Archive for March 2009

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 31 March 2009 at 9:58 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

I’d make a pretty rubbish goalie, as I almost let this “formula for” story slip right past me. Last week, the Sun reported that “boffins” have found the formula for a penalty kick that will score every time.

According to “university eggheads” the ball must be kicked at over 65 mph, with a run-up of five or six steps at an angle of 20 to 30 degrees on the ball. When it reaches the goal line, it must be exactly half a metre from both the crossbar and the nearest post. The Sun even provide this handy diagram:

The "perfect" penalty.
The "perfect" penalty.

Now, I’m no football expert, but if the goalie dives to the same side that the ball is aimed at, there is definitely going to be a greater than 0% chance that they occupy that same space half a metre from the goalposts. That puts a hole in the researcher’s “100% success” claim straight away.

Oh, I can’t even pretend any more. This isn’t remotely research – it’s advertising. Despite The Sun’s “exclusive” label, the story appeared much earlier this month on the Sky Sports website. Professor Tim Cable of Liverpool John Moores University found the “formula” – which isn’t actually a formula mind, just a description – using Sky+HD, that well known piece of research equipment.

It gets worse. The perfect penalty formula was actually “discovered” almost three years ago, according to this BBC article. Back then it was mathematician Dr David Lewis, again of Liverpool John Moores University, who made the shocking breakthrough. He actually provided a formula as well: (((X+Y+S)/2)x((T+I+2B)/4))+(V/2)-1.

I’m not even going to bother breaking that mess down. It’s clear that this “formula for” story is making money for someone though, and based on my extensive research of two samples I predict it will next show up around December 2011. Of course if the researchers at Liverpool John Moores need to make a quick buck a little sooner than that, we could see it as early as the Euro 2010 cup. Not that I’m being cynical or anything.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 30 March 2009 at 4:34 pm by Sam Wong
In Climate Change & Environment, Science Policy

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change was published, amid great fanfare, in 2006. The message of the 700 page document, commissioned by Gordon Brown when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, was simple: the cost of failing to act on climate change would be far greater than the cost of taking measures to mitigate it. The report concluded that countries would have to spend at least one per cent of GDP on measures to curb greenhouse gas emissions, or else the consequences of inaction could lead to a 20 per cent reduction in global GDP. Last year the author, economist Sir Nicholas Stern, revised his recommendation for expenditure on mitigation to two per cent.

Naturally the Stern Review was seized upon by the Climate Change lobby as a definitive demonstration that cutting carbon emissions not only made environmental sense but also economic sense. In truth, many academics have criticised the report, saying that its conclusions are based on questionable assumptions.

This is, of course, an inevitable part of trying to predict future economic trends, just as it is in predicting the course of climate change. Both are phenomenally complex systems, and it is therefore impossible to have any great confidence in the precise figures that Stern produced. However, the report undoubtedly had a huge impact in forcing policymakers to consider the economic consequences of ignoring climate change. As Mike Hulme, then director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, said when the report came out, ‘in a sense it’s neither here nor there whether you believe the numbers. This will take the discourse away from the costs of taking action and put attention onto the costs of inaction.’

Of course, since the Stern Review was published, the financial climate has changed dramatically. But Stern says in an interview with the Guardian published today that the recession could even spur on moves towards a low-carbon economy.

‘This recession is seen as something that would prevent action on climate change only if we confuse ourselves. If we think clearly, this is an opportunity to bring forward some of those investments, because resources are a bit cheaper at the moment. I’ve been struck that this climate change story has stayed very much on the agenda, the way that the green stimulus has been seen as part of the expansion package. In the next two or three decades, I think low-carbon technologies are going to be like the railways or IT – big drivers of growth.’

One of the stated aims of the G20 summit in London this week is to ‘put the global economy on track for sustainable growth’. Let us hope that those attending recognise that keeping environmental considerations in mind will be integral to achieving this goal.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 30 March 2009 at 4:34 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

I’ve been writing daily on Just A Theory for just over 7 months now, racking up a total of more than 100,000 words published. I’m pretty pleased with myself, but why should I have all the fun?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be introducing new writers to the blog. They’re all on the Imperial science communication course with me, and will each be posting around once a week. Whilst I will continue to post every day, I might take the occasional break and let the new guys fill in.

My first new blogger is Sam Wong. Sam studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge before enrolling at Imperial, and as such knows much more about biology than I do. His first post will be up in a minute – glad to have you on board Sam!

With the new writers will come a few changes in the blog layout, most notably author images so that you can tell who’s work you’re reading. These will hopefully be implemented in the next few days, so don’t worry if the site has a small amount of downtime. Now I’ll hand over to Sam…

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 30 March 2009 at 1:44 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Research into video games typically examines whether they can cause harm, with scientists trying to determine whether games will turn players into psychopathic killers. It’s nice to see some positive news for a change, with a paper published yesterday in Nature Neuroscience suggesting that video games can actually be used to improve your eyesight.

Researchers at the University of Rochester in New York and Tel Aviv University in Israel were interested in looking at playing video games as a way to improve one’s contrast sensitivity, which is the ability to detect differences in shade of grey on a uniform background. Poor contrast sensitivity is one of the main reasons for bad eyesight, and whilst it can be corrected by glasses or contact lenses it is thought that changes in the brain can also have an effect.

Renjie Li lead a study comparing a group of 10 video game players to a group who did not play video games. All participants were male and aged 19 to 25. It turned out that the gamers showed a slight increase in contrast sensitivity, but that doesn’t necessarily prove anything – it could be that people with better eyesight are more likely to play video games.

To see if the effect could be replicated in non-gamers, the team asked 13 people to play games intensively for a 50 hours over a 9 week period. Six were assigned to Unreal Tournament 2004 and Call of Duty 2, both high-action first person shoot gamers that require quick reflexes in order to defeat your opponents.

The remaining seven were asked to play the more sedate The Sims 2, in which players must build a house and look after a family. As an aside, participants were paid $8/hour for their time – I wonder where I can sign up to get $400 for just playing games?

After 50 hours gaming, those playing house with The Sims 2 showed little variation in their contrast sensitivity. The action gamers however showed a significant improvement, demonstrating that fast-paced games really can give you better eyesight.

The researchers noted in their paper that contrary to popular opinion, “time spent in front of a computer screen is not necessarily detrimental to vision.” They suggest it could be that video games find a place in eye clinics as a complement to existing eye-correction techniques, but I’m not expecting to be handed a controller the next time I got to the opticians.

If first person shooters can help your vision, I wonder what effects other games have? Wii Fit can certainly be used to get into shape, but perhaps other benefits are waiting to be discovered. Until then, I’ll continue playing my Xbox safe in the knowledge that my eyes are improving with with every headshot.

Renjie Li, Uri Polat, Walter Makous, & Daphne Bavelier (2009). Enhancing the contrast sensitivity function through action video game training Nature Neuroscience

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 29 March 2009 at 9:15 am by Jacob Aron
In Education, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

Stunning CT scanner art

Satre Stuelke is an artist and medical student who uses a CT scanner to examine every-day objects in a new way. CT scanners are normally intended for medical imaging, but by using them to create art and inviting others to join him, Stuelke hopes to “plant a seed of scientific creativity in the minds of all those inclined to participate.” I quite like this image of a set of Russian nested dolls:

The CT scanners reveals what's inside these Russian dolls.
The CT scanners reveals what's inside these Russian dolls.

Science exams are slipping

Ofqual, the government body that regulates examinations, has said that an investigation in to the standard of teaching in GCSE science has “raised significant causes for concern.” It said that the exams are not up to standards, and do not offer enough of a challenge to the most able students. The following recommendations were made:

  • Improved quality of questions, to stretch and challenge all students
  • Work, including further training for senior examiners,  to improve the quality of objective tests
  • Tighter marking criteria to ensure that only the answers deserving of the marks are credited
  • Some internal assessment tasks have been revised to ensure better challenge to students and a closer link to the practical work. These changes took effect from last September.
  • Where possible within the existing specifications, the number of options available to candidates has been reduced. 

It’s vital that we keep exam standards high. Ofqual said that mathematics and English literature exams are maintaining their quality, so why has science been allowed to slip?

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3 Comments » Posted on Saturday 28 March 2009 at 8:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Musings

This post has been written to coincide with the start of Earth Hour in the UK. The event, initiated by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), asks people around the world to spend an hour in darkness to support action against climate change. With a worldwide rolling start at 8.30pm local time, the WWF are hoping that a billion people will join together in switching off their lights.

Perhaps you’re already sitting in darkness as you read this post, but I’m not. I disagree with large scale events like Earth Hour, because they actually allow people to ignore the issues. “If I switch my lights off for an hour, I’m saving the planet!” they think, whilst tucking into a processed microwave dinner that they brought back from the supermarket in their gas-guzzling 4×4.

I’m generalising of course, and many of the participants in Earth Hour will already be hardcore eco-warriors. The trouble is, combating climate change will not be solved by large scale gimmicks like this. Everyone must make small and boring changes to their lives which are hard to market with a simple slogan or event, but will collectively make a difference

We must reduce our use of energy in a drastic way, and not just for 60 minutes in a year. You may switch your lights off this evening, but what about the rest of the time? How many people leave unoccupied rooms needlessly lit throughout the year, simply because they forget to flick the switch when they leave? I’m not claiming to be perfect as I sometimes do it myself, but I do make a conscious effort to turn off the lights each and every time I leave the room.

It’s not just lights we need to worry about, as changes must be made in every aspect of our lives. Transport, food, manufacturing – they all need overhauling. Whilst I appreciate that the WWF are using Earth Hour to get people talking about these issues, I worry that many people will simply enjoy an hour in the dark and then get on with their lives, using just as much energy and pumping out just as much carbon as before.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 27 March 2009 at 6:22 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

It’s happened to everyone. You’re out and about, you’ve got some important calls to make, and you remove your phone from your pocket only to find the battery has run out. Thanks to new research, you might one day be able to give the phone a few shakes and be back in business.

Yesterday at the American Chemical Society’s 237th National Meeting, scientists described a technique that could do just that. Using nanotechnology, mechanical energy from the movement of the body could be converted into electrical energy for use in our power-hungry gadgets.

A schematic of a microfiber-nanowire hybrid nanogenerator, which could be used to generate electricty from movement.
A schematic of a microfiber-nanowire hybrid nanogenerator, which could be used to generate electricty from movement.

Using nanowires made from zinc oxide, low-frequency vibrations in the form of body movements, a beating heart, or even just the wind can be converted into electricity. The nanowires are piezoelectric, meaning they generate a current when bent or pressed. They can be grown on many different surfaces, including metal, ceramic, or even clothing fabrics.

Lead researcher Zhong Lin Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology worked with his team to develop the most effective way to convert movement into electricity, and found that zinc oxide nanowires fit the bill.

“This research will have a major impact on defense technology, environmental monitoring, biomedical sciences and even personal electronics,” he said.

“Quite simply, this technology can be used to generate energy under any circumstances as long as there is movement.”

Of course, this technology isn’t just going to be used to keep your mp3 player running. The research was part-funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as the military is keen to exploit the nanogenerators. For troops in the field, far from any energy sources, keeping a radio or other sensor equipment charged could mean the difference between life and death.

We won’t be seeing nanogenerators on the battlefield or in our pockets any time soon, however. Wang says the technology still needs work, particular in improving the power output of the generators. Until then, I recommended plugging in your phone before you go to bed!

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 26 March 2009 at 3:08 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

A new type of biometric identification may soon be joining fingerprint and retina scanners, in the form of X-ray photographs of a person’s knees, according to Lior Shamir of the National Institutes of Health and Salim Rahimi, a computer engineer at State University of New York.

Their report, to be published in the International Journal of Biometrics, suggests that an individual’s knees differ enough from any others to make them of use in identification. Using an algorithm known as wnd-charm, which is normally used to diagnose medical knee joint issues, the authors suggest that knee X-rays are a viable alternative to external biometrics.

Whilst it is possible to fool existing biometrics with fake fingerprints and contact lenses, the pair say it would be much harder for any would-be impersonators to spoof another’s knees. It seems that knees also stay consistent, with X-rays taken several years earlier still suitable for verification purposes.

The new technique doesn’t quite measure up to existing technology, with accuracy results lower than retina or fingerprint identification, though the researchers say refining the wnd-charm algorithm could improve this.

I say don’t bother. I think biometrics are a terrible, terrible idea. They can’t be replaced if someone succeeds in spoofing your identity, as it would be difficult to legally acquire a new set of knees. There is also the issue of those who cannot use their eyes, fingerprints or indeed knees to identify themselves, because they don’t have them. In a society where knee-ID becomes the norm, how could such people function?

Finally, X-raying people’s knees repeatedly to authenticate them sounds like a really bad idea. Multiple exposures to X-rays is incredibly dangerous, which is why your dentist will hide behind a protective screen when scanning your teeth.

The average person will be exposed to relatively small doses of X-rays during their life, so there is no need to worry about routine medical procedures. Biometric techniques however must be used all the time if they are to be of any use, and scanning knees in this way would undoubtedly cause health issues. The authors suggest terahertz imaging in the place of X-rays could offer more precise data, and it would also solve the problem of repeated exposure. I wonder though, do we really want to be asked “Can I see your knees, please?” at every security checkpoint? No thanks.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 25 March 2009 at 10:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Musings

Scientists who submit too many unsuccesful reasearch proposals could be blacklisted by Britain’s largest research council. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s new rules state that researchers who have submitted three or more bids for funding that are ranked “low” by the review panel will not be allowed any further applications for one year. The same will apply to those with a 25% or less success rate at applying for grants.

The EPSRC say the move will help manage demand for research grants when resources are limited, but scientists aren’t happy – particularly chemists. A statement from the Royal Society of Chemistry laid out their fears:

“The Royal Society of Chemistry is concerned about the way that the UK’s primary science funding body for chemistry is introducing new measures which have resulted in anger in parts of the chemistry community.

The RSC said that chemists in the UK could find it difficult to continue with research, and that young up-and-coming scientists may find it difficult to establish their research careers.

University departments could have to close as a result of the EPSRC’s decision, says organic chemist Karl Hale. If universities find that a significant number of their scientists have been blacklisted, they will effectively have to shut down due to lack of funding.

David Reid, head of communications at the EPSRC, responded to the critics:

“We’re facing a 3% to 5% shortfall in funding available for blue-skies research.

“A small number of people put a disproportionate burden on the peer-review system. We’re talking about weeding out consistently low-quality proposals.

“Chemists have a culture of putting in lots of short, small proposals to us. We would like to see chemists be more ambitious in their proposals and work hard on one or two bigger proposals in a year.”

In other words, grant money is tight in our credit-crunched age, and the EPSRC staff have had enough of being tied up processing all the applications they get. I don’t think this is the solution to their problem though, as it will only serve to hurt science.

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2 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 24 March 2009 at 8:14 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong

I’ve just got time for a quick post this morning before I dash off to Imperial. We are finally handing in our group projects, so the whole day will be spent watching people present – and presenting my own, of course. Hopefully I’ll have some picture up in a few days.

For now, have a look at this video which depicts protein translation using stop-motion Lego animation:

The video was created by Kathy Vandiver, director of the Community Outreach and Education Program at MIT’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences, and is just one of a series of animations about cellular processes. They’re used as teaching aids for school-aged and adult students, but whilst I think it looks pretty cool (I’m always up for a bit of stop-motion) I don’t think it’s a very good example of science communication.

For one thing, I have absolutely no idea what is happening here. For that, I have to turn to the accompanying article in Popular Science magazine:

It shows translation, which is a cellular process in which proteins are synthesized. The piece of mRNA (messenger RNA) at the bottom of the video contains genetic information for building a protein. Each codon, which is a nucleotide triplet, in the mRNA sequence codes for an amino acid, which are the building blocks of proteins.

I’m confident enough that I have a working knowledge of biology to be able to write about it, but the last time I actually studied the subject was for my GCSEs. If I don’t get it, I don’t see how students currently working at GCSE level are meant to.

Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, as the videos are only meant to serve as an introduction at the beginning of a class. In that setting, I could see how they would work. Watching them out of context however, and I’m left baffled. What do you make of it?

Comments Off Posted on Monday 23 March 2009 at 5:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings, Science Policy

Nobel Prize winner Dr. Steven Chu is the US’s new energy secretary, appointed by President Obama earlier this year. This NYT article on his transition from physicist to policy maker makes for interesting reading.

Dr. Chu is finding his move from Stanford’s physics department to Washington like being “dumped in the deep end of the pool”. He says “I didn’t appreciate how much of a public figure you become,” as he struggles with no longer being able to speak his mind:

“I’m constantly being told that I have to be careful what I say to the press and in public. I can’t speculate out loud anymore. Everything I say is taken with total seriousness.”

His difficulty in adjusting highlights the difference between scientists and politicians. The scientist will do a lot of thinking, explore different possibilities and generally take their time. In contrast, the politician is expected to have all the answers at their fingertips and never put a foot wrong.

Dan Leistikow, the Energy Department’s director of public affairs, thinks we should allow Dr. Chu time to make the change. “A Nobel scientist is more likely to figure out Washington than a career politician is to figure out how to deal with carbon sequestration,” he said.

It seems though that politics really is a different world for Dr. Chu, as he finds that even Newton’s first law of motion doesn’t apply. Newton said that any object in motion will remain in motion, without the need for an external force. Not so in Washington. “In a bureaucracy, if you start something in motion, it either stops or gets derailed,” said Dr. Chu. “You have to keep applying force.”

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 22 March 2009 at 3:27 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Prince Charles, Told Off

Prince Charles’s Duchy Originals company, which recently hit the headlines with its false “detox” claims, has been .

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) informed Duchy Originals they must change the product description on their website. The MHRA granted Duchy Originals a license to sell their products, but not to make claims on their effects. At time of writing, the product page remains unchanged.

Underwater volcano

Earlier this week a volcano off the coast Tonga erupted from in the Pacific Ocean. This spectacular display has resulted in the formation of a new island, made up of pumice as the result of emerging lava and gas.

To the stratosphere on just £56

The curvature of the Earth is clearly visible in this photo taken by four Spanish schoolboys from their weather balloon.
The curvature of the Earth is clearly visible in this photo taken by four Spanish schoolboys from their weather balloon.

Four students at a Spanish school have capture images of the stratosphere using a weather balloon and camera that cost just £56. Whilst there is no clear boundary between the Earth and outer space, the stratosphere is defined to be between 20 and 50km above sear level.

Aged between 18 and 19, the students attend the IES La Bisbal school in Catalonia. Gerard Marull Paretas, Sergi Saballs Vila, Marta­ Gasull Morcillo and Jaume Puigmiquel Casamort were “overwhelmed” with their results, and had to travel 10km to find the balloon when it eventually came crashing back to Earth.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 21 March 2009 at 12:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) this week declared that all MIT papers will be freely published online and be readable by all. The MIT faculty voted unanimously to approve the motion, demonstrating a strong commitment to open access.

The rules will apply only to papers published since Wednesday, which was when the vote took place. This decision makes MIT, which is one of the top ten universities in the world, the first institution to promise full access to all of its research papers. All such articles will be held in MIT’s own online repository.

Individual researchers will however be allowed to opt-out of the open access scheme. This is in order to allow publication in journals that wont allow work to be distributed elsewhere. Harold Abelson, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and part of the committee that made the decision, thinks that the opt-out will be used “a fair amount” initially.

He hopes though that the new policy will allow MIT to use its prestigious standing in the academic community to negotiate new terms with publishing companies. MIT is also hoping to avoid paying journal subscription fees, often necessary for simply accessing their own papers. In 2007 the university spent three-and-a-half times more on subscriptions than in 1986; the new measures will attempt to combating this price increase.

MIT will now look to other universities to follow in their footsteps. Although some departments at Stanford and Harvard already have similar policies in place, Abelson sees this as just the beginning:

“It’s going to take a while to work things out. Even though MIT, Harvard, and Stanford are big places in terms of the amount of published papers, in the world of research, they represent a small fraction of published papers.”

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 20 March 2009 at 12:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Kids like sweets, and parents everywhere know that the best way to placate the screaming little darlings is to reach for the sugar. New research has show that children’s craving for sweet-tasting foods actually has a biological basis, thanks to their high growth rate.

Scientists at the University of Washington and the Monell Center investigate the preference for sweets of 143 children between the ages of 11 and 15. They also looked at biological measures of growth and physical maturation.

Their findings, reported in the journal Physiology & Behavior, indicate that when children are young and growing they have a heightened sweet tooth, which fades as they age and their growth spurts slow down.

“The relationship between sweet preference and growth makes intuitive sense because when growth is rapid, caloric demands increase. Children are programmed to like sweet taste because it fills a biological need by pushing them towards energy sources,” said Monell geneticist Danielle Reed, PhD, one of the study authors.

Using sensory taste tests, the researchers were able to classify children into two groups; those with a high preference for sweet tastes, and those with low preference. The low preference group were also found to have lower levels of type I collagen cross-linked N-teleopeptides, a biomarker associated with bone growth in children and adolescents.

They also confirmed that the onset of puberty and increased sex hormone levels were not associated with sweet preference, indicating a stronger link with physical growth.

“This gives us the first link between sweet preference and biological need,” said Reed. “When markers of bone growth decline as children age, so does their preference for highly sweet solutions.”

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 19 March 2009 at 1:51 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

Seems that I’m having a bit of a Beeb week. Having just finished the “Science and Fiction” module of my course, I was interested to read this BBC news article on four science fictions authors and their relationship with science fact.

Ken MacLeod, author of the Fall Revolution and Engine of Light books, says that scientific accuracy in sci-fi is important, but only up to a point. Get a well-known scientific principle wrong and readers will view you as incompetent, but focus on scientific minutiae and you risk being incomprehensible.

Paul Cornell has written many Doctor Who novels in addition to working on the TV series. He views science fiction as a form of satire, and currently in crisis. The shared view of a future with bases on the Moon and robots in every home has failed to emerge, whilst technologies like artificial intelligence and faster than light travel may never happen. Writers should instead concentrate on examining what happens when the human race exhausts an Earth with limited resources.

Iain Banks writes both sci-fi novels and mainstream fiction. He likes to stay informed on the latest science news, reading New Scientist and Scientific American, and will sometimes incorporate ideas from real world developments into his books. On the other hand, he likes to break as many laws as he can – especially faster than light travel. Ultimately, he approaches science fiction with a “general respect for science”.

Lastly there’s Ian Watson, who has written a great manner sci-fi books. He thinks that “zaniness” is very important in science fiction, and just sticking to the facts leads to boring stories. He also wonders whether, if we ever do meet aliens, will they have science fiction writers?

At the moment my favourite piece of science fiction is probably Battlestar Galactica, a television series in which humanity is reduced to a rag-tag fleet of spaceships, struggling to survive extermination at the hands of their own creation. The Cylons, originally metallic robots designed to serve the humans, have since “evolved” to appear human themselves, and they’re determined to destroy their makers.

There series features FTL drives, space battles and the aforementioned robots, but it’s really a show about people, politics and religion. If you’re interested in finding out mroe, the Guardian have an article today singing its praises. Well worth a watch.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 18 March 2009 at 12:48 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Musings

The BBC have a very thought provoking article on vaccines from Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol. He talks about our society’s need to classify things as “good” or “bad, “natural” or “unnatural” – vaccines often falling in the latter category. What exactly is “natural” though? Finn presents the following list and asks us to decide which is natural:

  • 1 – toilet rolls made from recycled paper
  • 2 – supermarket plastic bags you chuck away after one use
  • 3 – flying first class to New York to go shopping
  • 4 – walking to the top of a Welsh mountain
  • 5 – eating an apple you just picked in your garden
  • 6 – eating a microwaved preprepared dinner

He expects that we would pick options 1, 4 and 5. I might quibble about 1 – toilet paper seems very “unnatural” to me, even if it is recycled – but 4 and 5 fit my personal definition. He then argues that if we take natural to mean “the way it used to be before modern civilisation came along”, none of these things fit the definition. I’ll agree that the cultivation of apples has been changed by modern civilisation, but walking to the top of mountain? Not sure how that has changed, which does weaken his argument slightly.

Ultimately, I think it’s a pretty pointless distinction to make. “Natural” is not that far removed from “the way God intended”, which is certainly not an argument I want to get into. Much of the rest of the article is devoted to explaining why vaccines could be considered more “natural” than prescribing pills or performing surgery, but it is the very end that really got me thinking:

Look around any room crowded with young and middle-aged adults – next time you go to see a film for example – and imagine scores of empty seats that would be there if all those whose lives had been saved by vaccines were suddenly to vanish.

Imagine all your family and friends and then, arbitrarily, remove or cripple one in 20.

This image instantly hit me. I could picture sitting in a cinema and watching 5% of the people around me fading away. At a very rough estimate, using a population figure of 40 million aged 15-64, 2 million people are alive and healthy today because of vaccination – in other words, twice the population of Birmingham. If that’s not a convincing argument for vaccination, I’m not sure what is.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 17 March 2009 at 5:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings, Science Policy

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Dius) is pressing the Treasury to follow in President Obama’s footsteps and promise more money for science. Dius wants an extra £1 billion to be pumped into scientific research, compared to the $21 billion (£15 billion) spent in the US economic stimulus package.

It may be small change compared to the banker’s bailouts, but ministers say without the money Britain will be left behind when it comes to scientific advances as scientists move abroad to countries with better funding. The money would be spent on new research centres, funding more young scientists, and developing new technologies for use in industry.

Various scientific funding bodies have supported the move. Speaking to BBC News, Nick Dusic of the Campaign for Science and Engineering said:

“President Obama has led the way by making investment in science and engineering central to US’s economic recovery and future prosperity.

“If there is going to be an economic stimulus package in the spring budget, science and engineering needs to be a central part of it.”

More money for science is always going to be a good thing in my book, but can we afford it? Well, we’ve spent almost £150 billion bailing out the banks – a fifth of Britain’s GDP. In this new financial landscape £1 billion seems like nothing, and the potential benefits to the economy mean it could pay for itself. New laboratories mean new buildings, new jobs and new opportunities for lucrative technologies.

“Investing in science and engineering would help address the government’s ambition to rebalance the economy,” Mr Dusic said.

“The government could complement boosting the supply of scientists with priming demand for it by facilitating investment in infrastructure projects and venture capital.”

So, will the Chancellor cough up the cash? We’ll have to wait see, as negotiations are ongoing.

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3 Comments » Posted on Monday 16 March 2009 at 7:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Health & Medicine

Last Sunday I said “Scientists, I know it’s tricky, but please figure out a cure for the common cold at some point in my lifetime.” I’m actually still a bit ill, with the cold hanging on as a nasty wheezing cough.

I’m not the only one of course – it’s called the “common” cold for a reason. It is reported that people taking days off to get over their colds cost the US economy $40 billion a year, so why haven’t we found a cure yet?

Blame Darwin. Or rather, evolution. Viruses, such as the rhinovirus that causes colds, multiply incredibly quickly. With each new generation of the cold viruses, natural selection means that the most resilient (and thus hardest to cure) survive.

Matters are made worse by the diversity of the rhinovirus. There are more than 100 continuously evolving subspecies, each of which can give you a bunged up head and a few days off work. Compare that number to the polio virus, which has just three subspecies, and it’s easy to see why we haven’t eradicated the common cold in the same manner as polio.

Evolution may be to blame for the rhinovirus resilience, but our understanding of Darwin’s theory could help us conquer it eventually. A study by researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah, examined the rhinovirus genome in search of clues.

Using computer modelling, they were able to identify the sections of the genome that provide the virus with its resistance. In the evolutionary arms race, the rhinovirus has developed to evade detection by our immune systems. Keith Crandall, professor of biology at the university, was co-author of the study:

“The virus is evolving solutions against the immune system and drugs,” Crandall said. “The more we can learn about how the virus evolves solutions, the better we can rid the body of these infections.”

It’s not a cure, but it’s another stepping stone on the way. Without Darwin, work like this would be impossible as we would have no understanding of how viruses can adapt to our immune defences. By studying the rhinovirus genome, we can try to stay one step ahead of evolution and beat the cold for good. Hopefully by then I’ll have stopped coughing.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 15 March 2009 at 6:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Webcams in spaaace!

NASA have stuck a webcam on the outside of the International Space Station, so that we can watch the world go by. The camera will normally transmit 6pm to 6am GMT, whilst the astronauts inside are asleep. Outside of this time, you’ll see a map of the world showing the current location of the ISS, streamed in from Mission Control in Houston. Pretty cool.

The Map of Science

Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have created a “Map of Science“, which describes how different areas of science link together. Similar projects have been undertaken before, but the team lead by Johan Bollen took a new approach.

“This research will be a crucial component of future efforts to study and predict scientific innovation, as well novel methods to determine the true impact of articles and journals,” Bollen said.

Rather than relying on citations in papers to find links, the new method tracked user requests for online scientific papers. By observing how scientists would hop from one paper to another, Bollen and team were able to study the network of articles and journals.

Whilst the citation method typically places the natural sciences at the centre, this latest map gives prominence to the humanities and social sciences. These areas can act as interdisciplinary bridges that can connect otherwise unrelated areas of science. The map could also be used to indicate emerging relationships between scientific areas, such as ecology and architecture.

What’s the risk?

I stumbled across this interesting tool for exploring risk. As regular readers will know, I can get quite cross about the confusion between relative risk and absolute risk. By playing with this little application, you’ll easily be able to get an understanding of the difference.

The tool allows you to display in various ways the increased risk of cancer from eating bacon sandwiches. There are of course options for relative vs absolute, but you can also choose to see the results in text form, pictorially, or as a variety of graphs. Have a go, and hopefully you’ll find it useful

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 14 March 2009 at 11:50 am by Jacob Aron
In Mathematics

Yes, today is Pi Day, a day for people all around the world to get together and celebrate the number π.

A pi pie, of course.
A pi pie, of course.

As I’ve discussed before π is an irrational number, meaning that when expressed as a decimal it goes on forever. I normally stick to 3.14 as the value for π. This explains why March 14th is designated Pi Day, as in the American date system it is 3/14. For those of us elsewhere August 22nd is perhaps a more suitable Pi Day, since 22/7 is a commonly used approximation for π.

If you think about it, π is a pretty strange concept. Why should the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter be this ethereal number that we can’t even write down? The symbol “π” is the only true way of expressing π, because any decimal representations – even this file of 1.25 million digits of π isn’t really correct – although the level of approximation is far beyond what you would ever need for practical calculations!

When I first found out about π, I wondered why we couldn’t just say it was 3. Surely, I thought, something could be done to tame this beast of a number. Indeed, in 1897 an effort was made in Indiana to legislate π in to submission, decreeing it equal to 3.2!

Such efforts are in vain. It is a truism to say “π = π” of course, but it’s a fact that we can never change. Perhaps in some strange parallel universe π = 3, but it’s hard for me to even wrap my mind around.

I guess then we’re stuck with π. It’s no bad thing really, as π can be an incredibly useful number in all sorts of calculations. It even has a starring role in my favourite, Euler’s equation. So, have a piece of pie on Pi Day, but be sure to measure the ratio of the circumference to the diameter before you tuck in. If it’s not π, something has gone wrong…

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 13 March 2009 at 5:51 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, may I present to you yet another science rap!

This latest addition to the ever-growing ranks of science raps is “Regulatin’ Genes” from two biologists at Stanford, Derrick Davis and Tom McFadden. Speaking to the New York Times, McFadden says that whilst the lyrics are original, the song is a parody of “Money Ain’t a Thang” by Jay-Z.

I must admit that unlike the classic LHC rap, I struggled a little in following all of the science, but perhaps that’s just because my biology knowledge is lacking!

The key idea here is Hox genes. These genes control, or regulate, the formation of the body. Without Hox genes your arms wouldn’t know where on your body to grow! For example, people who are born with extra fingers or toes have a mutated Hox gene.

In the official list of science raps, I think I’ll place Regulatin’ Genes a firm second behind the LHC rap. Can anyone knock the reigning champion from the top of the charts? These guys have some other raps, but Regulatin’ Genes is definitely their best so far. I’ll be keeping an eye out for any new material to see if they can have another crack at first place…

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 12 March 2009 at 8:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right

A few months ago Alom Shaha asked me to contribute to his “Why is science important?” project. I, like many others, submitted an answer to his website, but the site was only one part of the project. Alom has now completed the accompanying film, and you can view it online for free.

I’ve had a watch, and I’m really impressed. When Alom first told me about the project, I wasn’t quite sure how the website was going to link in to the film – would it just provide more information for interested viewers? It turns out that the website is really the star of the film, with Alom using it to work out just why science is important.

Many of the website contributors, such as Susan Blackmore and Adam Hart-Davis, pop up in the film to reiterate their message. Others make their way into the film with choice quotes from the website, including yours truly.

I can tell Alom had a lot of fun making this film. He gets to run on hot coals, take a spin in a giant centrifuge, and travel the country in search of an answer. It’s been produced for Teacher’s TV, so is understandably a little classroom focused at times, but I enjoyed the chance to have another think about this thing we call science.

My original answer for Alom took me a number of drafts, and I still wasn’t quite satisfied with it. Alom’s effort lets the viewer hear from a range of people and figure it out for themselves – it’s definitely helped me refine my thoughts.

As a follower of everything Web2.0, I’m also intrigued by the idea of linking a website to a film. Don’t look out for Just A Theory: The Movie at your local cinema any time soon, but I’ve definitely got a few ideas brewing…

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 11 March 2009 at 1:34 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

Prince Charles has come under fire for his range of food supplements, the health claims of which have been labelled “outright quackery”.

Edzard Ernst, who is professor of complementary medicine at Exeter University, says that the Prince is contributing to the ill-health of the nation by promoting the “detox” and “quick fix” lifestyle, whilst ignoring scientific information.

Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture is just one of the many products sold by the Prince’s company, Duchy Originals, which was established in 1990. The tincture, which contains artichoke and dandelion, is said by the company to “to help support the body’s natural elimination and detoxification processes, and help maintain healthy digestion.”

Artichoke is described as “a well known vegetable that can be used in a variety of different dishes, and is also a well known digestive aid.” Clearly it is so “well known” that no evidence is needed to back up this claim.

Amusingly, Duchy Originals say nothing about the medicinal benefits of dandelion, although it “can be included in salads, the dried roots can be used as a coffee substitute, and it is also used to flavour herb beers and soft drinks.” Yummy.

Andrew Baker, chief executive of Duchy Originals, took objection to Ernst’s statements:

“Duchy Herbals Detox Tincture contains globe artichoke and dandelion, which both have a long history of traditional use for aiding digestion. There is no ‘quackery’, no ‘make believe’, no ‘superstition’ in any of the Duchy Originals herbal tinctures. We find it unfortunate that Professor Ernst should chase sensationalist headlines in this way rather than concentrating on accuracy and objectivity.”

Ernst answers that whilst there is some evidence that artichoke can lower your cholesterol, other substances perform better – and dandelions are completely useless. He believes that it is wrong to sell these detox potions – mainly because they don’t work. No studies exist to demonstrate their effects on toxins in the blood, because the effectively do nothing.

This isn’t the first time Prince Charles has been called out on scientific accuracy – I wrote about his misconceptions on GM food last year – and it’s not the first time Ernst has clashed with the Prince either. He believes he almost lost his job in 2005, after being accused of breaking a confidentiality agreement by Clarence House, official residence of the Prince. He commented to a newspaper that findings of a Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Medicine report on alternative therapies and the NHS was “outrageous and deeply flawed”.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 10 March 2009 at 9:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry

This will be the last short post for a while, I promise! Today I’m leaving you in the capable hands of Professor Julius Sumner Miller. Well before my time I’m afraid, but when I saw this video recently I was both amused and entertained. Whether it’s the ominous music at the beginning, the incredibly low frame rate, or Miller’s absolutely manic style, there’s something quite charming about this video on evaporation, boiling and freezing:

Part 1

Part 2

I’m yet to watch the other videos of him on YouTube, but hope to get to it soon. See you tomorrow, for some “proper” posts!

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 9 March 2009 at 9:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Physics

I wish I had more time this evening to write about this wonderful video:

Forget your science raps, science musical puppet theatre is where it’s at. This delightful tune about nanotechnology is in aid of the What is Nano? competition, and has a website detailing the making of the video. Quality stuff.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 8 March 2009 at 7:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Physics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Scientists, I know it’s tricky, but please figure out a cure for the common cold at some point in my lifetime. Todays’ post is less of a roundup and more of list of links – I’m hoping that normal service will resume on Wednesday, when both my cold and essays should be a thing of the past! Here we go:

A newly discovered species of tree has been named Sorbus Admonitor or “No parking” after the sign stuck to the first known sample. Discovered in the 1930s in Watersmeet in North Devon, it is only recently that a biochemical analysis has identified it as a distinct species.

The state of Illinois has declared that Pluto is still a planet, despite the 2006 ruling by the International Astronomical Union that downclassed it to “dwarf planet”.

Don’t miss your chance to bid on Einstein’s doctorate diploma. Issued 15 January 1906 by Zurich University’s school of mathematics and natural sciences, bidding will start at around SFr20,000-SFr30,000 ($17,340-$26,000).

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 7 March 2009 at 10:19 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Mathematics

If you’re not already reading xkcd, then you should be. It’s full of gems like this one:

I sometimes wonder whether the first ten minutes of every school science class shouldn’t be just the chanting of “correlation does not imply causation” until everyone has it burned into their brains. So many misunderstandings of science would be cleared up.

Autism on the rise? Increased use of the MMR vaccine? Yes, there is correlation. Without an underlying mechanism however, there is no causation – and that’s where the science happens. We don’t really care that two things are happening at the same time unless there is something connecting the two. If there is, well designed experiments will help us figure it out.

Sometimes events are just correlated, nothing more. So, the next time someone tells you that Facebook gives you cancer or some other nonsense disguised as statistics, ask them to explain how exactly one causes another. Now, excuse me whilst I return to my morning chant…

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 6 March 2009 at 6:08 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Happenings

It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, which is no doubt why the British Science Association’s website for National Science and Engineering Week announces, without a hint of irony:

National Science and Engineering Week (NSEW) is a ten day celebration of science, engineering and technology which will run from the 6 – 15 March 2009.

Emphasis mine, of course. Joking aside, there’s all sorts of sci-comm events to be had. You can join the Save our Bees campaign, discuss your thoughts with scientists and engineers at the Change Exchange, or check out one of the many other events in this comprehensive database. There are also science festivals in Cambridge, York, Newcastle and Oxfordshire.

Unfortunately, it couldn’t have come at a worse time for me. Smack bang in the middle of essaymania, it looks like I’ll be missing out. Well, time to get back to it…

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 5 March 2009 at 7:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy

Hopefully you didn’t notice, but yesterday’s post was of the “here’s one I prepared earlier” variety. I’m smack in the middle of the busy period that began a few weeks ago, with two essays due next Tuesday, so being able to fall back on pre-written posts is always nice.

The reason for that rather rambling intro is that today I was amused to stumble across even more astronomy software! Coincidences, eh? Robert Simpson, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University, has been working on scripts for Google Earth, Google Sky and Twitter.

If you’re a Google Earth user you can import his data to show you the current location of satellites in orbit around Earth. This includes the International Space Station (ISS), the Hubble Space Telescope, and even space junk. If you spot some satellites of your own, you can input the time and place, and the software will calculate a trajectory for you.

Google Sky, the outer space aspect of Google Earth that is also available online, gets its own additions. Using information from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope SCUBA data, Simpson’s add-on will overlay thermal maps of space dust on to the visible spectrum.

Finally, everyone’s favourite Web 2.0 application Twitter gets in on the action. Subscribe to one of the many Twitter feeds for cities from Amsterdam to Vancouver (and a few others I’ve never heard of) and you will be alerted when the ISS and other objects of interest are about to pass over. The feeds give around a 30 minute warning and tell you where to point your telescope. Cleverly, you’ll only get a tweet when the weather is good enough for satellites to be visible. Neat stuff!

I’m increasingly geeking out over the possibilities of Twitter and other web applications for communicating science, so I just had to take a break from essaying to point these cool toys out. I’m afraid you can expect slightly slimmer pickings over the next few days, though I will hopefully still be putting something up daily.

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3 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 4 March 2009 at 9:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review, Space & Astronomy

It may have slipped by you with all the Darwinmania that’s about, but 2009 is also the International Year of Astronomy. With that in mind, I thought I’d take a look at some of the software out there that can allow you to explore the universe to your heart’s content.

Now, there really is no substitute for the real thing; a night’s sky crammed with stars truly is a wondrous sight to behold, but unfortunately I’ve only ever experienced it on rare holidays to the middle of nowhere. If you live in a city like London, a combination of cloud cover and light pollution mean it’s hard to even see the brightest stars on most days.

Enter Stellarium and Celestia, two free open source simulations of space with two slightly different approaches.


Stellarium is a planetarium for your computer. The slick interface allows you to select any location on Earth from which to view the stars, as well as a whole host of other options.

Stellarium after the initial load (click for bigger)
Stellarium after the initial load (click for bigger)

You can move about the sky at will, zooming in on objects of interest at any point in time – controllable at will, backwards and forwards. As you can see from the initial image, I couldn’t see much to begin with – it was day time! After a bit of fiddling, such as removing the atmosphere and adding in some labelling, I was able to come up with this:

That's more like it (click for bigger)
That's more like it (click for bigger)

There are a whole host of other options however, such as some rather nice constellation art – and not just Western constellations. Other cultures have their own starlore, and Stellarium can accommodate many other celestial join-the-dots. You can even change the ground view from the default field to a few other options – including the view from a Mars rover.

Stellarium is a very nice piece of software, and the ease of use is especially impressive considering it is currently at the very early version 0.10.0! My only criticism is that it’s very Earth-centric – exploring the galaxy (or beyond) is a little tricky. To be fair, that’s because Stellarium is designed to be used from the Earth’s point of view, unlike our next piece of software.


Would you like the entire universe on your desktop? That’s what Celestia offers – well, not quite. Memory limitations mean the “universe” is cut short at about 16,000 light-years from the Sun, but a fully 3D representation of even this relativity small section of space is pretty impressive.

Celestia's default view (click for bigger)
Celestia's default view (click for bigger)

You’re not just shackled to Earth, either. A few keyboard commands will send you whizzing off in any direction, travelling at anywhere from walking speed to much faster than light. The entire solar system is modelled in 3D, as is much of the rest of the galaxy.

As with Stellarium, Celestia allows you to manipulate time to your whims at a number of speeds – although the date will freeze at the year 5,874,774! Also included are a guided tour of the solar system, and an eclipse finder, demonstrated below.

An eclipse due to take place later this year, simulated in Celestia (click for bigger)
An eclipse due to take place later this year, simulated in Celestia (click for bigger)

Celestia is much less use friendly than Stellarium, however. Not much can be done with the mouse, so I was forced to leave the list of keyboard commands on screen (as you can see above) which rather spoils the view. Having said that, once you get to grips with it Celestia is the more powerful of the two programs.

In addition to natural phenomena, Celestia can also display a number of man-made objects up in the sky. I enjoyed watching the International Space Station floating serenely over the Earth’s surface – it’s seriously tiny. If that’s not enough, you can add to the default object set with a series of add-ons – even fictional places from Star Wars and Star Trek!


It’s hard to choose between these two great pieces of software, as they both have their strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, it’s a toss up between depth and dedication. If you just want a quick look at some stars, plum for Stellarium with its easy interface. On the other hand, for a galaxy and more at your fingertips, Celestia is your answer, provided you take the time to learn to use it.

I will add one caveat: as I said before, Stellarium is still fairly early on in development. Hopefully as the software improves more features will be added, and if so it might just pull ahead. Even so, both programs are a great way to admire the stars.

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 3 March 2009 at 3:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Musings

Yesterday saw the Guardian announce four new columnists with a twist – they’re all scientists. Well, sort of.

Simon Singh holds a PhD in particle physics (and is a personal hero of mine), but in his own words he is an author, journalist and TV producer. I hope Simon will forgive me if I’m underselling him, but I think he’s firmly in the “science communicator” camp, rather than a practising scientist. Not that it really matters anyway, as he kicks off the column with an article on football fans who happen to also be mathematicians.

Next up we have Chris French, who I’m afraid I’ve not heard of. He’s professor of psychology at Goldsmith’s, University of London and in charge of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit. It’s sort of like the X-Files, if Scully were always right.

Third is Andy Miah, professor of ethics and emerging technologies at the University of the West of Scotland and another new face for me. Amongst other things, he’s interested in the effect of the internet on people’s perceptions of health and disease – perhaps he has something to say about Facebook’s ability to cause cancer.

Rounding out the quartet is PZ Myers of (in the Guardian’s words) “the ever-amazing Pharyngula blog“. Though I think it might be heresy to admit, I find Pharyngula incredibly dull. Perhaps it’s just that my tongue falls out if I attempt to pronounce the name, but if I wanted to read a blog on an atheist’s battle with religion, I would – and I probably wouldn’t look at a website called ScienceBlogs.

Small rant aside, I’m looking forward to what the new columnists have to say. It seems that the Guardian is following their own Ben Goldacre’s advice: less science writers, but more science editors, and let the scientists speak for themselves.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 2 March 2009 at 8:01 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine

A new method for creating stem cells could see life-saving research move forwards, thanks to a team of scientists in the UK and Canada.

Stem cells are sought after because they can be turned into any type of cell in the human body, potentially providing great medical benefits. There are two types – embryonic, and adult.

Working with embryonic stem cells can be very problematic for scientists, as producing them involves the destruction of human embryos, which religious groups and others object to on moral grounds.

Up until now, scientists have attempted to avoid the issue by using viruses to revert adult stem cells to an embryonic state. This method is not without problems however, as the genetically reprogrammed cells were liable to contain genes which cause cancer, making them unusable for human transplantation.

Two teams led by Dr Keisuke Kaji from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh and Dr Andras Nagy from the University of Toronto worked together to eliminate the need for viruses by modifying adult human skin cells.

The new process was discovered after a chance meeting between the two men. They realised they had each solved half of the puzzle, and worked together to produce adult stem cells that behave exactly like embryonic ones.

Dr Kaji and colleagues had discovered a way to insert the four necessary genes into a cell in one go, but not how to remove them fully. Meanwhile, Dr Nagy’s team had figured out how to remove the necessary genes from a cell once they had been inserted, but not how to get them there in the first place. By joining forces, they could carry out both tasks successfully. Dr Kaji said:

“I was very excited when I found stem cell-like cells in my culture dishes. Nobody, including me, thought it was really possible. This new method will advance the field of regenerative medicine, and should help understand diseases and test new drugs.

“It is a step towards the practical use of reprogrammed cells in medicine, perhaps even eliminating the need for human embryos as a source of stem cells.”

With this discovery following President Obama lifting his predecessor’s ban on stem cell research shortly after taking office earlier this year, things are certainly looking up for scientists.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 1 March 2009 at 12:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

I’ve just realised that “Weekly” Roundup is something of a misnomer if I post one on a Saturday and a Sunday. Oh well!

Could “sprites” explain UFOs?

Scientists at Tel Aviv University in Israel have identified how a natural phenomenon that could explain sightings of UFOs is formed.

A sprite appears! About 30 miles high and 30 miles wide, the strange light show is a brief occurrence.
A sprite appears! About 30 miles high and 30 miles wide, the strange light show is a brief occurrence.

Dubbed “sprites” they were first observed by accident in 1989, and appear as brief flashes high in the atmosphere anywhere from 35 to 80 miles above the ground, unlike regular lighting bolts which occur around 7 to 10 miles up. Prof. Colin Price of the Geophysics and Planetary Sciences Department lead the research:

“Lightning from the thunderstorm excites the electric field above, producing a flash of light called a sprite,” explains Prof. Price.

“We now understand that only a specific type of lightning is the trigger that initiates sprites aloft.”

“Sprites, which only occur in conjunction with thunderstorms, never occur on their own, and are cousins to similar natural phenomenon dubbed by atmospheric electricians as ‘elves,’ ‘goblins’ and ‘trolls,’”

Why do we go grey? Hair dye I know?

Well, I know because a group of scientists have discovered that hair bleaches itself as we get older. Hydrogen peroxide, commonly used by bottle blondes, is produced naturally by hair cells. As we get older, this natural concentration increases and overwhelms the production of melanin, the usual pigment of hair. The result – grey.

The discovery was made by examining human hair follicle cells. The hydrogen peroxide build-up was caused by a enzyme that would normally break it up into hydrogen and oxygen. This has a knock-on effect on other enzymes that results in a disruption of melanin production. The research was published in the FASEB Journal.

Behind the scenes at a natural history museum

Seed magazine have an interesting article about “the hidden side of natural history museums”, and all the specimens that the public never get to see. Words are great’n'all, but what really grabbed me were the pictures from the American Museum of Natural History. Lockers of elephant feet, rhinoceros hides and a wardrobe of leopard skins await you, but this has got to be the strangest of all:

Weird and wonderful. Image by Justine Cooper.
Weird and wonderful. Image by Justine Cooper.
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