Archive for November 2008


1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 30 November 2008 at 12:03 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

We’ve got another one…

It’s the latest in a series of creepy animals! I’m not sure if it’s the Blair Witch style camerawork, or the fact that its tentacles are so long that the continue down to the bowels of the earth, but the Magnapinna squid is possibly the worst of the bunch.

No, no, NO, DON'T EAT ME!!!!!

One of Magnapinna‘s strangest features is that it appears to have elbows. Elbows, I ask you! We actually don’t know very much about ol’Magnapinna, and this video wasn’t captured by a team of biologists. In fact, it was oil company Shell who found the strange creature as they searched for new sources of fuel, two and a half kilometers underwater. So don’t worry, it’s not close enough to get you…yet.

Do cars have personalities?

I’m sure you’ve all noticed that the front end of cars often look like faces. Now, researchers at Florida State University have confirmed this to be true – and not only do we ascribe facial features to cars, we also give them personalities.

In a study published in the December issue of the journal Human Nature, 40 people we asked to view 3D computer reconstructions and printed images of 38 cars. A third of participants saw a human or animal face in at least 90% of the cars. They were also asked to rate each car on 19 personality traits such as dominance, maturity, gender and friendliness. It seems that people generally agreed in their ratings, suggest a universal way of reading faces.

Cars viewed as “powerful” had elongated hoods, pronounced lower bodies relative, and more angular headlights reminiscent of a frown. On the other end of the scale, those seen as submissive had headlights with their upper edge relatively close to the middle, and higher sides, suggesting a smile. It seems that even in inanimate objects, we can’t help but see a face.

Polar bear in lack-of-penis shocker

Oh, this is a very silly story, but I just couldn’t help myself. It seems that Japanese zoo keepers have made an interesting discovery: Tsuyoshi, a four-year-old, 200 kg, polar bear isn’t quite the stud they were expecting. The bear was introduced to a female at the Kushiro Municipal Zoo in the hope that the pair would mate, but it turns out there was a slight problem: Tsuyoshi is a she-bear.

“We thought he was a male, so we never had any doubts as we took care of him,” said Masako Inoue.

“But one day we realized that the two bears urinate in the same way, and we thought, is that how males do it? And once we started to look at things that way, we weren’t quite so sure.”

It seems it’s not unusual to confuse the gender of a polar bear, as their long hair can make it difficult to properly identify them, especially when they are young. Poor Tsuyoshi has been living as a boy ever since the tender age of three months.

For now, the Zoo plans to talk to others in the area, to see what to do about the breeding plan. I’d suggest that Tsuyoshi might not be as helpful as they thought…

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 29 November 2008 at 6:32 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

A while ago I wrote about the record breaking 100 metre dash of Usain Bolt at this year’s Olympic games. Video analysis by a group of Norwegian scientists suggested that Bolt’s 9.69 seconds record could possibly be brought down to 9.55 seconds. Now, Mark Denny of Stanford University (a keen marathon runner) has revealed that 9.48 seconds might be with in future athletes’ grasp.

In a paper published yesterday in the The Journal of Experimental Biology, Denny analyses the locomotion of three species: dogs, horses and humans. Using historical data from races dating back to the 1920s for greyhounds and the 19th century for racehorses and human athletes, he was able to construct a statistical model of each species’ performance.

The results suggest that the speed of dogs and horses is no longer increasing. Horses reached their peak sometime in the early 1970s, whilst man’s best friend hit top speed slightly earlier in the late 60s. Predictions for an absolute maximum speed only show around a 1% increase on the current speed for both species.

When it comes to humans however, it seems that there are still gains to be made – at least, for men. Denny’s findings show that women may have already very nearly reached their limit, but they could potentially reach a time of 10.19 seconds for the 100 metre dash one day. Male athletes have slightly better news – an increase of 0.23 m/s over Bolt’s speed would allow a 9.48 seconds record.

Turning now to marathon runners, between 2min7s and 4min23s could be cut off the current world record held by Haile Gebrselassie, who two months ago to they day beat his own record with a time of 2h3m59s. For women, Paula Radcliffe’s record of 2h15min25s is very close to Denny’s prediction of 2h12min41s. He believes that female marathon runners may be the first to approach his theoretical limit, and looks forward to putting his models to the test.

For all his calculations however, Denny says we still don’t know what physiological factors limit the speed of a runner. Hopefully, further work will find out exactly what the limits of human locomotion are. The paper also raises important questions about the future of racing, and whether artificial improvements such as drugs or genetic modification could (and indeed should) be used to push performance even further.

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2 Comments » Posted on Friday 28 November 2008 at 3:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Education

I’ve been pretty hard on the Royal Society of Chemistry recently. The RSC’s seminal work on Yorkshire puddings and the Italian Job did little to impress me. Luckily for them, a recent report has got me back on the RSC’s side. In June 2008 the society ran a competition entitled The Five Decade Challenge, in which GCSE pupils from across the country were invited to tackle chemistry questions from the 1960′s to the present. How did they fair?

Pupils found modern questions much easier. (Graph from the RSC report)

Well, it seems there is definitely weight to the argument that exams are getting easier. The average score on questions from the 1960s was just 15%, rising steadily to 35% for questions from the past decade. It is possible that is due to changes in the language used in questions in the past 50 years pupils struggled with the comprehension of older questions, rather than their content – I certainly remember GCSE papers having a particularly idiosyncratic nature. It is unlikely that this provides a full explanation for the differences, however.

Pupils found questions requiring a single mathematical step (one multiplication, for example) to be the easiest, but multi-step, unprompted mathematical questions – common in older papers – were much harder. The RSC see this as evidence that mathematical education needs to be beefed up in order to further science education. As they say in their report, science teachers should not have to be teaching fundamental numerical techniques.

They Society also call for new grading standards. Although the majority of pupils taking the challenge were of A or A* standard, many failed to score well. There were exceptions however, with the top scoring pupil gaining a total of 93.8%. The report calls for the meaningful differentiation between pupils of this level – though thankfully they don’t seem to suggest the introduction of an A** grade!

So, are exams getting easier, as this report suggests? I think that a combination of factors are at play here. The science syllabus has changed greatly over the years, as one might expect. Much more importance is placed on “science-in-society” – applying science to pupils everyday lives and the world around them. I would argue that this is no bad thing. Not everyone who takes GCSE chemistry will study chemistry at university, and a sound knowledge of chemistry in the wider world will serve pupils much more than memorisation of the periodic table.

On the other hand, we must not fail the highest achieving pupils who will go on to be the future chemists of the nation. Teaching to the test means that these pupils gain high marks with ease, but leaves them ill-equipped for undergraduate chemistry. Somehow, a balance between these two interests much be struck.

I’m not suggesting that these problems apply only to chemistry – far from it. I’m sure physics, biology and other scientific subjects would show similar results. I do however applaud the Royal Society of Chemistry for this useful report, and hope that they stick more to education reform and less to silly competitions!

As a footnote, if you want to have a go at the challenge it is included in the report linked above, but the Guardian have handily stripped out both the questions and answers. Ironically, I think I found some of the 60′s questions easiest due to their highly mathematical nature, allowing me to ignore the chemistry all together!

2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 27 November 2008 at 2:39 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education

Early this week the Natural History Museum launched a new project in the hopes of engaging future bio-scientists. The Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) will allow members of the public to take part in scientific surveys in their local area – even in their own back gardens.

The first of these surveys kicks off in March 2009, and will see people up and down the country hunting for earthworms. For such a common feature of gardens everywhere, surprisingly little is known about the wriggly creatures and the soil that makes their home.

You can reserve your survey pack at the OPAL website. It will contain a guide to performing the survey, along with a chart of common earthworm types for easy identification. Results can will be entered on to the website and instantly be added to an interactive map, where you’ll be able to view other people’s findings as well. It’s mostly aimed at schools and community groups, but individuals can register as well.

The OPAL project has been awarded £11.7 million by the Big Lottery Fund, in order to encourage people to spend more time outdoors and exploring their local environments. Future surveys will cover air, water, biodiversity and climate. My home away from home, Imperial College, will be collecting the data gathered during the project and present it for publication in 2012. These will take the form of a formal scientific report and a more accessible format for those who took part.

So, if you fancy hunting for worms and doing a bit of science, reserve your survey pack and be ready to get your hands dirty!

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 26 November 2008 at 5:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

We are well into autumn now, and when it comes to weather there’s one thing you can be certain of in Britain (besides the cold) – rain. Woe betides those who leave home without waterproofs and umbrellas. Even with such paraphernalia you might still get wet if the downpour is heavy enough – there’s only so much water a brolly can take.

Not so with a new waterproof material developed in Switzerland. Researchers at the University of Zurich have come up with a new type of fabric made from fibres of polyester that are coated in millions of minuscule silicone fragments. It’s the most water-repellent material suitable for making clothes ever produced.

Water droplets form perfect spheres on the new material.

Lead researcher Stefan Seeger took their inspiration from examples in nature, such as the surface of Lotus leaves. These biological water-repellents have a particular nanostructure that the new material emulates. Silicone nanofilaments, just 40 nanometres wide, coat the polyester and stop water seeping through.

A stream of water bounces right off.

They also trap a small layer of air that means water never even comes into contact with the underlying polyester. In a demonstration of hydrophobic power, the material was submerged underwater. When it was removed two months later, it was still dry to the touch. Seeger spoke to New Scientist about his creation:

“The combination of the hydrophobic surface chemistry and the nanostructure of the coating results in the super-hydrophobic effect,

“The water comes to rest on the top of the nanofilaments like a fakir sitting on a bed of nails,” he says.

It’s not just polyester that can be protected in this way, although it currently gives the best results. The silicone coating can also be applied to other materials such as wool and cotton. It could even lead to the invention of self-cleaning clothes!

2 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 25 November 2008 at 11:52 am by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review, Physics

Einstein is one of the most famous scientists who ever lived. You may not know the meaning of E = mc2, but you’ve certainly heard about it. Eddington on the other hand – who is he? Even I can only name one of Eddington’s achievements; namely the 1919 expedition to the South African island of Principe to observe a solar eclipse. It was here that Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity was put to the test, and it is here that the BBC drama Einstein and Eddington begins.

As Eddington awaits the eclipse, hoping for the rain to end, we flashback to five years earlier. The First World War is beginning, and the conflict between England and Germany has spilled over into science. Germany is rounding up its experts in preparation for war, and there is one man they desperately want: Einstein. Eddington is tasked with finding out why.

Einstein and Eddington is a treat for fans of science fiction as much as fans of science. Andy Serkis (Gollum from Lord of the Rings) and David Tennant (Doctor Who) take the titular roles and make them their own. Writer Paul Moffat takes every opportunity to contrast the two men, and Serkis’s crazy-haired womanising Einstein is a far cry from the homosexually repressed Quaker Eddington, who makes a welcome change from Tennant’s typically manic Tardis dweller.

At times, this was perhaps taken a little too far – although I admit to not being widely read on Eddington, I’ve literally never seen any mention of him being gay. It might be that this aspect of his personality was accentuated a little to further stand apart from Einstein.

This could be because their differences were essential to the message of the film: science transcends all. Eddington, railing against a proposal to banish all German members from the Royal Observatory following the gas attack at Ypres cries “The pursuit of truth in science transcends national boundaries, takes us beyond hatred, and anger and fear! It is the best of us!” Einstein is equally horrified by what his countrymen in Berlin have done, and his outbursts lead to him being denied access to the University.

These two men, so different in their approach both to science (Einstein was a theorist, whilst Eddington prided himself on being “the best measuring man in England) and to life, brought about a scientific revolution and overthrew Newton despite only corresponding by letter. Indeed, our protagonists don’t even meet in the film until one, final, handshake.

It’s undoubtedly great drama, but is it great science communication? As is perhaps unavoidable, much of the science is conveyed outside of the drama. Einstein explains his ideas to his son, and Eddington turns to a convenient German family which he rescues from beatings at the hands of the English. The concepts are there, including a nice demonstration of the curvature of space using a tablecloth, a loaf of bread and an apple, but it can’t help but feel slightly off. Still, the ideas are presented as interesting enough for the casual viewer to pursue if they wish. Disputes about the accuracy of Eddington’s confirmation in Africa are also swiftly brushed under the table – but that’s only to be expected, as they don’t fit into the tidy narrative.

If I sound a little down on the film, I’m not. I really enjoyed it, and the forthcoming DVD release has already been added to my Christmas wishlist. If you don’t want to wait that long, you can watch on BBC iPlayer until this Saturday evening. Even if you aren’t interested in the science (though of course I hope you are) it’s a well made period drama that can be appreciated by all.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 24 November 2008 at 9:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology

Sorry guys and gals, but with an essay deadline looming in a little over 12 hours I’m afraid I don’t have much time to blog today. Thankfully, I’m at the “editing and finishing up” stage, rather than the “ohgoditsalmostmidnightandihaven’tstarted” stage, but I’m still going to have to pass the buck on this one.

You’re in luck though, as earlier this evening I came across this snazzy little video about the history of the light emitting diode. They’re in practically every electrical appliance you own, but have you ever stopped to think about where they come from? Well, now you can. Enjoy.

P.S. Don’t worry, Einstein & Eddington is still on it’s way!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 23 November 2008 at 5:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Four months without a heart

In what is really an amazing story, D’Zhana Simmons, a 14-year-old girl from South Carolina, USA, spent 118 days hooked up to a machine that kept her blood flowing – because her heart had been removed. It is believed that this is the first time such a young person has been kept alive this long without a heart.

On July 2nd of this year Ms Simmons underwent a heart transplant operation at Miami’s Holtz Children’s Hospital, but the operation was unsuccessfully and the new organ had to be removed. Artificial substitute heart chambers were implanted and hooked up to two blood pumps, until she was was strong enough to have another, successful, transplant.

Unfortunately, doctors believe that her troubles are not over yet. Although her prognosis, is good, there is a 50% chance she will need another new heart before she turns 30.

Live longer and prosper

Increased amounts of telomerase, a naturally forming protein, in the body could prevent cells from dying and extend your lifespan, according to a team at the Spanish National Cancer Centre in Madrid.

Telomerase protects a cell’s chromosomes, but as we age and cell division activity increases this protection can get worn out, causing cells to die. By increasing natural levels of telomerase, scientists hope to stop this from happening.

The theory was tested with genetically engineered mice, whose bodies produced 10 times the normal levels of the protein, and as a result lived 50% longer than normal mice. Lead researcher, Maria Blasco, was optimistic but cautious about the results:

“You can delay the ageing of mice and increase their lifespan,” she said.

“(But)I think it is very hard to extrapolate data from mouse ageing to human ageing.”

One problem to overcome is that telomerase can lead to increased risk of cancer, but Dr Blasco believe that this could be overcome by combining the treatment with cancer drugs.

Lost in space

NASA has lost one of its astronauts aboard the International Space Station – but thankfully, it’s not one of the human crew. One of two spiders that were launched into orbit on the Endeavour last week has gone for its very own spacewalk.

After finding it absent from its tank, NASA managers insisted that the spider was not lost; it just couldn’t be found. So says Kirk Shireman, NASA’s deputy space station programme manager:

“We don’t believe that it’s escaped the overall payload enclosure,

“I’m sure we’ll find him spinning a web sometime here in the next few days.”

Efforts to search for the spider in its neighbour’s tank have been scuppered, because the poor creature is so confused by the zero-gravity environment that it has filled it with a dense web, making any search difficult.

The two arachnids had been sent into space by the University of Colorado, who hoped to answer schoolchildren’s questions about spider webs in space. It’s clearly a very sticky issue.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 22 November 2008 at 11:30 am by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory, Space & Astronomy

I’m in Cambridge this weekend, so I’m afraid all I have for you today is the image below. It’s a recently restored photo taken in 1966 by NASA’s Lunar Orbiter 1, and represents the first glimpse of the Earth from the Moon. I’ve lifted it from Astronomy Picture of the Day, so go there to check out the full resolution version. Have a look around whilst you’re there, it’s a great site.

If you’re still hungry for some science, might I suggest watching Einstein and Eddington this evening on BBC2 at 9.10pm. Starring Andy Serkis and David Tennant in the titular roles, it tells the story of the relationship between the two great scientists. I’ve been looking forward to it for some time, and you can expect a full review next week. See you tomorrow for the usual Weekly Roundup, but until then I’ll let the picture do the talking:

The first ever image of Earth from the Moon
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Comments Off Posted on Friday 21 November 2008 at 9:56 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Gratuitous cultural reference time: The Clangers. This children’s animation featured space mice who communicated through a series of whistling noises. Well, so what?

A piece of research on “Sine-Wave Speech” has been doing the rounds on the internet recently. It’s actually nothing new, but you know how it is; one site posts a link, another picks it up, and before you know it we’re all talking about the Sudanese man who was forced to marry a goat again. I swear, that story seems to crop up around once a month on the BBC’s “most read” list. Surely everyone has seen it by now?

Sorry, tangents. Back to The Clangers and sine-wave speech. SWS degrades an audio recording to the point of being unrecognisable – in fact, the result sounds much like The Clangers. Unlike these strange creatures however, SWS can be understood if you first listen to the original audio recording, and then the SWS version (a number of examples are found on the webpage). As if by magic, the sentence will “pop-out” of the previously incomprehensible beeps and boops.

Researchers believe this is an example of “perceptual insight”, as your brain learns to process the unusual sounds into something you can understand. If you listen to a few of the examples, you might find that you can actually interpret the SWS without having to listen to the “clean” version first. It’s a pretty cool effect – and who knows, maybe if you listen hard enough you’ll be able to understand The Clangers.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 20 November 2008 at 7:22 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Musings, Science Policy

So, I had been planning to write about Paul Drayson, the new UK science minister, and his recent comments about having a “sixth sense”, but it appears that my course mate Tim has beaten me to the punch in saying most of what I was going to. I guess I could use a sixth sense of my own…

Nevertheless, I still have a few comments to make about the propogation of Drayson’s comments through the media. If you haven’t seen the story, here’s the Daily Mail’s offering: “Science Minister has sixth sense“.

What did he actually say? Well, the quote arose from an interview in the Sunday Times, under the headline “Paul Drayson: He’s Buzz Lightyear of the cabinet“. Its a long interview, that ranges on topics from his policies to his private life.

Near, the end, talk turns to his personal belief in God, which leads on to a discussion about intuition. Drayson relays his thoughts on a book on the subject – Blink by Malcom Gladwell – and says “This struck a chord with me because in my life there have been some things that I’ve known and I don’t know why.”

Now, here’s the important bit. It is the interviewer Isabel Oakeshott that uses the phrase “sixth sense”, and she does so “half in jest”. Drayson replies: “Yes, like a sixth sense,” and that he believes “there’s a lot we don’t understand about human capability.”

Arguably, Drayson should choose his words more carefully. If he had spoken directly of “intuition” for example, rather than picking up on Oakeshott’s “sixth sense” phrase, the story probably would never have arisen. If you’re the government’s representative on science, referring to supernatural idea is going to be too hard for your typical journo to resist, and that was the case here. On the same day, the section of the interview was spun out into another article by Oakeshott: “I saw it coming, says minister of sixth sense Lord Drayson“, which is where all these other stories presumably arise from.

These stories include the Telegraph’s “‘I have a sixth sense’ claims science minister Lord Drayson“. The quote in the headline is, of course, incorrect.

Now it has to be said, I don’t think science or scientists are being directly harmed by this reporting. It’s Drayson (and by extension the Labour government) who are made to appear foolish, but on the other hand foreign scientists who read the story might be left with a bad impression of the UK. After all, if we’ve got a guy who can predict the future as UK science minister, what must UK scientists be like? Hopefully Drayson will learn from the incident, and think a bit more about just who he represents!

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 19 November 2008 at 3:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Spanish surgeons have performed the worlds first transplant using a tissue-engineered organ. A windpipe grown from the patients own stem-cells was transplanted allowing the medical team to return 30-year-old Claudia Castillo to perfect health. Without the procedure, she would have lost a lung due to tuberculosis. Five months later, she is able to lead a normal life once more.

Scientists in Bristol grew the organ for transplant, tailoring it to Ms Castillo’s immune system. This means that the transplant is also the first to not require anti-rejection drugs. They began with a donor windpipe, or trachea, and then used chemicals to wash away any traces of the original cells, leaving only a framework of fibrous protein. Adult stem cells, which can be grown into many other types of cells, were taken from her bone marrow, and encouraged to grow on the framework which was placed inside a rotating bio reactor.

In conjunction with cells from her original organ, these cells coated the new trachea in just four days, ready to be implanted. Professor Paolo Macchiarini of the Hospital Clínic of Barcelona performed the operation last June:

“I was very much afraid. Before this, we had been doing this work only on pigs.

“But as soon as the donor trachea came out of the bioreactor it was a very positive surprise.”

He was not the only one to be afraid. As is understandable with a never-before performed procedure, the patient had some nerves as well:

“I was scared. I had the illness for four years and in January they told me they had to operate,” said Ms Castillo.

“He told me that it was a trial that had never been carried out before and that this would be the first in the world.”

The resounding success of the operation put all fears to rest, however. Ms Castillo encourages the team to continue the work, and help others in the same way as her. Professor Martin Birchall, who helped grow the new trachea and is professor of surgery at the University of Bristol, certainly plans to. He believes that in 20 years time, nearly any organ for transplant could be grown in this way:

“This will represent a huge step change in surgery.

“Surgeons can now start to see and understand the potential for adult stem cells and tissue engineering to radically improve their ability to treat patients with serious diseases.”

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 19 November 2008 at 12:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Science Policy, Yes, But When?

[This post was meant to go up yesterday, but due to technical difficulties with Virgin Media my internet access is currently limited. Blog updates may be unfortunately sporadic this week.]

Conservative MPs are to be made scientifically literate from the next election, The Times is reporting. Newly elected members will be taught about scientific method and other concepts, in a move to address concerns about the lack of scientific knowledge in Parliament. Existing MPs and peers from the House of Lords will also be offered the chance to attend the induction sessions.

The plan is being spearheaded by Adam Afriyie, the party’s spokesman for science and innovation. He does not have a scientific background himself, but, sees the importance of a basic scientific understanding for politicians. Speaking to The Times, he said:

“The evidence-based scientific approach extends well beyond subjects like embryology or GM crops. It is also critical to social policy and criminal sentencing, and it cuts across all areas of government.”

Be it climate change, GM food or stem cell research, science is increasingly entering in to the political sphere. Despite this, the over whelming majority of politicians and civil servants come from a humanities background. According to the Times, both the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet have just one member each with a science related degree; John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, who studied chemistry; and Liam Fox, Shadow Defence Secretary and a medical doctor.

I have to congratulate the Conservatives on this new initiative, and can only hope that Labour and the Lib Dems will follow suit. The Tories are acknowledging that science plays an important role in our society, and that basic understanding of the facts is a necessity in navigating the issues arising from that role. Hopefully their MPs will now avoid phrases such as “humanzee” and “minotaur” when discussing hybrid embryos, for example, and debates can be carried out in a more reasoned manner. One can only hope.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 17 November 2008 at 1:37 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

Recycling seems to be all the rage these days, with our collective eco-conscience pushing us towards rummaging through the bins to sort the paper from the plastic. In space however, recycling is a necessity. Each extra kilogram of material that has to be blasted into orbit increases the cost of a launch, so making the most of what you’ve got is essential. To this end, NASA’s latest scheme is to make astronauts drink their own urine.

The crew of the International Space Station require water just like the rest of us, but at 350 km above the surface of the Earth there is a distinct lack of rainfall. Up to now, NASA’s solution was a rather ingenious one: use waste water from the space shuttle. The spacecraft produces water as a byproduct of its normal electrical systems, so this was simply bagged up and delivered every time the shuttle and the ISS docked. Unfortunately, plans to retire the vehicle in the next two years will put an end to these regular deliveries.

Just try not to think where it came from...

The space shuttle Endeavour docked with the ISS yesterday for a mission that has been unofficially dubbed “Extreme Home Improvements”. In addition to providing expanded crew quarters and a new toilet, Endeavour is also carrying the astronauts new water system.

By distilling, filtering, ionizing and oxidizing the waste water of the ISS (including the astronauts own urine), the crew will be provided with an ample supply of fresh water – but how does it taste?

“Some people may think it’s downright disgusting, but if it’s done correctly, you process water that’s purer than what you drink here on Earth,” said Endeavour astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper.

Bob Bagdigian, who oversaw the development of the new water system, found that the most common complaint was a faint taste of iodine, which is used in the recycling system in order to restrict the growth of microbes.

“Other than that, it is just as refreshing as any other kind of water,” Mr Bagdigian said.

“I’ve got some in my fridge. It tastes fine to me.”

So next time you find yourself grumbling as you sort the weekly recycling, remember: it could be worse!

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3 Comments » Posted on Sunday 16 November 2008 at 12:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Evolution, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

The RSC are at it again

The Royal Society of Chemistry are clearly not reading Just A Theory. Not one week after I pointed out the bizarre competitions they have been running, they announce a recipe for Yorkshire pudding.

The Society was replying to the inquiry of one Ian Lyness, who wanted to know why his Yorkshires had failed to rise in the mountainousness Colorado, despite previous success elsewhere in the US. Though they haven’t answered Ian’s question, the RSC have decreed that the perfect Yorkshire should be at least 10 cm tall.

Chemical scientist Dr John Emsley of Yorkshire claimed that only his fellow Yorkshire men and women could produce “worthy” puds. All extremely unscientific conclusions, you might agree. Emsley also provided the “chemical formula” for a pudding, namely carbohydrate + H2O + protein + NaCl + lipids.

I know they’re just trying to appeal to a wider audience (and it worked, the story was run by many papers), but the RSC really should give up on this kind of thing.

A robot that’s uncanny

The uncanny valley is a commonly held belief that as robots and animations become more humanlike, there is a point before they reach perfection at which they become abhorrent. It’s not been scientifically proven, but I’ve certainly experience the phenomenon for myself.

The latest example is Jules, a creation of the Bristol Robotics Lab. Jules is designed to mimic the facial expressions of other human beings, thanks to the motors embedded beneath its “skin”.

Robotic engineers Chris Melhuish, Neill Campbell and Peter Jaeckel spent three-and-a-half years creating the software that powers Jules’ interactions. You can see their results, and Jules’ slightly creepy monologue, in the following video:

This cannot be said enough: science and religion can live happily ever after

The Guardian have an article by Micheal Poole on that old chestnut, science and religion. He’s a visiting research fellow in science and religion at the department of education and professional studies at King’s College London, so unsurprisingly he has a thing or two to say on the matter.

He makes the point that whilst ideas intelligent design and young Earth creationism are nonsense, they do not discredit the concept of creation, or rather Creation as preformed by a Creator. I’ve said similar in the past, but Poole’s argument is very nicely laid out, and worth a read.

He reminds us that creation is a religious concept, not a scientific one, however, it can also not be disproved by science. Science can answer questions about the processes of the natural world; it cannot determine if these are the results of actions by God. In other word, it’s a matter for religious philosophers to fret over, not scientists. Region and science are not enemies, and they should cease to be portrayed as such.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 15 November 2008 at 12:55 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

You may have seen a story last week about a link between rainfall and cases of autism – but not on Just A Theory. I had considered writing a full post on the story, before shunting it to the Weekly Roundup and then eventually dropping it all together. The link seemed so unlikely to me that I wanted to do a decent amount of background reading before posting anything, and unfortunately I didn’t have the time last week.

I’ve still not got around to it (between the course, blog research, and recreational, there is only so much reading I can do in a day!) but a course-mate did point me towards a comment piece in New Scientist.

The author, Ewen Callaway, analyses some of the media responses. Many outlets were eager to play up the idea that rain could increase autism rates, despite the Cornell University scientists’ paper (which, as I said above, I haven’t read) being extremely cautious in their analysis. Callaway argues that the mainstream media should never have reported the story:

It offers nothing useful for the general public, parents, and even physicians. And press reports, blogs and other accounts of the study could even mislead the public.

Adding later:

I can see worried parents hearing about the rain association, second- or third-hand, and keeping their kids in on showery days, or forcing them to play in the rain, or whatever “news you can use” suggestion gets tagged on to these stories.

Autism in the press remains a hot issue amongst scientists, after the handling of the MMR vaccine issue. On my course we recently discussed whether newspapers were right in running the initial story on Andrew Wakefield’s announcement that the vaccine was unsafe. Despite knowing with hindsight the saga that followed, the majority agreed that the story should be run.

Here, the issue is different. I would contest Callaway’s point that the story offers “nothing” to the public; it can be used as an interesting example of the uncertainty of statistical studies – but that hardly makes for an interesting news story.

Unlike MMR, in which a (back then, at least) respected scientist stood up and said that the vaccine should not be used, there isn’t really any news here. The media had to report on Wakefield’s announcement, even if the actual science was tenuous. Contrastingly, no one is calling for parents to keep their children indoors and out of the rain. Without this type of controversy, all that is left is a possible statistical anomaly – not news.

It seems that some outlets agreed with Callaway and myself – I cannot find any mention of the story in The Guardian, for example. Hopefully others will be less keen to jump on autism “stories” in the future

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 14 November 2008 at 6:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

The Hubble Space Telescope has snapped the first visible-light picture of a planet outside the Solar System. Although so-called “extrasolar” planets have been found before – 300 had at the last count – this is the first time we have been able to view one directly. Previous discoveries were made using indirect methods such as radial-velocity surveys which search for stars that “wobble” due to their planets.

The new planet, called Fomalhaut b, is suspected to be more than three times the mass of Jupiter. It orbits the star Fomalhaut, 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Australis, which is surrounded by a huge cloud of dust similar to the Kuiper Belt around our own sun.

This debris disk was discovered when Hubble took a picture of the star in 2004. Astronomer Paul Kalas, of the University of California at Berkeley suspected in 2005 that the dust was being gravitationally modified by a planet lying between the star and the ring’s inner edge.

The dusty Fomalhaut system, and the newly discovered planet Fomalhaut b.

Kalas and his team’s suspicions have finally paid off now that Hubble has photographed a point 1.8 billion miles inside the ring’s inner edge. Taking the picture was no mean feat however.

“Our Hubble observations were incredibly demanding. Fomalhaut b is 1 billion times fainter than the star. We began this program in 2001, and our persistence finally paid off,” Kalas says.

“Fomalhaut is the gift that keeps on giving. Following the unexpected discovery of its dust ring, we have now found an exoplanet at a location suggested by analysis of the dust ring’s shape. The lesson for exoplanet hunters is ‘follow the dust,’” added team member Mark Clampin of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

A second observation of Fomalhaut in 2006 was used to confirm the planet’s existence. By noting the difference between the two photos, the team were able to calculate a 872-year-long orbit for the planet. By comparison, Pluto only takes 248 years to orbit the sun.

An artist's impression of the planet.

Scientists will be keeping their eye on Fomalhaut b for a while yet. Future observations will attempt to view the planet using infrared light and look for evidence of water vapour in the atmosphere. This and other observations will be made possible by the launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The replacement for Hubble is scheduled to launch in 2013.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 13 November 2008 at 12:48 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology

The phrase “google-fu” is used by some as a description of one’s ability to efficiently use the famous search engine, but it’s not to be confused with the recently released Google Flu.

Google have used their gigantic databases of search terms to come up with something quite interesting: predicting levels of flu activity in the United States. By aggregating data on flu-related searches, the search giant was able to get accurate results up to two weeks faster than the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch of the Influenza Division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Google's flu predictions match the CDC's surprisingly well.

By speeding up predictions, Google can provide an early warning system for influenza outbreaks. The CDC report that each year in America, 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications and about 36,000 people die from the disease – although these is some debate about these figures. In an early version of a paper that has been accepted for publication in the journal Nature, Google researchers state:

Up-to-date influenza estimates may enable public health officials and health professionals to better respond to seasonal epidemics. If a particular region experiences an early, sharp increase in ILI physician visits, it may be possible to focus additional resources on that region to identify the etiology of the outbreak, providing extra vaccine capacity or raising local media awareness as necessary.

Google is also keen to reiterate it’s company’s unofficial motto: Don’t be evil. Using search engine data in this way brings up questions about privacy issues, but Google assures its users that they can not be identified from the data used in Google Flu. Which is nice. Now if they could just invent Google Where In The Damn Hell Did I Leave My Keys

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 12 November 2008 at 4:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review

As I sit down in the Soho Theatre, someone tries to hand me a programme. It’s not an usher however, but Josie Long herself. “I’m sorry, do you mind sharing?” she beams, offering a collection of folded paper covered in her endearing and often hilarious scribblings. “Only I didn’t photocopy enough.”

This pretty much sums up Josie’s approach to comedy. Her props are random objects from her personal life, she illustrates her points with hand-drawn graphs, and invites a friend to embroider handkerchiefs live on stage for the entire evening. Throughout the act she will pause, correct herself, comment on how the jokes are being received, and generally chat with the audience. It actually feels a bit like you are watching the directors commentary of a movie – whilst trying to watch the movie proper on a separate screen entirely.

Josie’s latest show is about her new found fascination for science. As a child she felt you had a to pick a side between the arts and science. As she says, she went with the poetry and self harm crowd, because scientists are all nerdy virgins – of course. Now that she’s older however, she’s realised there is no such need to close yourself off from science. She’s been reading about all manner of subjects, from the Enlightenment to astronomy, and whilst the show is far from a lecture it did send me scurrying to Wikipedia to read up on some of her references.

Many stand-up comedians appear constantly miserable, as if the world is all too much for them to take and only dry wit will sustain them. Josie on the other hand seems to find delight in every corner of her life, be it watching regional news reports, buying a bottle of water or gazing into the heavens. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and you can’t help but smile when you realise just how pleased she was with that last joke. This can mean that at times she is so eager to get to the next gag that she forgets to finish the previous one, but this slightly scatterbrained approach simply adds to the appeal.

The show is summed up with Josie’s views on science. It’s not about coming up with an idea and saying “this is the truth for all time.” Rather, you should take the view that “hey, it may not be perfect, but it’s the best we know right now, and maybe someone will coming along and make it better in the future.” A pretty good description of the way science works.

You’re unlikely to come away from All of the Planet’s Wonders brackets Shown in Detail close brackets (as Josie calls the show) feeling that you’ve learnt something, but you will certainly have been entertained, and if you’re lucky some of Josie’s bubbly enthusiasm might have rubbed off on you. The show runs 11 – 15th November at the Soho Theatre with tickets from £10 to £17.50. Do go along – if you don’t get to leave with one of the live embroidered handkerchiefs, you’ll at least walk out with a smile on your face.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 11 November 2008 at 12:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Musings

The credit crunch. Will it ever end? Everything costs more, we’re lending banks money so that they can lend it back to us, and I’m even beginning to tire of breakfast cereal jokes and Robert Peston impressions. Still, it appears that the dreaded crunch could be good news for science according to the news agency AFP.

Back in the heady days of the pre-crunch era, science graduates were often taken in by the high life and high pay a City job could offer. I certainly remember as an undergraduate the likes of Deloitte and KPMG throwing money all over the university campus in an effort to recruit.

Now that times are tougher, and firms are more likely to be firing than hiring, a number of people are leading the call for science over salary.

“The glamour of the Wall Street jobs is gone, and that leaves more room for science and technology,” said Georges Haour, a professor of technology and innovation management at the IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland.

“Although the salaries are not the same, the salaries (in finance) are zero because people are being fired,” he told AFP.

Haour has also noted that universities around the world are seeing an increase in the number of applications to study science. Institutions such as the University of Tokyo have seen a “big surge” in both engineering and science.

Elspeth Farrar, head of the careers service at my own Imperial College, also weighed in:

“Engineering companies who, in the past, have struggled to recruit the numbers they really want, this year might be a good year for them,” she said.

“Inevitably there are going to be fewer jobs directly in the finance and banking sector, so I think automatically that will mean more science and engineering students will be thinking about continuing in their sectors.”

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 10 November 2008 at 2:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Evolution, Getting It Wrong

A survey by Teachers TV has found that nearly a third of the 1200 teachers who participated belive that creationism should be given the same status as evolution in the classroom. More worryingly, out of the 248 science teachers who were included in the poll, 18% agreed with this notion. Should these people really be allowed to call themselves science teachers?

I do have a few doubts about this poll. It was conducted via email, which means that selection bias could be a factor. Those who are strongly propionate’s either way about this issue are more likely to respond to an email poll than those who aren’t too bothered. This could likely mean that the percentage of science teachers in the UK who believe creationism should be taught in school is lower than 18%. This isn’t really that important to what I have to say, however.

Regardless of how representative the poll is, there are still 44 (or possibly 45, as 18% of 248 doesn’t give you a whole number) science teachers out there who would like to teach creationism in their lessons as an equal alternative to evolution. This is nonsense.

I’m largely reiterating points I laid out in the wake of the Michael Reiss incident, in which the director of education at the Royal Society was widely misreported to have called for creationism to be taught in science lessons, ultimately leading to his dismissal from the post. What he actually said is that science teachers should be able to answer questions on creationism rather than deflect them, and more importantly show why it is not science.

Creationism isn’t science for the same reason that science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God: it’s unobservable, untestable and most importantly cannot be falsified. Evolution can be falsified. For example, if DNA sequencing of two species that appear to be similar (say, chimpanzees and humans) showed wildly different genomes, then it could not be possible that we evolved from a common ancestor. Fortunately for evolution, we share something like 96% of our genes with chimps.

The previous paragraph is an example of how I would like to see creationism taught in schools. Thankfully, almost half of the surveys respondents agree with me, in that they feel the complete exclusion of creationism from the classroom is counter-productive. The question is, how do you change the minds of those teachers who truly believe it is science?

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 9 November 2008 at 3:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Mathematics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Cash for codebreakers

Bletchley Park, home to the Allied codebreakers of World War II, has secured a grant of £330,000 to restore the roof of the historic site. The Grade II-listed mansion is at risk due to previous neglect.

Codebreakers who were at Bletchley include Alan Turing, arguably the founder of computer science. The need to crack the German Enigma machine lead to great developments in cryptoanalysis and other sciences. It’s a fascinating place that I’d love to visit one day, so hopefully this new money will help preserve the site.

China plans their own Moon buggy

The Chinese media has reported the nation’s ambitions to put an unmanned buggy on the moon by 2012 as a step along the road to a full-on manned mission.

The news follows on from China’s previous space efforts at the end of September, in which they broadcast footage of a first space-walk back to those watching on Earth. It could also be seen as an answer to the American’s testing their latest moon buggy prototype.

China says that its lunar mission will include three steps of “orbiting, landing and returning”, but has not yet set any dates for manned moon mission yet.

Not lead into gold, but tequila into diamonds

Mexican scientists have discovered a way to turn tequila into diamonds. It turns out that the chemical makeup of the drink has a ratio of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon atoms which places it within the “diamond growth region.”

The scientists turned to tequila not for its intoxicating quality, but because previous efforts to create diamonds from organic solutions such as acetone, ethanol, and methanol had proved unsuccessful. They then realised that their ideal compound of 40% ethanol and 60% water was remarkably close to tequila.

Luis Miguel Apátiga was one of the researches from the National Autonomous University of Mexico:

“To dissipate any doubts, one morning on the way to the lab I bought a pocket-size bottle of cheap white tequila and we did some tests,” Apátiga said. “We were in doubt over whether the great amount of chemicals present in tequila, other than water and ethanol, would contaminate or obstruct the process, it turned out to be not so. The results were amazing, same as with the ethanol and water compound, we obtained almost spherical shaped diamonds of nanometric size. There is no doubt; tequila has the exact proportion of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms necessary to form diamonds.”

The diamonds were made by heating tequila to transform it into a gas, and then heating this gas further to break down the molecular structure. The result: solid diamond crystals, about 100-400 nanometres in size. They could be used to coat cutting tools, or as high-power semiconductors, radiation detectors and optical-electronic devices.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 8 November 2008 at 9:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Mathematics

Well, not quite, but close. Notices of the American Mathematical Society have published details of computer programs that can provide rock-solid mathematical proofs.

This is extremely important, because in maths, proof is king. You could count prime numbers (which can only be divided by one or themselves) until the proverbial cows come home, and by the time you get to one squillion – not actually a real number, but let’s say it’s pretty big – you might be satisfied to say there were an infinite number of primes. Not so the mathematician, who will only be convinced by a logical proof.

The trouble is, even in the most basic proof you have to make some assumptions of previous results in the field. It doesn’t really matter because a sufficiently advanced reader will be able skip over these leaps of logic, but some theorems become some long and complex that even without dotting all the mathematical “i”s the proof can reach hundreds of pages long.

Checking such a proof would be incredibly arduous, but for the mathematician it must be done. This is where computers come in. A computer can develop a “formal proof”, in which every single statement is checked all the way back to first principles.

We’re not even talking 1 + 1 = 2 here. The Principia Mathematica, a seminal work on the foundations of mathematics published nearly a century ago, does not reach a proof of 1 + 1 = 2 until page 379. And mathematicians use pretty small fonts.

This demonstrates how ridiculous it would be to create such a formal proof by hand. It would be like providing a full dictionary definition of each word in this blog post along with the text – madness. Yet, for mathematicians to be truly, truly sure, a formal proof is the only way to go.

The computers aren’t quite there yet. Mathematicians still have to break the proofs down before they are fed into the program, so there we’re not quite at the level where your PC can leaf through the latest mathematical journals. It is possible, however, to let the computers “explore” the mathematics on their own – and perhaps even come up with some points the humans may have missed.

Ultimately, mathematicians would like to have formal proofs of at least the most important theorems. Thomas Hales, one of the authors writing in the Notices, says that such a collection of proofs would be akin to “the sequencing of the mathematical genome”. Impressive stuff.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 7 November 2008 at 5:28 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Musings

I’m starting to worry about the Royal Society of Chemistry. Lately they’ve been acting a bit like an embarrassing school teacher – the kind who tries to be “down wid da kids”. Innit. Urgh.

Sorry. First of all, it was their competition a couple of months ago to suggest a new name for the Large Hadron Collider. They offered £500 to anyone who could come up with a better name than the current “contrived acronym”. The winner was “Halo” – in my opinion a far worse name than LHC, but there we go.

The point is, what was the RSC even doing running such a competition? Their own press release mentions that “Some reports say that the RSC is suffering from “professional jealousy”". I don’t think it’s that, but I’m stumped as to why the Royal Society of CHEMISTRY are getting involved with a particle physics experiment.

You might say that they were just jumping on the LHC bandwagon, hoping to ride the massive wave of publicity. It’s possible, but then how do you explain this latest development? The RSC are now “inviting the public to devise a successful ending to the greatest-ever cinema cliff-hanger to mark the 40th birthday next year of The Italian Job made in 1969.”

Sorry, what? The Italian Job? Sure, great film, no disagreement there. Fantastic ending, you’ll get no argument from me. But, and I say it again, why the Royal Society of C-H-E-M-I-S-T-R-Y? It turns out that 100 years before the film was the creation of the Periodic Table by Dmitri Mendeleyev.

Now, get ready for this.

There’s gold in The Italian Job. There’s also gold in the Periodic Table.

That’s it! That’s the link they’re going for! Bravo, RSC, on one of the most tenuous excuses I have ever seen. They’re trying to “draw attention to gold”, and by association, the Periodic Table. It must also be pointed out that the RSC “does not condone the fictional bullion heist and regards the competition only as a scientific and logical challenge.” (I like that they don’t condone fictional heists, presumably leaving the door open for real life ones.)

If you want to enter the competition (and aid the RSC in its descent to madness) the details are all in the link above. The prize is a three-night stay for two in Turin. Not a chemistry set in sight…

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 6 November 2008 at 10:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology

We’ve got another one. “Experts” warned today that wearing a purple tie to an interview could cost you the job.

In a way, this story is very similar to one I wrote a month or so ago about blondes being more confident. Daily Mail? Check. Dubious science? Check. Funded by someone looking to hawk their wares? Check.

Psychologist Dr Ludwig Lowenstein carried out the study for tie makers Peckham Rye (no vested interest there of course) – but to what extent was it a serious study? The Daily Mail give no indication of where (if?) it was published, and I can’t find anything online, so it’s hard to fact check. I’ve no idea, for example, how many people participated in the study, or what kind of questions they were asked. There’s no indication of methodology used, or how conclusions were drawn.

For all intents and purposes Dr Lowenstein might as well have made these results up. The reason scientists insist on the traditions of publication and citation is so other people can check your results. When “research” is funded by commercial organisations the results are often not made public, or at least not easily accessible, and that’s a Bad Thing™.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t trust all commercially funded research. For example, Google.org is the internet giant’s charitable wing, and have committed over $100 million dollars to research into fields such renewable energy. Notice the complete lack of “your choice of search engine could give you skin cancer”-type research.

I’m also not saying that the conclusions made by Dr Lowenstein are wrong. How could I? I’ve not been out questioning people about ties, so I’m not in any position to draw conclusions. I could however take a look at his data (if it was available) and then come up with something. It could be a load of rubbish, I’m not a trained psychologist after all, but if I could do it so could other scientists. That’s how science works.

Of course, I’ve got to have my usual poke at the Daily Mail. Yes, I know why they’ve run the story; you get a nice punny headline (I’m guilty of it as well), they get to included a bunch of celebrity pictures, and the results come from a guy with a PhD. That doesn’t mean they have to list it in the science section. It’s not science.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 5 November 2008 at 2:49 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

Well yesterday I said I didn’t want this blog to get too political, but after staying up until 5:30am to watch America elect Barack Obama, I can’t help but comment. You may remember the Science Debate 2008 project, in which both Obama and McCain gave some promising answers about the future of science in America. Watching the President-Elect’s speech last night, I couldn’t help but be excited, particularly about this part in which he spoke of a 106-year-old woman and America’s past:

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

Science and imagination. America is rich in both; let’s see it put to good use after 8 years of squandering. Go Obama!

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 4 November 2008 at 11:49 am by Jacob Aron
In Education

The Guardian is reporting that al-Qaeda terrorists have attempted to gain access to scientific laboratories in Britain by posing as postgraduate students in the hope of gaining access to the ingredients for biological, chemical and nuclear weapons

A Foreign Office spokesman said that these students have been denied access to UK institutions “to stop the spread of knowledge and skills that could be used in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery,” adding “There is empirical evidence of a problem with postgraduate students becoming weapons proliferators.”

This worries me. Of course, we must not let dangerous material fall in to the wrong hands, but international students add huge cultural value to a university – not to mention a big wad of cash, with the high fees they pay. If we start rejecting students left and right from “countries of concern” such as Iran and Pakistan, it will only be to our own detriment.

It could also work against security efforts. An enthusiastic science student who finds himself barred from entry into a British university because of – let’s face it – his nationality, might end up in institution in another country, still with access to dangerous materials, but additionally an animosity to the UK. Such a person might find themselves more open to radicalisation.

I’m not saying this has happened, or even will happen, but the UK government has a recent history of over-reacting to terrorism, and it isn’t far fetched to imagine them implementing a “better-safe-that-sorry” approach to international students. I don’t want this blog to get too political, but it’s certainly something to watch out for.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 3 November 2008 at 2:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong

Research published last week in the International Journal of Epidemiology suggests that mothers who drinking “lightly” during pregnancy are not putting their unborn child at risk of behavioural difficulties or cognitive deficits, when compared with children of abstinent mothers. In some cases, light drinking was actually shown to be beneficial, according to lead author Dr Yvonne Kelly of University College London’s Epidemiology & Public Health department:

“The link between heavy drinking during pregnancy and consequent poor behavioural and cognitive outcomes in children is well established. However, very few studies have considered whether light drinking in pregnancy is a risk for behavioural and cognitive problems in children.

“Our research has found that light drinking by pregnant mothers does not increase the risk of behavioural difficulties or cognitive deficits. Indeed, for some behavioural and cognitive outcomes, children born to light drinkers were less likely to have problems compared to children of abstinent mothers, although children born to heavy drinkers were more likely to have problems compared to children of mothers who drank nothing whilst pregnant.”

The study defines light drinking as 1-2 units of alcohol per week or occasion. This confuses me; what counts as an occasion? If a mum-to-be likes to party every day of the week, does this mean that she’s fine as long as she restricts herself to 1-2 units each night? Of course not, so why not just stick to the amount consumed per week?

I worry that this confusion could be spread to pregnant women by the reporting of the story in the mass media. The stated 2 units amounts to a single 175ml glass of wine of around 11% alcohol strength per week. Personally I would consider this “barely” rather than “light” drinking, which to me seems more like two or three glasses of wine week for a total of 4-6 units per week – still well under the recommended limit of 14 units per week for women. I wonder how many women might have a similar interpretation of “light”, and drink too much after reading this story.

The Times were the most cautious in their reporting, with “Drinking alcohol occasionally when pregnant ‘does no harm’“, and in the second paragraph define “occasionally” as “one to two units, or a single drink a week”. You’d be hard pressed to come away from reading their story thinking a bit of a binge would be ok.

Similarly, the BBC said “Light drinking ‘no risk to baby’“, but said that the study defined “light” as “two drinks a week”, not 2 units. The study itself is unclear on this matter, sometimes switching between 2 units and 2 drinks. I can’t think of any reasonably sized serving in which 1 unit = 1 drink. For the calculations to work out, we’re talking a measly 100ml of 10% strength wine. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who defined such a measure as a “drink”.

The Telegraph falls somewhere in the middle with “Pregnant women ‘can drink a small glass of wine a week’” – a decent headline, but they go on to say “Guidelines on what constitutes a unit has since been changed and only a small (125ml) glass of 12% ABV white wine is the equivalent to one unit.” I’m not sure what guidelines they are referring to – one unit is 10ml of pure alcohol, so their example would be (125 * 0.12) / 10 = 1.5 units. In other words, women following the Telegraph’s advice might be at risk of drinking more than 2 units.

Finally, both the Guardian (Light drinking in pregnancy may be good for baby boys, says study) and the Daily Mail (Pregnant women who drink ‘lightly’ could have brighter, better-behaved babies) were perhaps overly optimistic in their reporting of the study, stressing the potential positive benefits. This stance makes for good headlines, but could it mean women don’t think twice before reaching for another glass – after all, it might even be good for the baby!

Ultimately I blame the press release from UCL which went with the headline “Light drinking in pregnancy not bad for children, says UCL study“. Even though the first line immediatly defines the meaning of “light”, it’s just encouraging over-confident reporting by the newspapers. After all, that’s pretty much the point of these press releases – enticing science writers to cover the latest breakthrough. Journalists love an eye-catching headline as much as any reader.

Scientists use very exact language for a reason: if you don’t, it gets you in to trouble. It’s very hard to reproduce someone’s results if their methodology is written like a cook-book (“take a pinch of copper, add a dash of hydrochloric acid…”), so being specific is important. When stories get picked up by the mass media, these specifics are often lost or glossed over – after all, no one really cares how many protons are in a carbon nucleus (for example) other than scientists, right?

The trouble is, when it comes to research such as this, the specifics are pretty important. If your definition of “light” drinking is different to that of the study’s authors, the university press officers, or the newspaper editors, you could be putting your baby at risk. Sometimes it’s ok to dumb down the science, and sometimes it really isn’t.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 2 November 2008 at 3:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Public understanding of science? Sautoy’d

Early this week mathematician Marcus du Sautoy was appointed to the University of Oxford’s Simonyi professorship for the public understanding of science, taking over from Richard Dawkins.

It will be interesting to see how his approach differs to that of his predecessor. I reviewed both Dawkins’ and du Sautoy’s most recent appearances on TV, so if you read those you probably won’t be surprised to hear I’m happy with this decision. Dawkins doesn’t really do science any favours with stunts like the “There’s probably no God” buses, and hopefully du Sautoy will steer away from religion and stick to the science.

Can certain colours make you more attractive? It’s not so red-iculous

Psychologists at the University of Rochester have published a study suggesting that for women, wearing red could make you more attractive. They found that men were also prepared to spend more money on a date with a woman in a red shirt, rather than a blue shirt.

Women shown the same pictures showed no such bias when asked to give an attractiveness rating, suggesting that there is a link with fertility, because as red is the colour of blood it can easily by used by a female animal as an external signal to a partner, according to Dr Jo Setchell, an anthropologist from Durham University:

“For example, a lot of female monkeys have bright red sexual swellings, which show that they are around the time of ovulation.

“There has been controversy over whether, in female humans, ovulation is advertised or not, although there is some evidence that behaviour, such as going out, changes around that time.

“But wearing red could give you an advantage.”

“Seriously, how hard can it be to come up with a pun about coughs?” he said

The New York Times has some rather nice images of coughs, candles, and other “invisible” liquids and gases. They were taken by engineering professor Gary Settles, of the gas dynamics laboratory at Pennsylvania State University, using a technique known as schlieren photography. By using a small, bright light source, lenses, and mirrors along with a razor blade that blocks parts of light beams, it is possible to view and even photograph the disturbances in the air caused by coughing and other phenomena.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 1 November 2008 at 1:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

Apparently “socialite” Paris Hilton has bagged herself a $200,000 seat on the first Virgin Galactic (for the long-term readers, you may remember one of my first posts was about the company) flight into space.

She joins other rumoured “commerc-onauts” (a phrase I believe I’ve just coined) such as William Shatner, Sigourney Weaver, and Stephen Hawking, but has expressed some rather strange fears.

“I’m very scared to do it. What if I don’t come back?” she said. “With the whole light-years thing, what if I come back 10,000 years later, and everyone I know is dead? I’ll be like, ‘Great. Now I have to start all over.”

Ah yes Paris, that “whole light-years thing.” The esteemed Ms. Hilton appears to be referring to Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity, in which your perception of time can be affected relative to others, depending on your speed. In a famous thought-experiment Einstein suggested that placing one of a pair of twins on a near-light speed flight, whilst the other remains on Earth, could have some interesting effects.

Due to time dilation, the journey would take much longer from the point of view of the twin on Earth. When the space-faring twin returns, he would find that his Earth-bound brother had aged much more than him. It’s all due to the fixed speed of light, and explained by Einstein’s theory.

Paris seems to have been slacking in her Advanced Physics class however, because this effect (known as the twin paradox) can only happen at the speed of light. The Virgin Galactic flights will barely leave the atmosphere, let alone get up to 300 million metres per second, so she’s probably safe for now. Unfortunately.

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