Archive for December 2008


Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 31 December 2008 at 11:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics, Space & Astronomy

As another year draws to a close, you’ve got just 61 seconds left of 2008. That’s right, 61. This year, official timekeepers are adding a “leap second” on to the end of the last minute of the last hour of 2008. You might not notice the extra second flit past as you Auld Lang Syne your way in to 2009, but it serves an important purpose.

Our measurement of time used to be based on the movement of the Sun; you got up when it rose and went to bed when it set. Advances in technology meant that timepieces had to become more and more accurate. It starting with the need for coordinated train timetables across a country, meaning that local time just didn’t cut it any more. In the mid-19th century, railway companies around Great Britain adopted Greenwich Mean Time, the familiar GMT. Use by all soon followed.

GMT was still based on the movement of the Sun however, and this is where we hit a problem. The Sun, of course, does not actually move across the sky; it only appears to because the Earth is rotating. The Earth’s rotation is not constant though; changes in the atmosphere or the planet’s molten core can cause it to speed up and slow down.

With the introduction of technology such as GPS positioning and the internet, even more accurate time was needed. Physicists found that oscillation of caesium atoms could be used to define a second; and in 1967 the International System of Units (SI) decreed the duration of 9,192,631,770 such oscillations to be exactly one second.

These so-called atomic clocks are now the de facto standard of time, known as Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). The trouble is, this highly accurate measure doesn’t have any connection to the Earth’s rotation, so if we still want noon to occur when the Sun is at its highest point, corrections to UTC must occasionally be made. Enter the leap second.

Without the occasional leap second (the last was three years ago) UTC would gradually drift away from what we might perceive was “real” time. Eventually, the position of the Sun would have no relation at all to the time, and we can’t be having that. Earlier this year, some scientists proposed that rather than adding a leap second every few years, we should add a leap hour every 6 centuries. This doesn’t sound like the best idea to me – adding a few seconds here and there is easy to slip past people with out too much fuss, but an entire hour? No thanks.

What would we even call such an hour? For those of you with timepieces connected to an atomic clock (like this one, perhaps) might notice the strange occurrence of 23:59:60 before it flicks over to 00:00:00 and the new year. Would a leap hour run from 24:00:00 to 24:59:59? Surely it would cause nothing but problems.

No, a leap second seems to be the way to go. Even though you’re probably not reading this at 11:59pm (and let’s be honest, the sever is posting it at this time, not me!), join me in the rather unusual New Years countdown of 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 1…

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 30 December 2008 at 5:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Physics

Last night I watch the first of this year’s annual Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution. The lectures, first given by Michael Faraday in 1825, are designed to educate and entertain children with science.

This year the overarching topic for the lectures was “The Quest for the Ultimate Computer”, and they were given by Professor Christopher Bishop who works at both Microsoft and the University of Edinburgh. This first lecture was entitled “Breaking the speed limit”, and covered the evolution of the microprocessor, the building block of all computers.

The ever-increasing power of computers is all down to Moore’s law. In 1965 the founder of computing giant Intel, Gordon E. Moore, noticed that the number of transistors that can be placed on a computer chip doubles roughly every two years. Amazingly, this means that computers made two years from now will have as much processing power as every computer ever made in the past.

Prof. Bishop used his first lecture to explain exactly what a transistor is – something that I had never had an easy-to-understand explanation for. A transistor is basically an electronic switch that also uses electric current to turn on and off – in other words, no moving parts. This makes them perfect for the construction of logic gates, the very simplest possible computational element. Logic gates come in many forms, but all of these can be built from transistors.

In a number of practical demonstrations, the audience is shown how chips are be manufactured; it’s a rather clever technique. Since the circuitry of a chip is so small and complex, they are actually designed on a much larger scale and then projected on a screen. Light from this screen is shrunk down by a lens on to a light-sensitive material, which marks out the exact design in miniature.

The “speed limit” that Prof. Bishop talks about is actually a physical limit – we simply can’t squeeze any more transistors on to one chip. The solution at the moment is to include many chips in one computer – most PC’s sold these days are marketed as “dual-” or “quad-core”. Not all tasks can be sped up by splitting the workload however; as Prof. Bishop tells us, it takes a woman nine months to make a baby, but nine women can’t make a baby in one month!

If we can’t figure out a way to make better transistors, computers won’t be able to get any faster, as they will just get too hot. This is comically illustrated by making all the children stand up and sit down as fast as they can. If we continue with current technology, in 10 years time chips would be as hot as the surface of the sun. Not something you want in your laptop!

A future solution could be to use carbon nanotubes, which would produce a transistor capable of switching 1,000 times faster than our current silicon models. We could even one day be using DNA to do our computations, though Prof. Bishop admits this is very far off. It sounds like a neat idea however, as the DNA of just one human being can store more information than all of the computers in the world put together.

If you’re as interested as I am to learn about the future of computing, you can watch the remainder of the Christmas Lectures every day this week on Channel Five at 7.15pm. Tonight’s lecture promises “Chips with everything”, so tune in and find out more!

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 29 December 2008 at 6:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Sense About Science, an independent charitable trust set up to promote science in public, has released its third annual “celebrity audit”. The document details the claims of those in the public eye in relation to science, and highlights that celebs all too often don’t have their facts straight. Whether you like it or not, celebrities hold power in our society, so we should really encourage them to get their science right.

During the US presidential campaign I praised both Obama and McCain for their views on science, but it seems that they have both linked the MMR vaccine with autism – a big no-no. Despite the controversy around the vaccine, it has been shown again and again to be safe. Obama said of autism:

“Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.”

Sorry Mr President-Elect, you may be the saviour of the world, but that’s just not good enough. Continuing in America, Scientologist wacko Tom Cruise hit out against psychiatry in a video leaked to the internet:

“Psychiatry doesn’t work. [...] When you study the effects it’s a crime against humanity.”

This is despite the millions of people helped by psychiatry. Really, when you release movies like Mission Impossible III, I don’t think you have any right to throw the phrase “crime against humanity” around lightly…

Over in the UK, it seems our celebrity chefs have been doing their parts to muddy the scientific waters. Nigella Lawson has been supporting the Mind Meal, said by the charity Mind to help people with mental health problems. The Domestic Goddess said:

“The Mind Meal is an excellent idea – good, simple food that can help you to feel different about life”

Dietitian Catherine Collins suggests that the “specialist allergy foods and expensive ingredients” are “an unnecessary expense”, and not worth promoting.

Meanwhile, Delia Smith wants to cut out sugar from our nation’s diet in order to curb obesity. In contrast, Lisa Miles, senior nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation says that sugar is actually an important part of a balanced diet, and is found naturally in foods such as fruit and milk. She also says that the causes of obesity are “much more complex”.

Sense About Science suggest that any celebrities looking for scientific advice would do well to call them first. I don’t think we should discourage famous people from speaking out on science, but I do think they should know what they’re talking about!

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 December 2008 at 1:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

With the year wrapping up, science news is thinning out and the last weekly roundup is looking a bit lean. Still, here we go!

It might not be an iPhone, but it can help save lives

Using only a cheap camera phone and some light sensors, scientists at UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute have developed a portable blood tester that could monitor HIV, malaria and leukaemia, as well as detecting other diseases.

Super-phone to the rescue!
Super-phone to the rescue!

The work of Dr. Aydogan Ozcan at UCLA will cut out the more traditional method of sending blood to a lab and waiting weeks for a result, allowing accurate analysis in mere minutes. Not only will it cutting waiting time, but the phone scanner is a fraction of a cost of the massive machines used by lab technicians.

The phone is the perfect tool for developing countries, with use already widespread in areas without a landline network. Phones that come with both a camera and the ability to run the analysis software provide everything needed to save lives in one tidy package.

Nano-nano vroom-vroom

With oil supplies dwindling, car companies are increasingly developing smaller and smaller vehicles for everyday use. None of them can compare to the latest development of one Prof. James Tour however, who recently picked up the Foresight Institute Feynman Prize for the development of a car just four nanometres across.

Pimp my nano-ride.
Pimp my nano-ride.

It consists of a chassis and working engine, a suspension system and rotating wheels made from a special form of carbon known as the buckyball, which forms a sphere-like shape from 60 carbon atoms. Tour hopes that inventions like his nanocar and an accompanying nanotruck, capable of carrying a payload, could one day be used to build large scale objects such as buildings by shunting around atoms.

He’s not expecting such developments any time soon however – he says that such applications are so far off that it isn’t even worth patenting the technology, because by the time it could be used to make money the patents would have expired!

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 27 December 2008 at 7:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

If a health risk is increased by a fifth, is that a lot? More importantly, should you worry about it? Many news outlets are reporting on a story from the World Cancer Research Fund that just one pint of beer a day, or other alcohol equivalent, can increase your risk of bowel cancer by a fifth. I’m going to pick on the Daily Mail in particular (mainly for the comments which I’ll get to later), but all of the stories are pretty much the same.

The question is, should I be worried enough to cut back on having a few pints, especially during this festive season? The important number here is not the relative risk (an increase of a fifth) but the absolute risk. According to Cancer Research UK, there are 61 diagnoses of bowel cancer in the UK for every 100,000 people each year. In other words, the chance of you getting bowel cancer is 61/100,000, or 0.061%.

Now, these statistics will include all instances of bowel cancer, including drinkers and non-drinkers alike, but for the moment let’s pretend that it’s only non-drinkers. Then, if everyone in the UK takes up drinking a pint a day, and thus risk of bowel cancer increase by a fifth for everyone, around 12 more people in every 100,000 will be diagnosed each year, corresponding to an absolute risk of 0.073%. I’m fudging the maths a little bit, because I don’t know how alcohol factors in to the Cancer Research UK data, but I’m actually making it look worse than it really is, because with accurate information on the effect of alcohol, the increase in risk would be even smaller. Remember, I’m making the (very wrong) assumption that no-one in the UK drinks!

In other words, when you look at the risk in absolute terms, it has hardly increased at all. Personally, those figures don’t worry me in the slightest. Yet, all of the mainstream media run the story with “beer makes you a fifth more likely to get cancer” because that is the eye-catching headline. The trouble is, we’re often giving conflicting information about whether drinking (in moderation) is “good” or “bad” for us, and this “flip-flopping” causes a cynicism of science apparent in both the Daily Mail’s headline (“Cheers! Now they tell us beer and wine give us cancer”) and it’s commenters. A typical example is this comment from Bryan Caffyn:

Please when will they,the so called experts, make up their minds, last week we were being told by the very same people, a glass or two of wine would reduce the risk of all sorts, now its going to increase the chance of bowel or liver cancer. Even by this barmy bunches standards this is crazy, time gormless gordon dare I say took the lead, no I musn´t be silly, Christmas is over.

What these stories don’t get across is that most substances we consume are both improve and are detrimental to our health. The science isn’t wrong (I’m assuming, of course, having not read any actual papers); there really is an increased risk of bowel cancer from drinking. That doesn’t mean that drinking can’t also have beneficial effects in other ways. When the changes in absolute risk are so small, however, who really cares? A fifth of relative risk just isn’t enough to be worth worrying about!

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 26 December 2008 at 1:08 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Physics

As part of the Guardian’s Cif charades series, “Cif regulars write about a counterintuitive topic suggested by our readers”, Michele Hanson has shared with us her thoughts on quantum physics. Hint: I’m not very impressed.

Hanson believes that physicists aren’t “choosing their projects wisely”, and are “aiming a little too high” with their research into the quantum world. After all, what use is quantum physics? It’s not like it helps us understand semiconductors, vital in the construction of many electronics, or build MRI scanners, which help millions of people around the world. No, wait – yes it does. Just because Niels Bohr worked on the Manhattan Project, it doesn’t mean we should throw all of his research out of the window.

She aks “How can you not know how something worked if you’ve just worked out how it worked, and made it work?” I had to re-read the sentence a couple of times just to understand the question. Here’s the problem: quantum physics is weird. Like much of science, the results are counter-intuitive, difficult to understand, and an incomplete model of how the world truly is. Guess what though? Science works, bitches.

Still, because Hanson can’t get her “fluffy little head around” it, quantum physics isn’t important. Speaking to a friend, she discovers they share a basic knowledge of physics, up to a point:

..I asked another friend out with her dog. Her knowledge of plain, never mind quantum, physics was fairly basic. “Apples fall on your head,” she said. “Heat rises except in my oven, and E = mc².”

I can manage that, except for the last equation. Let’s not go there.

Oh no, an equation! We musn’t let anyone see the dreaded equals sign, lest they be overcome by it’s damning parallel lines. Begone, foul beast! At least I can take comfort in most of the Cif commenters disagreeing with Hanson as well. After all, this is a woman who believes that girls shouldn’t be encouraged in the sciences because “girls in general just aren’t that keen on science.” Bleurgh.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 25 December 2008 at 4:24 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

I hope you’ve had an enjoyable day so far. By now (if you’re anything like me) you’ve stuffed yourself full of turkey and all the trimmings, and have crawled to the sofa to doze until Doctor Who comes on. Just what is it about a full Christmas dinner that can make you so sleepy?

Gobble gobble. Yum.
Gobble gobble. Yum.

Well, yesterday I decided to find out. Sorry to break the fourth wall of blogging, but as I said I’m currently lying on the sofa. Through the magic of technology, I’m posting from the past. Still, if you’re doing the same and have a laptop perched atop your full belly, perhaps you’ll enjoy a bit of science.

After doing some extensive research (i.e. hitting up Google) I found this article from Scientific American last year. It seems that turkey contains tryptophan, a naturally occurring amino acid that can be used by the body to produce serotonin. This neurotransmitter has been shown to play a role in sleep.

That’s not the whole story, however. Serotonin levels aren’t necessarily boosted by eating turkey, because the bird contains many other amino acids besides tryptophan, which happens to be the least present in each forkful. All these amino acids try to crowd into the brain at once, transported by special proteins across the blood-brain barrier. Poor little tryptophan can’t even get a look in.

It’s suggested that dessert is the real sleepy culprit, as the sugar in such treats causes insulin to be produced in order to allow the absorption of amino acids. Tryptophan is unaffected by insulin however, allowing it to slip more easier into the brain and start the production of serotonin.

Thing is, (and before I get angry comments, I know that personal anecdotes are not very scientific!) in my house we’re normally so stuffed that we forgo dessert until much later in the day. I’m still very sleepy, however. What gives?

It could simply be the sheer volume of food ingested. It has been suggested that a stretching of the small intestine and a stomach full of fat and protein both can cause sleepiness. Also, with more blood rushing to you digestive system to fuel the work there, less is available for the muscles and brain to keep you active.

Finally, there’s one more culprit: alcohol. I won’t say no to a few drinks with Christmas dinner, and after a bit of tipple it’s very easy to lean back into a comfy chair and fall asleep. So, have another drink, relax, and enjoy the rest of your day!

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 24 December 2008 at 2:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Health & Medicine

Now call me a cynic if you like, but when I read a story about a blind man navigating a maze that he cannot see my bullshit meter immediatly starts to tingle. As it happens, I’m right – to a certain extent at least.

The news is that man known anonymously as TN has successfully walked along a corridor full of obstacles, despite having been left blind by a series of strokes. This phenomenon is known as “blindsight”, the strange ability of some blind people to perceive objects that they cannot actually see.

Now, as I understand it, there is nothing physically wrong with TN’s eyes. Rather, his brain has been damaged in such a way that he can no longer control vision. He had already been noted to react to people’s facial expressions, so something must be getting through. Clearly, TN experiences a very different form of blindness compared to those who have sustained damage to their eyes.

I’m not suggesting TN is faking his blindness in any way – he really is genuinely blind. I would compare his condition to a digital camera with a broken screen. Such a camera can still take pictures, but with out a screen to view them on the camera is effectively ‘blind’. Contrast this with a camera that has a working screen, but a broken lense, and you can see the distinction I’m making here. What TN’s brain has effectively done is find a USB cable to hook it up to his brain and allow him to view the pictures – even if he doesn’t actively realise.

Why does this distinction matter? It’s all in the way these stories are reported. ‘Blind man can see’ is a very newsworthy story, but it is also cruel to misrepresent the facts to those with a different kind of blindness to TN. With that in mind, let’s see how the mainstream media reported the findings.

For once, they’ve actually all done pretty well. Each story makes it more or less clear that TN’s blindness is due to brain damage, and that his eyes are still fully functional. They all also include a quote from the study leader, Professor Beatrice de Gelder, who makes it pretty clear what’s going on:

“This is absolutely the first study of this ability in humans.

“We see what humans can do, even with no awareness of seeing or any intentional avoidance of obstacles. It shows us the importance of these evolutionarily ancient visual paths. They contribute more than we think they do for us to function in the real world.”

So, Merry Christmas guys; you all receive a Just A Theory “Getting It Right” badge of approval. Try and keep it up in 2009!

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 23 December 2008 at 12:44 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

For today’s post you’ll have to head over to Alom Shaha’s “Why is science important?” blog. Alom kindly asked me to contribute, along with many other scientists and science communicators. Apologies for the utter pretentiousness of my photo – I didn’t realise Alom was going to ask me for one, so I took a bunch of self portraits and it was either that or a horrible gurn!

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 22 December 2008 at 4:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In Mathematics

University of Warwick mathematician Ian Stewart has provided New Scientist with a scientific guide to gift wrapping. Very festive. Professor Stewart informs us about the “sausage conjecture”, which asks what the most efficient way to wrap a group of circles or spheres is.

The tastiest way to wrap a sausage
The tastiest way to wrap a sausage

For two and three dimensions, we have the answer: round circular objects (like mince pies) should be stacked end to end like a sausage if you have six or fewer, but for seven or more you’re better off arranging the pies in a hexagon and wrapping them that way in order to minimise the paper used. For spherical objects (Christmas puddings, of course) the split comes at 56 or fewer versus 57 or more.

So far, so simple, and good enough for anyone looking to wrap presents this Christmas. You might think we could just leave it there, but mathematicians never can. Extend the problem to four dimensions, and matters become predictably more complex. Now, you might be asking what a four-dimensional sphere looks like, and the truth is it’s impossible for the human mind to visualise. Mathematicians have no trouble with higher dimensions however – just add another number to your coordinate system. So, whilst we need two numbers to describe any point on a circle, and three numbers for a sphere, a group of four numbers will let us mathematically explore a so-called hypersphere.

How exactly do you go about wrapping a group of hyperspheres them? Well, for 50,000 or fewer you’re looking at a hyper-sausage, and for 100,000 you’re looking at something distinctly un-sausage-like – thought no-one knows exactly what. As for the specific trade off point, it isn’t as clear cut as with circles or spheres, but it definitely lies between 50,000 and 100,000 hyperspheres.

So what about the “sausage conjecture”? Unfortunately, it’s nothing to do with the trimmings at Christmas dinner, but rather states that for objects with five-dimensions or more, sausages are always best. This rather uninituive result, given the rules for two, three and four dimensions, was put forward in 1975 by Hungarian mathematician László Fejes Tóth.

Whilst it’s no Fermat’s Last Theorem or Riemann Hypothesis, some headway has been made with the sausage conjecture. In 1998 Ulrich Betke, Martin Henk and Jörg Wills proved that it was true for 42 or more dimensions, just leaving the cases 5 to 41. Perhaps you’d like to contemplate them as you wrap your Christmas presents!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 21 December 2008 at 6:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Warning: This music may cause head injuries

The British Medical Journal is reporting that head banging, the favoured dance of rockers everywhere, may be bad for your health. The detrimental effects can be avoided however, by reducing the motion of the head, rocking out to lower tempo songs or on every other beat, or even resorting to neck braces.

Declan Patton and Professor Andrew McIntosh of the University of New South Wales attended concerts of noted metalers including Motörhead and Ozzy Osbourne, in order to construct a “theoretical head banging model”. It turns out that the risk of neck injury begins at a tempo of 130 beats per minute, but the average head banging song exceeds this at 146 bpm, and could lead to headaches and dizziness. Thankfully, the authors suggest a number of remedies, including public campaigns headed by Cliff Richard and the labelling of CDs with anti-head banging warnings. Rock n’ roll.

Crackle, like a bad reception? It almost works. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t pass up the post title

Were things always better in the good old days? It seems that this may not be the case, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Science. New research has found that negative memories could possibly fade faster than positive ones, as a defence mechanism against getting old.

Scientists at Duke University showed a series of 30 photographs to two groups of adults, one with an average age of 70, another with an average age of 24. Some were fairly mundane whilst others depicted negative images such as acts of violence. It was found that the older group could remember fewer negative images than the younger group – perhaps explaining their rosier outlook on the past.

Still waiting for a comment from the bear in the woods

Pope Benedict XVI has praised Galileo for his work in demonstrating that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, and in fact revolves around the Sun. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who disagreed with you nowadays, but back in 1633 Galileo was branded a heretic and forced to live the rest of his life under house arrest.

The Pope was speaking at an event celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first observations with a telescope. He said that understanding the laws of nature could stimulate an appreciation of God’s work.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 20 December 2008 at 6:22 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Science Policy

President-elect Barack Obama has chosen the scientists who will help shape his administation’s science policy. In his latest weekly address, he lays out the importance of science for the future of America, and introduces the new team:

(You can read the full text of the address here.)

It includes Dr. John Holdren who will serve as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a physicist known for his work on climate and energy – two of the most important scientific areas for America today.

Joining him on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technologywill be Dr. Harold Varmus, who won a Nobel Prize for research into the causes of cancer, and Dr. Eric Lander, who worked towards sequencing the human genome.

Finally, Dr. Jane Lubchenco will be Administrator the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is in charge of conserving marine and coastal resources as well as monitoring the weather.

It’s a refreshing change to see Obama surrounding himself with knowledgeable men and women in order to properly inform himself about the scientific issues at hand. Hopefully the new team will hit the ground running – unlike under Bush’s watch, who’s science advisor wasn’t even appointed until 10 months in to his administration.

A slight tangent, but an interesting point nonetheless, is how I learnt of this news. It wasn’t from the mainstream media – indeed, a glance at major news outlets seems to show that they aren’t even running the story. Rather, I picked it up from The Intersection blog (I’m currently reading Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science, so look for a review soonish), and then watched the video on Youtube to hear the news straight from the man himself. Obama truly is the internet President, and I’m extremely interested to see how his use of technology will shape his administration.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 19 December 2008 at 7:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry

…and if anything, I’m feeling worse! Hopefully that means I’m actually getting better, but we shall see. Untill I’m feeling up to it I’m afraid posts are going to be pretty short, but perhaps some amusing links might make up for it. May I present to you the Table of Condiments That Periodically Go Bad and the Periodic Table of Awesoments.

It’s a tough choice over which I prefer, with the Table of Condiments actually providing (somewhat) useful information, but ultimately I think Awesoments has to win out, simply because the first element is “bacon”, and it only goes up from there.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 18 December 2008 at 2:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Oh all right then, a better sense of taste. This is just one of many revelations emerging from a Danish study which also found that one in three schoolchildren prefer soft drinks which are not sweet, and 70% of them like fish. Ok, it’s hardly world-changing science, but I’m more interested in the way the results were collected. The study was a joint effort between Danish Science Communication, The Faculty of Life Sciences (LIFE) at University of Copenhagen, and 8,900 Danish schoolchildren.

Rather than just being willing volunteers for the study, the kids were active participants in the research, as part of the Danish natural science festival. Schools were sent kits of taster samples and instructions on how to conduct experiments, the goal of which were to measure the ability of children to identify sweet and sour tastes of various concentrations in order to establish which they prefer and how many tastebuds they have.

Bodil Allesen-Holm, was head of the project and is in charge of the Sensory Laboratory at the Department of Food Science at LIFE. He was particularly impressed with the way the children carried out their investigations:

“What is most surprising is that the results are so clear and of such a high quality,

“The trends are very clear in all the answers from the many primary and secondary schools; the pupils and teachers have been very thorough and accurate.”

As for the results themselves it seems that although boys and girls have roughly the same number of taste buds, the girls are better at recognising tastes, with boys requiring an average of around 10% more sourness and 20% more sweetness to detect the taste. The researchers suggest that the food interest should take these findings into account, and develop more varied foods in order to accommodate different (wait for it…) tastes.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 17 December 2008 at 8:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

I’ve finally succumbed to whatever winter bug is currently going around, and thus my ability to blog/think has been somewhat curtailed. As such, all I have for you today are some rather wonderful Hungarian maps of Mars, Venus, the Moon and the Earth. They’d make some nice wallcharts, if you’ve got a big enough colour printer.

Mars-velous.
Mars-velous.

Hopefully, I’ll be feeling a little better tomorrow, and return you to your regular blogging fun.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 16 December 2008 at 12:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

I was wondering when the first “science-of-Santa” story would appear this year, and the only one I’ve spotted so far is this university press release. It’s the usual fare: a mix of special relativity and nanotechnology with a bit of genetic engineering.

...because he's coming soon.
...because he's coming soon.

Larry Silverberg, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at North Carolina State University, told the news agency that Father Christmas “exploits the space-time continuum,” in order to visit millions of homes in just one night.

In a new twist, it turns out that FC doesn’t actually carry any presents on his sleigh – rather, he uses nanotechnology to reorganise the molecules of snow and soot in order to construct gifts for girls and boys. Neat trick.

Finally, his reindeer are “genetically bred” in order to fly (without wings, mind – are they perhaps gas powered?), stand on rooftops, and see in the dark. Presumably a genetic marker similar to the Nobel winning green fluorescent protein is also used to make their noses glow red.

“This is our vision of Santa’s delivery method, given the human, physical and engineering constraints we face today,” Silverberg says.

“Children shouldn’t put too much credence in the opinions of those who say it’s not possible to deliver presents all over the world in one night. It is possible, and it’s based on plausible science.”

I’m not sure how I feel about these types of stories. Yes, its silly Christmas-themed fun, but should Father Christmas really be explained in terms of science? You never see press releases about the gene-splicing involved to allow the Easter Bunny to lay chocolate eggs – pre-wrapped in foil, no less. Yet, the “science-of-Santa” makes an annual appearance in the media.

It’s the quote at the end that I find particularly troubling. It might be “plausible science”, but it’s not really “science”. Stories such as these dilute the public impression of what science really is, as much as those bloody formula stories I was ranting on last week. Perhaps, however, I should just bite down on my Humbug and enjoy the festivities.

Oh, and I’m not in any way saying Father Christmas doesn’t exist. He does. And he’s watching.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 15 December 2008 at 1:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Just A Review

The Wellcome Collection’s new War and Medicine exhibition warns that “visitors in may find some images in this exhibition disturbing”. It’s true that the images of warfare, particularly those of survivors, can have quite an effect, but you shouldn’t let that put you off visiting this interesting and thought-provoking display.

Advances in medicine have often been driven by warfare. The exhibition charts this, contrasting the many soldiers killed by disease and famine in the Crimean War with the advances in sanitation and food provision in World War I and II, and through to present day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Artefacts from these wars such as pill boxes and food rations are presented alongside letters from soldiers, telling tales of terrible conditions.

Visitors also learn of the many medical innovations that resulted from new types of injuries during war. Plastic surgery was a response to the terrible gas attacks of the First World War trenches, and it is this part of the exhibition that exhibition that I found the most harrowing. Nevertheless there is some positivity, with more recent photos of those who have been able to lead normal lives thanks to reconstructive surgery. Nowadays, the most common injuries are to the limbs, which body armour can do nothing to protect against roadside bombs. This in turn is driving research into artificial replacements

I particular appreciated the text on the walls of the exhibition, which presented questions of just how medicine has benefited from war. Yes, a great many medical discoveries have arisen as the result of conflict, but have large wars also draw research away from areas with less military appeal? It certainly left me with ideas to think about.

The only criticism I can lay on the exhibition is one particular exhibit. Near the entrance, a panoramic film of the interior of a rescue helicopter plays in a darkened room. Unfortunately the room is so dark, and the projection under-powered, I found it almost impossible to see what was going on. Indeed, a course-mate walked into a bench in the room because he simply had been unable to see it. My annoyance with this exhibit was furthered by the low droning sounds of the helicopter reverberating around the rest of the exhibition, removing me from my introspective thoughts.

The exhibition opened on 22nd November, and runs until 15th February. Admission is free, and I recommend you go – as long as you can handle the powerful imagery.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 14 December 2008 at 6:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Google + Magazines = Moogle?

Earlier this week, Google added a large collection of magazines to their already extensive Book Search catalogue. Of particular interest for the scientifically inclined is the entirety of Popular Science magazine, right back to the first issue published in May 1872. If nothing else, it’s quite fun watching the cover design evolve over the decades. You can also check out the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which for much of its history featured the Doomsday Clock on the cover.

No, you can’t call him Batman

Researchers at Purdue University in Indiana are auctioning the chance to name a newly discovered bat. The winner of the bid (which will start at $250,000) gains the scientific naming rights to a species of bat found recently in a Central American forest. Proceeds will be used to fund environmental research in education at the university, and in the animal’s country of origin.

Dr John Bickham, professor of forestry and natural resources at Purdue and discoverer of the bat, is being cagey about the exact location of its habitat, but the winner of the auction will be invited on an expedition to the area with Dr Bickham. They better have a serious name, however:

“We want this to be a serious thing. Anyone willing to put up this kind of money would probably not do so just to be flippant,” said Dr Bickham. “In science, we name species after someone who we wish to honour. We want to find someone who’s passionate about the environment and issues of biodiversity. This is about doing something meaningful.”

Watch the chocs at Christmas – dark will fill you up quicker

Everyone loves a bit of chocolate, but at Christmas it’s easy to over do it. Over at the Faculty of Life Sciences (LIFE) at the University of Copenhagen, they’ve found that dark chocolate may be the solution. Scientists at the Department of Human Nutrition got 16 young men to fast for 12 hours, then offered them 100g of chocolate. One session used milk, and another later on on used dark.

Two and a half hours after the chocolate feast, participants were offered as much pizza as they liked, and instructed to eat until full. It turns out that in the dark chocolate session, they ate 15% less pizza, and reported feeling less like eating sweet, salty or fatty foods.

Dark chocolate has already been shown to have health benefits over milk, what with its healthier fatty acids and antioxidants, but it seems it could now also stop you from overeating. It probably is still to hard to resist that second helping of stuffing, however…

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 13 December 2008 at 3:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Space & Astronomy

TIME magazine, as part of their “Top 10 Everything of 2008″ series have released the ten most impressive scientific discoveries of the year. “Discoveries” might be stretching it a bit for some of the entries – accomplishments, perhaps? Semantics aside, let’s have a look at the list:

1. Large Hadron Collider

No surprises here. The LHC was the biggest thing in science for most of the year, with extensive coverage in the mainstream media. Even here at Just A Theory I’ve written quite a bit on everyone’s favourite particle accelerator. Unfortunately, there won’t be any discoveries made at CERN for a while yet – a helium leak soon after it was started means the collider won’t be up and running again until sometime next June.

2. The North Pole of Mars

Well, we already knew it was there, but this year in May NASA’s Phoenix probe landed in Mar’s far northern region. No signs of life were found, but we now have further confirmation that Mars was once a wet planet, much like our own Earth.

3. Creating Life

Geneticist J. Craig Venter, instrumental in mapping the human genome, wrote the genetic code for an entirely new type of bacterium, Mycoplasma laboratorium. He and his team put together 582,000 base pairs that make up the genetic information of the new species. Next, this DNA must be inserted into a living bacterium to see if it can take over, effectively creating artificial life.

4. China Soars into Space

The world’s biggest country made new strides into space this year, with the first Chinese spacewalk spacewalk. Pretty impressive, since it’s only their third mission in a space programme that began in 2003.

5. More Gorillas in the Mist

For once, some good news on animal conservation. It turns out that previous estimates of the number of western lowland gorillas were too low, and the Republic of Congo is now thought to contain 125,000 gorillas – twice as many as previously thought.

6. Brave New Worlds

The discovery of extrasolar solar planets continued at a rapid pace this year, with 45 new worlds announced in June by Swiss astronomer Michel Mayor. Later on in November, we got the first ever pictures of planets around another star thank’s to good ol’ Hubble.

7. The Power of Invisibility

Scientists at Berkeley, University of California, announced the invention of an invisibility cloak. Nanotechnology and metamaterials make it possible for an object to completely vanish, but don’t expect your own cloak soon – it’s far from ready to be practical yet.

8. Cenozoic Park?

In Novemeber, biochemistry professor Steven Schuster of Penn State University revealed 80% of the genome of the ancient woolly mammoth, painstakingly recovered using fossilised hair. This lead to speculation we might one day be cloning the furry creatures – has no one seen Jurassic Park?!

9. Can You Spell Science?

Between 1979 and 2006, the percentage of science literacy in adults has doubled to 17%. It’s not that great news though – according to the survey by the University of Michigan, a quarter of the US population count as “civic scientifically literate”. In other words, three in four adults will struggle to understand science stories printed in the media – I wonder if that includes this blog?!

10. First Family

Finally, we have the discovery of the first “nuclear family”. In Saxony-Anhalt in central Germany, a 4,600-year-old grave was discovered to contain the remains of an adult male and female, and two boys aged 8 to 9 and 4 to 5. DNA evidence confirmed their relationships: they are indeed the First Family.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 12 December 2008 at 2:27 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

If you’re wandering about outside this evening, you may notice your surroundings feel a bit brighter than usual. No, I’m afraid the council haven’t sprung for additional street lamps. Look up at the sky, and you’ll see the Moon, closer to Earth than it has been for the past 15 years.

Assuming clouds don’t obscure the view (from where I’m sitting, that might unfortunately be the case) the Moon could potentially appear 14% bigger and 30% brighter than other full moons this year, according to NASA. The effect is due to the elliptical orbit of our satellite friend. This oval-shaped path varies the distance between the Moon and ourselves. Normally, it orbits at around 385,000km from Earth, but tonight it will close the gap to around 363,000km.

A lovely full moon.
A lovely full moon.

According to Dr Marek Kukula, an astronomer at the UK’s Royal Observatory, this astronomical event only occurs every so often:

“Its only every few years that a full moon happens to coincide with the part of the Moon’s orbit when its closest to the Earth,

“What people will see is a full moon that’s really bright and a bit bigger than what they’re used to.”

Interestingly, a psychological illusion actually makes the Moon appear even bigger when it rises and sets, says Dr Kukula:

“When it’s close to the horizon, our brain interprets it as being bigger than it actually is, this is called the moon illusion,

Dr Robert Massey of the UK Royal Astronomical Society cautions against expecting too much of a sight, however:

“The Moon may be brighter and may appear somewhat larger, but it’s really quite hard for the eye to notice the difference; the eye will compensate for the extra brightness, it’s not like going from night to day.”

Still, for all you amateur astronomers out there, look to the skies tonight!

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 11 December 2008 at 3:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right

Much of the discussion on the Science Communication course is on how the public should communicate with science, and not just vice versa. Scientists should listen to the public, as well as speak to them. It’s a simple point, but one that is often missed.

The reason I bring it up is this story about the publication of clinical trials results. Every year, an estimated 2.3 million people in the United States volunteer to be a part of clinical trials, but once the trials are over and the results are determined, participants often don’t get to hear about them. Rather, they are squirrelled away in an inaccessible journal, unavailable to the public. Potentially, this could leave people without important health information that they actually helped gather – understandably, patients feel like they aren’t being listened to.

Currently, medical researchers in America are only required to inform participants in medical trials if new information is discovered that might make them change their mind about being part of the study – a dangerous reaction to a drug, for example. A new report from the University of Rochester Medical Center has suggested a way that both patients and researchers can be happy. The author, Ray Dorsey, M.D., strongly believes that this information should be shared:

“Individuals who volunteer to participate in clinical research frequently expose themselves to risks, both known and unknown,

“Because of their participation, they should be informed of the results of these studies in a timely and personalized manner.”

In his paper he details an attempt to communicate the results of a clinical trial for an experimental drug (ethyl-EPA) for Huntington’s disease. The goal was to let people know the results within 48 hours of the official release. Information was posted on the study’s website, as well as sent via email to members of the Huntington’s disease community. Participants in the trial were also telephoned directly, and the study’s principal investigator Ira Shoulson, M.D. held a conference call for interested parties, summarising the results and answering questions.

After this communication, participants were surveyed for the report. It turns out that 56% heard about the result with in 48 hours, with most (73%) getting their information from the telephone call. They also reported a high level of satisfaction with the communication afforded to them, and had developed a strong understanding of the drugs benefits and risks.

In other words, great news. It’s only fair that participants in a trial for a drug that could potentially change their lives get to know about the outcome, and it really can’t be too much of a drain on resources for the scientists. Keeping people happy will also only serve to increase participation in trials, so it’s a win-win situation.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 10 December 2008 at 9:42 pm by Jacob Aron
In Mathematics

I’m sorry to have two similar stories so close together, but when I saw that the Sun had published a formula for determining if your boobline is too low, I just had to say something.

Apparently, following the dress-popping antics of Britney Spears “scientists, undies experts and mathematicians have been trying to figure out where the decency perimeter lies.” I’ll quote the “result” in full.

The equation is O=NP(20C+B)/75.

To figure out the naughtiness rating (O), you times the number of nipples exposed, from zero to two or expressed as fractions of nipple shown (N) with the percentage of exposed frontal surface area (P).

The sum in brackets is 20 multiplied by the cup size (C), where A cup is one, B is two, C is three and D or above is five.

Add that figure to B, the bust measurement in inches. Then divide your answer by 75. Any score higher than 100 is counted as obscene.

Can anyone spot the immediate problem with the equation? It’s this: if N is zero, then O will be zero, because anything multiplied by zero is zero. In other words, if no nipples are shown then the “naughtiness rating” will always be zero! Hardly scandalising, I think you’ll agree.

What’s worse is the Sun actually demonstrate this in the article, with their example calculation for Britney:

Britney’s tight fitting Roberto Cavalli dress showed off around 70 per cent of her breasts, and experts at Wonderbra think she is a 32D. Without any nipple exposure, Britney’s formula works out as 0x70x(20×5+32)/75 = 123.2.

They’ve clearly multiplied by zero, and yet got a non-zero number! What’s worse, the sub-editor who wrote the headline has substituted the O in the equation for a 0, rendering it completely meaningless. It’s a shame actually, because for once everything in this formula is quantifiable in an non-subjective manner. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a load of rubbish (why multiply the cup size by 20? Why is a score of 100 obscene), but I have to give whoever came up with this formula some small amount of credit for dealing in actual measurements.

That’s the other problem actually – who did come up with this? The Sun quote William Hartson, “who holds an MA in Maths from Cambridge University”, and is also the author of “Drunken Goldfish and Other Irrelevant Scientific Research”. Ah, I thought to myself – another book to shill – but no, Drunken Goldfish was published in 1987! I think the Sun may have just gone to Mr Hartson for an “expert” quote. A listing on another book at Amazon indicates that he writes “surreal humour” for the Daily Express. Further on in the article, a spokesperson from Wonderbra is quoted. Maybe they came up with the formula? It’s possible, but I can’t find any information indicating this to be the case.

Really, I’m over-thinking this. The article is little more than an excuse to publish pictures of scantily clad women, under the pretence of evaluating them with the formula. Sex sells papers, as is well documented on Just A Theory with what I like to call the Scarlett Johansson School of Science Reporting. Still, as you should’ve realised by now, I can’t resist a “formula for” story. Thankfully however, my reasons are the exact opposite of the mass media!

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 9 December 2008 at 5:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics, Psychology

Long term readers of Just A Theory may remember that one of the very first posts here was about a pet hate of mine: junk equations. Back then it was a formula for fame, but this time it’s the bane of students with essay deadlines ever: procrastination. Thankfully I handed in my essay yesterday, so I have some free time to rip in to this nonsense.

Professor Piers Steel has, according to the Telegraph spent “more than 10 years” studying why people procrastinate. Depending on who you ask, he’s either a psychologist or a business professor at the University of Calgary (the Telegraph say the former, the Daily Mail and the Times the latter).

On to the equation itself. It’s U = EV/ID, where U stands for “utlity”, or your desire to complete a given task. E is the expectation of succeeding in your task, whilst V is the value of completing it. I is the immediacy of the task, and finally D is your personal sensitivity to delay.

Well, that’s what the Telegraph says. The Daily Mail give a different formula: U = EVTC, where T is your tendency to delay work, and C the consequence of not completing it. By simple substitution, it must be that 1/ID = TC. Now, I can see an argument for saying that T has just been re-written as 1/D (in the same way that you can write 0.5 as 1/2), as they are both about delay, but how does the immediacy of the task (I) relate to the consequence of not completing it (C)? Already I’m starting to see the cracks in this equation…

For the definitive answer I went to Prof. Steel’s website, which provided me with the following:

Yet more variables! We’ve already met U, E, V and D, but now we have G (which seems to be standing in for the Greek letter Gamma which was actually used in the equation). Confusingly, G appears to be taking the place of D in the equation described by the Telegraph, whilst D here is now I. To avoid any further confusion, I will refer to Steel’s form of the equation, U = EV/GD from now on. To reiterate: E is expectancy of successful completion, V is the value of completion, G is the sensitivity to delay, and D is the immediacy of the task.

Besides changing variables like they were underpants, the problem with all of these formulas is that the values in them are completely unscientific and not at all measurable. Granted, your expectation of completing a task successfully could be expressed as a probability, for example, but such a measure is very subjective. What are the odds of getting an A for an essay? They simply can’t be calculated.

The other issue is the mathematical validity of the formula. If your sensitivity to delay is very low (and thus you have a small G), your utility value will be high – but surely it should be the other way around? If you don’t like to put things off, you’re less inclined to procrastinate! So maybe G should be measured from 1 to 10, with 1 being a high sensitivity and 10 being low. All this really illustrates is that it is very easy to come up with a formula for anything – as long as you fiddle the numbers to give that answer that you want!

Actually, it appears that this formula has more than one thing in common with the fame formula from my early post. Like that example, this equation is being used by its creator to publicise an upcoming book. Of course, all of the newspapers that have picked up this story are giving him a nice little bump of free advertising.

It shouldn’t need saying again, but I’m going to any way: these formula stories are a complete waste of time. They’re the absolute dregs of scientific journalism, and you shouldn’t pay any attention to them whatsoever. So, stop reading this and get back to work!

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 8 December 2008 at 12:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Fear, that is. A study out of Stony Brook University in New York State has found that people can unconsciously detect stress of fear in others by smelling a chemical pheromone released in sweat.

Dr Lillianne Mujica-Parodi and her team enlisted 20 first-time skydivers to aid them in their research. Strapping absorbent pads to the participants armpits, the team collected the sweat from before and during the jump. As a control, sweat was also collected as the participants ran on a treadmill for the same length of time and at the same time of day as the jump.

The sweat was then mixed with air and given to volunteers to breathe in (yuck!). At the same time their brains were scanned, and the results showed that the amygdala and hypothalamus, which are brain regions associated with fear, were more active in people who breathed in sweat from the skydive. They weren’t able to actively distinguish between the two types of sweat, however. Mujica-Parodi wrote in a conference presentation last year:

“We demonstrate here the first direct evidence for a human alarm pheromone … Our findings indicate that there may be a hidden biological component to human social dynamics, in which emotional stress is, quite literally, ‘contagious’.”

She could not give any further comment however, as the study is currently under peer-review for publication in a scientific journal.

The research was funded by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, suggesting a possible military application, perhaps causing fear in enemy troops. DARPA has denied any such plans, and says it will not be funding further research in the field.

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 7 December 2008 at 4:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Shell I never

A photo from the Boer War has revealed that a tortoise named Jonathan is one of the world’s oldest living animals, at age 176.

Jonathan in 1900, aged around 70, on the island of St Helena

It’s crazy to think that this tortoise was born in 1832. The same year saw the birth of Lewis Carroll (author of Alice in Wonderland) and the death of the mathematician Évariste Galois, whose pioneering work in group theory ended when he was killed in a duel. Of course, Jonathan has no connection to this events, but still – he’s pretty damn old.

LHC still broken, but not broke

Poor Large Hadron Collider. You just don’t seem to be able to catch a break. It seems that when the particle accelerator leaked helium earlier in the year, the damage was quite extensive. Repair costs will be almost £14m, and the LHC won’t be ready to turn back on until next summer.

Now, £14m isn’t much compared to the £4.4 billion it cost to build in the first place (yes, £4.4 billion, not million as The Telegraph is reporting…) but it’s still a fair chunk of change. LHC haters shouldn’t have to worry about the begging bowl being passed their way however, as CERN hope to meet the costs within their existing budget.

£250m for training new scientists

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the UK’s funding body for science and engineering, has pledged £250m to invest in training the scientists and engineers of the future.

The money will allow the creation of 44 training centres across the country, and give funding to more then 2,000 PhD students. Lord Drayson, the Minister for Science and Innovation, was enthusiastic about the centres:

“Britain faces many challenges in the 21st Century and needs scientists and engineers with the right skills to find answers to these challenges, build a strong economy and keep us globally competitive,” he said.

“This is an exciting, innovative approach to training young researchers and will help build a better future for Britain.”

It’s nice to see that even in these times of economic woe, scientists aren’t being forgotten!

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 6 December 2008 at 8:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

I’m afraid I’m in full on essay mode this weekend, so today will be brief. Thankfully, this is the last essay of the term, so soon it’ll be all Just A Theory, all the time.

What I have for you this evening is an interesting astronomical quirk. If you’ve been staring up in to the sky recently you might have noticed two very bright stars, quite close together. In fact, these aren’t stars at all, but a very visible Venus and Jupiter. We are also experiencing a crescent moon at the moment, and if you’re in the Southern hemisphere these three astronomical bodies may have come together quite satisfyingly to form a smiley face, much like this one :)

There are some great photos around, so if you were unable to see it don’t worry. The Daily Mail have a few nice ones, as do the BBC, but my favourite has to be this one on Astronomy Picture of the Day. It’s currently enjoying a spot on my desktop background!

Can you spot the face?
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Comments Off Posted on Friday 5 December 2008 at 5:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Musings

It seems that CNN has decided to completely axe their science, space, environment and technology unit – for editorial, not economic reasons, apparently. CNN argue that it’s no longer needed:

“Now that the bulk of our environmental coverage is offered through the Planet in Peril franchise, which is part of the AC360 program, there is no need for a separate unit,” said CNN spokesperson Christa Robinson.

Environmental issues being the only news covered by a science, space, environment and technology unit, hmm…

CNN are really dropping the ball here. Yes, science is increasingly entering into other parts of the news: politics, business, and so on. It’s important to see these aspects covered as part of the main story, but for dedicated science stories you really need a dedicated science unit. Now of course, I would say that, but would you axe the sports unit and let general journalists comment on football scores? Of course not.

I don’t watch CNN, and I very rarely visit their website, but now I probably never will again. What’s the point? They clearly don’t care about covering the news accurately and in detail, so I’ll be steering clear in the future. As Tim said on the Sci Comm Facebook group: “In case you were thinking of working at CNN……don’t bother”!

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2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 4 December 2008 at 8:24 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy

Just a short little story for you today, but it’s quite a sweet one. Earlier this week, four teddy bears have been sent to the very edge of space by a group of 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds, with the help of members of the Cambridge University Spaceflight student club.

Boldy going bears!

The brave bears were lifted to just over 30 km above sea level with the aid of a helium-filled latex balloon. Each bear wore a different space suit, designed by the kids to determine which materials provide the best insulation against the -53 °C temperatures they would encounter during their mission.

The Daily Mail have a few quotes from the kids involved. Thia Unsworth, aged 12, said:

“It was unbelievable to see the balloon take off and it’s incredible to see the pictures of the teddy bears in space.

“I’ve always loved science before, but I now understand how it helps in the real world.”

It’s great to see kids involved with activities such as these, which allow them to see that science isn’t just sitting in the classroom and reading textbooks; it also involves getting out into the field and designing experiments. Their teacher, Steve Hinshelwood, seems to agree, as he told the Guardian:

“Suddenly scientific ideas such as insulation, convection, conduction and radiation became important. Thinking about weight made ideas of buoyancy, pressure and the composition of the atmosphere relevant,” he said.

“The need to get the teddies back gave the students a chance to think about computer control and radio communications.

“I don’t think that the students realised how much science they were learning – they were just having fun.”

2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 3 December 2008 at 10:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In Mathematics

Football statistics. The lengths of roads in Britain. Fundamental physical constants. What do all these groups of numbers have in common? The answer may surprise you, but it is this: in all three data sets, numbers that begin with 1 are far more common than those whose first digits are 2, 3 and so on up to 9.

Now, you might expect all numbers to start with 1 to 9 equally. As there are nine numbers you would think that chances of any number beginning with 1 would be 1/9, or around 11%, but actually it is more like 30%! So what makes these groups so special?

It’s a bit of a trick question actually. It turns out that for many large sets of data, numbers that start with a 1 crop up around 30% of the time. Numbers that start with a 2 occur around 18% of the time, and the probability decreases with each successive number. It’s not just in the examples I listed above that this happens, but also stock exchange data, population figures, and many more. This seemingly strange phenomenon is all thanks to Benford’s law.

It was first observed by a man named Simon Newcomb in 1881. As both a mathematician and an astronomer, he often used logarithms in his work. The logarithm of a number in a particular base is the power to which that base must be raised in order to produce that number. It’s easy to illustrate with an example: in base 10, the logarithm of 1000 is 3, because 103 = 1000. We write that log10(1000) = 3.

Logarithms can be used to make complex calculations much simpler, as long as you know how to convert back and forth to regular numbers. Nowadays we can let a computer do all the work, but back in Newcomb’s time people were forced to rely on weighty tombs of pre-calculated logarithms. One day, Newcomb realised that the pages of the book he was using became more worn the closer you were to the front. He came up with a formula that described the probabilities, as shown by this handy graph:

Benford's law in action: lower leading digits are far more common

Why then do we call this Benford’s law, if Newcomb came up with the formula? Well, Newcomb dismissed the idea an ideal curiosity. It was forgotten until 1938, when physicist Frank Benford noticed the exact same occurrence. He decided to investigate, and gathered masses of data to see if the rule was universal. Looking at sets similar to the ones described at the start, he found that it was really true: when it comes to large amounts of data, not all numbers are created equal.

Of course, you have to be careful when applying Benford’s law. A list of secondary school pupils and their ages will not follow the law, since all pupils must be aged 11-18 the probability of a leading 1 is 100%! On the other end of a scale, a collection of dice rolls will show that each number has a 1 in 6 chance of appearing; dies are truly random. Benford’s law will only apply in cases that fall somewhere between these two extremes, but thankfully this still includes a lot of data.

An interesting fact about Benford’s law is that it applies no matter the units of measurement used. You can measure your roads in miles or kilometres, and Benford’s law will still apply. This is known as scale invariance, and can actually be used to mathematically derive Benford’s law. You can work out which distributions of first digit probability stay the same when you switch from miles to kilometres, and it turns out there is only one: the formula that Newcomb came up with.

Benford’s law is a fascinating mathematical fact, but surprisingly it also has practical applications. Get this: it solves crime. No, really. If you’re a crooked accountant who likes to cook the books, Benford’s law will catch you out if you aren’t careful. If our dodgy dealer doesn’t know about Benford’s, they will probably pick numbers at random, or tend to stay in the “middle” (4, 5, 6, 7). Either approach will result in a data set that looks perfectly reasonable at a casual glance, but an analysis with Benford’s law will reveal that not enough numbers start with 1.

There you have it. Benford’s law: a mathematical oddity that just happens to have its uses. For fun, I thought I’d see how Just A Theory page views stack up against Benford’s law. WordPress can track how many times each page has been visited, so I grabbed the first digit from each of these numbers. The results:

The Benford's law prediction (blue) closely matches the page views (red)

It’s not perfect, but Just A Theory doesn’t have that many pages (yet!). As with anything statistical, a larger data set will get you closer to a mathematically predicted distribution. Still, it’s pretty impressive to see Benford’s law in action. Maybe I’ll try again in a year’s time, when I have more data!

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 2 December 2008 at 8:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

What do you think we spend on science? Not just in the UK, but the whole world. People often complain about scientific expenditure, especially on grand projects such as the Large Hadron Collider and the International Space Station, asking whether the money could be better spent elsewhere.

It turns out that science actually costs very little, especially when you consider how much it contributes to our everyday lives. According to an article in Seed magazine, the world’s nations spend only an average 2.3% of their GDP on scientific research.

The exact figure is $994,424,038,000, or roughly one trillion dollars (no Dr. Evil jokes, please) per year worldwide. Unsurprisingly, the US contributes the most with $343,747,500,000, whilst the country that spends the largest percentage of GDP is Sweden – and even that is only 3.82%.

Now, one trillion dollars might sound like a lot to you and me, but let’s but that into perspective. To date, the Iraq War has cost the US around $576,262,000,000. We’re about 5 years in now, so it seems that America spends the equivalent of a third of its yearly science budget on just one conflict. And of course, who can forget the recent $700,000,000,000 bailout paid to US bankers – that’s nearly three-quarters of year’s worth of worldwide science!

If we calculate the cost per head, it works out around $150 a year for every person on the planet. Obviously this is quite a large sum for many people in the world, and I don’t mean to imply that this money is being taken from those less fortunate – clearly the economic cost is shared mostly by the more affluent nations. Using the figure as an illustration however, $150 a year is about 41 cents a day.

I’d say that is an absolute bargain price for everything science provides for us. So, the next time someone complains about expensive science, remind them that they’re actually getting quite a good deal!

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 1 December 2008 at 8:11 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Physics

A couple of months ago I wondered whether we were seeing a new development in science communication; namely scientific rapping. First there was the Large Hadron Collider Rap, which was then followed by the Astrobiology Rap. Alas, it seems that no further offerings have emerged.

All is not lost, however, as it seems we have a new form of communication: dance. A while ago, the journal Science put out a call for scientists around the world to share their Ph.D research in the form of interpretive dance – an unusual request, I grant you, but one that has resulted in some interesting compositions.

Prizes were awarded in four categories: Graduate Students, Postdocs, Professors, and Popular Choice. I’ve embedded the videos for you below; see what you make of them and then click through to the article to find out what they’re all about. Warning: I may have purposely miss-categorised this post to confuse you!

Graduate Students

Postdocs

Professors

Popular Choice

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