th year, is up for grabs to any computer (and it’s programmers!) that can pass the test. A bronze medal and $2000 are awarded to the most human-like computer that year, but the Grand Prize of $100,000 and a gold medal is reserved for the first computer to fool 30% of the judges.

This week, a program named Elbot came close. Three out of the 12 judges, or 25%, were fooled. One more would have bumped it over the 30% threshold, and won the grand prize. Unfortunately, Elbot’s creators had to settle for bronze.

Elbot is actually online for anyone to converse with, so I decided to interview the artificial intelligence to see how it felt about winning:
Read more

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 16 October 2008 at 5:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

If yesterday you had a few too many drinks, it might be time to hit up Google. Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles have found that for older web users, searching the internet activates the parts of the brain in charge of decision-making and complex reasoning.

Stretching your mind is important as you get older. As the brain ages changes such as reduced cell activity take place – and as we saw yesterday, the brain shrinks by a suggested 1.9% each decade. In the past people have used crosswords and other brainteasers to sharpen their mental abilities, but with advances in modern technology scientists are now investigating alternatives.

They study looked at 24 volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76, half of whom had searched the internet before whilst the other half had no experience at all. The participants preformed searches as well as book-reading tasks whilst being scanned with an fMRI, which tracks blood flow in the brain as an indicator of cognitive activity.

All of them showed increased activity during the book-reading task, with the scan showing the use of the language, reading, memory and visual abilities parts of the brain. These are located in the temporal, parietal, occipital regions, along with other areas.

Internet searches, however, highlighted a difference. Whilst all participants appeared to be using the same parts of their brain as during the reading exercises, those with previous web experience showed additional activity in the frontal, temporal and cingulate areas of the brain, which are used in decision-making and complex reasoning.

Dr. Gary Small was chief investigator on the study, and is a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA as well as UCLA’s Parlow-Solomon Chair on Aging. He had this to say on the findings:

“Our most striking finding was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading — but only in those with prior Internet experience,”

“The study results are encouraging, that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults,”

“Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function.”

So why does reading on the internet engage your brain more than just curling up with a nice book? It’s because the internet is so vast, a read has to make active choices about what to click on and where to go next. This is where decision-making and reasoning factors in.

Small believes that the less experience internet users weren’t using these parts of their brain because they didn’t fully understand the tasks set to them – a common problem when introduced to something new. He suggest that with more time on the internet, they could show the same level of cognitive function as the more experienced group.

The researchers hope that further studies will look at both the positive and negative effects of emerging technology on an elderly brain.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 15 October 2008 at 10:45 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology

A study in the latest issue of the Archives of Neurology suggest that – shock horror – drinking alcohol may have detrimental effects on your health.

The research looked at a link between alcohol consumption and brain volume, i.e. does how much you drink effect the size of your grey matter? A group of scientists from Massachusetts and California investigated data recorded from 1,839 participants who had been part of a larger study.

Scientists already know that the size of your brain will decrease naturally as you grow older; it’s estimated that this shrinkage occurs at the rate of 1.9% per decade. Excessive drinking has also been shown to effect cognitive ability, and can lead to Korsakoff syndrome which causes amnesia amongst other effects on the brain. Moderate consumption of alcohol however has been linked to improved mental capacity and a lower risk of Alzheimer disease. This new research hoped to find a link between the two.

Brain volume was measured for each person in the study, and then adjusted to account for natural differences in body size. Participants were also quizzed on their level of alcohol intake, and assigned to one of five groups: abstainers, former drinkers, low (1-7 drinks per week), moderate (8-14 drinks per week), and high (more than 14 drinks per week).

Those who drank more had a smaller relative brain volume. Copyright AMA Publications

“Most participants reported low alcohol consumption, and men were more likely than women to be moderate or heavy drinkers,” say the authors. Women also showed a stronger link between alcohol consumption and brain size, as heavier drinkers had larger reductions than their male counterparts.

One potential pitfall that the researchers suggest is the self-reporting of a participants alcohol consumption. I know when I’m asked how much I drink on a medical form, I tend to knock a few pints off the total! This under-reporting however would actually mean the true association between drinking and brain size is stronger than the link discovered in the study.

Summing up, the authors call for more research. The data used was not originally meant for this purpose so they can’t conclusively say that “DRINKING WILL SHRINK YOUR BRAIN!!!” as the Daily Mail might put it, but they hope to send a message to the public that drinking excessively is bad for your health.

Carol Ann Paul; Rhoda Au; Lisa Fredman; Joseph M. Massaro; Sudha Seshadri; Charles DeCarli; Philip A. Wolf (2008). Association of Alcohol Consumption With Brain Volume in the Framingham Study Archives of Neurology, 65 (10), 1363-1367

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 14 October 2008 at 8:37 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment

The banking crisis is, as ever, pretty big news. Even yesterday the British government dished out another £37 billion of taxpayers money to beleaguered bankers. I’ve written previously on what science communication can learn from business reporting, but a new report from the EU suggests that science still has a lot to learn if it is to grab headlines like the business world.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) has suggested that global economy loses more annually from the erosion of the world’s natural forests than it has from the banking crisis. Yet, I don’t see bankers being told to shove off and retrain as tree surgeons. Pavan Sukhdev was the leader of the study, and told the BBC the scale of the loss:

“It’s not only greater but it’s also continuous, it’s been happening every year, year after year,”

“So whereas Wall Street by various calculations has to date lost, within the financial sector, $1-$1.5 trillion, the reality is that at today’s rate we are losing natural capital at least between $2-$5 trillion every year.”

These losses are calculated by modelling Mother Nature as a service provider. We’re essentially provided with forests “for free”, and they offer services such as absorbing carbon dioxide and so on, but as they fall in to decline the human race has to pick up the bill to cover the shortfall, or simply go without. Either option entails an economic cost. It’s a bit like a bank withdrawing a great mortgage policy and refusing to lend to anyone – either taxpayers have to step in and pay up to get the money flowing again, or people will be unable to borrow money to buy a house.

The question is, if the cost to the global economy is potentially as much as five yearly credit crunches, why aren’t we seeing rainforest bail-out packages? Where are the runs on garden centres, as people try to stock up on saplings? The problem is that dying trees are seen as Somebody Else’s Problem.

If you’ve just been made redundant, your home is being repossessed, and your pension is worth nothing because the stock market has crashed, why should you care if a few trees are hard done by? According to the study, it actually turns out that the people who are worse off are the most effected by the loss of biodiversity, especially in tropical regions where peoples’ livelihoods are more dependant on the forests.

By presenting the loss of natural resources in terms of cold, hard cash, Sukhdev and the other authors of the report hope to make governments and business sit up and take notice:

“Times have changed. Almost three years ago, even two years ago, their eyes would glaze over.

“Today, when I say this, they listen. In fact I get questions asked – so how do you calculate this, how can we monetize it, what can we do about it, why don’t you speak with so and so politician or such and such business.”

Hopefully politicians will be influenced in time to halt the decline of our forests, before the economic pinch is felt.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 13 October 2008 at 9:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Physics

Those of you who actively follow science news might have been wondering this past week why I hadn’t yet commented on the Nobel Prize announcements. No, I haven’t forgotten in all the course-starting excitement – I just thought it would be more useful to wait until all of the prizes had been announced. Before the results however, a bit of history.

The Nobels have been awarded for over 100 years, with the first prizes given out in 1901. The Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, wishing to to atone for his inventing dynamite, specified in his will that his fortune should be used as a fund that would celebrate intellectual achievement. He decreed there should be awards given annually to five disciplines: Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature. Later in 1969, a prize for Economics was created in honour of his memory.

I always wondered why there is no Nobel for Mathematics. A story I’ve often heard is that Nobel’s wife cheated on him with a mathematician, but it turns out this story is completely unfounded – for one thing, Nobel was never even married. There is no concrete reason as to why Mathematics was omitted, but many feel it is because Nobel viewed it as a science with little practical benefit for humanity. So there! On to this year’s prizes:

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Half of this prize was awarded to Harald zur Hausen “for his discovery of human papilloma viruses causing cervical cancer.” The second most common cancer in women, cervical cancer is estimated to cause 253,500 deaths worldwide each year. The work done by zur Hausen has lead to vaccines that provide greater than 95% protection against infection by two high risk strains of human papilloma viruses, HPV types 16 and 18.

The other half of the prize was split between Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier “for their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus.” By isolating and cloning HIV, their work allowed other groups to prove the virus’s link to acquired human immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Working with the virus to create diagnosis methods and antiviral drugs would not have been possible without the pair’s discovery.

The Nobel Prize in Physics

Yoichiro Nambu received half of the prize “for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics”, whilst one quarter each went to Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa “for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature.”

Symmetry breaking is responsible for the universe around us – without it, we wouldn’t be around to award Nobels! When the universe was created, matter and antimatter particles annihilated each other in a great cosmic battle for supremacy. If there had been an equal amount of particles on both sides, the universe would have been left empty as both matter and antimatter were completely obliterated. It’s thanks to the “breaking” of this matter-antimatter symmetry that matter was able to achieve dominance and lead to the universe we see today. Even one extra particle of matter for every ten billion of antimatter was enough to break the symmetry.

Nambu was the first to mathematically model how this symmetry breaking could occur at the subatomic level, and in doing so helped refine the standard model of particle physics. The symmetry breaking model formulated by Kobayashi and Maskawa suggested an extension of the standard model was required to explain some observations in particle physics, and they hypothesised the existence of third family of quarks, the fundamental particles that make up many matter and antimatter particles. Their model predicted in the 1970′s particles that weren’t observed until the late 1990′s.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008

The Chemistry prize this year was split an equal three ways, by Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie and Roger Y. Tsien “for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP.” First observed in the jellyfish Aequorea victoria in 1962, this protein is used by scientists around the world to learn more about biological processes.

Pigs with GFP modified DNA glow green.

By modifying a subject’s DNA to attach GFP to another protein as marker, scientists can visually follow the progression of the protein around an organism as it glows green. It can be used to watch the growth of nerve cells, or observe the development of cancer. Following the discovery of GFP, other colours were added to a biologist’s toolkit, allowing further flexibility in their use. One group of researchers even marked the different nerve cells in a mouse’s brain with a multitude of colour, without harming the mouse in any way.

The Nobel Prizes in Literature and Peace and The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2008

Whilst great achievements, the other Nobel Prizes fall a bit too far outside the “science” umbrella to discuss here. Nevertheless, congratulations to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization”, to Martti Ahtisaari “for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts”, and to Paul Krugman “for his analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity.”

Indeed, congratulations to all of the Nobel Lauretes (the Nobel foundation does not like to call them winners, because it’s “not a competition or lottery, and therefore there are no winners or losers”) on their fantastic achievements. Who do you think should be up for the honour next year?

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 12 October 2008 at 4:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Weekly Roundup

1.38588913 Leagues Under The Sea

A joint team of UK and Japanese scientists have filmed a shoal of living fish at the record depth of 7.7 km. They found 17 Pseudoliparis amblystomopsis in the Japan Trench in the Pacific Ocean, smashing the previous record, though to be around 7 km. The deepest any fish has been record is more than 8 km down in the Puerto Rico Trench trench, where an Abyssobrotula galatheae specimen was dredged up, but died before reaching the surface.

The fish live in total darkness, using vibrations in the water to navigate and find food. Professor Monty Priede of the University of Aberdeen was surprised at their discovery:

“We certainly thought, deep down, fish would be relatively inactive, saving energy as much as possible, and so on,” said Priede “But when you see the video, the fish are rushing around, feeding accurately, snapping at prey coming past”

“Nobody has seen fish alive before at these depths – only pickled in museums – and by the time they come up from the depths they look in a pretty sorry state.

“But these fish are actually very cute.”

Deep-sea fish - "actually very cute"

The discovery was part of the HADEEP project, a collaboration between the University of Aberdeen’s Oceanlab and the University of Tokyo’s Ocean Research Institute. Funded by the Nippon Foundation and the Natural Environment Research Council, the research aims to discover more about life in the Hadal region of the ocean, which is anywhere from 6 km below the surface. The team even have their own blog.

Journey (0.0000004% of the way) to the Centre of the Earth

American scientists have found life 2.8 km beneath the Earth’s surface, in a gold mine near Johannesburg, South Africa. The bacterium Desulforudis audaxviator is the only living species at this level, making it the first known single-species ecosystem.

Capturing and analysing the bacterium was an extremely collaborative process, with scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), Joint Genome Institute (JGI), and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), working with colleagues from Princeton University, Indiana University, National Taiwan University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Florida State University, the Desert Research Institute, and the University of Western Ontario.

D. audaxviator lives deep within the Earth's surface

The bacterium lives so far down that it has no access to the sun’s life giving energy. Instead, it survives by using hydrogen and sulphate produced by the radioactive decay of uranium. This ability is reflected in the organisms name: Desulforudis comes from the Latin for “from sulfur” and “rod,” whilst Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth contains the Latin message “descende, Audax viator, et terrestre centrum attinges,” – “descend, Bold traveler, and attain the center of the Earth.” It looks like D. audaxviator is well on its way.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 11 October 2008 at 12:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

People say that university can change you, but I didn’t expect it to happen so soon. My first day at Imperial began with a trip to register at the ID card office, but when my details were punched in to the computer there was a problem: the photograph on the screen was not me. I hadn’t expected my transformation into a postgraduate student to be so dramatic. Thankfully it appeared my metamorphosis was only temporary; a quick photo later and I was fully registered Imperial Collegian.

I then went to the “drop-in information event”, wandering around aimlessly and picking up leaflets. People were milling, chatting, and drinking cups of tea, but I wasn’t sure whether to join them. A solitary sign on a noticeboard said “Humanities”, so I hovered in the hope of meeting fellow Science Communication students, but of course had no idea who out of the masses to approach.

Glancing at my watch, I decided to wander around campus until the welcome address for the Graduate School of Life Sciences and Medicine, of which I was now a member. I checked out the library and meandered along the walkways. As an undergraduate at Bristol I was used to roaming the city to get to various departments, so the concept of a campus was still alien to me.

Eventually 4pm rolled by, and an usher directed me into the Great Hall for the Rector’s address. “If you don’t have any friends waiting for you inside, could you please fill out the front rows?” A perfectly harmless request, but it highlighted the fact that I was yet to meet anyone. I wondered whether living an hours tube ride from South Kensington had been the best choice.

Sir Roy Anderson gave a speech leaving me with a vague sense of inspiration, and the other speakers were informative if perhaps not as uplifting. I returned home, deciding this afternoon didn’t really count: tomorrow was the first “proper” day of my time at Imperial.

Tuesday began with an introduction from the SciComm staff, and a register to confirm everyone had shown up. As usual, I was first on the list, the curse of a surname beginning with A. “Ah, Jacob, I remember your interview,” said Stephen Webster, department director. “The interview that took place in a car park, you mean?” I replied with a grin. A story for another time perhaps, but it got a laugh from the class and I felt more relaxed.

Later on in a group exercise we discussed why we applied for the course, and I realised I was definitely in the right place. These people who I had only just met seemed to think exactly the same way as me. Some common answers:

“I loved my undergraduate degree, but the focus became too narrow. I want to retain a broad scientific understanding.”

“I didn’t want to do the same thing every day forever. Science communication allows you to work with different people, in different mediums, and in different ways.”

“I think science is amazing, fascinating, and beautiful. I want to share it with the world.”

I ended the day with a smile on my face, anticipating the year ahead. The rest of the week brought (amongst other things) a visit to the Science Museum and a talk with chief curator Tim Boon, a treasure hunt around the library, and a party. I met many wonderful people and began thinking in interesting and challenging new ways. I’ve already got more reading to do than I probably ever did in three years of Maths, but roll on week two!

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 10 October 2008 at 12:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics, Space & Astronomy

Today is the 10th of October, or 10/10. The Eames Office has dubbed this “Powers of Ten Day” in honour of Charles and Ray Eames, who in 1977 created a film that allows one to grasp the diverse scales that make up our world, going up in powers of 10 from a picnic to the vastness of space and back down to a single atom in a human hand. If you’ve never seen it before, it’s well worth a watch:

When I watch this I find it amazing that science has allowed us to see so far out into the universe, whilst also giving us the ability to peer right into the basic building blocks of everything around us. It’s both humbling and awe inspiring, communicating many ideas about the world in a clear, engaging, and easy to understand many. No wonder that “over ten million” have viewed the film. It’s something that I think everyone should see, so I hope you watch it and enjoy Powers of Ten Day!

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 9 October 2008 at 9:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Evolution

At the end of my review of episode one of Richard Dawkin’s series on Charles Darwin, I wondered whether the next episode would talk about how the modern world has affected human evolution.

In the end it didn’t (unfortunately), but earlier this week Professor Steve Jones of University College London weighed in with a lecture lecture entitled “Human evolution is over”. I wasn’t at the lecture myself, but The Times spoke to Professor Jones about his talk.

I didn’t know this, but apparantly one of the key factors in introducing mutations into our DNA is an ageing male population. As a man grows older cell division becomes more common, and each time a new cell splits off the likelihood of a mistake increases. It’s a bit like being made to write out lines (do they still do that at schools?) – copying out the same sentence 10 times is fairly trivial, but after 100 or 1,000 you’re much more likely to make a mistake. The sperm of an average 29-year-old male (the average reproductive age in the West) is the result of around 300 divisions from the sperm that created at him, whilst a 50-year-old’s sperm follows over a thousand divisons.

What has this got to do with evolution then? Professor Jones says that a shortage of older fathers means that less genetic diversity is being passed on, and without genetic diversity there can be no evolution. I find this a bit strange – surely if people are living longer they are also having children later? Professor Jones says not, comparing the modern man to Moulay Ismail of Morocco, who supposedly fathered 888 children well in to his old age.

I think it has got more to do with natural selection, which Professor Jones also agrees is a factor. It used to be in ancient times half of all children would not make it past their 20th birthday, but now (in the West at least) 98% survive to 21. Thanks to our modern healthcare and diet the evolutionary playing field has been levelled out, and survival of the fittest no longer applies.

Tim Dowling of the Guardian has a humorous but sadly scientifically-lacking response to the lecture. He makes four points showing an “upside” to the halt of evolution. I want to point out the inaccuracy of the first two.

His first is that “We’re not going backwards”. Immediately, this is a misunderstanding of the concept of natural selection. Evolution does not go “forwards” or “backwards”, which implies some sort of grand scheme that will lead us to the pinnacle of being as long as we continue onwards. Evolution is literally a random genetic walk that goes in any direction it pleases.

Next, “This will give chimps a chance to catch up”. We are not evolved from chimpanzees. This is a key misunderstanding, which often angers anti-evolutionists into uttering “I ain’t no damn monkey!” What happened is this: at some point in the past a species was separated, going one of two ways. One group evolved into Homo sapiens (i.e., us), whilst another became chimpanzees. This means that the chimps aren’t our ancestors, but more like cousins. Some scientists believe this last common ancestor to be the 7 million year old Sahelanthropus tchadensis, but the matter is still open for debate.

So are we evolving or not? In a way, the question is unimportant. If 29 is the average age of male reproduction, even your great-great-great-grandchild is only 200 years or so away. Evolution is a slow process taking millions of years, so any major changes to what we call human are far, far into the future.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 8 October 2008 at 7:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Three press releases on obesity and weight loss coming out of the Obesity Society’s annual scientific meeting caught my eye recently, so I thought I’d combine them all in to one post.

From Duke University Medical Center comes findings that even a small amount of exercise can improve quality of life for severely obese people. Under one hour a week was enough to benefit participants in the study of 1,200 by the Duke Diet and Fitness Center.

Those who increased their activity levels felt they had a better quality of life, and their ability to perform daily tasks as measured on a physical function scale was also boosted. Martin Binks, research director at the Center, hopes that the findings will encourage people to exercise, no matter how overweight they are.

“These folks weren’t reporting high levels of activity yet they still felt better,” he said. “This supports what we’ve been teaching for years – no amount of exercise is too little to have an impact. And it’s beneficial no matter what you weigh.

“When you are 100 pounds overweight, as the average participant in our program is, people often feel defeated. They have trouble moving, and they think ‘why bother.’ This study shows why they should bother. It shows the value of starting to move no matter how overweight you are.”

Meanwhile, researchers at Duke Children’s Hospital have found that reading can actually help obese children to lose weight. Obese girls aged 9 to 13 years old were given Lake Rescue to read, a novel written with the aid of paediatric experts to include “specific healthy lifestyle and weight management guidance, as well as positive messages and strong role models.”

After six months, the 31 girls who read the book had lost weight according to their Body Mass Index (BMI) score, which fell by an average 0.71%. By comparison, the BMI of 14 girls who had not read the book saw a gain of 0.05%. Both sets of girls were enrolled on a weight loss program before participating in the study.

Although the numbers are small, director of Duke’s Healthy Lifestyles Program Sarah Armstrong finds the results encouraging. Typically, BMI will increase as children grow, so a decrease is a good sign for those trying to lose weight.

“If their BMI percentile goes down, it means they are they are either losing weight or getting tall and not gaining weight. Both are seen as positive indicators in kids who are trying to lose weight,” she said.

I have to question whether it is really “reading” that is helping these kids lose weight, or simply exposure to information in an accessible format. It could be that a film or video game about weight loss could be just as useful, however anything that can help obese children can only be a good thing. Studies by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that 16% of children aged 6 to 19 are overweight or obese, a threefold increase since 1980.

Finally, Temple University has found that the presence of vending machines in schools are encouraging children to consume more calories than they need. No surprise there really, but I thought I’d just highlight one comment by Amy Virus, the senior health services coordinator for the study by the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University:

“Contrary to common belief, fruit juice is not a healthy snack, if drunk in excess. It should be limited to about 6 ounces per day, but it’s common to see more than one serving in a bottle.”

It’s counter-intuitive, but fruit juice can actually be pretty bad for you. Juice can contain large amounts of sugar, which people often dismiss as “natural” – but sugar is sugar, and with it come calories. Even worse than juice are smoothies, which have gained in popularity of the recent years. Per 100ml, Coca-Cola contains less calories than a typical fruit smoothie. A 250ml serving of Coke contains 105 calories, whilst the smoothie has one third more at 140 calories.

Really, these findings can be boiled down into three simple steps towards weight loss: exercise, educate yourself, and check the labels on your food!

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 7 October 2008 at 7:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review, Mathematics

Last night BBC 4 broadcast the first episode of a new four part series entitled The Story of Maths. It’s presented by Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford professor and pop-sci mathematician extraordinaire, who takes a look at the history of maths and why it is so important. This initial outing focuses on the three ancient civilizations who were the founders of maths: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Greeks.

The Egyptians were practical problem solvers, and their need for bureaucracy and land management lead to the development of a counting system. Common problems, such as how to split nine loaves of bread between 10 people, were worked out in detail, but the Egyptians never realised the power of a generalised proof, forcing them instead to work out the same problem multiple times, but with different numbers. As he walks around a modern Egyptian market, and marvels at the Pyramids, du Sautoy demonstrates some of their ancient methods. (For those still wondering, each person receives one half, one third, and one fifteenth of a loaf.)

The Babylonians used maths to solve every day problems as well, but they also taught more generalised solutions in schools. Most of the mathematical records we have from those times are actually preserved clay tablets that record the workings of school children. They knew about quadratic equations like x2 + 3x + 2 = 0, and du Sautoy blames the “recipes” used to solve such problems for poor maths teaching in modern classrooms.

Finally, we get to the Greeks, who in du Sautoy’s opinion are the true founders of maths – they were the inventors of proof, which opened up “a gulf between the other sciences” and are as true today as they were 2,000 years ago (a point he feels the need to make twice).

It’s a good primer to early maths, and I imagine it will be the most accessible programme of the series, since mathematics is a field that builds on its past and becomes increasingly complex. As one of the talking heads points out, Greek mathematics is still taught in schools today – because more modern concepts are completely inaccessible. Even at undergraduate level I spent most of my time learning about the 17th and 18th centuries; the 1970s were about the upper limit. This does make me wonder whether the series will remain engaging to the average viewer as it reaches more modern times.

I only have one criticism and it’s nothing to do with du Sautoy, who was excellent as always. It might be a small quibble, but the computer graphics used to illustrate his narrations were absolutely terrible. As du Sautoy was sent flying around on slices of Pyramid and hot air balloons, I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on what he was saying, as all I could think about was how cheap and cheesy looking the animations were. Seriously, they would not have looked out of place a decade ago. It seems silly to knock the programme for this reason, but production values are an important part of getting your message across, and doing it badly just doesn’t help.

Next week, du Sautoy heads east. I expect we will be hearing about Chinese and Arabic mathematicians, along with algorithms and the number zero. It should be interesting, and I do recommend you watch this first episode, despite the dodgy CGI.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 6 October 2008 at 4:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

(Sorry if this post seems to be springing about all over the place – there was a mixup with the timestamping and it got posted to Saturday rather than Monday…)

This week I will finally be starting the Science Communication MSc at Imperial College. Term officially started on Saturday (yes, I’m not quite sure why either), and there is a welcome event this afternoon, but everything really kicks off tomorrow. I thought I’d lay out how I see Just A Theory changing once the course starts.

Me, Myself and I

When relevant, I plan to post about myself a little bit more. How the course is going, highlights from interesting lectures, that sort of thing. If you’re just here for the science, feel free to skip over these posts – they will all be in the Happenings category. I will try and keep it focused on actual science communication however, and not just “this is how my day went” type posts.

The Secret Ingredient Of Primary Sources

As a member of Imperial College I will have an Athens username. This incredibly useful system allows you to access hundreds of online scientific journals from any computer, courtesy of your institution’s blanket license. At the moment, it is very rare that I can write about new research directly from the peer-reviewed paper – an individual 24-hour license for one journal can cost as much as $20, and I just can’t afford that. This has been bugging me ever since starting Just A Theory, but using Athens I will be able to rely less on press releases and more on scientists own words.

Things Can Only Get Better

Or so I hope. The whole point of this course is to make me a better science communicator; I would like to think that as I progress the quality of my writing will increase. I think that in the two months or so I’ve been working on Just A Theory I’ve already made improvements, but I’ll let you be the judge of that!

We Interrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Programming

I’m really looking forward to starting the course, but I’m also under no illusion – it’s going to be a lot of work. So far I have posted every single day since starting, but if course commitments become too intense I may have to scale back a bit. At the moment I tend to write two or three days ahead of myself to allow a bit of breathing room, so hopefully I’ll be able to keep up on the daily posts. We shall see.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 5 October 2008 at 11:43 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Better luck next year

Everyone has heard of the Nobel Prize, one of the highest achievements a scientist can win, but what about the Ig Nobel Prize?

The organisers say they honour achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think” – and winners have certainly come up with some of the strangest discoveries in science. This year, the 18th Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was held last Thursday at Harvard University.

Highlights include Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert, and Michel Franc of Ecole Nationale Veterinaire de Toulouse who discovered that fleas on a dog can jump higher than those on a cat, and Dorian Raymer of the Ocean Observatories Initiative at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Douglas Smith of the University of California who mathematically proved that a heap of string will inevitably tangle into knots. You can view the full list of winners here.

It’s the freakiest show snow

It’s not quite “Life On Mars”, but maybe David Bowie would consider changing the chorus of his classic song – NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has found snow falling from clouds on Mars. Using a laser sensor from the planet’s surface, the plucky little probe detected snow 4 kilometres above its landing site. Whilst the snow evaporated before hitting the ground, scientists think it might be possible to find signs that snow has reached the surface in the past.

Another experiment that analysed soil samples has also found suggestions of calcium carbonate (which makes up chalk) and possibly, clay. These substances tend to form only in the presence of liquid water here on Earth, giving further evidence that Mars had a “liquid past”.

Could future cars be used for electric storage?

The popularity of hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius continues to increase as drivers become more environmentally concious – so much so that the Prius actually goes up in value, as hybrid enthusiasts are prepared to pay over the odds for a second hand car.

Hybrids work by using a traditional petrol-based engine in combination with a recharging battery that captures energy from wasteful actions such as braking, but plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) take this one step further, allowing you to hook up the car to a socket and charge from the National Grid.

Scientists at the University of Michigan have come up with a cunning idea to use PHEVs as overnight batteries, storing excess energy in your car whilst you sleep, and then releasing back into the gird when it is needed. Storing electricity until it is needed can often be costly and inefficient for power plants, but using this distributed model would allow the electric companies to keep up their supply without wasting energy. They’ll even pay you for the privilege of using your car’s battery – if the system ever takes off, that is.

Round ‘em up boys – it’s the carbon capturers

Carbon, carbon, carbon. Life as we know it could not exist without carbon, but this poor little element has a bad reputation these days. Really, it’s only when carbon gets together with two of it’s oxygen friends to form carbon dioxide (CO2) that the trouble starts. Now, a team of climate change researchers at the University of Calgary have invented a machine that pluck CO2 straight out of the air.

Although CO2 only makes up around 0.04% of the Earth’s atmosphere, it is the main contributor to global warming. Removing CO2 molecules from the air would help slow down climate change. The new machine uses less than 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity to remove one tonne of CO2 from the air, and can capture the equivalent of a US citizen’s average yearly emissions – around 20 tonnes CO2 per annum – on one square metre of scrubbing material. Team leader David Keith is optimistic about the technology’s prospects:

“This means that if you used electricity from a coal-fired power plant, for every unit of electricity you used to operate the capture machine, you’d be capturing 10 times as much CO2 as the power plant emitted making that much electricity,”

At the moment, however, the machine is still in its early stages. The current cost of capturing CO2 is too high to make it commercially viable, but work continues on bringing the technique to market.

Tiny pictures, big prizes

You can now vote for your favourite entry in the 34th Annual Small World Photomicrography Competition. Some stunning pictures of the very small have been entered, so I encourage you to take a look. Winners will receive thousands of dollars worth of Nikon photography equipment, and personally I’m going for this strange looking chicken embryo.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 4 October 2008 at 9:13 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology

I recently heard about Thaumoctopus mimicus, the Indonesian Mimic Octopus, and when I saw what it could do I decided to share this fascinating creature with you.

The Indonesian Mimic Octopus - he's watching you.

The octopus has the ability to mimic many other aquatic creatures, altering its shape, colour and movement to impersonate more than 15 different species, such as flatfish and sea snakes. It does so in order to fool predator into viewing it as greater threat than it actually is – a great survival technique.

It’s even possible that the octopus changes its mimicry depending on it’s attacker – scientists have observed that when threatened by a damselfish the octopus will pretend to be a pair of sea snakes – the most common predator of the damselfish.

You really have to see it to believe it and of course thanks to the wonder of YouTube, you can. Enjoy this footage of the mimic octopus as it impersonates its way across the ocean:

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 3 October 2008 at 9:07 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

As you may have noticed, Earth is a pretty complex place. As we rush to reverse the effects of decades pumping carbon dioxide in to the atmosphere, it is possible that we might inadvertently do more harm than good. It isn’t as simple as less carbon = good, and people working to combat climate change would do well to remember that we still don’t fully understand the systems that govern our planet.

We’ve already seen that biofuels, once heralded as the solution to all energy problems, can actually lead to food shortages – we were so wrapped up in making the change, we didn’t consider the consequences.

Now, research published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal has shown that energy saving compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) might not be such a bright idea. The UK government has pledged to irradicate traditional bulbs by 2011, but scientists at Yale University suggest this could be the wrong approach.

Are these energy saving bulbs really the answer?

The problem is that the strangely-shaped bulbs contain small amounts of mercury – on average, 4 micrograms. Whilst mercury poisoning gave us the Mad Hatter, there is no risk to homeowners from the low levels in the bulbs. The problem occurs when the bulbs reach the end of their life and are thrown away, releasing the mercury into the atmosphere.

The research found that for places relying on coal power for electricity generation, the switch to energy savers can cut mercury emissions significantly. In the US, per capita annual emissions of mercury from coal power plants amount to 163mg, so using the new bulbs not only reduces the electricity used, but also the mercury emitted.

Paradoxically, countries that have already “gone green” could actually cause more damage by adopting CFLs. Cleaner-powered countries like Norway (who in 2004 generated 99% of their electricity using hydroelectric power) already have a low “mercury footprint”, and whilst CFLs would save energy, they would increase mercury usage significantly. “The places known for sustainability are the places that have the potential to do the most harm by bringing this technology in,” said Julie Zimmerman, an environmental engineer at Yale and a co-author of the study.

It just goes to show that there is not a “one size fits all” solution to the climate change problem. More studies like this one would help governments make decisions about the direction they should take with regards to energy, but most importantly governments must actually listen to what the scientists are telling them. Science is often counter-intuitive, and sweeping, unresearched changes could leave us worse off then when we started.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 2 October 2008 at 9:05 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy

Following on from the LHC rap, postgraduate student Jonathan Chasa (aka Oort Kuiper) has created a rap explaining all about astrobiology, the study of the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

I have to admit I prefer the LHC rap (indeed, I actually found myself humming it at one point…) but Chasa’s effort is a good one, with lots of scientific language presented in an accessible way. Commissioned by NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine European Edition, the rap was reported on by the BBC and already has over 65,000 views on YouTube. Watch it for yourself:

Which scientific topic will be next for the rap treatment, I wonder?

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 1 October 2008 at 11:27 am by Jacob Aron
In Education, Mathematics

Playing a video game for 20 minutes a day can increase your mathematical potential, a study by Learning and Teaching Scotland has found. Apparently a daily dose of Brain Training on the Nintendo DS helped Scottish school children gain higher scores on their maths tests.

For the uninitiated, Brain Training is a fairly simple game that challenges players with short tests such as mental arithmetic or counting. The idea is to play the game daily with a view to improving your “Brain Age”, a fairly unscientific measure of how “young” your brain is. It’s pretty popular – even Nicole Kidman is at it – but can it really improve your thinking power?

To find out, over 600 pupils in 32 primary schools were given a maths test at the beginning of the study. For the next nine weeks, those in the control group received their normal teaching, whilst the other group were given 20 minutes of Brain Training at the start of each day. At the end of the study period the pupils were tested again, and the two scores compared. The control group showed some improvement, but those training their brains saw a further increase of 50%, from an average of 78 to 83 out of 100. They were also able to solve problems faster, dropping five minutes from an average 18.5 to 13.5 off their total test time.

Interestingly, children who were less competent at maths found the game more beneficial than their more able classmates, showing a larger increase in test scores overall. It could be that they find this non-traditional method of teaching more engaging than their standard lessons. The research also showed that both girls and boys benefited equally from using the game.

All positive results then, but will we be seeing Brain Training in classrooms an time soon? Unfortunately, I think the cost of equipment might prove to be prohibitive. The researchers who carried out the study make it clear they did not receive any financial aid from Nintendo, so presumably they forked out for the game and console themselves. Brain Training sells for around £15, whilst a Nintendo DS is close to £100. For a typical primary class of about 28 pupils, that works out at about £3200.

It makes me wonder if this would be the most cost-effective method of improving pupils mathematical ability, and perhaps more research is needed to find the teaching method with best “pound per percentage-point” ratio. Still, if you’d like to have fun and improve your mind at the same time, it could be that Brain Training is just the game for you. Personally, I think I’ll stick to Super Mario.

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