Archive for February 2009

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 28 February 2009 at 12:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Physics, Weekly Roundup

If everything has gone to plan, I’m currently enjoying a weekend in Paris. This has coincided nicely with another bumper weekly roundup, so enjoy your two-part summary fun.

Sex began even earlier than we thought

The discovery of a long-dead fish is unlikely to get many people hot under the collar, but it appears that a 380 million-year-old fossil could have a few things to teach us about sex. Scientists have found the remains of a placoderm, an armoured prehistoric fish, that contains a two-inch embyro.

The specimen had actually been housed in the collections of the Natural History Museum since the 1980s, but it is only now that the tiny bones inside the fish are believed to be its offspring, rather than its dinner! This evidence for reproduction by internal fertilization is, when it comes to fish, pretty hot stuff. You can watch interviews with some of the scientists involved here.

The science of Watchmen

If you know anything about comics, you’ve probably heard of Watchmen. Arguably the greatest graphic novel of all time, most of the heroes it features don’t have any special powers. The one exception is Dr. Manhatten, a glowing blue man who is the very personification of the atomic bomb.

For the upcoming move adaptation of the book, the film-makers enlisted physics professor James Kakalios as a scientific consultant. Having just examined the role of such consultants on my course, I found the clip quite interesting. Does anyone really benefit by Dr. Manhatten being “explained” in such detail? I’m not convinced, but make up your own minds:

Open access papers benefit developing nations

I’m a strong supporter of open access science, in which scientific papers are placed online so that anyone can read them for free. A study published in Science last week suggests that open access articles receive more citations than those in closed journals, but the effect is particularly strong in the developed world. England and Germany saw an increase of citations by around 5%, whilst in India it was almost 25% and close to 30% in Brazil.

James A. Evans, lead author of the research, spoke to SciDev Net:

“Our study shows that people who have access to journals in poor countries use them,

“If they weren’t freely available they wouldn’t use them with the same frequency, and they may not be able, as a result, to themselves publish in top journals.”

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 27 February 2009 at 12:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Psychology

Well, I think so anyway. A large part of my three years of maths at Bristol were spent learning how to be an inefficient photocopier, as a one hour lecture often produced as many as eight sides of A4 notes. I’d often feel that lecturing really wasn’t the best way of learning, with sometimes just five minutes out of 60 resulting in something actually useful.

As such, I was quite interested to read a report New Scientist that recent psychological research supports my idea. A paper published in the journal Computers & Education suggests that students who receive a podcast of a lecture learn better than those who actually turn up in person.

Psychology students participating in the study were split into two groups. The first attended a lecture on perception, and were given a copy of the PowerPoint slides used during the lecture. They were told the purpose of the study was to examine the use of these slides, and whether they would aid note-taking and later studying. As an incentive to do well in an exam on the material, the student with the highest score would be given a $15 iTunes card.

The other group were told the experiment was investigating the use of technology by students, and given a podcast instead of attending the lecture. They were also encouraged with the reward of an iTunes gift card. The podcast was recorded with software that syncs the audio to PowerPoint slides, thus providing a reasonable facsimile of the lecture experience.

When it came to the exam, the difference between the two groups was substitutional. Podcast listeners scored an average of 71.24%, whilst those who attended the lecture achieved only an average 62.47%. The authors of the study found this result surprising, given that we normally assume attending lectures leads to higher results!

The benefits of the podcast appear to only apply to those students who also took notes whilst listening however. Note-takers on average scored higher on the exam with 76.23%, but those who just listened showed similar results to the lecture group, with 62.08%.

The authors admit that these results were generally lower than they would expect from their classes, and cited lack of motivation as a possible explanation – the exam didn’t really count, other than for extra credit. This applies to everyone in the study however, so motivation alone cannot account for the results.

Dana McKinney, the psychologist who lead the study, does not think that podcasts should completely replace lectures, but believes that students who have “never known a time before cell phones and personal computers” could use additional ways of learning.

“I do think it’s a tool. I think that these kids are programmed differently than kids 20 years ago,” she says.

Personally, I agree. It’s not entirely comparable, but in the module on radio that I am taking at the moment, the lecturer provides us with audio to listen to before the next week’s class. Rather than wasting time listening in the lesson, we can put it to good use with interesting discussion. Bring on the podcasts!

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 26 February 2009 at 12:18 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Technology, eh? If it isn’t enough that Facebook gives you cancer, now the BBC says that “Games consoles ’cause skin sores’”. I’ve got a wonderful mental image of a radioactive GameBoy.

A report published in the British Journal of Dermatology declares the discovery of PlayStation palmar hidradenitis, a “new” skin condition displayed by a 12-year-old girl admitted to a Swiss hospital.

The sore red marks and lumps on the patients hands were indicative of idiopathic eccrine hidradenitis, or swollen sweat glands. The condition is typically found on the soles of the feet of children who partake in have physical activity, such as jogging. This particular patient had not undertaken any such activity recently, however.

What she had been doing was playing a PlayStation game (the Sims) for hours on end each day, and she continued to play ever after the lesions appeared on her hands. As such, the doctors treating her suggested that the condition should be labelled as a more specific variant, PlayStation palmar hidradenitis, because “[e]xcessive video gaming is currently regarded as an alarming
health issue”.

This is nonsense. To label this condition as specific to games consoles, let alone one particular brand of games console, is completely pointless. It’s clearly a case of swollen sweat glands in the patients plam, a diagnosis that is fully covered by the doctors’ ultimate choice of idiopathic palmar eccrine hidradenitis. To stick “PlayStation” in there as well smacks of nothing more than sensationalism. A spokesman for Sony, manufacturers of the PlayStation, responded to the news:

“As with any leisure pursuit there are possible consequences of not following common sense, health advice and guidelines, as can be found within our instruction manuals,” he said.

“We do not wish to belittle this research and will study the findings with interest. This is the first time we have ever heard of a complaint of this nature,” he added.

Belittle it all you want, Sony. It’s rubbish.

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2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 25 February 2009 at 4:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

As you read this blog post, your brain is interpreting the squiggles on the screen in to words that form a sentence you can understand. Equally, when in conversation with another person, your ears gather the sound waves and send them off to your brain for processing. Just how is this achieved though? A study from The Netherlands suggests that we try to anticipate the end of sentence before we’ve heard it, in order to arrive at the full meaning as early as possible.

Jos Van Berkum, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, use event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to investigate. An ERP is a measure of the brain’s electrical response to stimulus, such as the arrival of a word or sound from the ear, and tracking these measures in the brains of participants resulted in some interesting discoveries.

In one experiment participants were told one of two versions of the same story about a lecturer and a professor being summoned to the faculty dean. The lecturer is guilty of plagiarism, whilst the professor has faked research data. In one version of the story the two cheating academics are referred to in an ambiguous manner – e.g. “the two lecturers”, rather than the lecturer and professor – and the potential confusion that this entails resulted in a change in ERP reading. Listeners had to work harder to figure out what was going on.

A second test used the same story, but to investigate a different effect. The time, the dean tells the lecturer that there is ample reason to sack/promote him. Those who heard the “promote” version showed a spike in the ERP known as an N400 effect, because it peaks roughly 400 milliseconds after the word is spoken. This effect seems to reflect something about language comprehension – the word “promote” is unexpected, given the lecturer’s conduct!

It seems that the brain is constantly working out what the next word in a sentence could be, using heuristics and a wide variety of information sources. If the predicted word and the actual word jar, the N400 spike shows that the brain readjusts.

Van Berkum suggests that further research in this area is required, particularly in developing computer models of how meaning is constructed from words and connecting these models to neuroimaging techniques such as ERPs. Without new tools, he says, our understanding of the brain’s interpretation of language “won’t get much further”.

Jos J.A. Van Berkum (2008). Understanding Sentences in Context: What Brain Waves Can Tell Us Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17 (6), 376-380 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00609.x

4 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 24 February 2009 at 8:51 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

It’s Pancake Day, or Shrove Tuesday for the Christians amongst us. Yesterday the Daily Mail published a story that began:

“With Shrove Tuesday tomorrow it was perhaps inevitable that an eager scientist would apply their skills to creating the perfect pancake.”

I’m tempted to re-word this:

“With Shrove Tuesday tomorrow it was perhaps inevitable that the Daily Mail would run some nonsense about a formula for the perfect pancake.”

Yes, we’ve got another one. Today’s formula faker is Dr Ruth Fairclough, who “worked out the food formula because her two daughters loved eating pancakes so much.” It appears that in between culinary calculations, she is part of the Statistical Cybermetrics Research Group at the University of Wolverhampton, who specialise in downloading and analysing large amounts of data from the internet. With that in mind, on to the formula:

100 – [10L - 7F + C(k - C) + T(m - T)]/(S – E)

Ooh, that’s big and scientific looking. Check out all those variables! What do they mean? Here’s the run down:

  • L: the number of lumps in the batter
  • C: the consistency of the batter
  • F: the “flipping score”
  • k: the ideal consistency
  • T: the temperature of the pan
  • m: the ideal temperate of the pan
  • S: length of time the batter sits before cooking
  • E: the length of time the cooked pancake sits before being eaten
  • The closer the result to 100, the better the pancake is

Phew. Everyone still with me? If you don’t mind, I’m going to skip over my usual complaints of meaningless variables (how do you measure “flipping score”?) and incompatible units, because frankly I’m bored of repeating myself.

As it stands, this formula is unusable. The “ideal” figures, k and m, are both constants, which means that they are the same each time – as you would expect, because if something is ideal then it shouldn’t change! An example of a constant in a real scientific formula is the “c” in the famous E = mc2. Here, c stands for the speed of light, which even Google knows is around 300 million metres per second. We’ve no idea what k and m are in the pancake formula however, so there is no way of evaluating it.

Even if you could, the construction of the formula contradicts itself. Take the term C(k-C), which obviously has something to do with consistency (no pun intended). It’s one of many terms in the formula that is being taken away from 100, and since we want our result to be as close to 100 as possible, we should probably try and make C(k-C) as small as we can.

Using a mathematical technique known as differentiation, it is easy to work out there is no minimum value for C(k-C), but there is a maximum – when C = k/2. Not much use there, but if we assume that C has to take positive values (after all, what does negative consistency mean?) then C(k-C) is at a minimum when C = 0 or C = k. In these cases, C(k-C) will be zero.

Hang on a second. That means that the formula is telling us that in order to get a perfect pancake, with should either strive for the ideal but unknown consistency k, or alternatively, the worst consistency possible (i.e., zero). That doesn’t sound too tasty. The maths is identical for the T(m – T) term, so a pan cooled to 0 °C will mean you are well on the way to perfection.

So, we’ve got our batter with its terrible consistency, and have just taken the pan out of the freezer. How long should we let the batter sit before starting? The worst thing we could do is leave the batter out for a fraction of a second longer than it takes us to start eating the pancake.

This is because as S and E become closer together, the S – E term will approach zero, causing the equation to balloon to infinity. Sit your batter for 10 seconds and your pancake for 9.999999999 seconds, and you’ll have a pretty awful snack on your hands. Conversely, let that pancake have 10.000000001 seconds rest before you tuck in, and you’re approaching culinary heaven because the minus sign is reversed.

Like most of its ilk, this formula is full of holes that are clear to any mathematician. Apologies if I’ve gone off on a slightly technical rant, but I really cannot stand these “formula for” stories, but what concerns me is that Fairclough actually teaches maths at Wolverhampton, or at least did in 2007 – she’s listed as the module leader for a variety of statistical units. If I were in her class, I’d be pretty worried.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 23 February 2009 at 5:58 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Space & Astronomy

I don’t think I’ve posted before about NASA developing a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game, but I recently read a preview that I thought I’d share.

For the uninitiated, an MMO game is one in which large numbers of players come together in a shared game world. Rather than playing your own single player game, you can team up with people across the globe. The most popular of the genre is the fantasy based World of Warcraft, but NASA are hoping that their game, with its basis in reality, could be a tool for learning as well as fun.

A screenshot from the NASA MMO.
A screenshot from the NASA MMO.

The game, set around the year 2035, is being created for NASA by development company Virtual Heroes, who also produced America’s Army for the US military. In-game missions will include dealing with the possibility of an asteroid impact on Earth and mining other planets for fuel. Completing these tasks will build your persistent character and unlock new abilities and places to visit, much like in other MMOs.

Interestingly, the game will also encourage players to work together to stave off virtual climate change. Founder and CEO of Virtual Worlds, Jerry Heneghan, explains:

“There is a component for the space station that needs to be built to combat the environmental concerns around an impending event that is happening,” explained Heneghan. “People are actually cooperating together to mitigate this crises. There is a sense of urgency about the gameplay in which players will want to get better and not let their team down. It’s pretty exciting stuff.”

It’s not just futuristic missions that will be available, however. Virtual Worlds also plan to include historical scenarios such as the Apollo missions, allowing players to relive moments like to Moon landings from a first person perspective.

Sounds fun, but why is NASA spending money on building a game instead of spaceships? The idea is to inspire players to become NASA’s next generation, and to encourage an interest in science. An interesting concept, but we’ll have to wait until the first part of the game is released this autumn.

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 22 February 2009 at 12:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Physics, Weekly Roundup

“Run LHC, run!”

CERN have announced that actor Tom Hanks has been chosen to reboot the Large Hadron Collider once repairs are complete. The massive machine was damaged soon after being switched on last September, when a helium leak caused an estimated £20 million damage.

Hanks is currently filming Angels and Demons, in which he reprises the role of Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code. The films plot involves an attempt to destroy the Vatican with 0.25 grams of antimatter stolen from CERN. No, really.

Must CERN resort to these kinds of PR games? Isn’t the LHC enough of an accomplishment without a Hollywood star attached? Apparently not.

Bad Science in the bathroom

Ben Goldacre has truly made it big, with this interview in the toilets of Conway Hall. He talks about the usual schtick: what’s wrong with science reporting, and what should be done to fix it. I do so admire his collection of stripy shirts.

Ben Goldacre of Bad Science talks about Sensationalised Science Reporting from Conrad on Vimeo.

Some very weird experiments

I’m cheating a bit with the title of this post, but two out of three ain’t bad. My odd one out for your this week is extremely odd – a countdown of the twenty most bizarre experiments of all time.

Some are merely quirky, such as in 1978, when psychologist Russell Clark got his students to proposition others with the line “I have been noticing you around campus. I find you to be attractive. Would you go to bed with me tonight?” in order to study gender differences.

Others are ethically questionable, like monkey head transplants and electrocuting puppies. Sometimes scientists don’t do themselves any favours when it comes to public opinion!

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 21 February 2009 at 10:24 am by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong

It’s been a while, and I know you’ve all been waiting for itm but we’ve finally got ourselves a new scientific rap. The last one, about astrobiology, was in October, so it’s been a long time coming. This new offering seeks to explain climate change with the aid of a funky beat:

The song, “Take AIM at Climate Change” (AIM stands for Adapt, Innovate, Mitigate) was produced by POLAR-PALOOZA, an organisation dedicated to bringing stories and multimedia from scientists in the poles to the masses.

It’s also, really, really bad.

From the opening “climate change, mmm mmm” to the moon-walking polar explorers, it’s like a parody of itself. It wouldn’t seem out of place on Sesame Street. It’s a shame, because the science is sound. You can read the lyrics here (as well as comments on each line from someone who doesn’t seem to have quite finished building the site…), and they have a decent enough message:

See, the heat comes down from the Sun to the Earth
But now the heat can’t escape, it just can’t disperse…
Cos of carbon dioxide from power plants and factories,
Cars and trucks, so much more than you can find naturally

So the Poles get warm, and the Earth gets hotter
All that necessary ice melts down into water
And the impact, the sad fact, is it can only escalate,
So – for real – we gotta act now, before it’s too late..

The message gets lost thought, because the presentation of the video is just so unintentionally hilarious. I’m afraid the LHC rap is still king when it comes to science rap – possibly because it knows just how ridiculous it is!

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 20 February 2009 at 7:53 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology

To be fair to the Daily Mail, their headline was the slightly more reserved “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer“, but the sentiment is the same. Are users of the popular social network putting their health at risk with every status update?

The Mail’s report is based on a paper published in the journal Biology by Dr Aric Sigman, who has previously suggested that watching sex on TV makes teenagers more likely to become pregnant – so he’s already sliding in to the “spouts nonsense” category of my personal sliding scale of scientists. His paper is available for anyone to read though, which wins him back a few points. I decided to have a read before drawing any conclusions.

First off, it’s important to point out that Signman has not actually done any new research, but merely analysed the work of others. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as this type of so-called meta-analysis can often produce interesting and useful results.

Sigman begins by referencing two papers that describe the dwindling hours people spend with real-world, face-to-face, contact. Fair enough, except that one is based on data from 2004 and the other from 2000, although both sources published this data some time later. What’s the problem? Well, MySpace launched in late 2003 and Facebook in 2004. Now the two biggest social network websites, they would have had little or indeed no impact when this data was collected.

The paper is entitled Well Connected?: The Biological Implications of ‘Social Networking’, but as far as I can tell none of the references it draws on make any mention of online social networks. Instead, the papers that Sigman has reviewed tend to discuss the health effects of real-life social networks.

I’m torn here. The Daily Mail’s headline is clearly wrong, but I feel I can’t place full blame at their feet. Sigman has extrapolated from other sources, and mistaken correlation for causation. It’s one thing for a paper to say that patients with increased social activities show higher levels of Natural Killer T cells (tumour fighters, essentially), but it’s quite another to say that communicating online will have a detrimental effect. Who knows, it might even have the same effect – Sigman doesn’t know either way, because he hasn’t actually looked into it.

There is also the matter of this graph:

Pretty damning evidence from the looks of it: people are spending more time with computers and the like, and less with each other. Certainly a correlation, but does that mean that one has caused the other? No.

In addition, the caption reads “Hours per day of face-to-face social interaction declines as use of electronic media increases. These trends are predicted to increase (data abstracted from a series of time-use and demographic studies)”. In other words it has been cobbled together from a bunch of different sources, and as the origin of data is not listed it’s hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from the graph.

I think it’s safe to say that Facebook, nor indeed any other website, will give you cancer. At the same time, I’m struggling to figure out whether Sigman has anything at all to say about the health effects of social networking, or if he has just thrown together a bunch of information in the hopes that some of it sticks to the likes of the Daily Mail. Hmm.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 19 February 2009 at 8:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Just A Review

This review originally ran in the most recent issue of Imperial College’s science magazine I, Science. Since we haven’t quite managed to get the mag online yet, I thought I’d reproduce it here:

Upon entering the Science Museum’s Japan Car exhibition, you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve wandered in to the wrong room. Visitors are greeted by a display of bonsai trees, the miniature Japanese trees. Don’t worry, you’re in the right place – these were created by artist Seiji Morimae to complement the cars on display. Indeed, each bonsai display contains a small model car, evoking the natural stones typical of the bonsai art form. All very good, but isn’t this the Science Museum?

Moving in to the next room, we find “The view from there”, a short film that artistically explores the urban landscape of modern Japan. Roads weave across the three large screens in a pleasantly relaxing manner, but I couldn’t help feel like I was watching an extended car advert – an impression that would only grow as I walked through the rest of the exhibition.

Leaving the film to its eternal looping, I entered the exhibition proper. The stark white appearance of both the cars and accompanying displays gave the effect of being inside an iPod. Everything oozed style, but in a way that seemed extremely calculated. Looking down at my feet, I spotted the exhibit barriers, and winced. Bamboo-like poles supported by tripods made from chopsticks, clearly intended to evoke Japanese culture, just seemed a little bit crass.

Each of the 14 cars in the exhibit are displayed along side information about the relationship between their design and Japanese culture. It all comes off very slogan-like, with titles such as “One of the Very Best Off-Road Performers” and “Cars Finely Honed for Fuel Efficiency”. I almost expected to be offered zero-percent finance.

Determined to find some actual science content, I pressed on. One car had all of its inner workings laid out for easy viewing – interesting, but It didn’t tell me anything about how the pieces actually fit together to make the car run. Later displays explained the principles of hydrogen fuel cells, but with the information directly above Honda’s latest model, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable about the commercial undertones.

One of the last pieces in the exhibition is the Toyota i-REAL, a concept car in the loosest sense of the word. Looking somewhat like a cross between a wheelchair and a motorcycle, its sleek aesthetic instantly reminded me of the film Wall-E. In Pixar’s 2008 animated hit, intrepid robot Wall-E discovers that human beings have been reduced to mega-obese consumers who glide around in hovering wheelchairs very similar in form to the i-REAL. Probably not the image intended by Toyota, but once I’d made the connection I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Understandably the exhibition was put on with the aid of leading Japanese car manufacturers, and a little bit of product placement can be forgiven, but having reached the end in under half an hour it seemed that Japan Car is all product and no exhibition. When you consider the £8 cost of admission, it’s hard to recommend to all but the most devoted petrol-heads or Japan-o-philes. If the exhibition had been put on at the V & A museum, the focus on design and culture might have felt more comfortable, but in the Science Museum I want a little more substance.

Japan Car is open until 19th April 2009 – see the website for details.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 18 February 2009 at 12:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right

The University of California, Berkeley has launched a new website, Understanding Science, as a resource for teachers and the public about science and the scientific method. Roy Caldwell, one of the leaders of the project and a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, hopes that new site will show how science “really works”:

“The Web site presents, not the rigid scientific method, but how science really works, including its creative and often unpredictable nature, which is more engaging to students and far less intimidating to those teachers who are less secure in their science.”

The “science is AMAZING!” tone of the site is a bit too much at times, even for me, but there are a few nice areas. I particularly liked the science checklist, which can assist in sorting the science from the psuedo:

Is it science? Check the checklist.
Is it science? Check the checklist.

As well as working through the site in a linear fashion, visitors can take “sidetrips” for more information. For example, whilst reading about the requirement for science to be evidence-based, I took a small diversion to find out about scientific funding. It’s a nice way of providing additional information for those who want it, whilst also avoiding an overload. These sidetrips also examine what isn’t science by measuring intelligent design and astrology against the checklist.

Other topics covered include a more realistic view of how science works than the typical textbook model of question, hypothesis, experiment, data and conclusion (including an info box on the phrase “just a theory”), what science has done for you, and how to evaluate scientific messages in the media.

Overall, I think the site is a really good resource. There are a few more “coming soon” notices than I normally like to see, but there is already enough content up there to make this only a small issue. Whilst it probably is best used in the classroom, there’s no harm in having a read even if your school days are far behind you. It’s also an improvement on the British government’s recent effort, Science: [So What? So Everything], which as I’ve said before seems to be mostly style over substance. Perhaps DIUS should take a look across the pond in order to understanding understanding science?

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 17 February 2009 at 12:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy

Two stories out of the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting caught my eye, both for making claims that seem a little bit “out of this world”. Oh yes, that is a poor excuse for a gag.

Speaking at the meeting, held this past weekend in Chicago, Dr Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC said that there could potentially be as many Earth-like planets as there are stars in the universe – one hundred billion trillion, according to the Telegraph, though estimates vary.

Boss predicts that with four years we will find one of these planets in our galaxy – aided perhaps by a new telescope being launched by NASA in three weeks time. Named Kepler after the great mathematician and astronomer, its mission is to seek out planets that could support life.

“We already know enough now to say that the universe is probably loaded with terrestrial planets similar to the Earth,

“We should expect that there are going to be many planets which are habitable, so probably some are going to be inhabited as well.”

If we were to send out unmanned spacecraft to take pictures of a newly discovered planet, Boss estimates it would take at least 2,000 years for us to receive them, because an Earth-like planet could potentially be 30 light years away. If you’re expecting little green men however, you’ll probably be disappointed; Boss expects any life out there to be microscopic organisms.

Also speak at the same meeting was British scientists Professor Paul Davies, who called for a “mission to Earth” in order to look for “alien” creatures who may already be here.

No, he’s not suggesting we draft in Mulder and Scully; rather Davies believes we should search for microscopic life in remote and hostile environments that could potentially have a different biochemistry to our own.

“No planet is more Earth-like than Earth itself,” he said.

“So if life does emerge readily under terrestrial conditions, then perhaps it formed many times on our home planet.

“Life as we know it appears to have had a single common ancestor, yet, could life on Earth have started many times?

“Might it exist on Earth today in extreme environments and remain undetected because our techniques are customized to the biochemistry of known life?”

Davies suggests that the discovery of a “shadow biosphere” would be “the biggest sensation in biology since Darwin”. Such a mission would be much cheaper than looking for life on Mars, and so-called “weird life” may already be lurking in deep sea vents, at the bottom of lakes, and in deserts and caves. The truth is out there…

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 16 February 2009 at 8:39 am by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

It occurs to me that I haven’t really spoken about the course at Imperial that much recently, and today seems like a good time to rectify that.

This term is split into two, with four of the optional modules finishing last week and the other four starting from today. Of course being the fool that I am, the three modules that I have chosen to take are all in this half of the term, meaning I’m going to be pretty busy from now on.

I’ll be studying international science policy, science and fiction (not quite the same as science fiction!) and radio. Three quite distinct options, but my interests are rather broad!

In addition, work is progressing on the group project we have been assigned: produce a piece of sci-art. My group has chosen to explore the use of religious language by scientists, in the form of a pentaptych – five scenes from the life of a professor, in the way that a saint might be portrayed. I’ll be playing the professor in the photos that will make up the final image, which should be…interesting. I’ll probably post some pictures once it’s done.

Finally, we’ve been asked to start considering our dissertation topic. I’m tentatively exploring “The Portrayal of Science in Video Games” as a title – not, as you might be thinking, so I can play games instead of working. Rather, I view games as an increasingly important part of our culture, and I’m interested in the effect this might have on people’s perception of science. From the bio-hazards of Resident Evil to the gun-toting physicists of Half-Life, there’s definitely some interesting work to be done – and as far as I know, no-one has ever looked at it before.

All of this means I’ll be nice and busy over the next month – I pretty much have a major deadline every single week of March! There will be no rest for the wicked either, as revision will occupy most of the Easter break before exams on the first day of the summer term.

Still, the plan is to keep on blogging as much as possible. I’m hoping the daily schedule won’t slip (I’m nearly up to 7 months after all!) but I guess we shall see how it goes…

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 15 February 2009 at 1:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Mathematics, Science Policy, Weekly Roundup

Wayne Rooney solves quadratic equations

The Independent have a lengthy interview with Marcus du Sautoy (the recently appointed Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science) about his thoughts on mathematics. He makes the argument that everyone has a “maths brain”, including Wayne Rooney:

“As a footballer, you’re trying to get in line with an incoming free kick. Wayne Rooney is subconsciously solving a quadratic equation every time he works out where to stand in the box. That doesn’t mean he can do it on paper and I’m sure he’s probably forgotten how to do it. But the point is that our brains are evolutionarily programmed to be able to do it.”

I’m never entirely convinced by this type of argument, as I don’t think your brain is really solving equations for you go about your life, but it’s always nice to see a bit of maths promotion. Have a read.

What should the government discuss?

The House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee is inviting members of the public to suggest topics for discussion at an oral evidence hearing to be held in a few months time. If you’ve got some scientific grievances that need airing in public, now is your chance.

Any topic under the remit of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills will be considered, as long as it is not already covered by an existing enquiry. Your idea must also be examinable in under two hours, and appropriately timed for either April or May.

After reading du Sautoy’s interview above, an idea might be to look into what can be done to stop bankers poaching all the top science graduates. Perhaps I’ll get around to writing it up…

Apocalypse meh

The Met Office Hadley Centre, an government organisation involved in climate change research, suggests that “apocalyptic predictions” about global warming are just as bad as claims that the phenomenon does not exist. Dr Vicky Pope is head of climate change advice at the Met Office, and says that scientists and journalists must stop misleading the public.

“Having to rein in extraordinary claims that the latest extreme [event] is all due to climate change is at best hugely frustrating and at worse enormously distracting. Overplaying natural variations in the weather as climate change is just as much a distortion of science as underplaying them to claim that climate change has stopped or is not happening.”

A common misrepresentation is to extrapolate off only a few years data, which could lead to puclic confusion when scientists’ predictions don’t actually occur, says Dr Peter Stott, a climate researcher at the Met Office.

“The reality is that extreme events arise when natural variations in the weather and climate combine with long-term climate change.”

“This message is more difficult to get heard. Scientists and journalists need to find ways to help to make this clear without the wider audience switching off.”

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 14 February 2009 at 11:49 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology

It’s Valentine’s Day, so here’s the obligatory themed post! Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, believes she knows why we kiss. The act of kissing is found in over 90% of world cultures, so Fisher suggests it must be the result of evolution.

“Hooking up may have evolved as a fast-acting biological strategy for mate assessment,” she said.

“Men like sloppier kisses with more open mouths and more tongue movement. The hypothesis is they’re trying to get small traces of oestrogen to see where the woman is in her menstrual cycle to indicate the state of her fertility.”

If you’re looking to get lucky with the scientist in your life, you could do worse than send them one of these Scientist Valentines from Ironic Sans. How about this one, where the recent birthday boy professes his love?

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2 Comments » Posted on Friday 13 February 2009 at 11:03 am by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Getting It Wrong

Now don’t laugh, but in the interest of bringing you a 100% factually accurate report, I’ve just been sniffing my ironing board.

It’s all because of a recent press release informing us that the aroma of chips is made up of butterscotch, cocoa, onion, cheese and ironing boards. All ready, your bullshit meter should be tingling.

Oh, where to start? First off, although the press release appears to come from the University of Leeds, if you look at the top it has actually been issued by the British Potato Council, an organisation devoted to promoting potatoes which in 2006 was reported by the Sunday Times as voted Britain’s most useless quango.

Reading on, the “research” was designed to promote National Chip Week, making it a perfect example of what Charlie Brooker recently dubbed PR-reviewed phindings. Dr Graham Clayton from the University of Leeds was in charge of a team that collected aromas from chips and analysed them with a very sciencey sounding Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry. I’m not dissing the machine, it’s a proper piece of scientific equipment used by a variety of disciplines. It seems to have been used here to create graphs you can smell, however:

The output of the analysis is a series of peaks on a graph or a fingerprint. Each peak indicates the occurrence and levels of a different component of the aroma.

Each peak was also sniffed by an analyst to record if it could be detected and the type and strength of the aroma recorded.

Clayton himself is the Commercial Manager of Food Chain CIC, a commercial entity based within the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds. His LinkedIn profile (a sort of Facebook for business) declares “[p]rojects are delivered by academics but constructed on industry needs” – in other words, he makes a living creating nonsense “science” for PR companies. The end of the press release helpfully informs us that Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry analysis is often used by food companies to determine the shelf life of food products. Guess who’s offering a shelf life check up? Food Chain.

It’s not a lie to say that he is Dr Clayton of the University of Leeds (he holds a PhD, after all) but the impression that description evokes is a bit far from the truth. It’s also not the first time this rubbish has been presented as academic research – Clayton was in the news a couple of years back with the formula for the perfect bacon buttie. You can imagine my thoughts on that particular “discovery”.

The impact of this chip aroma “research” could be pretty big, according to Clayton:

“Perhaps these findings will see chips treated like wine in the future – with chip fans turning into buffs as they impress their friends with eloquent descriptions of their favourite fries.”

Yes, I’m sure that’s exactly what will happen. Oh, and the aroma of ironing boards? Mine at least, smells like…iron.

1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 12 February 2009 at 11:40 am by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Musings

Dear Charles,

I do hope hope you don’t mind me calling you Charles, but “Mr Darwin” feels far too formal. I’m writing to you today, on February 12th 2009, to celebrate your birth 200 years ago. I’m sure you will have received many other such letters and accolades today, so I’ll try to keep it short.

I know that you feared the effect your work would have on humanity, but I wonder how you would have felt if you knew the controversy that still surrounds it, 150 years on. The two sides of the argument are often presented as science versus religion – or worse, atheism versus Christianity. It is an argument that I believe need not exist, and the ever-raging battle saddens me.

Like yourself I am not religious, although my atheism/apatheism goes further than your agnosticism. Many atheists other than myself will use this opportunity to commend Charles Darwin, Champion of the God-less. Equally, some religious people will vilify Charles Darwin, Heathen and Sinner.

I would like to celebrate Charles Darwin, Scientist. Your work on natural selection is a marvel; an idea so simple that a child can grasp it, but so powerful that it forms the basis for the existence of every single life-form on this planet. Very few scientists can claim such an achievement.

This blog was named in criticism of those who would dismiss evolution as “just” a theory. It’s not “just” anything, it is a theory, and it’s a bloody good one.

I close with an apology – I’ve never read On the Origin of Species. I think today is the time to rectify this, so I’ve placed an order for the book as a birthday present. I’ll let you know what I think.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 11 February 2009 at 5:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Health & Medicine, Just A Review

After Ben Goldacre’s recent troubles I decided that it was probably time to pick his book up off my post-Christmas reading pile. Now I regret not getting to Bad Science sooner, as I’ve been unable to put it down – to the extent of perversely wishing that my Tube journeys were longer so I could keep reading!

Goldacre could have made writing a book very easy on himself – package up favourites from his Guardian column and blog, write a short introduction, and then slap a cover and a price tag on them. In fact, that’s exactly what fellow Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker did in his book Dawn of the Dumb. I’m not knocking Brooker, I find him hilarious, but Goldacre has done so much more.

Goldacre manages to be as methodical as he is amusing in his examination of the pseudoscience peddled by nutritionists, homeopaths and the media at large. Much of the work is based on his columns – in research for my post yesterday about risk I came across a treatment of the subject on, then coincidentally read more or less the same passage in the book later that evening – but it is expanded and refined in the way a weekly column just can’t hope to be.

The chapters are more or less standalone, but the book is still best read in order to appreciate Goldacre’s building to his finale: The Media’s MMR Hoax. He clearly explains the history of the fiasco as well as the actual evidence showing that MMR is not harmful. Throughout the book we are taught how the quality of a study can be evaluated, and in the final chapter Goldacre puts this knowledge to good use. The studies are even fully referenced in the back of the book, so you can go and check them out for yourself if you fancy that sort of thing.

If there’s one criticism I have, it’s that the title of the book should really be “Bad Medical Science”. As a medical doctor it’s only fair that Goldacre cover his field of expertise, but I’m not sure I detected even the smallest whiff of physics.

It doesn’t really matter. I heartily recommend Bad Science to everyone. It’s completely accessible, a cracking read, and you’ll actually learn something whilst laughing. It’s a shame to think that the people who most need to read this book, the people throwing away their money on useless treatments peddled by charlatans, probably never will.

Goldacre admits as much, closing the book by speaking directly to those he has criticised. “You win,” he says, attributing their victory to a near-complete media dominance. To Goldacre I say this: keep fighting. You’re an inspiration to the rest of us.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 10 February 2009 at 10:49 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

It’s not a very catchy headline, is it? It would have been much better to go with the Guardian’s Cannabis doubles testicular cancer risk, says US study – now that sounds scary. If you haven’t figured it out through my dripping sarcasm, we’re talking about two old friends: relative versus absolute risk.

We last saw the pair in the shocking news that drinking beer increases your risk of bowel cancer by a fifth (in other words, to about 0.073%). In case you’ve forgotten, let’s cover the basics again quickly.

Imagine there is a 1% chance of contracting a disease, meaning that in a given time frame (usually a year) we can expect 1 in 100 people to have this disease. Now, suppose that research finds that eating ice cream makes you more likely to get this disease – perhaps 3 in 100 ice-cream eaters have it, meaning there is a 3% chance you will contract the disease if you eat ice cream.

Relative risk is best thought of in terms of multiplication. By eating ice cream, your relative risk of the disease has trebled, because 1% becomes 3%.

Absolute risk is more like addition. An additional 2 people in every 100 will contract the disease if they eat ice cream.

Now, it’s clear why newspapers prefer relative risk to absolute risk. “Trebled” sounds much better than “plus 2″ in a headline. It’s a much less useful statistic however, especially when dealing with events with a low chance of occurring.

I must say though that in this case, if we look at the original paper, I think it’s actually the scientists who are to blame. In their words:

“We observed a 70% increased risk of TGCT associated with current marijuana use.”

That 70% is relative risk, not absolute. It’s also not double, which would be an increase of 100% in relative terms. That’s because the research showed a 70% relative increase for men in general, but the Guardian went with “double” which only applied to regular cannabis users, or those who started smoking before they were 18. To be fair, this is partially explained in the second paragraph, and then clarified towards the end.

So where did I get my un-catchy headline from? I once again turned to Cancer Research for some absolute risk statistics. In the UK, 7.1 men per 100,000 of the population contract testicular cancer. Dividing these two numbers gives us the absolute risk of 0.0071%, which I simply multiplied by 1.7 to calculate the 70% increase used in the headline.

I don’t know about you, but I think 0.01207% is pretty low. It’s because testicular cancer is actually one of the rarest forms of cancer that there is, so even a massive (relative) increase in risk results in a pretty small chance of catching it anyway. To me, that’s just not news – and yet pretty much anything involving cancer makes it in to the papers.

Remember: relative risk, and absolute risk. The difference is pretty important.

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 9 February 2009 at 8:03 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

The controversy over the MMR vaccine, which continues to this day, will be studied by science communicators for years to come. The suggestion of a link between the vaccine and the onset of autism was first put forward by a team lead by Andrew Wakefield, and published in The Lancet in 1998. Now it appears that Wakefield may have fabricated the data on which the entire study was built.

Early in the course at Imperial, we examined the role of the media in this case. Wakefield and colleagues held a press conference to announce his findings, stating:

“It’s a moral issue for me. I can’t support the continued use of these three vaccines, given in combination, until this issue has been resolved.”

In class, we were asked to imagine ourselves as reporters at the press conference – what would our reaction to this news be? The answer was more or less unanimous: it’s headline news. If the Sunday Times’ allegations are true, then Wakefield knowingly acted to deceive and defraud his fellow scientists, the press, and the public at large.

The Sunday Times has found that the medical history of the 12 children presented in The Lancet differs from the corresponding hospital and GP records. Whilst Wakefield claimed that the children developed problems with in days of the jab, in all but one case was this true according to medical records. In fact, many of the children had shown signs of autism before vaccination.

Wakefield linked MMR to autism by suggesting that the vaccination could cause bowel disease in children, which then lead to damage in their brains. It was reported that 11 of the 12 children’s bowels were diseased, but the Sunday Times investigation shows that at least seven showed no abnormalities. It was only after a “research review” of the tests that Wakefield and his team decided that these results should be revised.

The selection of children for the study has also been brought into question. Two of the children were brothers from East Sussex, whilst a further two shared a GP in Tyneside. None of the 12 children came from London, nor were they routine visitors to the Royal Free hospital in Hampstead. Many of the children’s parents had heard of Wakefield before though the MMR vaccine campaign, Jabs, compromising the scientific norm of a truly random sample.

It transpires that Wakefield himself was in the employ of Jabs’s lawyer Richard Barr. In June 1996, one month before the admittance of any of the children to the Royal Free, the pair sent a confidential document to the Legal Aid Board. It described a “new syndrome” suspiciously like the one reported in The Lancet twenty months later. They were successfully awarded money for research by the board.

The Sunday Times previously reported that in addition to research funding, Wakefield earned £435,643 through Barr.

Are these the actions of a man who’s interest is in uncovering scientific truth? To date, no one has been able to replicate Wakefield’s findings. As I said last week: please, vaccinate your children.

2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 8 February 2009 at 12:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Here’s the rest of this week’s roundup.

LED the way!

I’ve always said that CFL light bulbs are only a stop-gap solution until LED bulbs are ready for commercial use. Now, New Scientist report that they could be coming soon. A team at the University of Cambridge have developed a new method for creating LEDs at a fraction of previous costs.

Currently LEDs are made from gallium nitride, which cannot be grown on silicon like other similar electrical components because it shrinks twice as fast as silicon when cooling. The solution in the past has been to use sapphire, which of course makes the result LEDs too expensive.

Colin Humphreys and colleagues at the University of Cambridge have figured out a way to grow LEDs on silicon, by adding layers of aluminium gallium nitride, which shrink much slower than any of the other materials, balancing it out. The result is a 15 cm silicon wafer costing just $15 whilst containing 150,000 LEDs – perfect for commercial light bulbs.

The FT likes science

The Association of British Science Writers points out that whilst the Financial Times’ decision to cut its sports coverage is bad news for those losing their jobs, it’s actually pretty positive for science.

Why? Well, unlike CNN, the FT clearly value their science journalists and their reporting more than that of its sports department. It’s a shame that cuts have to be made, but at least it’s not science getting the chop this time.

Time for a swim

More animal pictures from the Daily Mail I’m afraid! This time it’s the turn of polar bears.

Polar plunge. Photographer: Steven J Kazlowski/Barcroft Med.
Polar plunge. Photographer: Steven J Kazlowski/Barcroft Med.
Comments Off Posted on Saturday 7 February 2009 at 4:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Weekly Roundup

The weekly roundup has grown so big this week that it has spilled into Saturday – and that’s even with some stories not making the cut!

Up the creek with no sign of a paddle

People do some strange things in the name of science. Daniel Bennett spent seven years searching the rainforests of the Philippines for the faeces of the rare butaan lizard, a relation of the giant komodo dragon. It’s understandable then that he was rather upset when he found that his 35kg bag of poo had been thrown away by a Leeds University lab technician. He made the discovery on his return to start the third year of his PhD.

“I was surprised to find my desk space occupied by another student,” he said. “My personal effects had been carefully stowed in boxes, but there was no sign of my 35kg bag of lizard shit.

“To some people it might have been just a bag of lizard shit, but to me it represented seven years of painstaking work searching the rainforest with a team of reformed poachers to find the faeces of one of the world’s largest, rarest and most mysterious lizards.”

The university, after a 16 month wait, offered Bennett £500 compensation which he turned down in favour of legal action. He says the loss of the bag left him “reeling” and has changed his life forever. Although he was able to complete his PhD, the depression at his loss severely affected him.

Time for climate change

I came across this rather nifty timeline of climate change at the Met Office’s website. It begins in 1824, when the French physicist Joseph Fourier (inverter of a wonderful mathematical tool, the Fourier series) realised that the atmosphere can trap heat from the Sun, warming the Earth in much the same way as a Greenhouse.

From there we move through a 1938 prediction by engineer Guy Stewart Callendar that the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for warming the planet, the Kyoto Protocol, and a number of other important landmarks in the history of climate science. The timeline speculatively ends in 2100, with world temperatures expected to rise between 1.8-4.0 °C – depending on the action we take in the meantime.


I join the Daily Mail in being a sucker for some pretty picture of animals. They’ve got some great snaps of a kingfisher diving for fish in an ice river in Land Hessen, central Germany.

The kingfisher grabs its underwater prey. Photographer: Gisela Delpho/Picture Press.
The kingfisher grabs its underwater prey. Photographer: Gisela Delpho/Picture Press.
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4 Comments » Posted on Friday 6 February 2009 at 4:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Ben Goldacre is well known for his battle against Bad Science, both in his Guardian column and on his website. On Tuesday he posted a recording of a show hosted by Jeni Barnett of LBC Radio, in which she discusses the MMR vaccine. Goldacre accused Barnett of misrepresenting the dangers of the vaccine, despite the numerous scientific studies which have now shown there to be no link between MMR and autism. Many members of the British public continue to believe that there is, which is why this story has been running for over a decade. The BBC have a decent timeline.

Yesterday, Goldacre received a warning from the lawyers of LBC, instructing him that posting the audio of the show was an infringe of copyright. Goldacre makes it clear that the reason for posting the audio was so that he could not be accused of misrepresenting Barnett’s views, but in the end had no option but to remove the audio.

It was at this point that a small corner of the internet exploded.

The audio was first uploaded to WikiLeaks, which offers hosting to leaked documents in any form. With servers around the world, it’s extremely hard to get anything removed once it’s on the site. Numerous bloggers have also taken it upon themselves to host the audio, along with a transcript:

Part 1 – Science Punk
Part 2 – The Lay Scientist
Part 3 – PodBlack Cat
Part 4 – The Skeptic’s Book
Part 5 – Science Punk
Part 6 – Holford Watch

So that’s the history. What was actually said? Well, Barnett accuses pharmaceutical companies of trying to make money by forcing vaccinations on children, uses anecdotal evidence of her family to try and claim that the MMR jab is unnecessary anyway, talks about having the “courage” to turn away from the vaccinating herd, and generally spreads dangerous misinformation. Thanks to the hard work of others you can read the entire transcript for yourself, but here are some choice quotes, along with a link to the blog hosting them:

Now back in the day (and that’s an expression I’ve learned from my [unclear] son), back in the day, children got measles, children got mumps. I’m not suggesting – I am not suggesting – that we got backwards where some children, where we have one in fifteen children die of it. And that one person in fifteen is the one we have to be looking at and wondering why and dealing with it. But if, as a human being, you decide you do not want to give your child a vaccination, you should, in a democracy, have that right to say no.”

Stick the kids out running in air, ban cars on the road, make them have six hours a day PE at school give them an hour every single day where they’re running around playing rounders and walls and not just – a few! My daughter’s beautiful boy Nathan, he’s a footballer and he gets an infection and he falls over – he gets better, because he’s always running and jumping and doing star-jumps or whatever you do!”

But let me put this to you – my nan, if you had an ear infection, would have put salt in a sock, heated it up, somehow (she didn’t have a microwave), put it behind your ear and good golly, Miss Molly, that ear infection would slow down in some way.

Now, there’s not a lot of science in it, but it blooming well worked!”

Obviously, it goes on and on. Jeni Barnett doesn’t have a clue what she is talking about, an in fact has freely admitted as much on her own blog.

“I am not a scientist, I would not claim to be a scientist. When tested on the contents of the MMR vaccine I told the truth. I did not have the facts to hand. Was I ill informed? Yes.As a responsible broadcaster I should have been better prepared as a parent, however, I can fight my corner. I don’t know everything that goes into cigarettes but I do know they are harmful.”

How does she know cigarettes are harmful, I wonder? Perhaps due to an overwhelming body of scientific evidence demonstrating this to be the case – in much the same way that MMR has been shown not to be linked with autism.

It’s terribly important that people like Jeni Barnett are called out, as news released today demonstrates. The Health Protection Agency has published the latest annual measles figures for last year, and the increase is shocking, with 1,348 confirmed cases in 2008 (a provisional figure), compared to 56 a decade earlier:

Dr Mary Ramsay, an immunisation expert at the Health Protection Agency, points out that the majority of these cases could have been avoided, had the children been given the MMR vaccination.

“What is so alarming is that the majority of these cases could have been prevented as most were in children who were not fully protected with MMR.

“There are still many children out there who were not vaccinated as toddlers over the past decade and remain unprotected. Unfortunately this means that measles, which is highly infectious, is spreading easily among these unvaccinated children.

Measles is not a simple childhood disease, but a serious infection that can be life threatening if it developments into complications such as pneumonia and encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. If you have non-vaccinated children, I urge you to take them to your local GP.

1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 5 February 2009 at 4:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

So big in fact that not one, not two, not even three, but four, five, six press releases on EurekaAlert! were required just to get the word out about its discovery. That’s a lot of snake. The multi-institution team discovered the 60-million-year-old fossilised remains of Titanoboa cerrejonensis in Cerrejón, a coal mine in north Colombia – hence the name, which means “titanic boa from Cerrejon”.

An artist's impression of the giant snake.
An artist's impression of the giant snake. Courtesy of Indiana University.

By comparing the size of the fossilized vertebrae with those of snakes alive today, the scientists determined that the monster was more than 13 metres long, weighed over one and a quarter tons, and at its widest point would reach the hips of a human. It preyed on giant turtles and crocodiles, the preserved skeletons of which were also found.

Size isn’t everything, however. Not content with the discovery of such a large snake, paleontologist Jason Head of the University of Toronto-Mississauga used the fossils to estimate the climate that the beast would live in, publishing the results as lead author of a paper for the journal Nature.

A comparison of the fossil vertebra with a modern day 3 metre boa constrictor. Courtesy of Indiana University.
A comparison of the fossil vertebra with a modern day 3 metre boa constrictor. Courtesy of Indiana University.

Snakes are cold-blooded, meaning that they must absorb heat from their surroundings. Based on the size of Titanoboa, Head estimated that it would requite an average annual temperature of 30 to 34 °C in order to survive. This is about six degrees hotter than current temperatures in the region. Florida Museum of Natural History vertebrate paleontologist Jonathan Bloch, one of the discoverers of the fossils, explains:

“Tropical ecosystems of South America were surprisingly different 60 million years ago,

“It was a rainforest, like today, but it was even hotter and the cold-blooded reptiles were all substantially larger. The result was, among other things, the largest snakes the world has ever seen… and hopefully ever will.”

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 4 February 2009 at 12:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Musings

It’s not quite Jurassic Park, but Spanish scientists have succeed in bringing an extinct species back to life – if only for seven minutes.

A Spanish ibex.
A Spanish ibex.

The Pyrenean ibex is a subspecies of the Spanish ibex (shown above), a type of wild mountain goat. The ibex, also known as a bucardo, was declared extinct in 2000 when the last-known survivor died in northern Spain.

Forward thinking scientists preserved DNA from the animal in the form of skin samples frozen in liquid nitrogen. Now, scientists at he Centre of Food Technology and Research of Aragon, in Zaragoza, northern Spain and the National Research Institute of Agriculture and Food in Madrid have used this DNA to cloned the extinct bucardo – the first time an extinct species has been resurrected.

Unfortunately, the ibex kid died seven minutes after birth due to lung defects – an affliction seen in other cloned animals, such as sheep.

Dr Jose Folch lead the research team, who used a cloning technique known as nuclear transfer, in which DNA is removed from the egg of a host species and replaced with the DNA of the animal to be cloned.

“The delivered kid was genetically identical to the bucardo. In species such as bucardo, cloning is the only possibility to avoid its complete disappearance.” said Dr Folch.

The team created 439 embryos, implanting 57 into domestic goats which served as surrogate mothers. Of these only seven resulted in pregnancy, with just one goat giving birth to the short-lived bucardo.

I’m always torn over attempts to resurrect extinct animals. On the one hand, it’s an undeniable fact that human beings play an active part in reducing biodiversity by wiping entire species off the planet. As I quoted David Attenborough yesterday, Darwin showed us that we do not have dominion over the animal kingdom, and unnecessary destruction of wildlife should not occur. Perhaps resurrection allows us to atone for our sins.

Darwin can also be used to argue for the other side. A common statistic thrown about is that 99.9% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. Despite extensive Googling I have been unable to verify a source for this number, but let’s assume it is correct. After all, the principle of natural selection tells us that the weakest will not survive, and whether it be through predatory, environmental or simply disaster factors, species do not survive.

Some say that human evolution has already begun to stagnate, as our improvements in diet and healthcare even out the evolutionary footing. By restoring extinct species, are we not also at risk of bringing back animals that have, in a sense, failed?

One anthropocentric argument for encouraging biodiversity is that by eliminating species, we could be robbing ourselves of future benefits that they could provide – new types of drugs as a result of some unknown plant, for example. It strikes me that this argument could be turned on its head – that by allowing failed species to return (a sort of evolutionary bail-out package) we could deny future generations the opportunity to make use of emerging species.

It’s a complicated issue, and I’m still not sure on which side I fall. I’m once again reminded of Jurassic Park, with this quote from Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm:

“Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 3 February 2009 at 5:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Right, Just A Review

If there’s anyone who should be talking about Darwin and the theory of natural selection, it’s Sir David Attenborough. For more than 50 years Attenborough has fascinated and enchanted his audience with the wonders of the natural world. His latest programme is a one-off entitled Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, available on iPlayer until Sinday.

Although everyone is probably sick of being reminded, let’s have it once more for those not paying attention at the back: 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Indeed, I must admit I sat down to watch the programme with a slight thought of “oh, not another bloody Darwin doc”, but my mind was soon changed.

Yes, all the usual stuff was there. Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, his discoveries on the Galapagos islands, and his fear of the world’s reaction to his theory that lead to a delay in publishing, until prompted by rival theorist Alfred Russel Wallace.

Attenborough is a master of his craft however, and not content just to lead us through a potted history of evolution. Everything is explained so clearly and concisely that it is a joy to watch.

In demonstrating how one species can transform into another through the process of natural selection, Attenborough turns our attention to the more familiar artificial selection; namely, dog breeding. All dogs are descended from wolves, transformed by humans as they were domesticated.

Whilst the many breeds are technically still one species, it is clear that the massive Great Dane cannot physically mate with a Chihuahua – although artificial insemination is possible. In a sense, the two breeds are actually different species, and this is after only a millennia. Over the millions of years that natural selection occurs, it is easy to see how a species can become another.

As well as view on Darwin we also get a window into the life of Attenborough. Footage from his previous programmes are spliced into the documentary, and the juxtaposition of a young Attenborough being narrated by his present self is pleasing. In addition, we hear some about some of his time at university and as a young boy looking for fossils. Amusingly, he was once told by a Cambridge lecturer that the idea of continental drift was “pure moonshine” – this is well before the theory of plate tectonics was developed.

The crown jewel of the programme is a marvellous animation of the tree of life, showing how single-cells evolved and evolved to provide us with the diversity of life we see today. The Wellcome Trust have a website devoted to this new vision of the tree, where you can download the video in HD and even get a copy of the 3D models used to create it – all licensed under Creative Commons, meaning they can be reused and reworked by anyone. You can also watch the sequence here:

If you have the time to watch the full programme, you really should. I was left thinking how wonderful it is that science has been able to provide us with the knowledge of where we come from, and looking forward to further Darwin 200 festivities. Attenborough succeeds in every way that Dawkin’s programme last year failed – he doesn’t preach, he doesn’t berate, he merely shares. I’ll leave you with Attenborough’s closing thoughts, and an important message:

“…Darwin has shown us that we are not apart from the natural world — we do not have dominion over it. We are subject to its laws and processes, as are all other animals on earth to which indeed we are related.”

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3 Comments » Posted on Monday 2 February 2009 at 4:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

I’ve just moved the Just A Theory RSS feeds (for both entries and comments) over to Feedburner. The move is mainly to make it easier for people to subscribe, and for me to track subscribers. If everything has gone according to plan, existing subscribers should find that their feedreaders are now redirected to Feedburner automagically…

Comments Off Posted on Monday 2 February 2009 at 4:12 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Happenings

I was planning on reviewing David Attenborough’s new show, broadcast last night, but it’s hard not to pass comment on the snow. Britain seems to have ground to a halt after what feels like continuous snow fall since yesterday evening. Imperial have cancelled lectures both today and tomorrow, so it looks like I won’t be venturing outside for a while.

If you’re also “snowed in” (an absurd phrase for 10cm or so worth of snow!) perhaps this news from the Complutense University of Madrid will offer some hope: Europe is set for fewer days of extreme cold but more of extreme heat.

A study of 262 observatories analysing the minimum and maximum daily temperatures from 1955 to 1998 has found that days like today will be less frequent in the future. The average minimum temperature has risen from 0.5ºC to 1ºC, whilst the average maximum has moved from 0.5ºC to 2ºC. The study took place over 34 European countries, but the trends were particularly noticeable in Britain and Iceland.

Of course this research is actually intended to highlight the threat of global warming, and whilst a sudden outbreak of snow doesn’t mean that man-made climate change is no longer an issue, it’s hard to feel too worried on a day like today.

So, whether you prefer to stay inside, toasty, warm and releasing carbon dioxide with your central heating, or to brave the outside and enjoy the snow, just remember that this is not the answer:

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 1 February 2009 at 4:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

The Flesh of Physics

Carl Zimmer over at Discover magazine has a really interesting post about biomechanics – the study of life in motion. It began in 1872 when Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University, allegedly placed a bet of $25,000 that when a horse is trotting there are instances when none of its legs are touching the ground. He paid a photographer to capture a horse in motion using a series of cameras and tripwires, and was eventually proved right. Thus the field of biomechanics was born.

Interestingly enough, even though we know now much about how animals move, depictions of motion are often horribly inaccurate. Apparently 41% of museum displays pose their animals incorrectly, and a shocking 63.6% of animal anatomy books depict positions an animal would never adopt in real life. Check out the full article for an interesting read.

Pretty lights and sounds

Peter Bennett, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, has invented a nifty little sequencer that uses ball bearings to place the beat. It’s been doing the rounds (here’s a Telegraph article) so I thought I’d share the video:

Science on the BBC

The BBC are launching a new line up of science programmes on BBC2, starting this year with a four-part series featuring Professor Lesley Regan who will examine the science behind the marketing of drugs, diets, and other health products.

Two more will follow in 2010, with a look at The History of Science (working title), a programme presented by Michael Mosley that will take a look at some of the big scientific milestones, and Seven Wonders of the Solar System, in which Brian Cox will explore space using the magic of CGI. Apparently, another big science announcement from the Beeb is due this month.

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