Archive for January 2009

5 Comments » Posted on Saturday 31 January 2009 at 5:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Dolphins are such fascinating creatures, it’s no wonder that I’ve talked about their antics before. Yesterday, I learnt that in addition to their other many talents, dolphins are apparantly adept chefs as well.

Yes that’s right – chefs. Scientist from Australia and Britain observing dolphins in the Upper Spencer Gulf in South Australia were stunned to see a female bottlenose dolphin catch a cuttlefish and then prepare it to make it more edible.

The dolphin cookbook.
The dolphin cookbook

Drs Julian Finn, Tom Tregenza and Mark Norman describe the procedure in a paper published in the PLoS ONE journal, which includes some pictures as well as the rather charming diagram on the right.

The nautical Nigella chases her prey out from the seaweed and over a sandy patch of the seabed (A), before trapping it with her snout and then killing it with a sharp downward thrust produced by a beat of her tail (B). To remove the cuttlefish’s defensive ink she lifts up her meal (C) and shakes it until all traces are removed (D), and as a final preparation scrapes the fish on the sand to remove any hard and inedible bones (E) before tucking in (F).

This same dolphin’s culinary skills have been observed in both 2003 and 2007, when she was seen preparing a total of seven cuttlefish so the team are sure that this more than a one off. Other dolphins in the area are also reported to exhibit similar behaviour – suggesting that the dolphins may be teaching the technique to each other. Delia watch out – now the dolphins can cook.

Julian Finn, Tom Tregenza, Mark Norman (2009). Preparing the Perfect Cuttlefish Meal: Complex Prey Handling by Dolphins PLoS ONE, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004217

4 Comments » Posted on Friday 30 January 2009 at 3:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings, Science Policy

This week saw the launch of a new government campaign designed to reduce the perception that science is “elitist” by promoting the ways scientific advances enrich our everyday lives.

Run by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), Science [So What? So Everything] has a swanky looking website complete with Web2.0 curved corners, and you can even follow the campaign on Twitter.

An advert from the campaign
An advert from the campaign.

The adverts all follow a similar theme, illustrating various things that science offers people such as healthier diets for babies, laser eye surgery, and of course Facebook. The government hopes that campaign will help build a more science-literate society, after a government survey last year found that more than half of respondents felt science was too difficult for most people to understand.

Science Minister Lord Drayson met with celebrities including Terry Pratchett (the sci-fi author who is now searching for a cure for his Alzheimer’s) and Heston Blumenthal (celebrity chef with a taste for molecular gastronomy) in Downing Street to launch the campaign on Wednesday.

He praised Britain for being a world-leader in science, second only to the US, and stressed that as maintaining this standard will be vital for our future, the public perception of a scientific elite needs to change:

“We must challenge myths like these if we are to build a prosperous, science-literate society, able to tackle the difficult issues that modern science presents and work them through to create the jobs and growth of the future.

“Science is going to be an important tool for getting us out of this downturn. We all need to be aware of the impact of science on our lives. We also need more trained scientists and engineers to help build the Britain of the future in key areas such as earth and life sciences.

“My job is to make sure these messages are understood.”

The trouble is, I’m not sure these adverts actually do challenge the perception of science as “elitist”. In essence, they boil down to the government saying “Look you, sit down and listen. Science has done all these things for you, so you’d better be bloody grateful for once.”

Ironically, given my thoughts on the service earlier this week, I think it’s actually the Twitter account that is the most interesting part of this campaign. Following the discussion there, it seems like some actual two-way conversation on science between the people and the government is taking place. The rest – the website, the adverts – is just the usual stuff dressed up in a bunch of [square brackets] to make it look hip and modern.

Perhaps our government should take a look across the pond at how President Obama’s administration is using new technology to talk to it’s citizens. Maybe the campaign slogan should be revised: Science: [So What? So Twitter]…

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 29 January 2009 at 3:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Doing the rounds is a story about a painful-sounding affliction known as “cello scrotum” – and yes, it’s pretty much what it sounds like. Thing is, “cello scrotum” doesn’t actually exist; rather, it was made up by doctor Elaine Murphy (now Baroness Murphy) in a letter sent to the British Medical Journal in 1974.

Spotting a similar problem called “guitar nipple”, supposedly caused by a guitar player’s breast rubbing up against their instrument (oo-er…) was the inspiration for Murphy’s hoax. She and suspected the report to be a spoof, so set around inventing their own mythical malady and submitting it to the BMJ.

Murphy made her husband John sign the letter to avoid getting herself into trouble, and the couple have been “dining out” on the hoax for years. There have been a few references to “cello scrotum” in the medical literature over the years, but it was after seeing it resurface in the 2008 Christmas edition of the BMJ that Murphy decided it was time to come clean.

Any cello players amongst you should rest assured, there really is no such thing as cello scrotum. As Murphy’s new letter says, “[a]nyone who has ever watched a cello being played would realise the physical impossibility of our claim.”

The story should be a reminder to everyone however: journal editors are human too, and mistakes can (and do) slip through. If you see something a bit funny, follow it up – you might uncover the next “cello scrotum”! I’ll leave you with everyone’s favourite internet meme, the lolcat:

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 28 January 2009 at 7:24 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

The Daily Mail and Telegraph seem to think so. The latter also went with “Obesity can be caught as easily as the common cold, say scientists” as the headline, along with this cracking photo:

The one on the left just looks a bit squashed...
The one on the left just looks a bit squashed...

The research comes from Pennington Biomedical Research Centre in Louisiana, where a team lead by Professor Nikhil Dhurandhar found that chickens and mice infected with an adenovirus gained more weight than their uninfected brethern, even when given the same amount of food.

Adenoviruses are commonly known as a cause of respiratory infections. The particular virus in question is known as human adenovirus 36 or AD-36. In a previous study published in 2005, Dhurandhar found that whilst 11% of non-obese adults carry the virus, the figure shoots up to 30% in the obese population.

Does this mean that the easily-spread virus is responsibly for obesity? Well, whilst the team’s research showed that cells infected with AD-36 absorbed fat more easily, it can’t be the sole cause – after all, only 30% of obese adults are infected.

The Telegraph article soon backs down from its inflammatory headline (no doubt added by some hapless sub-editor), with quotes from numerous people questioning the claim. Dr Ian Campbell, a GP and medical director of the charity Weight Concern spells it out:

“A virus will never be the reason for why we have an obesity epidemic.

“There are far too many other factors, starting with our calorie intake exceeding our expenditure, and that’s because we live such sedentary lives.

“Our dietary habits have changed beyond belief and I don’t believe that’s the effect of a viral infection – it is the fault of the commercial expansion of companies making unhealthy foods.”

So, whilst AD-36 could be a contributing factor, the most important aspect of weight gain is simple. To butcher Dickens:

“Daily calorie expenditure two thousand, daily calorie intake nineteen hundred, result happiness. Daily calorie expenditure two thousand, daily calorie intake twenty-one hundred, result misery”

In other words, it’s the same old boring advice; eat less, exercise more.

As an aside, it’s interesting that David over at Sciencebase notes that Dhurandhar has been chasing the “obesity bug” for over a decade, seemingly trying to replicate the medical paradigm shift that occurred after the realisation that peptic ulcers were caused by bacteria, and not stress as previously thought. Scientists are people too, and like everyone else they have their own personal agendas. One to look out for, I think.

3 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 27 January 2009 at 10:57 am by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

Believe it or not, today marks six months since I started Just A Theory. I won’t lie, it has been difficult at times, but I’m really glad that I have managed to post every single day since 27th July 2008! I really feel that my writing is improving, and it’s nice to see from that stats that a fair few people check out the site every day – even if I don’t get very many comments!

More on stats in a second, but first I want to point out a new feature on Just A Theory. At the bottom of each post you will now find “Web2.0″ style sharing buttons. These will allow you to add any post you find to a variety of websites in order to share the goodness with your friends (or indeed random internet strangers) and hopefully drive a bit more traffic to the site. A few posts have already been added to StumbleUpon by someone, with some success, so I thought I might as well make it easier to do. If your favourite content sharer isn’t represented below, just let me know and I can add it.

In further Web2.0-ness, I am now on Twitter. After a lecture on the use of services like Twitter in science reporting, I thought I’d try it out. You can follow my activities here, though I can’t guarantee that I will write anything interesting there! So far my most interesting “tweet” has been this video of a goat. Perhaps Twitter can be used for grander things, but unfortunately I am yet to discover them.

On to the stats. Being a maths geek at heart I do love me some numbers, and so have all sorts of WordPress plugins that allow me to keep track of various things on the site. Here are the most interesting nuggets:

Posts: 185
Comments: 64
Total word count: 77,977
Average word count per post: 414
Total page views: 5,148. Interestingly, almost half of these occurred in January alone.
Average page views per day: 20 in 2008, 83 in 2009.
Most popular post: Waiting for sex – a “formula” story with a difference, with 356 page views. I attribute the popularity to a combination of being posted on Research Blogging, the RSS feed of which has recently been syndicated on the ever-popular ScienceBlogs, and of course the use of the word “sex”.

So there you have it. The stats seem to indicate that the site is growing, which is nice to see, and I hope that the next six months will be as good as the last. As always, if you have any suggestions for improvements to the site, or ideas on what you would like to see me write about, just leave a comment.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 26 January 2009 at 11:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

A new theory suggests that Mars and Mercury could have formed out of the “byproducts” of Earth and Venus, according to Brad Hansen, an astronomer at the University of California, Los Angeles, who presented his research earlier this month at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

Current scientific consensus says that the Earth and other planets were formed around 4.5 billion years ago, from a gigantic disk of gas and dust that surrounded the Sun. The force of gravity caused the minuscule particles of dust to come together, eventually forming pebble-sized objects that in turn grew larger and larger to eventually create the planets.

The theory is not without its problems, however. Scientists normally assume the initial dust disk was the same thickness throughout, but crunching the numbers in a computer simulation shows that this would result in planets of similar size with circular orbits. In fact Mars and Mercury are much smaller than Venus and Earth, and orbit the Sun in an ellipse.

This discrepancy is normally explained away by the presence of Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system, which exerts a heavy gravitational force. Hansen believes he has a different answer.

In his model, the dust disk is not uniform; rather, it is clumped at different distances from the Sun. He suggests that Earth and Venus formed in a particularly large clump, known as an “annulus”, capturing much of the proto-planet debris as they immerged from the dust.

Not all of the material is captured and some particles can be ejected into a different orbit. It is these ejected particles that would go on to form Mars and Mercury – Hansen estimates that only 10% of the initial material would make up these two planets, with the majority gobbled up by Earth and Venus.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 25 January 2009 at 8:39 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

I’m a bit pressed for time this evening, so the weekly roundup edition will be a little short I’m afraid. There are four items in today’s post thought, so perhaps that will make up for it.


The Virtual Museum of Minerals and Molecules is a pretty nifty site. If you care to browse its online exhibits you’ll be able to check out the molecular structure of various materials in full 3D. The exhibits are manipulatable and come with a number of display options, so its easy to get that perfect viewing point that every molecule-buff craves. My favourite has to be buckminsterfullerene, also affectionately known as the “bucky ball” for its football-like shape.

What’s wrong with “Rover”? It works for dogs…

NASA, in partnership with Disney’s Wall-E, are offering America school children the chance to name the latest Mars rover, due to launch in 2011. Currently known as the Mars Science Laboratory, the rover will continue the search for life on the Red Planet. It’s not as cute as Wall-E though…

The Science of Back to the Future

Pop-culture blog Overthinking It has devoted an entire week to the classic Back to the Future trilogy. I particularly liked this post on the science behind the films. In it, they cover the basic problem I have with all time travel films: when you travel in time, the Earth doesn’t stay in the same place. Annoyingly, the article is spread over multiple pages, but it’s worth a read for the entertaining diagrams alone.

It won’t be long before they take over…

Wired presents the 8 best non-human tool users, including moles that wear face masks, gorillas propped up by walking sticks, and dolphins that uses sponges. Great stuff.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 24 January 2009 at 1:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review, Physics

I had been wanting to read Surely You’re Joking… for a while now, so I was pleased to receive the book for Christmas. I finished it the other night – not that it has taken me a month to read! As a collection of memoirs transcribed from recordings by Feynman’s friend Ralph Leighton, it’s very easy to dip in and out of. I kept it besides my bed and enjoyed a few of his crazy adventures every night before going to sleep.

For the uninitiated, physicist Richard Feynman was best known for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics (for which he received a Noble Prize in 1965) and his widely-appealing lectures on physics and nanotechnology. He also worked on the Manhattan Project, and claims to be the only person to have viewed the detonation of the first atomic bomb without the aid of dark glasses – he used the window of a truck to screen out harmful ultraviolet radiation instead.

This story is just one of the many anecdotes relayed by Feynman in the book. He begins his recollection at age 11, when he would fix radios in the local area, and continues the many amusing tales that make up his life from there.

Reading Surely You’re Joking…, I couldn’t help but think that two words summed up Feynman again and again: mischievously curious. He loved to find out new things; and if that knowledge could be applied in the form of a practical jokes, then so much the better. For example, whilst on the Los Alamos base where the atomic bomb was being developed, he taught himself to crack safes, and would go around playing tricks on the rest of the staff.

He also had a great passion for women – it feels like nearly half the stories are about an attempt to get with some girl or another! He must have had some success it seems, as he was married three times over the course of his life.

Even if you have no interest in science (although if that’s the case I’m not quite sure why you’re reading this blog), I would recommend Surely You’re Joking…. Feynman always liked to try new things – as well as the aforementioned safe cracking, he had a stint being a samba musician in Brazil as well as an amateur artist. His life was so full of adventures, you can’t help but be enthralled.

Of course since you’re here you probably are interested in science, and there is a bit of it. Feynman isn’t trying to teach here however, so science is often mentioned in passing as part of a large anecdote, and always in his easy-going, easy to understand style. It’s simple: read it. I enjoyed it so much that I plan to follow up soon with the sequel: What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. I’ll let you know what I think.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 23 January 2009 at 12:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

Video game players are not motivated by violence, according to a new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Rather, gamers enjoy mastering a challenging situation, rather than shooting everything that moves.

The researchers found that for many players, gory graphics actually reduced their enjoyment of a game, leading them to suggest that game developers should be aware that “blood does not help the bottom line”. Lead author of the study, graduate student Andrew Przybylski assessed the findings:

“For the vast majority of players, even those who regularly play and enjoy violent games, violence was not a plus,

“Violent content was only preferred by a small subgroup of people that generally report being more aggressive,”

Part of the study involved surveys of 2,670 regular gamers, who rated their favourite games based on statements like When moving through the game world, I feel as if I am actually there” and “I would buy a sequel to this game. Unsurprisingly, given the stereotypical gamer image, 89% of participants were male and between 18 and 39 years of old.

In addition, four experimental studies with more than 300 undergraduate participants examined the effects of violence by asking players to try two versions of a game; one with low-violence, the other with blood and guts. The link above shows two example videos of the games played, in this case a modification of the fantastic Half Life 2. In the high-violence version, players mow down the enemy with a shotgun, whilst the more serene version tags and teleports the target back to base.

At least, that’s what the researchers say – but from watching the video I see that the gun being used in the low-violence version is lifted straight from Half Life 2, and within the fiction of that game enemies are disintegrated into nothingness – which I personally find a bit more disturbing! I doubt this had any effect on the study, however.

I play a lot of games, of both a violent and non-violent nature, and I’d certainly agree with the result of this research. When I take someone out with a sniper rifle in Call of Duty 4, the enjoyment I gain is not due to the blood spurting out of their virtual head, but rather the knowledge that on the other side of the screen, somewhere out in the internet, someone is cursing my name for outwitting them. That, and who doesn’t love shouting “Headshot!”?

Having said that, maybe I should keep my gaming in check after research into the relationships of gamers with their friends and family reveals negative findings – much to the disappointment of undergraduate co-author Alex Jensen, who was hoping to convince his family to buy a Wii. Increased time gaming was found to be connected with the falling quality of relationships.

“It may be that young adults remove themselves from important social settings to play video games, or that people who already struggle with relationships are trying to find other ways to spend their time,” said Laura Walker, Jenson’s faculty mentor.

“My guess is that it’s some of both and becomes circular.”

In other words, people play games to escape from tough social situations, and the time gaming further separates them from those around them. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Cambridge to visit my girlfriend – but maybe I’ll just boot up the Xbox first…

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 22 January 2009 at 7:11 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education

I recently started some work experience with the Association of British Science Writers. As such, I appear in an article from the latest European Union of Science Journalists Association (EUSJA) newsletter (PDF). It’s on page 10, but I’ve also reproduced the text here:


A popular option in the UK for students who complete a science degree is to look to science communication courses. Over the past six years there has been a growth in the number of universities offering MSc courses in science communication. Supporters say it gives young wannabe journalists a good start, critics say there are already too many freelancers on the market looking for work and not enough jobs to go around for existing hacks.

At the ABSW (Association of British Science Writers) so great was the demand for information about science journalism that we have started a new category of membership – student – and run a series of training workshops and briefings. A mentoring programme is now being investigated.

One of our newest members is 22 years old Jacob Aron, a maths graduate from Bristol. He is now enrolled on to a year long science communication course at Imperial College. Over now to Jacob to tell us why he decided on the course and what he hopes for the future:

“Although I studied maths at university I have always enjoyed writing in my spare time, so when I found the science communication MSc at Imperial it seemed like the perfect career for me. The course is set up to allow an overview of science communication; not just straight journalism, but also PR, museum curating, and even science fiction. As I’m still working out what are I want to move into, this broad approach was more appealing to me than the sister MSc (science media production) which is more broadcast focused.

“Going in to the course, I was concerned about the availability of jobs, especially considering I would be in direct competition with my forty-odd classmates once graduating. My fears were quickly put to rest however, as Imperial say that 60% of graduates end up in directly related science communication jobs, whilst 80 to 90% in total find work in PR and related areas.

“Without studying science communication, I’d be hard pressed to land any of these jobs. Looking at my CV an employee sees a maths degree and a stint working in a bank; not traditionally the makings of a good writer. The MSc is helping me to hone my skills and experience working in a range of media. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find a job come this October – and it’s not like the banks are recruiting these days anyway!”

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 21 January 2009 at 7:32 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

Had a very busy day today, so this short post will just congratulate President Obama on his inauguration yesterday. I managed to catch some of it on a TV in the department, huddled round the small set with a bunch of others. Very nice, and of course we were happy to see science get a mention:

“We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. All this we will do.”

I also found this rather nice image of the event, which was taken from Google’s satellite. It’s a bit slow to load, but worth it just to see the extent of crowd. Go Obama!

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 20 January 2009 at 3:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Mathematics

The mathematical formula that proves couples should NOT have sex on their first date” proclaimed a Daily Mail headline from last week. You’d have thought I would jump all over a story like this, much like I did for Blue Monday yesterday. The reason I’ve taken a few days to think about this post is because here we have a “formula” story with a difference – it’s actually science.

In a paper appearing in the Journal of Theoretical Biology entitled Duration of courtship effort as a costly signal, researchers Robert M. Seymoura and Peter D. Sozoud use a branch of mathematics called game theory to model a “courtship encounter” between a male and a female.

If you saw The Dark Knight last summer then you’ve seen game theory in action. In a re-working of a classic game theory problem, Heath Ledger’s Joker has rigged two ferries with explosives. On one, the good citizens of Gotham. On the other, a prison-load of thugs and criminals. The Joker, maniac that he is, gives the detonators of each ship to the other ship – so that the citizens can choose to blow up the criminals, and vice versa. He informs them that if they killer their counterparts in the next 30 minutes they will be spared, otherwise he’ll just blow up both ships.

Game theory informs us that the best strategy is for one ship to blow up the other – but of course, this means that both ships will be destroyed anyway, just as the Joker planned. Thankfully, dramatic forces (and Batman) intervene before anyone is harmed. If you want to know more about the maths behind it, a decent explanation is here, but my point is that game theory is a genuine branch of mathematics, and not some crackpot PR nonsense.

The game considered in this paper consists of a male and a female (of any species) engaging in courtship. As time goes on, both parties pay a “cost” for participating in the game. In a human context, this might be a man paying for dinner, whilst the woman he is dating suffers a “cost” to her time – i.e., she might be wasting the evening with an unsuitable mate when she could be finding someone more to her liking. The model also takes into account other species however, for example a male bird singing to a female.

The game ends either when one of the two quit playing (give up to try with someone else) or the female accepts the male as a mate. It is also assumed that males are either “good” or “bad” from the female’s perspective, but she isn’t able to tell good from bad directly. It is only when the pair mate that the female receives a positive payoff from a “good” mate, or a negative payoff from a “bad” one.

The research shows that when the game plays out, a “good” male will participate longer than a “bad” male, allowing the female to weed out a suitable mate: the longer they hang around, the more likely it is that the male will be “good”. Now, this is quite far off from the Daily Mail headline, but the point is that in this case the science is sound. The authors admit that their generalised species model probably doesn’t fit well with humans, especially in a society where contraceptive is readily available. What this research provides is a possible explanation for the evolution of lengthy courtships in many species, including humans. It may not be earth-shattering, but it is science.

R SEYMOUR, P SOZOU (2009). Duration of courtship effort as a costly signal Journal of Theoretical Biology, 256 (1), 1-13 DOI: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2008.09.026

3 Comments » Posted on Monday 19 January 2009 at 1:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

According to the Daily Mail, today is “the most depressing day in HISTORY” – so say the “experts”. Forget your credit crunches, terrorist attacks and military invasions, today is Blue Monday, so we should all apparently feel very sorry for ourselves. Well, I’m quite pleased actually because I get another nonsense formula to bash!

You may remember “worst day ever” stories from years past, because in fact this little gem is rolled out annually. It is supposedly derived from a formula thought up by Cliff Arnall, “formerly of Cardiff University”, but is actually a product of PR company Porter Novelli according to good ol’ Ben Goldacre. The company approached Arnall to put his name to the “research” that was put out as part of a promotion for Sky Travel. Arnall, who Cardiff University have made clear was only a former part-time tutor for them, now seems to make a habit of promoting this rubbish at every opportunity.

On to the formula. The official “Beat Blue Monday” website offers the following formula for calculating the worst day of the year:

The model was broken down using six immediately identifiable factors; weather (W), debt (d), time since Christmas (T), time since failing our new year’s resolutions (Q), low motivational levels (M) and the feeling of a need to take action (Na).

These “immediately identifiable factors” are of course nothing of the sort; notice as well that the variable D is undefined. My usual complaints apply: variables that make no sense (how to you turn “weather” in to a number?) and broken equations (if your motivational level is zero, then the result is infinite), but there is also some nasty abuse of notation here. Na is obviously meant to stand for “need action”, but variables represented like this would normally be part of a series, e.g. Na, Nb, Nc, etc. I guess using the notation in this way makes it look more “scientific”.

Another fault is that although the formula supposedly results in a universal “worst day”, the variables seem to be very individual. Surely “time since failing our new year’s resolutions (Q), low motivational levels (M) and the feeling of a need to take action (Na)” all change from person to person? I was going to try and work back from the result to determine just what they are inputting for the equation, but it’s such a mess it isn’t even worth bothering. Today isn’t Blue Monday at all – I’ve just had a rather good laugh.

1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 18 January 2009 at 2:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Education, Evolution, Weekly Roundup

Hugs on the inside AND the outside

Haven’t you always wished for something a bit more exciting than a teddy bear for your child to cuddle up too at night? Something…anatomical…perhaps? Well look no further: I Heart Guts have everything you need.

Hes a friendly little guy
He's a friendly little guy

They sell cuddly versions of many of your own internal organs. There’s the brain, the heart, and even the pancreas – or why not go the whole hog and purchase the entire set? Beware though: the uterus is being recalled as a potential hazard to children…

Genetic modification – it’s a laugh

GM food is always a hot issue these days, but new research shows that in the past, farmers may have breed their animals to produce new coat colours for their own amusement. The study, published in the online journal Public Library of Science Genetics, looked at how the genetic cod of wild and domestic pigs has altered over the years.

Other suggestions for the farmers’ selective breeding include changing the coat colour to eliminate camouflage, making the animals easier to to keep track of, or perhaps to mark out the animals with the best traits. Dr Greger Larson, one of the researches at the University of Durham, had this to say:

“The Mesopotamians had different-coloured farm animals 5,000 years ago and, in that regard, they were no different to Paris Hilton, who has a pink Chihuahua, or anyone else with animals with unusual coat colours.

“This study demonstrates that the human penchant for novelty stretches back thousands of years.”

Killing jelly babies – it’s for science, honest

The other day I stumbled across this video, which demonstrates the “death of a jelly baby” experiment. Apparently a favourite of school chemistry teachers, it involves dropping the sweet into a heated test tube of potassium chlorate, and then sitting back and watching it “scream” as it burns. It’s supposed to demonstrate the principle of oxidation of sugar, but you confectionery-murderers aren’t fooling anyone.

1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 17 January 2009 at 4:51 pm by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review

When I went along to Punk Science at the Science Museum’s adults-only Dana Centre this past Wednesday evening, I not expecting to end up on the stage eating a tarantula. Of course, this is precisely what happened. I’ll get to exactly why in just a moment!

Punk Science are Jon and Dan, the Dana Centre’s resident comedy duo. They propose a “pub-level” understanding of science – explaining stuff to your mates with a drink, in other words. In the past they’ve tackled Einstein, climate change and happiness, but this week it was the turn of food in their new show Eat It.

The evening’s entertainment began, not unreasonably, with an introduction. Jon wandered down the aisle shouting “Hello! Hello! Hello!” to every individual in the audience, leaving me both amused but also slightly intimidated – a fairly accurate description of my state of mind throughout the show!

The Punk Scientists are big on audience participation, and as such use a voting system to gauge people’s opinions. It works like this: option A (The Jon) is a double thumbs up with a slightly insane grin, whilst option B (The Dan) is playing air guitar. Last but not lost, option C is The Religious Zealot, a manic waving of your hands in the air. Voting is accompanied by Dan’s slap bass soundtrack, as Jon attempts a headcount.

We were quizzed on a variety of topics, such as what we most look for in our food, and whether food miles were a factor in our shopping. It was this last one that got me in to spider-eating trouble. Sitting in a row with my fellow SciCommers, we all plumbed for option C – something like “I don’t really look at food miles”. What can I say? We’re students, cheap, and proud.

This got us dubbed the “evil row”, and moments later the duo were looking for a volunteer to come up on stage and eat some locally produced food. They decided to pick on us, and of course I was the one foolish sitting in the aisle seat. Walking up on to the stage, I wondered what they were going to offer me.

It started out ok, with an apple from Kent and shortbread from Scotland, but I could sense a punchline was inevitable. A beer was ordered from the bar, so I could wash my mystery food down. I found my self staring in to a bowl of giant ants.

Whilst one half of my brain was trying to make me run off stage, out of the Dana Centre, and away from South Kensington forever, the other half attempted swift rationalisation. “You like prawns, don’t you?” I thought. I ate it. It tasted a bit like a pretzel.

Next up, thai green curry crickets. I had actually seen these before – a friend had bought and eaten them, much to my disgust. It seems that now it was my turn. Figuring it couldn’t be much worse than the ants, I was actually a little disappointed – the crickets didn’t taste remotely like thai green curry.

Finally, Jon informed me they had one more item. “Is it spiders?” I asked. “It might be spiders,” he replied. “I have a bit of a problem with spiders,” I admitted. “Well then,” he said, “it’s time to get revenge.”

A bowl was passed round the audience, and I watched as the looks of disgust swept over their faces. It came back on stage, and of course, it was a tarantula. This is not just any tarantula thought, this is M&S oven baked tarantula.

I was actually quite nervous at this point. What was I to do? In the end, I said I’d try a leg. Plucking one off with trepidation, the audience chanted my name as I chewed and swallowed. All I could think was that it felt like I was eating a twig.

With a round of applause, I exited the stage, and another volunteer (who must be crazy) offered to go up on stage and eat the whole spider. Still recovering from my ordeal, I could barely watch.

If my rather gruesome description of bug-eating has put you off attending a Punk Science event, you shouldn’t let it. In spite of my unusual culinary experience, I actually had a really good time. The show was full of stunts like this, including how to drink your own urine (though I suspect it might have been apple juice really) and the old classic of liquid-nitrogen ice cream.

In the end, Punk Science are more stand-up than science, and whilst I may not have learnt anything during the event, you can bet I’ll be looking at food mile labels in the future!

Comments Off Posted on Friday 16 January 2009 at 5:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Space & Astronomy

…but is there life on Mars? “Maybe” is the latest answer from NASA, with news that methane has been detected in the red planet’s atmosphere. The gas, which consists of four hydrogen atoms bonded to a carbon atom, could have biological or geologic origin according to NASA and university scientists.

The discovery of methane is significant, because many organisms here on Earth produce methane as by-product of digestion – cow flatulence being the famous example. We can’t say for sure the same thing is happening on Mars however, as methane can also be produced underground in a geological process that is similar to rusting. This could have happened in the past, when Mars was more volcanic, and it is only now that the methane is bubbling to the surface.

Something must be actively releasing methane though, because the gas is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere. If it is indeed a form of microscopic life, it must be far enough below the planet’s surface to be insulated from the cold Martian air, as liquid water is necessary for all known forms of life to exist.

Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is the lead author of a paper in on the research which appeared in Science Express yesterday. He believes that organisms on Mars could be similar to those on Earth:

“On Earth, microorganisms thrive 2 to 3 kilometers (about 1.2 to 1.9 miles) beneath the Witwatersrand basin of South Africa, where natural radioactivity splits water molecules into molecular hydrogen (H2) and oxygen. The organisms use the hydrogen for energy. It might be possible for similar organisms to survive for billions of years below the permafrost layer on Mars, where water is liquid, radiation supplies energy, and carbon dioxide provides carbon.”

Unfortunately, it will be 2011 before we can get any further answers. It is hoped that NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover, due to launch in a couple of years, will be able to discover the origin of the Martian methane. By measuring the isotope ratios of the gas (isotopes are heavier versions of elements that are sometimes produced), the mission will be able to determine if life, which tends to use lighter isotopes, is the origin of the methane. I guess we’ll wait and see…

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 15 January 2009 at 10:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education

Sometimes you read a news story that you simply can’t believe. Not that you find it impossible, mind – I don’t mean news of the “Elvis ate my baby” variety – I mean news that you just can’t accept as true.

I’m actually referring to the government’s recently released figures on GCSE results, which (according to the Guardian) show that “[h]alf of pupils leave secondary school without a basic qualification in science”. When I read that this morning, I think I gasped. It just couldn’t be true that half of the country’s 16-year-olds were failing to achieve a GCSE in science, surely?

Well, the good news is that the Guardian were overselling just how bad these results are. If you read the report from the Department for Children, Schools and Families, it actually shows (on page 17) that 50.3% of pupils gain two or more A*-C grades in science.

For those who don’t know, science GCSEs work like this: pupils can either take “double science”, a general course covering a range of topics from biology, chemistry and physics, or opt for a GCSE in each subject individually. Thus, pupils are normally expected to gain two or three GCSES in science.

Whilst these results mean that half of pupils are getting at least Cs, it doesn’t follow that the other half are getting a science GCSE at all, as they are awarded from A* to G. I’m not saying a G in science is fabulous achievement, but the Guardian are stretching it a bit to say pupils don’t have the qualification.

Still, the results aren’t great. When considering my options post-MSc, going in to some sort of science education policy has often been at the back of my mind. News like this pushes it a little further towards the front – something must be done to sort out science in this country.

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 14 January 2009 at 3:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Mathematics

What is it about roundup posts that bring out the puns in me? I think that even science doesn’t have an answer for that one. Have some maths-related nuggets:

Maths failures cost the UK £2.4bn a year

Accounting firm KPMG has found that children who are bad at maths end up costing UK taxpayers up to £2.4bn a year. KPMG say that children who struggle with maths at school are more likely to be unemployed, and claim more benefits whilst paying less tax.

The Every Child a Chance trust is asking businesses to raise £6m in an effect to raise child numeracy. John Griffith-Jones, chairman of both the trust and KPMG, says that the charity has developed a nationwide plan, in which businesses will make annual contribution of £12,000 each to local schools for three years.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families responded to the report, saying:

“Let’s be clear: the picture in maths is a positive one…we are leading Europe in maths and science at age 14 and we have risen 11 places in international league tables since 2003 to seventh place.

“Of course there is more we can do and catch up and stretch classes will ensure those falling behind get the additional support they need whilst those who excel are kept motivated.”

Should we be teaching the odds? Probably

Professor David Spiegelhalter of the University of Cambridge believes that children need to be taught “risk literacy” – a knowledge of statistics and probability to help them make important decisions in their adult life.

Speaking to the Times, Prof Spiegelhalter said that risk was “as important as learning about DNA, maybe even more important,” because the human mind has a tendency to latch on to “improbable” coincidence that often turn out to be very possible.

I often point this out to people when unlikely occurrences crop up with this example: if an event has a million to one chance of occurring in a given day, and the population of the UK is about 60 million, then 60 “million to one chances” happen up and down the country daily! The maths doesn’t quite work like that, but it’s a close enough approximation.

As such, I completely agree that ideas about risk should be taught in the classroom. We might then avoid stories such as “beer gives you cancer“, from a couple of weeks back.

Maths: an ideal subject for the lazy

This Times interview with Marcus du Sautoy, the new Oxford University professor for the public understanding of science, is worth a read in general, but I noticed a quote that particularly resonated with me:

Maths, according to du Sautoy, is the ideal subject for anybody who is lazy or has a bad memory (because if you forget something, you can work it out from first principles): “If you do maths, you can get away with hardly doing any work at school and winging it in exams.

This is a notion that I suspect many mathematicians secretly harbour: once you have a grasp of the basics, maths is actually not that hard. Being able to work stuff out from first principles has got me out of a number of tricky exam situations. Another old favourite is starting a problem from both the beginning working forward, and the end working backwards, in the hope that the two sets of calculations will meet up in the middle and save you the trouble of figuring out the problem in the first place!

Of course, there are downsides. Now that I’m on a course full of set readings and essays, I’m dreading actually having to learn and remember facts – I’m not sure I know how!

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 13 January 2009 at 12:32 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

Now this is a bit interesting. Yesterday I (and many others) examined the claims of one Dr Alex Wissner-Gross, as reported by the Times, that two search on Google release as much CO2 as boiling a kettle. Today, speaking to TechNewsWorld, Dr Wissner-Gross says he has been misquoted.

The original study (which as I must remind you, I don’t have access to and thus haven’t read) apparantly never mentions Google, or indeed kettles. Both elements of the story seem to have been entirely manufacture by the Times.

“For some reason, in their story on the study, the Times had an ax to grind with Google,

“Our work has nothing to do with Google. Our focus was exclusively on the Web overall, and we found that it takes on average about 20 milligrams of CO2 per second to visit a Web site.” Dr Wissner-Gross told TechNewsWorld.

This quote gives us another figure to add to the growing bag of statistic on this matter: 20 milligrams, or 0.02g of CO2 per second of web usage. If you recall from yesterday, Google claimed that the average search on their servers took less than 0.2 seconds, which given this new figure would result in a CO2 emission of just 0.004g; pretty far off Google’s own estimates of 0.2g. Perhaps the remaining emissions come from the users PC as they read the results.

In the end, these statistics become meaningless. Google aren’t going to release their methodology; it would mean revealing the details of how their servers are set up, something they probably don’t want to share. Meanwhile, I still don’t even know where the original study was published, let alone how to access it. I’m considering emailing Dr Wissner-Gross, but I don’t think a message from a lone blogger is likely to get a reply when competing against the world’s press. Sigh.

I’ll sum up with another quote from Dr Wissner-Gross in he TechNewsWorld article:

“Everything online has a definite environmental impact. I think everybody can agree on that, including Google.”

It’s not just everything online that has an environmental impact, pretty much just everything does. If we’re going to worry about the carbon cost of Googling (rather than larger concerns such as cars or power plants) then we might as well take it to the ultimate logic conclusion: the greenest thing you can do is to kill yourself.

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 12 January 2009 at 8:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

Running just two searches on Google releases as much carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle, says Harvard University physicist Dr Alex Wissner-Gross. He says that each search produces 7g of CO2, but just how did he come up with such a figure? Well to be honest, I don’t know. I can’t find any original sources for his figures, only media reports. It’s still possible to infer some information from these reports, however.

The Times reports a similar estimation by Chris Goodall, author of Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, who suggest a Google search emits between 7g and 10g of CO2. This estimate assumes a total of 15 minutes computer use for one search however, which seems incredibly slow to me. Closer to the mark would be 15 seconds – type your search, hit enter, check the results and click a link – normally the first one, thanks to Google’s accurate searching technology.

Since both Goodall’s and Dr Wissner-Gross’s estimates agree, its not unreasonable to suggest they must be making similar assumptions – inaccurate assumptions, in other words. Google agree, and have responded to the claims. They say that as the average search takes just 0.2 seconds, their servers only use 0.0003 kWh of power per search – about the same amount of energy as an adult human body burns in ten seconds, apparently.

In terms of CO2 emissions, this works out at about 0.2g per search, far from the 7g claimed by Dr Wissner-Gross. Now, we’ve only got Google’s word for these figures, but I see no reason to believe Dr Wissner-Gross over them for one simple reason – he runs a company that offers to make your site carbon neutral. As is to be expected, everyone reporting the story has plugged his website so I won’t give him any more free publicity, and it does rather bring in to question his motivation for releasing his study.

I also question the comparison to boiling a kettle, which we are told is roughly equivalent to two search in carbon terms. The trouble is, “a kettle” is not the most scientific definition. A kettle will take a different amount of time to boil depending on how much water there is inside, and thus the electricity used is variable. As a basis for comparison, it’s a bit lacking.

Finally, consider the alternative to Google. Finding out information would involve travelling to a library, most likely by car, hunting down the book you require, and then searching through it. All of these activities require energy, be it in the form of petrol to power your car or food to fuel your muscles, and emit far more carbon into the atmosphere than simply loading up Google. I don’t know about you, but I think I will continue to Google with a green and guilt-free conscience.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 11 January 2009 at 1:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

On Friday I said I’d do a big Weekly Roundup, but I quite liked the “fishy” post yesterday, so I’m going to do a couple more of those to clear my backlog of links. Look for them soon.

Science journalists need new clichés

Hank Campbell at Scientific Blogging thinks that a few science journalism phrases got overused last year, and it’s time to invent some new ones for 2009. On the list (complete with many examples) are “baffled”, “stunned”, “alarmed” and “shocked”. I’m pleased to say that according to the site’s search function, none of these words have appeared on Just A Theory! Until now, that is…

Blast off on a broomstick

Unlike the above clichés, I have talked about the concept of a space elevator before. The basic idea is a satellite orbiting above a fixed point on the Earth’s surface, with a super strong cable in between. Passengers and cargo can be lifted into space by a “climber” attached to the cable, much easier and cheaper than rockets.

Now, a new idea on how to power the climber has come from an unlikely source – a broomstick. Age-Raymond Riise of the European Space Agency proposed that by using carefully timed jerks of the cable and a specially constructed climber, getting into space would be a simple, if bumpy, ride. A suspension system would soon smooth that out, however.

Talking at the Second International Conference on Space Elevator and Tether Design in Luxembourg, he used a broomstick and an electric sander to demonstrate the concept. You can watch a video embedded in the above article – it’s a great combination of low- and high-tech!

Free poster!

Just A Theory hasn’t quite grown to the point where I can hand out freebies, but fortunately the Open University is in a slightly better position. They’re offering a free “Tree of Life” poster to celebrate Darwin’s bicentenary. Grab yours now.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 10 January 2009 at 5:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

As a precursor to tomorrow’s weekly roundup, may I present three stories about our aquatic friends:

Live shark dissection

It’s not often you get to see the insides of a shark – and I’m not talking about being eaten! Earlier this week, the Auckland Museum in New Zealand held a live dissection of a great white shark. Marine scientists preformed the necropsy in front of 4,000 visitors to the museum, whilst a further 10,000 watched online.

During the dissection marine specialist Tom Trnski of the Auckland Museum and Clinton Duffy, a shark expert from the New Zealand Department of Conservation, discovered a fishing hook (line still attached!) inside the female shark’s stomach. No doubt that particular fisherman would be glad to have the shark be the one that got away!

Dr Trnski, speaking to Times Online, was “astounded” at the level of public interest:

“It’s quite interesting being a scientist and doing something that we consider fairly routine and not that exciting, to then catch the imagination of the people in New Zealand, Australia and internationally, we were all really astounded by the attention,” he said.

You can watch a short clip in the Times article linked above, or the whole dissection on the museum’s website. I must admit to not watching the whole thing – I’m a bit squeamish!

Fish have a three second memory? Not so fast

Fish are commonly believed to have three second memory, explaining why they will happily swim around in circles for hours on end. Not so, say scientists at the Israeli Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, who discovered that they can remember for at least five months.

They spent a month training young fish to associate their feeding time with a certain sound, and then released them into the wild. When the sound was repeated five months later the fish returned, presumably expecting grub to be up.

The research could allow fish to be farmed in the wild, by training them whilst young and then summoning them at a later date to be caught for consumption.

“Four-eyes” uses a mirror to see

A fish which appears to have four eyes has been discovered to be the only vertebrate to use a mirror to produce an image. Known as Dolichopteryx longipes or the brownsnout spookfish, it actually only has two eyes, which are both split into two parts.


One part of the eye looks upwards and uses a lens to focus light from the sun, in much the same way as a human eye. Stranger though is the downward facing part of the eye, the mirrored surface of which collects light from the deep ocean and focuses it on the retina. It is thought that mirrors are more efficient than lenses in low-light, because a lens absorbs light as it passes through.

Professor Julian Partridge of the University of Bristol discovered the tiny mirrored plates, thought to be made of guanine crystals:

“In nearly 500 million years of vertebrate evolution, and many thousands of vertebrate species living and dead, this is the only one known to have solved the fundamental optical problem faced by all eyes — how to make an image — using a mirror,”

“It’s an extraordinary animal. It is absolutely unique for a vertebrate. With mirrors it can make a very bright, high-contrast image.”

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 9 January 2009 at 5:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology

What with all the reviewing I’ve been doing, I’ve let a few new stories slip by uncommented on. I’ll probably try and catch up with a big Weekly Roundup on Sunday, but today I’d like to talk about a story that got me annoyed earlier in the week. You may have seen it; apparantly where you sit on a bus reveals your personality. It wasn’t just the Daily Mail who ran the story, but it was pretty much the same everywhere.

The basics: “leading psychologist” Dr Tom Fawcett found that people who sit at the front are forward-thinkers, passengers in the middle are independent-minded, and those lurking at the back are rebels who don’t like their personal space being invaded. In total, bus-goers can be split into seven distinct personality groups.

How were these Earth-shattering results discovered? Dr Fawcett explains:

“It was carried out as an observational survey – we noted people’s body language and whether there was any interaction with other passengers, if they were sociable or withdrawn or even anti-social.”

In other words, to determine the personality of passengers Dr Fawcett didn’t conduct any interviews or tests – he merely looked at people and made judgements. Can anything scream “confirmation bias” more than this? Dr Fawcett clearly didn’t try to falsify his hypothesis by looking for, say, rebels sitting at the front of the bus. Without conducting a decent personality test, the results are worthless anyway.

If you think about, there is one major factor in determining where you sit on a bus: whether or not there is a seat free! Obviously people do have their personal preferences as to where to sit, but often they just have to take the first available seat. It doesn’t sound like Dr Fawcett took that into consideration at all.

Honestly, with stories like this, I do wish journalists would turn around to the scientists involved and say “hang on…isn’t this a load of a old rubbish?” Because it is!

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3 Comments » Posted on Thursday 8 January 2009 at 10:10 am by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review

Well, it seems that the reviews are coming thick and fast this week. Today it’s the turn of a new science-based TV quiz show for children: Richard Hammond’s Blast Lab. As you may have guessed from the title, it features the Top Gear Hamster himself as the host. I heard about the programme from last week’s New Scientist, in which Hammond had an editorial lamenting children’s loss of interest in science due to formal education. Of course, he was plugging his show as remedy, but isn’t that always the way?

Hammond is no stranger to science programmes, having been presenter of Sky’s Brainiac (which always seemed to be a poor-man’s Mythbusters), and his editorial seemed fairly sincere, so I was interested to find out what Blast Lab was like. Jumping on to my beloved iPlayer I tracked down the first episode, originally broadcast last Saturday morning on BBC2.

It’s been a while since I watched a children’s show, but they don’t seem to have changed much. Lots of shouting and bright colours are still very much the name of the game. The intro sequence consists of a cheerfully cheesy comic book/live-action style montage, in which Hammond drives to his “mansion” and down in to the “secret underground lab”. It reminded me very much of a CITV show I watched long ago, the name of which escapes me.

Down in the lab, we’re introduced the Hammond’s helpful Lab Rats, as well as his Ninja Nan. It’s exactly what it sounds like – an elderly woman attempting to perform kung fu. I was slightly unsure of the relevance (Hammond mentions the need to defend his underground lab) but she was quickly shuffled off and never seen again. Strange. Next up are the red and yellow teams, three kids to each, who get a quick introduction before we are into the first round.

This consists of responding “true” or “false” to statements such as “there are 300 bones in a child’s body but only 206 in an adult” (true, as children’s bones fuse as the grow) or “the Earth is completely round” (false, it bulges in the middle). The answers are determined by Oliver, Hammond’s “artificially intelligent” car, which honks its horn and flashes its lights according to the answers in its “Fact Nav”.

Hammond never quite seems comfortable with the children, almost mocking them at time for getting the wrong answers. It’s as if he has left his Top Gear hat on and thinks he’s arguing with Jeremy Clarkson, not school kids. Maybe it’s just teething troubles in the first episode, but I found it a bit off putting.

That aside, he did a good job in the next round. The two teams had to fly a “balloon rocket” across a pool of gunge (that old children’s TV staple) in order to score points. The balloons must be attached to a small guiding rope, and then fly across.

Whilst this is being set up, Hammond explains exactly why the balloons act in this way: Newton’s Third Law. “Oh, here we go,” I thought, but I was perhaps too cynical, too quick. Hammond gives a decent and entertain explanation (all actions have an equal and opposite reaction), as well as praising Newton as a Blast Lab hero.

Unfortunately, that’s the highlight of the program science-wise. The next segment consisted of a man with a jet-pack (Eric Scott) attempting to sink a basketball in a net 30 metres high, but there wasn’t much explanation of why the jet-pack was able to lift him into the air, whilst an earlier attempt by a Lab Rat consisting of two fire extinguishers wasn’t.

The final part of the show was classic game show, and not really scientific at all. The two teams had to fling pellets across yet more gunge using a large catapult. The only “science” was Hammond warning them against going too near one end of the gunge pool, because he had placed a uranium rod there earlier, making it rather hot. Oh dear.

The team with the most points at the end got a whole host of science and non-science related goodies, whilst in a rather cruel twist the prizes for the other team are placed in a bidet and blown up. Yes, I’m not sure why either.

So, to sum up, in a half hour program we only really got once decent bit of science on Newton’s Laws of Motion. To be honest, for early morning on a Saturday, I think you could actually do a lot worse. At least Hammond seems to have a genuine passion for science, whilst presenting a distinctly non-science personality. Cringe-worthy as it may sound, he actually makes science “cool”!

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 7 January 2009 at 2:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong

I guess 2009 must be short on celebrity TV scandals so far, because earlier this morning the headline story on the Daily Mail’s website was Revolt! Robbed of their right to buy traditional light bulbs, millions are clearing shelves of last supplies. It’s been pushed off by other stories now, but the switch to energy-saving compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) bulbs must be big news, with not one but two editorials on the matter.

Last year I wrote about a study showing that CFL bulbs can do more harm than good, depending on where you live. Yes, they will always use less energy than a regular bulb, but the materials required to make them could increase average mercury emissions in a low-mercury country such as Norway. Countries like the US would receive a reduction in mercury emissions, however. Full details are in the previous post, so I won’t repeat them here, but although I can’t back it up with facts I imagine we’re probably closer to the US side of the scale than Norway.

The mercury question aside (a question that could be easily answered if I was able to access the paper) I’m moderately in favour of CFL bulbs, but I would much rather see commercial LED bulbs instead. More on that in a bit; let’s have a look at how the Daily Mail is reporting the national tragedy that is the loss of the incandescent bulb.

It’s good to see that hyperbole is out in full effect, with the opening statement:

Millions of Britons are finally waking up to the fact that their beloved light bulb will disappear for good after 120 years.

Yes, losing the good old bulb feels like an old friend has passed on. Often, I would stare up into my lighting fixture until my retinas burnt, such was my devotion. Soon, this happy past-time will be no longer.

Reading the article, it’s easy to see why this story is being run. Nothing to do with CFLs versus regular bulbs; it’s all an excuse for a bit of Daily Mail EU bashing:

The supplies are running out after the Government signed up to an EU decision to replace conventional 100w light bulbs with supposedly greener low energy alternatives.

The Mail’s main objections seem to be health issues, financial cost, and quality of lighting. They report that CFLs can causes skin rashes, migraines and epilepsy. Googling for a bit has revealed that much of the evidence for this is anecdotal – I can’t seem to find any scientific studies that provide an answer either way. This is a failing of both the Government and the Green movement – why haven’t these types of studies been commissioned before phasing out traditional bulbs?

The concerns on cost are a little less agreeable, however. The Mail reports an average pack of six standard bulbs to cos £1.21, or 20.17p each, whilst a single CFL is £2.19, roughly ten times as much. Again, no facts to back it up, but I have definitely seen CFLs cheaper than this, so the Mail are possibly being selective in their reporting. They do say, however, that CFLs can save £7 a year in bills per bulb, over a regular light.

Hang on a minute, doesn’t that mean that CFLs are actually cheaper? If a normal bulb costs 20.17p + £x to run (where £x is the electricity cost), then a CFL will cost £2.19 + £x-7. Doesn’t matter what £x is, a CFL will always be cheaper. Additionally, because CFLs last much longer than normal bulbs, you’ll see that £7 saving for many years.

Finally, the Mail report complaints that say both the lights are too dim, and that they don’t work with a dimmer switch. Forgive me if I’m being stupid, but why would you want to dim a too-dim light?

It’s a fuss about nothing really. Only the 100W bulbs are currently being phased our, whilst the rest of them will be hanging on until 2012. I’m hoping that by then, LED bulbs will have taken hold, and the question of CFL suitability won’t even matter. The Daily Mail fail to even report on the existence of LED bulbs, however.

LEDs, or light emitting diodes, are the small indicator lights you find in most consumer electronics. Not bright enough to light a room you might think, but put a bunch of them together, and you’re getting close. LED bulbs are already on the market, but at costs and strengths that make them unsuitable for wide use. These problems are expected to be overcome however, and will result in dramatic energy savings, even over CFLs.

Still, perhaps I’m just as bad as the Daily Mail in over-reporting the death of the light bulb. Glancing at my word count, I’ve written nearly 800 – quite enough for one day I think!

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 6 January 2009 at 6:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Just A Review, Mathematics

Ah, iPlayer. What would I do without you? I didn’t manage to catch the BBC4 broadcast of the first episode of Science and Islam last night, but thanks to the wonderful catch-up service I am able to provide you with a full review. Of course, services like the iPlayer would be impossible without the internet, which in turn could never arisen without first inventing the computer. And what makes computer software tick? Algorithms.

An algorithm is basically a set of instructions, broken down in to simple steps. A computer can follow an algorithm to do pretty much anything, which is why we find them so versatile. As presenter Jim Al-Khalili (a physicist born in Bagdad) tells us, algorithms were invented by a Persian man known as Mohammad ebne Mūsā Khwārazmī, or al-Khwārizmī. Even the word algorithm is derived from his name.

It’s not just algorithms that have been given to us by medieval Arab scholars. The words algebra and alkalis both betray their Arabic origin, but so much of science is attributed to the West. The three part series seeks to unearth the unsung heroes of Islamic science.

The rulers of the Islamic empire realised that with knowledge comes power, and as they spread their influence across the globe the sought out scientific texts from many different regions and cultures. These texts were translated into Arabic, the official language of the empire, which just so happened to be a very scientific language. Originally intended to communicate the teachings of the Koran without misinterpretation, its detailed scripts allowed a precise and unambiguous description of many scientific phenomena.

Much of our modern knowledge can be traced back to this extensive library. In one part of the programme, Al-Khalili visits a modern surgeon to get him to perform a cataract operation by following an Arabic text and using replica instruments from the time. Thankfully for the squeamish the operation is carried out on an eye that has long since been separated from its owner, and the surgeon admits that the instructions are based on sound principles. Indeed, Islamic science provides us with one of the very first anatomical diagrams, showing how the eye is controlled by surrounding muscles.

It’s easy to draw parallels between this programme and an earlier BBC4 one, namely Marcus du Sautoy’s The Story of Maths. Both adopt a sort of travelogue approach, but whilst the earlier programme consisted of nothing but all du Sautoy, all the time, Science and Islam is nicely broken up with contributions from many others. They do cover similar ground however, especially when Al-Khalili meets mathematician Ian Stewart to examine one of the early texts on al-jabr; that is, algebra.

The conclusion of this episode is that by gathering texts from many different places, Islamic scientists proved that science is a universal concept that belongs to no one religion or culture; rather, it can be appreciated by everyone. No arguments here. I will say that at an hour, the programme was perhaps overly long. I can lay the same criticism against it as I did to The Story of Maths – less of our narrator wandering through generic marketplaces please! At least there was no dodgy CGI, however.

As I said at the start, I watched the programme on iPlayer, so of course so can you. If you liked The Story Of Maths, or perhaps if you missed it but want to learn about the history of science, I suggest you give it a look.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 5 January 2009 at 8:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Evolution, Just A Review

Well, we’re less than a week into 2009 and already the Darwinmania has begun. This week Radio 4 present a season of all things Darwin, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth this year. Amongst other programmes on the great man’s life and work is Dear Darwin, a five-part series broadcast every day this week at 3.45pm, which allows five modern-day scientists to write a letter to Darwin to tell him about the impact of his work.

The first episode today featured Dr Craig Venter, who popped up in TIME magazine’s top 10 scientific discoveries of 2008 for his work towards creating artificial life. He is most well known as being one of the researchers to first map the human genome.

Dr. Venter uses his letter to tell Darwin about the discovery of DNA, and how ideas from the Origin of Species can now be confirmed with modern genetic analysis. Looking at the similarities between human and chimpanzee DNA (which I talked about a couple of days ago), it is very clear that we must share a common ancestor as Darwin predicted. Dr. Venter tells him that we differ from the chimps by only 5-6% of our DNA – and some large stretches by only a little over 1%.

Darwin has clearly been a huge inspiration to Dr. Venter. He tells of following in Darwin’s footsteps on a voyage similar to that of the Beagle, but the goal of his expedition was to look for micro-organisms that would have been invisible to Darwin with the tools available at the time. The ocean provides an unimaginable bounty for the interested explorer; 1 million bacteria and 10 million viruses are to be found in every litre of sea water.

The letter also touches on the discovery of oil, and the effect that it has had on our world. Many of the species that were alive in Darwin’s day are now extinct, in part due to industrialisation. Now, Dr. Venter says, we must take control of evolution if we are to solve the problems of climate change, and engineer bacteria to suck up all our waste CO2.

At its heart, the programme has quite a nice idea. I’m sure Darwin would be amazed at the work that has been done today as a result of his natural selection. Unfortunately however, it doesn’t really make great radio! Dr. Venter’s voice is rather monotone, and uninterrupted for the entire course of the programme. As a letter, that’s how it has to work I guess, but I was glad that it only lasted 15 minutes!

If I haven’t put you off, here is the obligatory iPlayer link, and as I said above the other episodes will be every day this week on Radio 4, at 3.45pm.

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3 Comments » Posted on Sunday 4 January 2009 at 4:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Things are still a bit slim, weekly roundup wise, but here you go:

Keep on rovin’

Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of the Mars rover Spirit, which touched down on the red planet on 3rd January, 2004. Spirit was joined 21 days later by a second rover, Opportunity

NASA had planned for the plucky little robots to last for at least three months, but half a decade later they’re still providing useful information about our planetary neighbour. The data gathered by the pair has conclusively shown that Mars was at one point home to liquid surface water, raising the possibility that life once existed there.

The pair of rovers are starting to show their age, however. Spirit has to explore the Martian surface backwards due to a jammed wheel, and Opportunity’s robotic arm has a glitchy shoulder. When they do eventually fail completely they will not be replaced until the 2011 launch of a more advanced probe, the Mars Science Laboratory, which has been delayed by technical and monetary difficulties.

The Sky in Motion

This video is made from a series of 7,000 separate images, and depicts the changes in the night sky over time. Stars dancing around, the Moon and Sun flying by, and many other astronomical wonders are all highlighted in this rather neat video:

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 3 January 2009 at 7:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Musings

I’ve just read a piece by Richard Dawkins about the possibility of a “hybridisation between a human and a chimpanzee”, and how such a creation could effect our world. It was originally published on as part of their What will change everything? series. I saw it on the Guardian, where you’ll also find some other comments. Here are mine:

Dawkins makes the very true point that, currently at least, the division between humans and animals is an absolute. He uses the example of pro-lifers, who in actuality are pro-human-life – after all, “Abortion clinic bombers are not known for their veganism”. In some way, humans are seen as completely separate from other animals, perhaps simply because we are the ones making the distinction.

This idea, however, runs completely counter to evolutionary theory. Go back far enough in the evolutionary chain, and you will find a female who was mother to two offspring. One would eventually lead to humans like you and me, and the other to modern day chimps.

Dawkins thinks that a “practical demonstration” would change everything, and presents four possible scenarios that would challenge the status quo:

  1. The discovery of a long lost tribe of Homo erectus. Unlikely, given our extensive knowledge of the world.
  2. Successful hybridisation between a human and a chimpanzee, described by “a distinguished biologist” as “the most immoral scientific experiment he could imagine”.
  3. A chimera, creating in a lab and consisting of an equal number of human and chimp cells. Chimeras, named for the mythical creature, are made by physically mixing the cells of two different species. Human/mouse chimeras are already being created as part of normal genetics research, but are destroyed long before they develop beyond a bundle of cells
  4. We know the full human and chimpanzee genomes. It wouldn’t be too difficult to look at the two and create a sort of “average” genome, though using this genome to create a living organism would be much more difficult. Dawkins believes it will be possible during the lifetimes of those alive today.

Dawkins doesn’t make it clear either way if he would support any of these endeavours, merely stating that it “would require further thought”. For myself, although I find the concept of such a hybrid to be inescapably interesting, I hope never to see such a being created.

The reason is simple: the feelings of the poor creature itself, if it were capable of human emotion. A hybrid would either spend its entire life in secret captivity, doomed to a lab-bound existence, or else if exposed to the world it would be subject to an endless media frenzy and calls for its destruction. Either would sheer misery.

Science can give us wonderful solutions to seemingly impossible questions about the world, but there are some questions that should not be answered. I feel that this is one of them.

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 2 January 2009 at 3:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology

A British company has developed a new type of cement that can suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Its use could transform the cement production from a harmful emitter of CO2 into an environmentally beneficial process.

Traditionally, cement requires intense heat to burn the raw material used in production – typically limestone. A large amount of energy is needed to generate this heat, and so CO2 is released. The effect is further compounded by the release of CO2 from the burning limestone itself.

Novacem, based in London, have created a new mixture of cement based on magnesium silicates. It requires much lower temperatures during production, and as it sets it actually absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, making the material actually carbon negative.

The company claims that in a normal lifecycle their cement can absorb 0.6 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of cement. This is a dramatic improvement over the regular stuff, which emits about 0.4 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of cement.

There are doubts over the suitability of the new cement, however. A spokesperson for the British Cement Association said that although much work is done in laboratories on new types of cement, they aren’t yet ready for the market:

“The reality is that the geological availability, and global distribution, of suitable natural resources, coupled with the extensive validation needed to confirm fitness-for-purpose, make it highly unlikely that these cements will a be realistic alternative for volume building.”

Chief scientist of Novacem, Nikolaos Vlasopoulos, countered such claims, as an estimated 10,000 billion tonnes of magnesium silicates are available worldwide. He acknowledges that the cement requires further testing until it is safe for use in buildings, but is confident that Novacem is the way forward.

For myself, I have to applaud Novacem for their efforts. Cement might not be glamorous, but it’s scientific developments such as these that will help us tackle climate change. No one is really going to get excited about a new type of cement, but adapting our existing industrial methods will certainly make a difference.

2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 1 January 2009 at 12:00 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

…0! Happy New Year! Sorry if you’re a bit confused due to the reverse chronological nature of blogging, but I’m actually finishing the countdown of the previous post from moments earlier. How exciting. Well, let’s see in the new year with some predictions of what 2009 holds for science. The Telegraph spoke to some leading scientists to find out what’s in store.

Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics and Master of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge (phew, deep breath) points out that it is both 400 years since Galileo first wielded his telescope, as well as Darwin’s bicentennial. I expect we’ll see a little competition between these two scientific greats in 2009, but Rees hopes that we will gain answers to a question “equally interesting to astronomers and to Darwinians” – is there life on other planets? In 2009 the search for exoplanets will continue, and Rees hopes that we will figure out where we should be looking.

The editor of New Scientist, Roger Highfield, expects that commercial space travel will be big in 2009, with Virgin Galactic beginning their test flights. The space agencies of the US, Russia and the rest will also be looking to increase our knowledge of the heavens, with missions to Mars and the launching of telescopes on the cards. Highfield also looks forward to the publication of the Neanderthal genome, the relaunch of the LHC, and the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.

Colin Pillinger, Head of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University, thinks that the credit crunch will scupper any space-based plans, and that most of the year will be spent looking back at past achievements. Pessimistic perhaps, but we shall see. Baroness Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution, is a little more positive, hoping to see advances in the field of neurodegeneration, including treatments for brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Professor Sir John Bell, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences also hopes to see further cures by searching for genetic links using the human genome project. Finally, science minister Lord Drayson had a rather dull and on message prediction:

“My predication for 2009 is that the Government will continue to invest in science despite the global economic downturn.”

Only time will tell. If you’re still not quite ready to let 2008 go, have a crack at the Guardian’s Science Quiz 2008. I’m afraid to say I scored a measly 10 out of 20! Other than that, all I have left to say is happy 2009!