Archive for April 2009

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 30 April 2009 at 4:34 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

Two papers published in Nature this week give a troubling warning: we’re half of the way to a 2 °C rise in global temperatures. The reports say that such a rise will occur once a trillion tonnes of carbon have been released into the atmosphere, and we’re already half a trillion deep since the industrial revolution.

It’s taken a couple of hundred years to get this far, but with current emissions averaging about 9 billion tons a year and rising, we’re set to hit the trillion mark in just 40 years time. This effectively sets a framework for world leaders to agree on a “carbon budget”: we’ve got no more than a half-trillion tonnes to spend, and it’s got to be shared out somehow.

Parallels with the recession are inevitable. Governments overspent and banks over lent, and now we must adjust to the realisation that we’re not as rich as we thought. In the same way, rapid industrialisation has been one big extravagant carbon party, but now it’s the following morning and we’ve just realised how much we’ve spent.

How then do we go about paying our carbon bill? If it was just about money we could tuck the bill under the sofa and forget about it, relying on our overdraft and credit cards to get us through to the next pay day.

The trouble is, the next pay day isn’t coming. Once the carbon budget is spent there is no bank manager to plead with or government bailouts to rely on. Instead, the global warming bailiffs will be round to reclaim what they can. Rising sea levels will wipe out low-lying land and indeed entire island nations as payment, and we’ll wonder why we didn’t just settle the bill when we had the chance.

Thankfully, it’s not too late. We can cut up our carbon credit cards and reign in our spending through greater use of renewable energy, the interest-free loan in my increasingly stretched analogy. Action must be taken soon, however. Four decades seems like a long way off, but weaning ourselves from carbon entirely will probably take just as long.

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2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 29 April 2009 at 6:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

As someone with more than a passing interest in science I often find myself screaming “that’s just plain wrong!” at films or TV programmes with a laughably poor grasp of basic scientific principles. One notion that just will not go away is the prorogation of sound in space. Whether it’s the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars, or Dalek spaceships being vaporised in Doctor Who, everything in space seems to go ‘boom’.

Sound waves reach your ear as vibrations passing through matter – normally air. If you’ve ever been at a gig with large subwoofers you might have felt these vibrations passing through the floor and up your legs, providing you with that ‘thumping bass’ feeling.

Air is actually not a very good medium for transmitting sound. Try tapping a hard surface and listening to the sound it makes. The vibrations caused by your finger have been transferred through the molecules in the air and into your ear. Now place your ear on to the surface, and tap again. The sound should be louder. This is because the molecules of the solid surface are more tightly packed, and thus transfer the vibrations faster than air can.

What does this have to do with the Death Star? Well, in the vacuum of space there are no molecules – that is essentially what the word ‘vacuum’ means. Since there are no molecules there is nothing to transmit the vibrations caused by the Death Star blowing up, and so Luke Skywalker (and the audience) should not be able to hear the explosion.

At this point I have to mention Firefly, a TV programme created by Joss Whedon (best know for Buffy the Vampire Slayer). In Firefly, spaceships float serenely by in complete silence, often accompanied by some twangy (a very scientific technical term) guitar music. The effect is very strange, but only because the myth of sound in space has been perpetuated on our screens for so long.

Thankfully, someone is fighting back against this and other on screen gafs. The Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics website is one that I discovered many years ago now, but if you have never seen it before, it’s well worth a look. Sound in space is part of the ‘Generic Bad Movie Physics’ list, along with flaming cars and visible laserbeams.

The site also reviews movies, but not in the traditional sense. Ratings are dished out on a scale based on the American system ranging from GP for good physics to XP – physics so bad they can only come from a universe other than our own. The Terminator is deemed ‘pretty good’ despite the titular time-travelling cyborg, whereas Star Wars Episode III takes place, as you might expect, in a galaxy of physics far, far away.

Unfortunately it looks like the site hasn’t been updated in a while, but what is up there is still pretty entertaining. Of course, no one is expecting Hollywood to have a team of expert scientists on every film set, but it doesn’t hurt to get a few facts right.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 28 April 2009 at 10:11 am by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Physics, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Nearly over! Normal service resumes tomorrow.

Tesla coil art

Who doesn’t love Tesla coils, the high voltage lightning generators that are fun for all the family? An Australian named Peter Terren is certainly a fan, and has used them to create some rather striking images:

It tickles.
It tickles.

Can you appreciate the gravity of the situation?

If Tesla coils aren’t you thing, how about gravity waves? Not be confused with gravitational waves which are fluctuations in spacetime that have yet to be directly detected, gravity waves occur when two fluids meet. I remember studying them on a fluid mechanics course, but they were never as cool as this:

Confusingly, the “fluid” in fluid mechanics doesn’t refer to just liquids, but can also include gases. Here the gravity wave occurs when clouds meet the air.

Staying up late better than getting up early

Whilst revising for these exams I’ve been attempting to get up early in order to get a lot of work done, but perhaps I’ve been doing it wrong. A study by the University of Liege in Belgium has found that night owls concentrate better than earlier risers

Splitting participants into two groups, one which stayed up late whilst the others went to bed, the researchers found that after 10 hours of being awake the early group showed reduced brain activity in areas linked to attention. They were also sleepier and slower to perform tasks. Sounds like an excuse for a late night!

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 27 April 2009 at 8:29 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Before I head off for the first day of exams, here’s the next roundup.

Pope goes solar powered

No, unfortunately His Holiness hasn’t developed the ability to absorb sunlight though his skin. Vatican City soon will though, with the announcement of a €500 million solar power plant. The 100 megawatts generated by solar energy will produce more than enough to power the tiny state, making Vatican City effectively the first country in the world powered entirely by renewables. The Pope may spout some dodgy science, but this time he’s done good.

Twitter your thoughts – literally

Twitter’s opponents decry the banality of sharing your every thought with the world, but researchers at the University of Wisconsin have taken the concept one step further. Using a machine which can translate brainwaves into movement of an on-screen cursor, a team of neuroscientists can literally tweet their thoughts.

It’s not simply for a laugh, however. They hope that the technology can be used by sufferers of locked-in syndrome; people who are concious but unable to move or communicate.

A map of global warming

Even though we know it’s happening, we don’t know exactly how much the Earth’s surface will heat up due to global warming. The image below shows one possibility:

Could the Earth warm this much?
Could the Earth warm this much?

Created by Global Warming Art, a wiki devoted to bringing data about global warming and climate change to the public, it is based on data from the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Change. The map shows a world much warmer than the one we currently live in, with some areas of land warmed by as much as 6 or 7°C.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 26 April 2009 at 2:12 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Problem: exams on Monday and Tuesday coupled with an ever increasing list of interesting links to share.

Solution: stretching the definition of “Weekly” to its breaking point.

That’s right folks, to give myself a bit of breathing space over the next few days, as well as to clear my links backlog, we’re going into roundup overload.

Just a little bit of GTCA

Bio-Rad, a company that creates various products for use in scientific laboratories, have come up with a quirky little advert. It’s not a science rap, but a science cover song:

My favourite part? “These letters also spell DAN”

‘Beer goggles’ are no excuse for misreporting

A recent study into the effects of alcohol on men’s perception of a woman’s age has been given a slightly different spin by many media outlets. The research was intended to examine a common claim in cases of under-age sex; being drunk made the girls seem older.

The methodology involved rating both young and mature faces for attractiveness, either under the influence or not. Results showed that attractiveness ratings for the young were not effected by alcohol, which was reported as dispelling the ‘beer goggles’ myth. However, the results also show that alcohol had a “significant” impact on making older faces with lots of make-up more attractive – the ‘beer goggles’ effect exactly.

In other words, the study showed the opposite of what the journalists reported – or at best, gave mixed results. Perhaps a study should be conducted into the effects of alcohol on journalist’s perception of a study’s attractiveness…

Paxo’s brain for research

Jeremy Paxman will be donating his brain for scientific research after he dies. His aim is to raise awareness of a campaign by the Parkinson’s Disease Society to encourage 1,000 others to do the same. Parkinson’s effects 120,000 people in the UK, and donated brains could help find a cure.

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 26 April 2009 at 1:10 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

With the sun-drenched days we’ve had of late, chances are you’ve been enjoying the glorious weather and topping up your tan; and you aren’t the only one. Research published in Nature by a team at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) suggests that, as well as bronzing your skin, the Sun colours the surface of asteroids too.

But unlike us, the hue of the asteroid is honed not by UV light but by particles streaming away from the Sun in the solar wind. This ionised surge of matter from the Sun peppers the surface of the asteroid in so-called ‘space weathering’, turning the surface of the asteroid a distinctive red colour.

What has surprised astronomers, using ground based telescopes such as the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, is the shear speed at which these asteroids seem to ‘tan’. Studying collisions between asteroids, and examining the freshly exposed surfaces of the resulting fragments, the team discovered that this tanning process takes only a million years. That may sound a lot to a very short lived species such as ourselves, but taken in the context of the age of the solar system, it is the equivalent of five days in the lifespan of a seventy year old human.

This rapid timescale has led to better understanding of the so called Near Earth Asteroids (NEA’s), which Jacob talked about recently. Some of these space rocks, the ones mostly likely to worry us about possible impacts, don’t appear to exhibit this reddening. This could suggest that they are less than a million years old and caused by asteroid-on-asteroid collisions that are more frequent than previously thought. However, the team suggest their apparent ‘freshness’ is due to gravitational interactions with planets effectively wiping the weathered red dust off the surface, therefore the asteroids are much older.

Vernazza, P., Binzel, R., Rossi, A., Fulchignoni, M., & Birlan, M. (2009). Solar wind as the origin of rapid reddening of asteroid surfaces Nature, 458 (7241), 993-995 DOI: 10.1038/nature07956

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 26 April 2009 at 12:18 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology

We all know the stereotype that paints women as more picky about their partners than men, and men as more promiscuous. But according to a study published this week, it seems this is no more than a myth.

This well known ‘difference’ in the way women and men approach sex has been extensively studied. However, in the past, sex was much more of a taboo subject than it is in todays society. Researchers therefore relied on observations of animal behaviour, generalising the trends they found to all male animals. One such study way back in the forties looked into fruit flies, concluding that the reason for males seeking out more partners than women was to do with the availability and energy required to produce eggs compared to the relative ease of producing sperm.

However, the findings of a new study, reported in The Telegraph, has surveyed actual human beings to determine whether the long held beliefs of gender differences when it comes to promiscuity are true. They surveyed over 100,000 people in 18 countries, concluding that in countries like Britain, women and men tended to have the same number of children with the same number of partners.

It has to be said, this study probably isn’t the best indication of promiscuity, as every sexual encounter is unlikely to result in the conception of a child. But, it is more scientific than the survey reported in December last year, which involved the surveying of the readers of more magazine which concluded (young) women were in fact more promiscuous than men.

After a bit of scouting around on the subject, I found a study from back in November which bears striking resemblence to the study last week, which sent out a questionnaire for people to fill in. The questions related to numbers of sexual partners, and incidences of one-night-stands, and enabled the team to produce an index of how sexually liberal each individual was.  The results actually ranked Britain as one of the most promiscuous naitons in the western world. But surely another interesting piece of data from these questionnaires could have been the relationship between gender and ‘sexual liberation’?

Seems like as a nation though, whether we’re men or women, we enjoy sex. And there is one thing, it’s free, which is important in todays ‘economic crisis, right? The Week published an article in February which actively encouraged Americans to stay at home in the recession, and reported an increase in the sales of condoms. Maybe the next study could look at the link between recession and sexual activity.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 25 April 2009 at 4:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

It sounds too good to be true, but it’s not; researchers in Aberdeen really are looking for volunteers to eat chocolate in the name of science. It’s all to do with flavonoids. We’ve met these antioxidants before in another chocolate story when Italian scientists discovered that 6.7 grams of dark chocolate a day could protect from heart disease.

The team from Aberdeen will be investigating the same effect, and they need forty volunteers to help them out. Anyone stepping up to the challenge must be between 18 and 70, and will be asked to eat either plain chocolate, white chocolate, or a specially prepared high-cocoa dark chocolate. As previous research has shown, its the dark chocolate full of flavonoids that aid against heart disease, so the two other flavours are just there as a control.

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health are hoping to discover how flavonoids can help. Interaction with platelets, a type of blood cell that aids in clotting, is thought to be key. We already know that platelets can form dangerous blood clots in heart disease sufferers, and that flavonoids can stop this from happening. What we don’t know is how this mechanism works.

Luisa Ostertag, a researcher on the study, was keen to point out that mountains of chocolate is not the answer to curing heart disease (quite the opposite in fact) but the research could lead to flavonoids being added to more healthy foods:

“Eating a lot of dark chocolate bars is not the answer to protecting against cardiovascular disease because they are high in saturated fat and sugar.

“But perhaps studies like ours could ultimately lead to these special compounds being included in healthier foods or in health supplements.”

So, if you’d like to get your hands on some free chocolate, and don’t mind submitting a few blood and urine samples in the name of science, contact 01224 716693 or email for further details.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 April 2009 at 5:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Talking in your sleep can be an annoying habit for anyone you share a bed with, but applying the same principle to computers could help combat climate change. ‘Sleep talking’ PCs are a new development from the University of California, San Diego and Microsoft Research that allow the computer to continue communicating on a network whilst in power-saving ‘sleep’ mode.

Computer science Ph.D. student Yuvraj Agarwal was lead author of a paper outlining the new technique, dubbed ‘Somniloquy’ – Latin for ‘sleep talking’. He says that people are leaving their PCs switched on even when they are not doing very much, simply because they want to remain online:

“Large numbers of people keep their PCs in awake mode even though the PCs are relatively idle for long blocks of time because they want to stay connected to an internal network or the Internet or both,

“I realized that most of the tasks that people keep their computers on for can be achieved at much lower power-use levels than regular awake mode.”

I know I’m guilty of going out for the day and leaving my PC on just to download a few files, and it turns out that I’m not alone. Previous research has shown that the average home PC is on 34% of the time, but only in use for half that.

Somniloquy works by plugging a piece of USB hardware into your PC that can communicate with other computers in the network. Low-intensity tasks can be performed whilst the PC is asleep, and if a bit more computational oomph is required Somniloquy will wake the PC up.

The current prototypes will work with any type of computer or network, and consumes anything from 11 to 24 times less power than a switched on, but idle, PC. This could mean a reduction of power consumption by 60 to 80% – quite a significant saving.

I’m a big champion of small, unglamorous ideas that can be rolled out on a large scale to lower energy usage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Somniloquy looks to be a great idea in this vein, and I look forward to installing it on my own PC.

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 24 April 2009 at 11:37 am by Sam Wong
In Health & Medicine

These seem to be happening quite a lot, which must be good news. I’ll take you through this one slowly, in case you haven’t been paying much attention to stem cell research.

Once upon a time, there were two types of stem cells. Only embryonic stem cells were able to develop into any type of cell in the body (a trait called pluripotency), but they could only be acquired by destroying human embryos, which some people find distasteful. A more practical problem was that not many people donated embryos, so these pluripotent stem cells were pretty hard to come by. Adult stem cells were easier to obtain, but could only develop into a limited range of mature cell types.

In 2007, the picture changed a little. Scientists found a way of making mature adult cells pluripotent. They took human skin cells and used viruses to introduce four new genes, which successfully returned the cells to a state similar to embryonic stem cells. They called their creation ‘induced pluripotent stem cells’, or iPS cells for short.

Pluripotent stem cells derived from adult cells are a very useful prospect, since not only do they get around the problems with getting hold of embryonic stem cells, but they also mean that stem cell treatments could use cells taken from the patient who will receive the transplant, avoiding the risk of rejection. But there were problems with these iPS cells. The introduction of the foreign genes made them very likely to start dividing uncontrolably, producing tumours. Clearly they could not be used in treatments until this issue was resolved.

Two recent Nature papers and one in Science reported the creation of iPS cells by a method that did not use viruses, and allowed the inserted genes to be removed after the cells’ transformation. Another group used ‘excisable viruses’ to achieve the same thing.

Now scientists at the Scripps Research Institute in California have described the creation of iPS cells without any genetic manipulation at all. Instead they achieved the transformation simply by introducing a handful of proteins. This latest ‘breakthrough’ was published in the slightly stupidly named journal Cell Stem Cell.

Many more breakthroughs will be needed before iPS can fulfil their extraordinary therapeutic promise. For one thing, we will need to ensure that they are completely safe. This is not guaranteed, even when the cells have been manipulated without using genetic material – no method has produced cells identical to embryonic stem cells. ‘It will be important now to compare the different methods and go with the one that works the best,’ Konrad Hochedlinger of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute told Nature. Then there’s the matter of coaxing them into becoming the desired cell type for the particular treatment. Researchers will need to produce different cell types from iPS cells and see how they fare in the long run.

All the same, the field of induced pluripotent stem cells is making rapid progress, which can only be encouraging for the future of medical research.

Zhou, H., Wu, S., Joo, J., Zhu, S., Han, D., Lin, T., Trauger, S., Bien, G., Yao, S., & Zhu, Y. (2009). Generation of Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells Using Recombinant Proteins Cell Stem Cell DOI: 10.1016/j.stem.2009.04.005

1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 23 April 2009 at 4:01 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

The Huffington Post have published an article by actor Jim Carrey on the link between MMR and autism. As we’ve seen before, celebrities taking a stand on science often ends badly, and this case is no exception.

Carrey’s article jumps on a recent ruling against compensation for three families who believe their children’s autism was caused by MMR. He says:

“a ruling against causation in three cases out of more than 5000 hardly proves that other children won’t be adversely affected by the MMR, let alone that all vaccines are safe.”

He continues:

The anecdotal evidence of millions of parents who’ve seen their totally normal kids regress into sickness and mental isolation after a trip to the pediatrician’s office must be seriously considered.

I’m sorry Jim, but there is a well known saying: the plural of anecdote is not data. There are many studies which have failed to find a link between MMR and autism, and the “controversy” over such a link is completely unheard of outside of the UK and US. MMR as a cause of autism is a myth fabricated by the mainstream media, and it has caused measles to rise in the UK by over 2400%. Measles can be fatal, and if this continues, children will die.

Human beings are very bad at assessing cause and effect, and we also feel the need for something or someone to blame when bad things occur. It must be terrible for the parents of autistic children to watch their kids grow distant from them, but the MMR vaccine is not to blame and if the myth persists then other people’s children will be harmed. Jim, you’ve made some great movies, but you’re really badly informed on this issue. Stop campaigning and stick to the films.

7 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 22 April 2009 at 6:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong

Getting the Tube home last night my eye was drawn to a man reading The Sun. “Fatties cause global warming” screamed the front page. “Oh really?” I thought. “And here I was blaming it on CO2 emissions.”

The news comes from a paper in the International Journal of Epidemiology, entitled Population adiposity and climate change. Adiposity being an overly-scientific term for “fatness”, that is.

Dr Phil Edwards of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and his colleague Ian Roberts modelled two possible populations, one “normal” with 3.5% obese people and another “overweight” with 40% obese, as measured by a Body Mass Index of 30. Both population consists of a billion people. They say that the normal population reflects the UK in the 1970s, whilst the overweight population is the prediction for 2010.

By estimating the energy required by both populations they found that the overweight population would require 19% more energy than the normal population. This of course means the overweight population would need to consume 19% more food. Producing this extra food would result in 270 megatonnes of extra greenhouse gasses (meaning CO2 as well as other gases like methane) being released into the atmosphere.

An overweight population would also release further greenhouse gases through increased reliance on transport. Newton’s laws of motion tell us that moving a heavier mass requires a proportionally larger force, so we would expect heavier car drivers to use more petrol. Overweight people are also more likely to drive rather than walk, compounding the effect. In total this would add another 170 megatonnes of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.

All of these figures are really extended back-of-the-envelope calculations. In the paper, the authors admit to making many assumptions about the two populations, such as keeping everyone of the same sex at the same height, and using identical levels of activity for both normal and obese people. As such, I wouldn’t take these figures as literal, but they do indicate that an overweight population has some effect on climate change.

Does this research mean then that a global diet is in order? Eat carrots, stop climate change? No. Food production accounts for only 20% of emissions, according to the paper, so in a planet of one billion people as imagined by this model we’re still left with 6000 megatonnes of greenhouse gasses being pumped out by other industries.

Tackling climate change requires a transformation in the way we consume and generate energy. The Sun story paints it as a problem caused by “fatties” – an easy scapegoat, but we’re all to blame. The obesity crisis is an issue that must also be tackled – nearly half of the population obese by next year is insane – but it’s not a magic bullet for climate change. Nothing is.

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 22 April 2009 at 10:07 am by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Space & Astronomy

Astrobiologists looking for the building blocks of life in the centre of our galaxy have instead found the faint aroma of rum and a slight taste of raspberries.

The team from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany used a 30m telescope based in Spain to probe deep into the heart of our home galaxy, The Milky Way. They were looking for amino acids, thought to be a crucial factor in the development of life. Radio telescopes are perfect for this kind of astronomy as it allows you to peer through layers of cosmic dust right to the heart of the galaxy.

However, they failed to find what they were looking for. Instead their investigations yielded traces of ethyl formate, the chemical that apparently puts the taste in raspberries and the smell in rum. Whilst this isn’t as exciting as actually finding the ingredients for life, you could always make yourself a nice pavlova. And the novelty factor of this story hasn’t been lost on the national media, with the story reported in The Guardian.

So it seems astronomers are discovering quite a kitchen store cupboard in space. Now we have raspberries and rum to go with steak and beer. Sounds like we have the possibility of a three-course meal on the cards. Steak and beer for main, and pavlova for pudding. Deep fried Mars bars to start?

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 21 April 2009 at 4:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

With posts about the Sun and Moon today I thought perhaps I should bring things back down to Earth. New Scientist this week reported that we live in an increasingly hyperconnected world. According to researchers at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, working in conjunction with the World Bank, less than 10% of the world’s land is further than 48 hours by ground travel away from a city.

Using a model which calculated the travel time to the nearest city of over 50,000 people, they found that the most remote place in the world is on the this point on the Tibetan plateau, at 34.7° N, 85.7° E. From here it will take three weeks to get to the nearest cities of Lhasa or Korla, with one day by car and the rest on foot. Even Google admits defeat when asked to calculate directions.

The researchers plotted their findings on a colour-coded map which reveals the interesting pathways which criss-cross the globe:

The map's colours represent travel time to the nearest city. Click for a larger view.
The map's colours represent travel time to the nearest city. Click for a larger view.

The branching networks present in many countries invoke images of a central nervous system, as well as of fractal geometry. Both descriptions certainly relate to the way humans have spread throughout the planet.

New Scientist have ten maps in total of our networked world, including railway distribution and all the planet’s rivers. With the world becoming increasingly connected online, it’s nice to be reminded of our physical connections as well.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 21 April 2009 at 2:58 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

I have to admit I have a bit of a soft spot for wine; good old grape juice is probably my greatest vice. As an astronomer at The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, the Moon also plays a big part in my life too, whether I’m being asked about how it was formed or looking at it through a telescope. So it will come as no great surprise that a story invoking these two staples of my life grabbed my attention.

The BBC magazine reported yesterday on Maria Thun’s Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar, devised in the 1950′s. The calendar is based on the cycle of the Moon as it orbits around the Earth and its effect on living organisms on it. It particularly talks about how wine tastes better on different days of the month. Now obviously this calendar is nothing new, it’s been around for half a century. However, the interest comes in when you find out that Tesco and Marks & Spencer have adopted Thun’s musings, to the extent that they will only let wine critics sample their wares (or should that be ‘weres’) on days when her Moon calendar suggests their goods to be most palatable. On a day when Tesco have announced ‘credit crunch’ busting profits of £3.13bn who am I to argue with their business strategy? Well let’s take a closer look at this magical moon calendar.

Thun classified five different types of day based on the motion of our nearest neighbour in space. These days are “fruit”, “root”, “leaf”, “flower” and “unfavourable”, and apparently the wine will satisfy your tastebuds most completely on a “fruit” day. Quite how these days are defined is far from clear. However, it seems to form part of growing belief that the Moon has an effect upon human, animal and now even plant behaviour. From what I can tell, the thinking most often behind this notion is that as the Moon has such a significant tidal effect of the world’s water mass that it somehow must have an effect upon water in living things, altering their behaviour. Now I’m not normally one for diving into the maths of things in a blog entry, but this time I will make an exception (Jacob will be pleased!)

Let us turn to our good friend Sir Isaac Newton for a little mathematical inspiration. I want to find the force with which the Moon pulls on a 1 millilitre droplet of water. Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation states that the gravitational force between two objects is proportional to the product of their masses divided by the distance between them squared. In equation form,

Might look scary but not if you break it down. In the above equation the letters mean the following:

• F is the gravitational attractive force we are after.
• G is a constant, just a number and it’s equal to 6.67 x 10-11 (units unimportant)
• m1 = mass of the Moon at 7.36 x 1022 kg
• m2 = mass of water particle. 1ml of water has a mass of 1 gram or 1 x 10-3 kg
• r = distance between the Earth and the Moon. Let’s use 3.63 x 108 (see below)

NB. If you want to nitpick, then the Moon doesn’t follow a perfectly circular orbit around the Earth. Instead it traverses around our planet in a squashed circle, or ellipse, and so at some points it is closer to the Earth than at others. To account for this I have used the closest distance the Moon gets to the Earth, above. Right, stick with me it’s about to get interesting.

Crunch all these numbers together and you get a force of gravitational attraction between the Moon and a 1ml droplet of water as roughly 4 x 10-8 Newtons. To put this into perspective that is the equivalent force that a speck of dust exerts as it rests on a table! Or put another, perhaps more apt way, the same as the force exerted on a table by about 250 millionths of your average (full!) bottle of wine; a miniscule force and hardly likely to have much of an effect.

Wine may well taste better on different days but a small piece of high school physics tells us that it is highly unlikely that our Moon will have a gravitational effect. It might stabilise our seasons, pull our tides and make our days gradually longer, but I’m afraid to say its gravitational influence doesn’t improve a smooth glass of Merlot. Another piece of lunar lunacy.

In fact, taking a closer look at Thun’s predicted upcoming “good” days for wine tells a truer tale. Join in me in raising a glass between Friday at 6pm and 9am on Sunday and you’ll realise that she probably just wanted an excuse for a good weekend bender!

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 21 April 2009 at 2:03 pm by Jessica Bland
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

At the beginning of the month, NASA told us that last year’s record low in Solar activity may well be bettered in 2009. 87% of the days in the first quarter of this year had no solar flares. 73% of the days in 2008 saw similarly inactivity. The Sun is keeping very quiet.

Today, the BBC’s Pallab Ghosh produced a video news report on UK astronomers’ reaction to this. One of the physicists he interviewed, Professor Mike Lockwood from Southhampton University, was on the Radio 4′s Today show discussing it.  And, inevitably, the conversation turned to climate change.

It was inevitable because Solar radiation effects our weather: it certainly feels much warmer when the Sun is out. But, climate change patterns are a very different thing to our day-to-day local weather. There is significant debate over both the possible scale and nature of the sun’s affect on climate change. The Royal Society have a brief summary that explain the situation better than I can.

A clip of Lockwood’s Today show interview is available here. There is a wonderful Radio 4 ‘ah’ when Lockwood explains that there might be changes on Earth because of this lack in solar activity, but that solar variation is only by  “hundredths of percents”. And so the effects are likely to be very small. Lockwood’s story is not really related to climate change. The excitement for scientists is that the Sun, the things they spend all day studying, is doing something strange.

To give Ghosh credit, that is what he reports. Nor were the Today show’s team at fault either. They have a political mandate and were right to take this angle during the interview: particularly given the extent to which some climate sceptics rely on solar activity as an argument against anthropogenic climate change. They questioned the scientist hard about the potential climate repercussions, leaving no room for spin-off reports to exaggerate the claims made. A good interview technique in my book. Even if it did aggravate Professor Lockwood a little.

There was nothing loaded about the questions and reporting here, but back in 2007 the BBC was criticised by its own news executives for having a biased stance on climate change. It was planning a PlanetRelief day that would encourage green-thinking in everyday activities.  This was seen as pro-anthropogenic climate change campaigning, and the day was eventually cancelled. What aggravated me at the time was that most of the BBC reporting on climate change is of the kind we saw today: interview-based and quite science heavy. It is not biased in general, but was tainted by that episode.

The exception to that rule was Dr David Whitehouse, BBC Online’s science editor and now author of ‘The Sun: a biography’. Yet, he was biased against anthropogenic arguments: the opposite point of view to the one the BBC were criticised for. He expounded his minority views about solar effect on global warming on the BBC website for almost ten years without any comeuppance.

In 2000, Whitehouse reported on weather records found in Armagh in Ireland that supposedly showed that the Sun has been the main contributor to global warming over the past two centuries. He did not mention of the complex scientific debate behind the solar effects on our climate, choosing instead to quote Dr John Butler, who discovered the records: “I suspect that the greenhouse lobby have under-estimated the role of solar variability in climate change.”

Four years later, he reports on the high solar activity levels in the later 20th century. A group from the Institute of Astronomy in Zurich claimed that over the last century the number of sunspots rose at the same time that the Earth’s climate became steadily warmer. According to the article, there is a causal link. The only reason why the Sun’s recent low activity (it was low in 2004 as well) is not matched by a reverse climate change is because fossil fuel burning is starting to have some effect. Again, nothing about the debate over whether the sun can really effect climate change.

By 2007, Whitehouse starting writing in the mainstream press. Interestingly his tactic changes. He is no longer arguing that the Sun’s high levels of activity last century increased global warming. He claims instead that the Sun’s potential inactivity over the next fifty years might cause global cooling, reducing the effects of man made warming.  He wrote a long feature for The Independent, “Ray of hope: Can the Sun save us from global warming?”, in December that year.

That newspaper piece takes a much less contentious stance than the BBC reports. This is in part due probably to the increase in evidence against Whitehouse’s position. But it also highlights the difference in care taken over an online piece buried in a Science and Technology tab and one in the mainstream press. Which is worrying. Not least because that BBC tab is taking more and more of the newspaper readership.

Today’s reporting of solar activity showed a return to form by the BBC. There was no climate change headline: no overenthusiastic claims about a new model for global warming. Instead, the science came first. The sun is being a bit strange, which has got some scientists very excited. But that’s it really – no one really knows what it means for next summer’s hose-pipe ban.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 20 April 2009 at 6:11 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

Fans of late 90′s disaster flicks will remember that 1998 saw the release of not one but two films about Near Earth Objects. Both Deep Impact and Armageddon featured massive space rocks on a collision course with Earth, and in both cases the day was saved by blowing them up with nuclear weapons.

Back in the real world, David French of North Carolina State University has come up with an unusual alternative. Instead of breaking out the nukes, aerospace engineer French has suggested using a big rope and some weights to save the planet from destruction.

It’s an idea that probably won’t be picked up by Hollywood any time soon, but it would work. By using an asteroid-tether-ballast system you change the object’s centre of mass, which according to Newton’s laws will in turn change its orbit. The space rock flies by, completely missing Earth, and Bruce Willis doesn’t even have to get out of bed. It’s a bit like attaching a tennis ball to a football – the change in centre of mass would mean even David Beckham would find it hard to score a goal/destroy the planet.

Would such a scheme be practical though? One thing’s clear: we’d need a lot of rope. French estimates using a tether of between 1,000 kilometres to 100,000 kilometres – the latter of which you could wrap around the Earth two and a half times!

Maybe it’s not such a good idea then, but when you compare it to other options it doesn’t seem so far fetched. Alternative proposals for Earth defence include painting the asteroid to alter the effect of sunlight on its orbit, and a cosmic game of snooker which uses one asteroid to knock another off course. As for the nuclear weapons used in the films, French thinks they come with just too many problems:

“Nuclear weapons are an intriguing possibility, but have considerable political and technical obstacles. Would the rest of the world trust us to nuke an asteroid? Would we trust anyone else? And would the asteroid break into multiple asteroids, giving us more problems to solve?”

Looks like the tether and ballast wins out then – if we can work out how to build one. Perhaps the same technology could be used to make a space elevator? Oh, and if you’re still up for a game of Asteroids – enjoy.

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 20 April 2009 at 3:22 pm by Seth Bell
In Musings, Psychology

Are you living in fear? According to In the Face of Fear (a title worthy of a Hollywood Blockbuster), a survey of 2246 British adults commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation, we are more fearful than we used to be. The results suggest that about 77% of us think the world is a more frightening place than it was ten years ago. When asked why people are more afraid, 63% of people thought that the current economic situation is partly to blame whilst 60% think terrorism is one of the factors which contribute to it. Also, 60% of people think the media frightens people.

It’s difficult to accurately evaluate how ‘generally afraid’ we are and why (and even harder to judge why other people are afraid), so these results are certainly questionable. However, at the very least they do show us that people think we are more afraid, so perhaps the findings in themselves are a manifestation of our collective fear. Or perhaps I’ve been revising too much philosophy. In any case, it’s inspired me to pose the following question: can science help save us from fear?

Well, the rector of Imperial College Professor Roy Anderson thinks that science can certainly help with our economic troubles. Last week he criticised the Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, for cautioning against the proposed one billion pound science-spending package, saying:

“I can understand his caution, however I’d still argue with him that in essence how are we going to position the UK economy coming out of the recession? I’d argue that science and technology is one of our few options and it’s a good time to provide that stimulus.” 

The proposed spending increase is part of an overall stimulus package which the government is considering. Professor Anderson believes that science is part of the solution to the credit crunch, arguing that science spending it on of the few ways we have left to kick-start the economy.

So perhaps science can help us reduce our fear in the current economic climate, but what about terrorism? Well maybe it has a role here as well. Last week the BBC reported that MI5 is recruiting a chief scientific adviser, whose role will apparently involve work on counter-terrorism as well as offering scientific advice to agents in the field. Sounds like a very cool job to me, offering a chance for science and scientists to enter the frontline on the ‘war on terror’.  So it seems science have a part to play in reducing our fear of terrorism as far MI5 are concerned.

So that’s a start. Can science help stop the media frightening people? Well, science journalists are part of the media so the fewer stories about particle accelerators ending the world the better. In addition, science news may help reduce our fear by providing us with distracting fun stories – like the news that red pandas like artificial sweeteners! Not a finding with immediate relevance, but it makes me forget my troubles. I wonder how long until Coca Cola use this finding as a marketing strategy for Diet Coke…

Comments Off Posted on Monday 20 April 2009 at 11:42 am by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

One of the most powerful telescopes ever constructed has finally seen first light. The e-MERLIN array, centred on The Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire, is the only system of telescopes in the world capable of rivalling the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) for resolution.

In order to achieve this one telescope is not sufficient. Instead e-MERLIN is made up of seven radio telescopes separated by 217km and spread all over Britain. It turns out that the maths behind this is very simple. To work out the resolution of your telescope all you have to do is divide the wavelength of the signal you are receiving by the diameter of your telescope. That’s it. So the e-MERLIN is almost three thousand times more sensitive than the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell, itself a leviathan in ‘scope terms, at 76m. It is the Lovell (which you can see me climbing in a short film about it, here) which is the centre-piece of the array and makes up a considerable fraction of the observing power.

A map showing the 7 e-MERLIN telescope spread across the country.

However, this system of telescopes is not new; it is used to be called MERLIN. What makes e-MERLIN new is the way that the seven telescopes communicate with one another. Super-fast optical fibres have now been laid underground to replace the old system of microwave transmission which restricted astronomers to receiving only 1% of the signal received at the telescopes. Dr Tim O’Brien, Head of Public Outreach at Jodrell, is likening the upgrade to switching from dial-up to broadband internet. In truth, this is an understatement. The upgrade means that that e-MERLIN can now do in one day what used to take three years to achieve.

This speedy connection and almost unrivalled resolution means that the array can tackle new astronomy when it goes fully online at the beginning of next year. Jodrell’s speciality is pulsars, rapidly rotating neutron stars formed when massive stars collapse at the end of their lifetimes. These exotic objects are so dense that just a spoonful of their material would weigh more than every person on Earth put together. Over 100 institutions worldwide have bid for observing slots on e-MERLIN, to study pulsars and other cosmic phenomenon that stretch all the way out to the edge of the observable universe.

But it almost didn’t happen. In a spending review in early 2008, the UK funding panel the STFC decided to pull the plug on the funding for Jodrell and the e-MERLIN upgrade. At the time I was a final year undergraduate at The University of Manchester, the university which owns and operates Jodrell and e-MERLIN. The department rallied together to try and save what we felt was a very necessary project from losing funding. For my part I shot and directed a campaign video airing the views of the students and explaining what actions could be taken to save the project. I also went on local TV to argue the case for overturning the decision. Eventually, at the eleventh hour, the STFC had a change of heart and the project was saved.

So as an ex-Jodrellite and for my former colleagues who campaigned for this cutting edge project to continue, today is a very proud day.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 19 April 2009 at 2:11 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

The first picture has been released from Kepler, NASA’s $600m planet-hunting satellite. This latest eye-in-the-sky is pointing its 95 mega-pixel camera at the same patch of sky and staring at it for three and a half years. Hidden deep within this cosmic window are over 100,000 suns that astronomers have identified as possible host stars for Earth like planets. The aim of the mission is to get a handle on just how many Earth like planets there are out there in our galaxy.

The patch of sky in which Kepler team hope to find Earth's 'twin'.

To do this the Kepler team are utilising what is known as the transit method, one of three main techniques for looking at so-called extra-solar planets. Of course, planets like our own are far too dim compared to their luminous gravitational masters and so can’t be seen directly. Instead Kepler is looking for small dips in the star’s brightness as the planet passes or ‘transits’ in front of it. Kepler’s instrumentation is so sensitive that it can detect dips in brightness of just one part in 50,000 or 0.002%. This is actually more sensitive than required to find planets the size of the Earth. If there were some alien blogging astronomer out there staring back at us, they would see our Sun dim by 0.008% as our planet glided across our star.

With Kepler scrutinising this patch of sky for around 42 months it should be able to catch approximately three orbits of such Earth-like planets. And there is good reason to look for planets with the same orbital period as our own. Johannes Kepler, the 16th century astronomer after whom the satellite is named, formulated three laws of planetary motion, one of which says the time it takes a planet to orbit its star is precisely related to its distance from it. Planets that take a year to traverse their elliptical path around their Sun will be in the habitable zone, the small window of space around a star where water is liquid. Sometimes referred to as the Goldilocks Hypothesis, where the Earth is porridge that’s temperature, instead of being too hot or too cold to have liquid water, instead is just right, this region around a star is the most likely place to find life.

And so the search to answer the age-old question of whether we are alone in the Universe has entered a new and I have to admit an exciting phase. When the data from this mission is released, probably in the middle of the next decade, we should have a much better idea of just how rare watery blue marbles like our own are. Perhaps, as always in science, the most intriguing outcome will be the unexpected. The question of just how rare Earths are formed a part of my undergraduate dissertation (which you can read here). At the time I approximated that there should be around 10 million Earths in our Milky Way galaxy. Whether this prediction is in itself a form of Goldilocks’ porridge, being too low, too high or just right, I really can’t wait to find out.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 19 April 2009 at 12:49 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy

This week in Ben Goldacre news

Everyone’s favourite doctor/columnist has put an extra chapter of his book Bad Science online for free. I’m actually a bit behind the times on this one, it was meant to go in last week’s Roundup but I forgot, so you might have already read it. If not, you can grab the PDF here.

The chapter deals with vitamin pill salesman Matthias Rath, who was suing Goldacre and The Guardian when the book was first published. Now that they have won the court case the book is being republished with the extra chapter, but Goldacre was kind enough to provide it for everyone else as well. Isn’t he nice? For the next few days you can also see him on the latest episode of Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe. His section starts around 11 minutes in, with a tirade against “the media’s greatest ever science hoax”, the MMR vaccine.

New science journalism course at City University

The Association of British Science Writers has highlighted a new science journalism course starting this September at City University. With tuition fees of £7,495 it’s a lot more expensive than the Imperial course (which covers more than just journalism), and the general feeling on the ABSW members mailing list is it’s perhaps just a re-branding of City’s existing journalism courses with a bit more science thrown in.

The Exquisite Corpse of Science

Speaking of Imperial, fellow sci-commer Tim Jones has put his group project online for all to see, and it’s a far cry from my group’s altar piece. Along with Arko Olesk and Graham Paterson, Tim drew inspiration from the exquisite corpse of the surrealist movement to create a picture of science as perceived by the public, the media, and scientists. Go have a look.

Time to feel small

As both Douglas Adams and I have said before, space is big. Really big. So big that I’m only able to include a small part of this excellent illustration in the post:

You ain't seen nothing yet.
You ain't seen nothing yet.

Go here if you want to see the rest, and appreciate just how vast the universe is. Unless that’s just too much for a Sunday afternoon!

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 18 April 2009 at 5:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology

Who would have thought it possible to create a prosciutto-powered thermal lance? Theodore Gray of, that’s who. Despite referring to the meat as “bacon”, his crazy idea actually works.

Prosciutto, more usually found on deli counters and in sandwiches everywhere, takes the place of the traditional iron rod in this power tool with a tasty difference. Gray first created seven tubes of prosciutto by wrapping them around a fiberglass rod and baking them in an oven. These tubes were then wrapped in more meat, and baked again to create the thermal lance’s fuel core. Attach a supply of oxygen and set the thing on fire, and you’re ready to start cutting:


For the veggies amongst you, Gray also created a meat-free version made from a hollowed out cucumber and some breadsticks. It’s not as powerful, but that’s only to be expected – anyone who has ever eaten Quorn will tell you that vegetarian alternatives are never quite as good as the real thing.

Despite being really cool, what’s the point of this little experiment? As Gray says, it demonstrates that the food we eat really does contain quite a lot of energy. Feeding pure oxygen into the mix makes the energy release much faster than normal, but it’s the same calories that add to your waistline as are cutting through pure steel here.

Much derided by those looking to shed a few kilos, calories are simply a way of measuring energy. The official definition of a calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. In other words, a Mars Bar which contains 280 calories (according to Mars’ stupidly designed website which won’t let me provide a proper link) provides enough energy to boil nearly three kilograms of water when starting from 0° C. It’s not much of a surprise then that meat can cut metal.

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2 Comments » Posted on Saturday 18 April 2009 at 9:34 am by Sam Wong
In Biology

Call me cynical (many people do), but I’ve always been somewhat sceptical of energy drinks. On their website, Lucozade provide fact sheets on ‘The Science Behind Sports Drinks’. They have this to say about carbohydrate:

Carbohydrate is an important source of energy during moderate to high intensity activity. Unfortunately there is only a limited amount of carbohydrate (~ 2000 kcal) stored within the body which if depleted beyond a critical point decreases endurance performance by causing an individual to slow down. This is because they do not have sufficient energy, in the form of carbohydrate, to sustain their chosen exercise intensity for the remainder of their event.

It makes intuitive sense that giving your body a boost of readily metabolisable glucose during exercise would help you go on for longer. But studies have shown that even after an hour of intense exercise, there is still plenty of glycogen stored in the muscles, and it is this glycogen that is primarily being used as a source of energy, not blood glucose. Moreover, the amount of carbohydrate you absorb from an energy drink during an hour of exercise is relatively small, and doesn’t contribute much to your total energy supply.

Despite all this, most of the evidence suggests that energy drinks really can improve performance in events lasting around an hour, which is very puzzling to physiologists.

In 2004, researchers at the University of Birmingham found that intravenous infusion of glucose did not affect the time taken for cyclists to complete a time trial lasting roughly an hour, but performance on the same test was improved by merely rinsing the mouth with a maltodextrin solution (maltodextrin is a polysaccharide, consisting of chains of glucose). This suggests that taste can improve exercise performance, and is all the more surprising since maltodextrin isn’t sweet like glucose; in fact it doesn’t taste of anything very much.

In further work published in the Journal of Physiology this week, researchers from the same laboratory tested the effect on cycling performance of rinsing the mouth with solutions containing either glucose, maltodextrin, or a placebo, all of which were artificially sweetened. They also used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at which brain areas were being stimulated by the different solutions.

Edward Chambers and his collaborators found that both glucose and maltodextrin resulted in faster times than the placebo, suggesting that we have as-yet unidentified taste receptors that respond to carbohydrates besides those that detect sweetness .

The fMRI scans showed that glucose and maltodextrin were activating areas of the brain associated with our neural reward system, including dopamine pathways in the striatum. These pathways are known to have a role in influencing motor activity. The authors hypothesise that the carbohydrates are detected by some putative non-sweet receptors in the mouth, which in turn stimulate parts of the brain that counteract the effects of fatigue.

The evidence for this is far from definitive. Among the problems with this study is the fact that the fMRI scans were done on resting athletes using much higher concentrations of carbohydrate than were used in the exercise tests. The stress of exercise might affect the way that the brain responds to the carbohydrate. But the results do show that carbohydrate solutions are sensed in the mouth, leading to an improvement in exercise performance, and suggest a possible mechanism through which this effect might operate.

The findings lend support to the ‘Central Governor‘ model: the idea that fatigue results from the brain limiting its own ability to activate muscle fibres so as to prevent damage to the heart caused by lack of oxygen. Chambers and colleagues propose that detecting carbohydrate in the mouth interferes with the central governor to reduce the perception of exertion, which fits with the finding that cyclists who tasted glucose or maltodextrin didn’t feel any more tired despite cycling faster. (Not everyone accepts the central governor hypothesis; here’s a critical review.)

Fascinating stuff. I might just give Lucozade a go the next time I play football. I probably will swallow it though – even if it’s no good as an energy source, it must help with the whole hydration business.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 17 April 2009 at 12:53 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Scientists have taken pancreatic cells, coated them with Teflon (yeah that stuff that stops your food from sticking to the frying pan) and transplanted them into mice… successfully! Whilst this might seem a bit strange at first, Teflon has been used for many years in medicine for grafts, sutures and surgical implants.

The reasoning behind this is to develop a new therapy for the treatment of type-1 diabetes. Type-1 diabetes occurs due to an autoimmune response that kills cells in the pancreas, leaving the body unable to regulate glucose levels in the blood.

One of the most promising therapies is to transplant pancreas cells into the patients. However, as with all transplants, to ensure the immune system does not destroy the new tissue, the patient must take immunosuppressive drugs. These drugs must be taken long term, and leave the patient susceptible to picking up infections. In a way, this is less desirable than the problem in the first place, and still results in the need for long term medication.

The findings of a team based in California are therefore very exciting. They report in the journal Transplant that they have developed a way of transplanting cells without them being destroyed by the patient’s immune system by coating the cells in a protective layer of polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon).

The team took precursor cells (to pancreatic cells), coated them, and implanted them into mice. They found these cells weren’t destroyed by the immune system and grew into cells that were responsive to glucose levels.  The chief researcher Pamela Itkin-Ansari stated in the press release that “the results exceeded our expectations,” finding “no evidence of an active immune response, suggesting that the cells in the device were invisible to the immune system.”

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5 Comments » Posted on Friday 17 April 2009 at 11:30 am by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

Researchers at DePauw University in Indiana have shown that the strength of your smile in childhood photographs is an accurate predictor of divorce. In a pair of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion, they found that those with the brightest smiles were less likely to get divorced in later life.

Building on earlier research, the team first asked 493 university graduates to take part in their study. Participants were asked if they were currently in a committed relationship, if they ever had been in a committed relationship, and if they had ever been divorced. In addition to the questionnaire, researchers examined the participants yearbook photos and graded their smiles according to the Facival Action Coding System (FACS), which rates the movement of muscles in forming physical expressions of emotions, such as smiles. They found that those participants who scored a low “smile intensity” according to the system were most likely to be divorced.

To corroborate this evidence, the team conducted another study of 31 people from the wider population, not just university alumni. These participants were asked to send in up to eight photographs of themselves aged between 5 and 22. Any photos were allowed, including school photos, wedding photos, and photos take with their families. As an incentive, they were offered a small gift card for taking part. The FACS analysis showed a similar result to the first study, indicating that even very young childhood photographs could be an indicator of future divorce.

How exactly does this mechanism work then? The researchers admit they don’t know, but offer several hypotheses. It could be that those who smile in photographs have more stable personalities, which produces a stable relationship, or perhaps those with more positive emotionality seek out similar people for happier marriages. It might just be that people who smile in photographs smile more generally, and are better at communicating their emotions.

Whatever the reason, it seems that a childhood smile can definitely be used to predict divorce. The paper calls for more research to examine this further, and perhaps find the underlying process that control the relationship between smiling and divorce.

Hertenstein, M., Hansel, C., Butts, A., & Hile, S. (2009). Smile intensity in photographs predicts divorce later in life Motivation and Emotion DOI: 10.1007/s11031-009-9124-6

Comments Off Posted on Friday 17 April 2009 at 9:27 am by Jessica Bland
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

This week the internet security company McAfee released the results of a survey they commissioned on the carbon footprint of email spam. The survey shows that the annual energy used to transmit, process and filter spam totals 33 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh). This is equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes. And 80% of it comes from us searching for and deleting spam emails from our inboxes.

Wow. That’s huge. Imagine how goody green-drops we would be if we had some way of getting rid of spam? Well we don’t need to imagine, we can just buy McAfee’s Spamkiller software.

There is nothing wrong with a company paying for a survey that might increase the brand-profile of one of its products. After all, that just makes good business sense. But there is something a bit sad about the way this was picked up by mainstream, well-respected publications and reported as news. The worst case is a New Scientist article in their online Tech section. This was a near verbatim repeat of McAfee’s press release with the addition of one quote – from Jeff Green, McAfee’s senior vice president of product development.

There are similar articles hopping around cyberspace, replicated in part or whole on various sites. They all do the same thing; they report the story as straight news, with a carbon footprint quote from someone at McAfee. My favourite is James Murray’s report for entitled Spam Epidemic Results in Giant Carbon Footprint. Getting “epidemic” and “Carbon Footprint” in the same heading is pretty impressive. I challenge anyone not to click on the article if it appears in their Google news results.

Luckily, that particular article dose not actually appear on a Google news search for “carbon footprint spam”. The top article in that search is, in fact, a piece where the writer appears to have grasped more than the copy and paste functions of a keyboard. Jeremy A. Kaplan from should be applauded for being the only writer I found who applied his critical faculties to the McAfee study.

In Why the Spam Carbon Footprint Study is Wrong Kaplan makes the simple point that most of the energy we use whilst filtering and deleting emails (the process that accounts for 80% of the carbon footprint McAfee have calculated) comes from having a computer switched on. And by including a computer’s footprint in their calculations the study grossly overestimated the true effects of the spam epidemic.

Kaplan’s article was posted later than many of the other pieces and it illustrates well why taking time over a story can make for better journalism. If you read the McAfee study properly, mulled it over for a bit and then set about deciding whether it’s newsworthy, queries like Kaplan’s tend to crop up. Then when you speak to or, more likely, email someone at McAfee, you might just ask them about why the study they commissioned points more to the carbon footprint of computer uses rather than of spam emails. And that way, you might do more than play your part in their corporate marketing scheme. You might do some journalism.

All this is even more surprising given a similar statistical manipulation that burned a bona fide journalist at The Sunday Times back in January. Google and You’ll Damage the Planet claimed that just two Google searches has the same carbon footprint as boiling a kettle. This was almost instantly refuted by Google as Jacob reported. A search is equivalent to 0.2g of carbon, whereas a kettle burns 7g. The Times Online version of the article now carries a clarification. It claims that the original article based its numbers on the amount of carbon produced in the average number of searches done before some one finds the information they need, rather than in a one-click search. But this correction didn’t matter. The response from Google spread across the web quicker, discrediting the article.

The Google-Kettle episode taught us how precarious calculations of computing carbon footprints are. But those reporting the McAfee survey chose to forget that in favour of an easy article. Maybe that’s a little harsh; perhaps they are just too busy filtering their spam mail to do any real reporting.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 16 April 2009 at 5:24 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

Just A Theory has expanded once more! You’ll already have noticed Colin Stuart, who has managed to squeeze in two blog posts in as many days, but then he does like to get about a bit.

Having studied astrophysics at Manchester he set out to be a science communicator in all manner of outlets. He gives planetarium shows at The Royal Observatory, contributes to the popular Jodcast and also runs Science Made Fun, a website devoted to exciting children with science.

As well as Colin and the rest of the gang, you’ll soon be hearing from Jessica Bland. After graduating from Oxford last year with a degree in Physics & Philosophy she joined the Imperial course, and she is particularly interested in science policy and politics. Look out for her first post coming up this week. Welcome Colin and Jess!

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2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 15 April 2009 at 1:08 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

I’ve already got updates on Just A Theory being pushed to my Twitter feed, but I’ve been trying for a while now to do the same thing on Facebook. If you’ll forgive my diversion from our usual topic of science, I thought I’d explain how I did it so that others can avoid hours of wasted Googling.

What I wanted was an automated process that would take newly published blog posts and put them into my News Feed on Facebook. If you want people to read your posts that’s the best place to put them, as when ever you login to Facebook the first thing you see is your friends’ News Feeds.

After trying many plugins it seems that the only one with this functionality that actually works is Full Circle. Its rather undescriptive name makes it quite hard to find, but its the one you want. I’m not going to explain how to install plugins – I’ll leave that to the WordPress help – but once you’ve got the plugin running on your blog, you’ll find it in the Dashboard under Settings > Full Circle.

Full Circle can actually update Twitter as well, but I’ve only tried it for Facebook. To get this working you must first “Enable posting to Facebook account” then go here to install Full Circle on Facebook. Allow Full Circle to post updates, then return to your WordPress settings and follow the link to connect Full Circle on WordPress to Full Circle on Facebook using the code it generates. Back in WordPress, you can set a couple of options, and then if everything works your next post should be published on Facebook as well. Phew.

Author of the plugin James Andrews is asking for donations to support the plugin. Normally I wouldn’t bother, but since this plugin has finally done exactly what I wanted, I’m going to swing him a few quid. Cheers James! Now, back to the science…

3 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 15 April 2009 at 12:16 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Evolution

The BBC are this morning reporting findings published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B that a species of ant has been discovered that exists without sex. The team from the University of Arizona studied the insect, better known as the Amazonian ant (picture below), and found all members of the colony to be genetic clones of the the queen ant. What’s more, upon dissection their “mussel organ” had withered, apparently rendering them incapable of mating.

Mycocepurus smithii, the ant without a sex life © Alex Wild 2007
Mycocepurus smithii, the ant without a sex life © Alex Wild 2007

There are of course drawbacks to completely lacking any genetic diversity, it is certainly putting all your unfertilised eggs in one evolutionary basket. As Laurent Keller of The University of Lausanne eloquently puts it, “in a colony of clones, if one ant is susceptible to a parasite, they will all be susceptible. So if you’re asexual, you normally don’t last very long.”

But there are advantages to such a mechanism too, as Dr Anna Himler explained to the BBC, “it avoids the energetic cost of producing males, and doubles the number of reproductive females produced each generation from 50% to 100% of the offspring,” she said.

And this is where the interesting part lies. In being complete clones of their female leader not only have the ants dispensed with intercourse but they have eradicated any males of the species. It is easy to see why this notion is preferred by evolution. Life in the formicary must be so much easier since the males were cut out of existence. No farting, no belching and definitely no screaming at the TV whilst the football is on. Imagine the joy of the female Amazonian ants as they can get on with life without any arse-scratching, woman-ogling, toilet-seat-leaving-up pesky males around. Surely it’s only a matter of time before you ladies have the same idea…

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 14 April 2009 at 9:58 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology

This it seems is the week of extraneous body parts. First, from Geneva, a city used to the media spotlight of late, came the news that a pensioner had developed a completely imaginary but yet perfectly working third arm. And then yesterday it was announced that Australian performance artist Stelarc would be giving a talk in Edinburgh about his third ear. An ear it is worth noting that happily resides on his forearm. I can see we are going to need some clarification so let’s start in Switzerland.

Doctors at the Geneva University Hospital have reported in the Annals of Neurology a rare case of Supernumerary Phantom Limb (SPL) syndrome in a 64-year-old stroke patient. A few days after her stroke the pensioner told of how she could not only perceive a third arm, but see it and move it as well. In fact, not only could she move her imaginary appendage but could use it to scratch a very real itch on her cheek.

Curious about the veracity of her claims, neurologist Asaid Khateb put her through an MRI machine and studied the activity of her brain. Remarkably when asked to move her ‘phantom limb’ her motor cortex was activated, suggesting that the brain thought the arm truly existed and was able to be moved. Furthermore, her visual cortex showed signs of activity suggesting she could also see this apparition.

The team in Geneva believe this to be the first case of its kind where a patient can intentionally move a make believe member.

For our second anatomical add-on we must move to Scotland, where yesterday’s Guardian website reported that Stelios Arcadiou, Visiting Professor at Brunel University, would be leading a session at The Edinburgh Science Festival. Arcadiou, better known as Stelarc, is a performance artist with a twist, that twist being an extra ear on his lower arm (see picture below) that was cultivated from stem-cells in 2006. In his talk, entitled Alternate Anatomical Architectures: Fractal Flesh Chimeras & Extra Ears, Stelarc hopes to “explore and extend the concept of the body through human-machine interfaces.” After waiting ten years to find a surgeon willing to construct his aural addition out of human cartilage, he is now trying to hook it up to the internet so that people all over the world can tune into to the delightful acoustic surroundings of his forearm.

Stelarc and his third ear.
Stelarc and his third ear.

In days gone by, people with more body parts than traditionally adorned with by nature would be cruelly toured around the world in so called freak shows, glorified circus acts. It seems to me that a modern day self promoting circus act is just what Prof. Arcadiou may be.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 14 April 2009 at 4:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Wrong

A recent study from Ohio State University has found that university students who use Facebook spend less time studying and get lower grades. How do you think the media reported this? That’s right folks, it’s time for another round of “correlation does not equal causation”!

Three paragraphs in to the press release, co-author of the study Aryn Karpinski makes it clear that she has only shown a correlation between Facebook use and bad marks: “We can’t say that use of Facebook leads to lower grades and less studying – but we did find a relationship there.”

I did a quick (and non-exhaustive) Google News search to see who was reporting the study, and how they were presenting its findings. The results are pretty much what you would expect.

“Pupils who spend time on Facebook do worse in exams, study shows” – Daily Mail
“Facebook students underachieve in exams” -The Telegraph
“Facebook fans do worse in exams” – The Times
“Facebook users do less work” – The Sun

The extent to which each news outlet pushes the idea that Facebook has caused these poor results varies. The worst offender is The Times, who’s strapline “Research finds the website is damaging students’ academic performance” is simply inaccurate. The others merely state the existence of a link, that students who use Facebook are also students with bad grades, but heavily imply that one has caused the other.

As one commenter on the Mail story points out, the whole idea is nonsense. Imran from Bristol says:

How silly, you could write an article called “Students who spend time down the pub” “Students who spend time watching the telly” or “Students who spend time doing do worse in exams, study shows”

Procrastinators procrastinate in any way they can. Be it Facebook, watching TV, or going to the gym, if you put off studying then you are going to be outperformed by those who apply themselves and get good grades. The media love a Facebook story though, especially when it’s contributing to the downfall of modern society as we know it, so that’s the angle we get. Now, I should probably stop blogging and get back to revising…

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 13 April 2009 at 3:42 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Mathematics

One of my friends is a maths teacher, and we’ve often discussed the many problems with maths education in this country. I’d never cut it as a teacher, but it’s still clear to me there is something wrong with the numeracy levels of the general UK population. New research shows that this could be because we’re teaching maths backwards.

The standard way of teaching maths starts out with a few examples before moving on to generalisations. In other words, you learn that 2 x 3 = 6 before moving on to a x b = ab. A study by psychologists Bethany Rittle-Johnson and Percival Mathews of Vanderbilt University in Tennessee has that this may not be the best way for children to learn.

“Teaching children the basic concept behind math problems was more useful than teaching children a procedure for solving the problems – these children gave better explanations and learned more,” Rittle-Johnson said.

“This adds to a growing body of research illustrating the importance of teaching children concepts as well as having them practice solving problems.”

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology (which may or may not be this one as it seems to be six months old…) showed that children who were just taught how to solve problems without the concepts behind them found it difficult to adapt to new problems. Those who understood the concepts however were able to figure out the problems for themselves.

Will this research lead to a change in maths education? I hope so. Mathematician and Professor for the Public Understanding of Science Marcus Du Sautoy has likened current methods to teaching kids scales and arpeggios without actually letting them play music. A more conceptual view of mathematics would be a welcome move away from this.

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 13 April 2009 at 2:12 pm by Seth Bell
In Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology

The Kyoto box isn’t just a theory. It’s just a box (well technically it’s two, but that just sounds less snappy.) It’s a solar cooker made from cardboard boxes which won the Climate Change Challenge, a $75,000 prize organised by Forum For The Future. For the Kenyan-based entrepreneur behind it, Jon Bøhmer, it’s a bit like winning Dragon’s Den. Except it has the potential to save millions of lives. Almost as good as Levi Roots’ Reggae Reggae sauce?

How to assemble: Take one cardboard box (ask at your local Tesco if you don’t have one lying around), cover in silver foil. Place newspaper at bottom of box for insulation. Place second cardboard box inside and paint black. Cover top of second box with acrylic to trap sun-rays.

That’s it. Sounds like half an episode of Art Attack, or a particularly good GCSE technology project. Except this disarmingly simple box can cook stuff using the power of the sun alone and it only costs 5 Euros to make at a manufacturing level. Apparently it can reach over 100 degrees no problem. Perhaps the most amazing part is that no one has had this idea before (or if they have, that they failed to market it successfully).

The Kyoto box is very good news for the population of developing countries for a whole host of reasons. First, it offers a very cheap and easy way to sterilize water.  Second, for the three billion people who still rely on firewood for cooking the Kyoto box offers a wood-free method of cooking. Not only is this better for the environment, but it’s also safer – apparently 1.6 million women and children die from smoke inhalation during indoor cooking every year.

So I’m a fan, as were the judges (who included my old boss Richard Branson) and the prize money will be used to trial the Kyoto box in 10 different countries, including South Africa and India. 

The appeal of the Kyoto box is not just its potential to save lives, but its simplicity.  If you read the About page for Just A Theory, Jacob warns us of the danger of journalists who dumb down science. How do you dumb down the Kyoto box? You can’t, and this is the joy of this story. There is no elaborate scientific experiment or incomprehensible statistics for us to struggle with, because the concept behind the Kyoto box is beautiful in its simplicity. 

For me, science is at its best when clever thinking about simple ideas leads to a remarkable result (such as when Einstein developed Special Relativity using only high school mathematics) and the Kyoto box is a prime example of this. I’m all in favour of complicated experiments and expensive particle accelerators, but scientists would do well to remember that sometimes a small, simple idea can go a long way.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 12 April 2009 at 12:53 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Nine scientific words that are actually from science fiction

Jeff Prucher, freelance lexicographer and editor for the Oxford English Dictionary’s science fiction project has put together a list of common scientific words that originated in fiction. Such terms include “robotics”, “ion drive” and even “zero-gravity”.

Reading the comments of the article however, it seems that this may not be entirely accurate. Jack Williamson is credited with coining “genetic engineering”, but one commenter points out that Williamson himself admits “some scientist beat me by a couple of years.” He does claim credit for “terraforming”, however – but that’s not even on the list.

The technologies of Red Dwarf

Red Dwarf returned to our screens this weekend, and as a long-time fan of the sci-fi sitcom I wasn’t too impressed. Oddly enough, I felt that the lack of a laugh track actually harmed the show – something I’d never normally say!

To mark the occasion, Cnet gives us Red Dwarf’s six greatest technologies, along with a comparison to real-world equivalents. Some of the links are tenuous at best (is Facebook really the equivalent of storing someone’s personality on disk?), but it’s good for a laugh.

The time-travellers cheat sheet

On a more serious note, if you found yourself travelling back in time to a technologically-barren past, would you have the knowledge to rebuild society yourself? If the answer is no, you need this handy cheat sheet:

Click for a bigger view, and hang it in your time machine.
Click for a bigger view, and hang it in your time machine.

Created by, this handy document covers everything a would-be time traveller needs to know to get things up and running again. How do you make penicillin? What’s the speed of light? Do you know the chemical formula for super glue? It’s all in there, along with a whole lot more – and remember, because you’re doing it before the original inventors, take the credit.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 12 April 2009 at 10:23 am by Sam Wong
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

It’s quite easy to think of the Pope as a crackpot old man, like the Duke of Edinburgh. Only the Pope is, by all accounts, a very intelligent man, who is seen as a father figure by over a billion people. You might think, then, that he’d want to consider the facts before offering advice about how to tackle a disease that kills 8,000 people a day. Facts like the fact that correct and consistent use of condoms gives almost complete protection against HIV infection.

‘You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,’  he said last month on a trip to Africa. ‘On the contrary, it increases the problem.’

No one is suggesting that the distribution of condoms, by itself, is going to eradicate Aids overnight, but the suggestion that condoms could make things worse is pretty indefensible. That hasn’t stopped Benedict’s cronies from trying.

On Friday, the new Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, went on the Today programme. When he was asked about the Pope’s statement that condoms could make things worse, he said ‘I am not sure that’s exactly what he said at all’. All the journalists present must have had a lapse of hearing at the same time, then.

‘What he actually talked about was the need to humanise sexuality. And I think to some extent he was speaking up in protection of African women.’ Of course, to a greater extent, he was endangering the lives of millions of African women.

Blogging for the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, Gerald Warner offered a slightly more sophisticated defence.

The basis on which the Pope made this claim was the observable and recorded situation in Africa with regard to HIV/Aids infection rates. The statistics speak for themselves. Uganda was hit by an Aids epidemic in the 1980s and the government thought condoms were part of the answer, though it also promoted abstinence and fidelity. By 1992 more than 18 per cent of Ugandan adults tested HIV positive.

But the country has a 41.9 per cent Catholic population so, using this as a base, the Church promoted the “Education for Life” programme, based on abstinence and fidelity while rejecting condoms. By 2007 only 5.4 per cent of Ugandans were HIV positive. No other country has effected such a recovery, though it is threatened now as the government once again turns to the blandishments of the rubber companies.

Uganda’s success in its efforts to tackle Aids is indeed a remarkable story. According to the US Census Bureau/Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDSHIV), prevalence in Uganda peaked in 1991 at 15% of the adult population, and fell to 5% in 2001.

Picking apart what caused this decline is a tricky business. An increase in deaths from Aids during this period might have played a role , but it is likely that the main reason is a decrease in new infections. The reduced incidence has been widely credited to the ABC (abstinence, be faithful, use condoms) approach taken by Uganda’s first Aids control program, launched in 1987.

Abstinence only programs, by contrast, have repeatedly proven ineffective at reducing sexual activity and sexually-transmitted disease transmission (here’s one review but there are plenty to choose from). Warner goes on:

The correlation between a devoutly Catholic population and containment of Aids is startling and demonstrable. By 2007 Burundi, with a 62 per cent Catholic population, had only a 2 per cent Aids infection rate. Angola, 38 per cent Catholic, had a 2.1 per cent rate. In contrast, Swaziland, only 20 per cent Catholic, had a 26.1 per cent infection rate and Botswana, just 5 per cent Catholic, had a 23.9 per cent rate. Beyond Africa, in the Philippines, 81 per cent Catholic, the HIV rate is a miniscule 0.01 per cent.

Those are some nice figures you’ve chosen there. What about Lesotho? 70% of its population is Catholic, and 28% of its adult population is HIV positive. As for the Philippines, attributing its low HIV rate to the predominance of Catholicism makes about as much sense as crediting its 800 native species of orchid.

The Catholic Church is capable of admitting when it is wrong. In 1992, Pope John Paul II officially conceded that the Earth was not stationary, almost 400 years after Galileo’s observations had shown this to be the case. So we can expect the Pope to endorse the use of condoms in around 2400.

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1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 11 April 2009 at 5:17 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology

For years, animal rights groups have campaigned for universities and other institutions to disclose information about the research they carry out on animals. In 2006 the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) made a request for fourteen UK universities to disclose information about their use of primates in research, under the Freedom of Information Act.

Many of these institutions complied with the request and disclosed the figures. However, five universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, UCL, and Kings College London) appealed against the decision, due to the fear that disclosing the information could endanger the safety of those carrying out the research.

Since the introduction of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986, universities have been required to release the numbers of all animal used in research to the Home Office for annual publication. However, earlier this month, the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that universities must also individually publish the numbers and species of primates they use.

It is easy to see why the universities were unwilling to disclose the information. For those who work in animal research, their fear of the extremists is very real. Although incidences of violence directed against researchers are decreasing, past troubles are not easily forgotten. Indeed, there are still individuals and groups out there who are prepared to use extremist methods – seven SHAC members were jailed in January for a campaign of terror against those connected with Huntingdon Life Sciences.

However, the opposition of these five universities has ultimately only worked to the advantage of the animal rights groups. They have always painted the picture of animal researchers as secretive scientists who carry out research on animals which they do not talk about, either because they are ashamed, or because they know they are wrong.

Indeed Michelle Thew from the BUAV said in The Scientist, “Risk to personal safety, though real in isolated cases in the past, is hugely exaggerated and often used as a smokescreen when researchers do no want to tell the public what they do.”

This view is strongly evident on the animal rights groups websites, and in the literature they distribute. They often quote horror stories of animal research, which are out of date, or wholly inaccurate. If scientists are too scared to come forwards and discuss the true facts of research in the public domain, these groups are only going to continue with getting away with this.

Also, is it just me, or is information about numbers of animals being used contained within published research papers anyway? Surely it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to estimate the numbers used in each institution by using these papers?

The fact that this information will now be publicly available is undeniably a good thing, however, researchers must realise that openness is the only way to successfully dispel the misinformation surrounding animal research. They must stop opposing such ideas. Openness about the research taking place is the only way that meaningful dialogue can even happen between animal rights groups and animal researchers, without outlandish claims on both sides. With the future of animal research dependent on public opinion, (MEP’s in Europe are set to vote in May on amendments to the 1986 Act) they deserve to be informed of facts not myths.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 11 April 2009 at 5:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory

You’ll now notice a little picture of myself in the upper left corner of this post. With the introduction of new writers to Just A Theory, hopefully this will help distinguish between the many voices on the site. Emma and Sam also have their own headshots, so now you can put faces to the names.

Those guys will of course have their weekly posts coming shortly, but look out soon for the inaugural post by the latest member of the Just A Theory team, Seth Bell. He graduated from Cambridge University in 2007 with a degree in natural sciences, specialising in philosophy of science.

Naturally, he’s now studying science communication at Imperial like the rest of us. Seth and I love to disagree for disagreement’s sake, so be prepared for some healthy banter here on Just A Theory. Welcome Seth!

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 10 April 2009 at 6:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy

We’ve had a few stories on Just A Theory about people sending objects into space using impressively cheap materials, and each time I’ve come away wondering just high high about the planet we count as “space”. Now, scientists at the University of Calgary in Canada can provide an answer.

Two years ago their research team created an instrument for a NASA mission designed to monitor the difference between the winds of Earth’s atmosphere and the flow of charged particles in space. These flows can reach speeds of over 1000 km/hr, and they mark they very edge of the atmosphere – the gateway to space.

Data from that instrument has now been analysed, and results published this week in the Journal of Geophysical Research confirm that space begins 118km above the Earth’s surface. I can’t access the paper, “Rocket‐based measurements of ion velocity, neutral wind, and electric field in the collisional transition region of the auroral ionosphere”, but it’s there if you want it.

Called the Supra-Thermal Ion Imager, the measuring instrument was launched aboard the JOULE-II rocket on 19th January 2007. Costing $422,000 to develop, it collected data for just five minutes as the rocket passed through the edge of space. An expensive way to find out where out planetary backyard ends and the rest of the universe begins, but carrying out such a measurement is actually quite tricky.

The region containing the edge of space is too high for balloons, but too low for satellites. This experiment marks the first time comprehensive data has been gathered, says one of the paper’s lead authors, David Knudsen:

“It’s only the second time that direct measurements of charged particle flows have been made in this region, and the first time all the ingredients – such as the upper atmospheric winds – have been included.”

Knudsen is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Calgary, and explained that the Supra-Thermal Ion Imager measured the heat released by frictional forces rubbing on the atmosphere:

“When you drag a heavy object over a surface, the interface becomes hot. In JOULE-II we were able to measure directly two regions being dragged past each other, one being the ionosphere — being driven by flows in space — and the other the Earth’s atmosphere.”

Besides the simple satisfaction of knowing, is there any reason to find the edge of space? Yes, says Knudsen. It could further our understanding of the Earth’s atmosphere and help in the fight against climate change.

“The results have given us a closer look at space, which is a benefit to pure research in space science,

“But it also allows us to calculate energy flows into the Earth’s atmosphere that ultimately may be able to help us understand the interaction between space and our environment. That could mean a greater understanding of the link between sunspots and the warming and cooling of the Earth’s climate as well as how space weather impacts satellites, communications, navigation, and power systems.”

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 9 April 2009 at 12:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Today we’ve got another oral story from the Daily Mail, although this one is a little more current. In “Why lipstick could save your life” we learn that “scientists” have discovered that applying lipstick acts as a “stretching exercise” which can improve balance and coordination. The “study” revealed that this could be particularly helpful for women over 65, who are at risk of serious injury or death following a fall.

You’ve probably noticed I’ve got my “scare quotes” out. That’s because the study leader, Dr Patricia Pineau, just happens to be director of research communications for L’Oreal Group. That’d be L’Oreal who, amongst other products, make lipstick. Instantly, my “conflict of interest” alarm is set off.

It could be that this research is completely kosher. The study looked at 100 women aged 65 to 85 who were given shoe insoles to test their centres of gravity and a belt that monitored posture. The conclusion was that the women who wore make-up every day had better balance and posture, and were less likely to suffer a potentially fatal fall.

What we have here is a positive correlation between make-up use and balance. Does that mean that wearing lipstick improves your coordination? Not necessarily. It could be that the women with better coordination are more likely to wear make-up. If you’re old and difficulty maintaining balance, it’s also possible that you find it difficult to put on make-up due to shaky hands. As such, those women with poorer coordination would also wear less make-up.

Now, I’ve got no evidence to support this hypothesis, but it seems equally likely to me as the one put forward by this research. The difference is that I’m not trying to sell you anything, whilst L’Oreal have chosen to go with the hypothesis that just happens to highlight their products. Surprise surprise.

“Research” like this is really only one step above customer satisfaction surveys that “prove” product X is better than product Y. I’ll continue to distrust any study that benefits the company that funded it it – sorry L’Oreal, you’re just not worth it.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 8 April 2009 at 6:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Browsing the major news outlets this morning, as I tend to do, my gaze fell across the BBC’s “Most Read” list. “Oral sex linked to throat cancer” proclaimed the headline. Could be a story in this, I thought, until I clicked through and realised the article was from 10th May 2007. Old news.

Stories from years gone by sometimes crop up on the “Most Read” list when they get linked to by big sites, and of course appearing on the list means a story is more likely to get read, self-perpetuating it up the charts. This story about a Sudanese man forced to marry a goat crops up more often than you’d expect.

If it’s old news, why am I bothering to post about it? It’s actually pretty funny. Popping along to the Daily Mail I noticed that they were also running the story, the difference being the date – 8th April 2009.

Reading the article, it’s obvious what has happened. Someone at the paper obviously noticed the story’s popularity on the BBC’s site, and realising that it ticked two key Daily Mail boxes, sex and cancer, simply copied it. Compare the following two paragraphs, first the BBC:

HPV infection was found to be a much stronger risk factor than tobacco or alcohol use, the Johns Hopkins University study of 300 people found.

The New England Journal of Medicine study said the risk was almost nine times higher for people who reported oral sex with more than six partners.

And then the Daily Mail:

A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University has revealed that the HPV virus poses a greater risk in contracting cancer than smoking or alcohol.

The American study of 300 people also found that that those with more than six partners were almost nine times at greater risk of contracting the disease.

The Daily Mail reporter has rewritten the wording enough to avoid it being a blatant rip off, without noticing that the story is actually ancient, in news terms. If any further evidence was needed, they even use the BBC’s quote:

Study author Dr Gypsyamber D’Souza told the BBC: ‘It is important for health care providers to know that people without the traditional risk factors of tobacco and alcohol use can nevertheless be at risk of oropharyngeal cancer.’

If you wanted proof that even the big boys sometimes stoop to copying off each other, you’ve got it. I’m not sure how they even made this mistake to be honest. You can immediatly tell that the BBC story isn’t fresh because it uses their older, narrower web design. The Daily Mail strikes again.

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 7 April 2009 at 6:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Actually if I’m being honest, she doesn’t, but then neither does shampoo – contrary to the actress’s claims.

Writing on her website she warned of “environmental toxins and their effects on our children.” The page has since been taken down, but not even Hollywood actresses can hide from Google, so you can still read the text here. Paltrow pointed to “chemicals that may or may not be safe” as a possible cause of diseases in children and gave suggestions from others for avoiding them:

The research is troubling; the incidence of diseases in children such as asthma, cancer and autism have shot up exponentially and many children we all know and love have been diagnosed with developmental issues like ADHD. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but perhaps we can do things to reduce illness in our children and ourselves. Below you will find some of the most prevalent facts and also easy, affordable ways to reduce exposure to substances which may be harming us.

The advice included “avoiding chemicals” by using olive oil or aloe vera gel in place of shampoo or skin lotion. Olive oil is made up of many types of fatty acids, whilst aloe vera contains, amongst other things, anthraquinone, commonly used in the production of dyes. In other words, both substances are chemicals – as is practically anything else you care to spread on your skin or stick in your mouth.

Many individuals and organisations have come out attacking Paltrow. Cancer Research UK point out that the number of children with cancer has not risen in the past ten years, whilst bacteriologist Professor Hugh Pennington described the claims as “rubbish” and “loopy”. He added:

“It does annoy me when celebrities use their position to spout nonsense. They have a perfect right to their views, even if they are loopy, but they do hold a position of influence. You may as well ask someone on the Underground.”

Quite right. Paltrow is completely abusing her stardom with these claims, and people might be tempted to follow her advice. Why members of the public would choose to listen to her over, say, Cancer Research UK, I have no idea. You only have to look at the popularity of fad diets or the racks of celeb magazines in supermarkets to see that the opinions of actresses’ carry great weight in society. Gwyneth Paltrow is welcome to speak out on whatever she pleases, but I hope next time she tries to be a little more informed.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 6 April 2009 at 8:08 am by Jacob Aron
In Mathematics

How many people do you need to have in a room before it’s more likely than not that at least two of them share the same birthday? As today is my 23rd birthday it’s particularly suitable for a post on this interesting mathematical puzzle – because the answer just happens to be 23.

“Surely not?” is most people’s response, because 23 just seems too low. As there are 365 days in the year, common sense would suggest that you’d need a much higher number of people to give a 50% probability of a shared birthday. The birthday “paradox” isn’t really a paradox, but rather a great illustration of how common sense can let us down.

It works like this. If I’m in a room with 22 other people, that means there are 22 chances that one of them shares my birthday and is also celebrating today. Here’s the catch: the same thing goes for everyone else in the room. That means there are 253 chances in total, because we have (23 x 22)/2 = 253 pairs in the room. The division by two is to avoid counting each pair twice, if you were wondering.

What are the odds that I have a different birthday to just one person? In other words, if I meet someone at random in the street, how likely is it they won’t have been born on 6th April, but some other day instead. If we ignore leap years, and assume that all birthdays are equally likely, there are 364 other days they could have been born on. That means there is a 364/365 chance they don’t share my birthday, which works out around 99.7%. Sounds about right – after all, it’s pretty likely we have different birthdays.

A handy trick often used in these type of calculations is to work out the probability that the opposite of what ever you are interested in happens, and use that to work out the probability that it does.

In this case, we can work out the likelihood that no-one shares a birthday. We already know this figure for one pair, it’s 364/365 as discussed above. To calculate the probability for 253 pairs, we simply multiply this number by itself 253 times.

Reaching for a calculator, we find that (354/365)253 = 0.4995, roughly. That’s the probability that no-one shares a birthday. To find the probability that at least two people do (it could be more) we just subtract this from 1 to get 0.5005, or just over a 50% chance.

You might be wondering how many people you need in a room for a 100% chance of two shared birthdays. That’s more intuitive – with a massive room containing 366 people, you’re guaranteed a match because there are only 365 birthdays! We can however get a 99% chance of a match with only 57 people, using the same method I’ve just described.

With the rise of social networks like Facebook, we can conduct experiments into the birthday paradox quite easily. If you’re logged in, this link should take you to a list of your friend’s birthdays. I’ve got 113 Facebook friends, which means there is a 99.9999996% chance at least two of them share a birthday. Indeed, there are nine shared birthdays, including a four-way share one month ago on 6th March! Not bad. I’m off to eat some cake to celebrate.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 5 April 2009 at 11:33 am by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory, Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Before we get on with the Weekly Roundup, I should introduce the latest Just A Theory blogger. You may have already noticed Emma’s post yesterday about tasty vaccines, but if not go and have a read. She previously studied pharmacology at Newcastle University before joining the sci comm course at Imperial, and works part time at Understanding Animal Research. Welcome Emma! Now, on with the roundup.

Finding the science behind the news

It’s terribly annoying to read an interesting science story with no link to the original paper. Ever since I started writing Just A Theory, I’ve come across this problem again and again. When I write something, I’ll always link to the paper if I’ve been able to track it down.

A new tool will hopefully make this a little easier. Recently launched, the science behind it will hunt down those pesky papers for you. It currently only works for stories on the BBC and Reuters and since it uses PubMed it’s generally only of use for biological or medical research articles. It seems that designer Adam Bernard is planning to expand its scope though.

I had a go with the “robotic scientist” story that Sam wrote about on Friday, and it seems to work quite well. The result could be a bit prettier, but that’s a fairly minor complaint if it means I can get my hands on a few more papers!

Life on Mars Russia?

Ah, David Bowie, where would we be without you? Having to come up with original headlines for stories about Mars, that’s where. Earlier this week the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow began a 105 day experiment to simulate a journey to the Red Planet.

Six volunteers climbed into their new home, three windowless steel capsules only 550 cubic metres big – just enough space to hold a tennis court under a moderately high ceiling. Inside, each volunteer has their own cabin furnished with bed, desk and chair. They will be able to contact the outside world, but only with a simulate Earth-Mars delay of 20 minutes.

Although it sounds like a potential Channel 4 reality show, the volunteers will be conducting serious science. As well as finding out how astronauts might deal with a cramped journey to Mars, they will conduct experiments and wear electrodes as they sleep to monitor brain activity.

It could be worse. If this experiment is a success, a subsequent experiment lasting 520 days will simulate a round trip to Mars with a 30 day stay on the surface. Unlike a real Martian mission however, the volunteers will be allowed to leave if they wish to abandon the task, though this will be counted as “death” for the purposes of the experiment…

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 4 April 2009 at 5:10 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Activia, Yakult, and Actimel – what do they have in common? Yup, it’s probiotic bacteria of course, and those pesky ad campaigns that seem to dominate our TV ad breaks. Nell McAndrew is a personal favourite…are you feeling bloated?

But, do these so-called ‘friendly bacteria’ actually do anything? The consensus at the moment is that yes, they are beneficial to digestion, encouraging the bacteria that naturally live in your gut to thrive. Our own Imperial College carried out a clinical trial in 2007, showing that drinking probiotic drinks reduced the incidence of diarrhoea occurring as a side effect of antibiotic administration.

But, research this week published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has shown that probiotic bacteria could have a new and very exciting use – in making oral vaccinations possible.

Traditional vaccinations involve injections, which can be problematic. Especially if, like me, you suffer from a fear of needles. So, the idea of an oral vaccination sounds great, but unfortunately making such a vaccine has not been as straightforward as it sounds.

The problem is that the vaccine formulation designed for injection would be quickly digested in the stomach into inactive constituents.  However, the key finding of this paper is the discovery that if the vaccine is combine with probiotic bacteria, it is protected from being destroyed by digestion.  The vaccine can therefore reach the small intestine, the optimum destination for the vaccine, leading to a powerful immune response being evoked.

To test the vaccine, they fed an oral anthrax vaccine (combined with the probiotic bacteria) to one group of mice and gave another the traditional vaccine via injection. When they exposed the mice to the anthrax bacteria, the immune response produced by the mice given the oral vaccine was much more powerful than in the mice receiving the injected vaccine.

Benefits other than being a pain-free alternative, include a lack of side effects.  Because probiotics are natural stimulators of the immune response, additives are not required in the oral vaccine. It is thought that it is the additives in traditional vaccines that are responsible for the side effects of vaccinations at the moment.

With the future of vaccinations looking more like dessert than scary syringes, make mine a strawberry yogurt!

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 4 April 2009 at 2:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Today may be the Grand National, but I’m more interested in a different type of racetrack. New research in to a new type of computer memory means hard drive failure could be a thing of the past.

Physicists at the University of Leeds, in conjunction with IBM Research’s Zurich Lab, have been working on developing “racetrack” memory which could replace current hard drives. Good news for anyone who has ever lost crucial data thanks to a dead drive.

Existing storage technology works like a tiny record player. Information is stored on metal discs made up of groups of magnetised atoms called domains. These discs spin beneath a “head” to read off your mp3 files, documents, and emails.

Racetrack memory was conceived last year by Stuart Parkin at IBM Research’s Almaden Lab, and uses no moving parts, meaning disks using the technology would be much less likely to break. Instead, the information is moved about by an electric current, which switches the magnetic direction of the domains.

The new research, published in Physical Review Letters, uses an electron microscope that can “see” magnetism to investigate how these tiny magnetic devices behave. The aim is to reduce the electric current required to move information along the racetrack.

As well as being more reliable, racetrack memory could also be much cheaper and faster. The price of iPods and USB memory sticks could fall, with the cost of racetrack memory 100 times cheaper per bit than flash memory. With no moving parts and no time needed to search the disk for information, computers could potentially boot up in an instant.

All this wonderful stuff is still a long way off, however. The next stage in the quest for improved memory is to develop better materials with which to construct the racetrack. It’s expected that the new memory will be available within 10 years.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 3 April 2009 at 7:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

There have certainly been some strange stories coming out of the 2009 British Psychological Society Annual Conference, which ended today. The conference, held in Brighton, has been pumping out press releases full of quirky stories which have popped up all over the mainstream media. Let’s have a look at a few.

Hot chocolate helps with maths

Cocoa flavanols, chemicals found in chocolate, have been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, and eating the cocoa plant has also lead to improved mental performance. To see if the drink could have the same effect, Crystal Haskell of Northumbria University got 30 adults to drink hot cocoa containing different levels of the chemical on different days.

Participants consumed a drink containing 520 mg of cocoa flavanols, 993 mg of cocoa flavanols or a control containing none. On the days that the drinks contained cocoa flavanols, the found it easy to complete mental tasks such as counting backwards from 999 in threes.

Dog owners really do look like their pets

This study from Charis Hunter and Dr Lance Workman at Bath Spa University asked 70 non-dog owners to match photos of 41 dog lovers to one of three breeds – labrador, poodle or Staffordshire bull terrier. According to The Telegraph (why this information isn’t in the press release, I don’t know), they were correct between 50 and 60% of the time.

Random chance would suggest a success rate of only 33%. Dr Workman attributes the matches to physical stereotypes, since when they rested the dog owners’ personalities they found no link between any particular personality traits or dog breeds.

Something about this just doesn’t sit right with me. Are people really choosing their dogs, whether consciously or unconsciously, because they look like them? Unfortunately there’s no paper for me to read yet because the announcement was made at a conference, but I’ll be on the look out for one in the future.

Growing up with a sister makes you happier

Having at least one sister in the family when growing up leads to a more balanced and happier life, according to Liz Wright of De Montfort University and Prof. Tony Cassidy of University of Ulster.

In a survey of 571 people aged 17 to 25, they found that those with at least one sister scored highest in tests for psychological well-being. Professor Cassidy said:

“Sisters appear to encourage more open communication and cohesion in families. However, brothers seemed to have the alternative effect.”

I’m also troubled by this research. It seems to be saying that I’ll be happier because I have sister who encouraged a nicer home life, and yet at the same time she will be less happy because of my presence. Given that we both grew up in the same house, how can that possibly be correct? Again, I’m hoping for a future paper to clarify.

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 3 April 2009 at 4:49 pm by Sam Wong
In Biology, Inventions & Technology

Scientists have always worked in a perpetual state of unease concerning whether or not they would get their next grant. Recent funding cuts and the spectre of the global recession have only exacerbated worries about job security. And now this.

It was reported in Science this week that a robot scientist called Adam created by researchers from Aberystwyth University successfully identified 12 genes that encode enzymes in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Adam generates hypotheses about the likely locations of genes that encode particular enzymes. He then devises a method to test his hypotheses. He can select the appropriate yeast mutants, incubate cells and measure their growth rates.

Meanwhile scientists at Cornell University in the US have developed an algorithm that can deduce laws of motion from observing a dynamical system (also in this week’s Science).

We’ve certainly come a long way since the days of Jacques de Vaucanson and his Digesting Duck. While the 18th century’s crowning achievement in robotics was an avian contraption with the ability to defecate, today’s automata are being devised with genuinely useful practical applications in mind.

As The Times notes, ‘robots are proving increasingly valuable because they can carry out large numbers of repetitive tests that in a person would induce boredom and loss of concentration’. In the final year of my biology degree, I decided not to pursue a career in science precisely because I found lab work so mind-numbingly tedious. If we can build machines that do all the mundane tasks for us, so much the better.

We should expect robots to make excellent scientists. The 20th century sociologist Robert K Merton came up with four ‘norms’ of science, a set of ideals to which scientists should aspire. These were communalism – the common ownership of scientific discoveries; universalism – the assessment of hypotheses on the basis of objective, impersonal criteria; disinterestedness – abstention from self-aggrandisement; and organised scepticism – the collective scrutiny of scientific endeavour. These are all qualities we should expect to come naturally to robots (providing we program them in the right way).

Not everybody is quite so enthusiastic about these developments. Understandably, many scientists are becoming slightly nervous about their future careers.

‘I believe many researchers would be threatened by this new technology’, said Daniel Goodman, a systems biologist at Imperial College, London, who also works on yeast. ‘After years of incredibly intense training, “Adams” are going to swoop in to replace human scientists who have worked day and night to get to where they are today. Open-mindness and intellectual flexibility are key attributes in a good scientists. A robot would have thrown away Fleming’s contaminated plate as trash rather than see the potential that lay within.’

Professor Ross King, who led the Aberystwyth team, played down the threat to human jobs. ‘We hope to have teams of human and robot scientists working together in laboratories’, he said. He obviously hasn’t seen The Matrix, or I, Robot.

King’s team are already building a successor to Adam, called Eve. They declined to comment on the suggestion that Eve would be more prone to breaking down than Adam and less able to perform several tasks at once.

What next? Robot writers that will keep me out of a job? Clever algorithms like this one are already rendering the Daily Mail journalist obsolete. Thankfully, intelligent blogging like that what we do at Just A Theory remains the preserve of the human. For now.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 2 April 2009 at 10:35 am by Jacob Aron
In Happenings

Last week was the end of term at Imperial, and we had to present the results of our group project work. The brief for the project was basically an incredibly vague “make something”, with the added proviso that it should make use of ideas discussed in the previous term.

After some discussion my group decided to explore common language and symbolism between religion and science, in particular the use of the word “epiphany” to describe the moment of scientific insight. This idea eventually took shape as an altarpiece, featuring yours truly as both a scientist and a priest.

The finished piece.
The finished piece.

We wanted to depict the various stages in a scientist’s career and compare them to the life of a priest. I’ve uploaded full size photos of each section, so click on them for a larger view.

Learning the Paradigm.
Learning the Paradigm.

A young man decides to become a scientist, and must learn the rules and customs.

Coming of Age.
Coming of Age.

The man undergoes a right of passage by getting his PhD and becoming a scientist.


Working in the lab, the scientist has a flash of inspiration.

Resisting Temptation.
Resisting Temptation.

He must resist the lure of big business and continue with his work.

Life After Death.
Life After Death.

Having died, he lives on through his theories.

Not being remotely artistic I left the actual crafting to others, so most of my work was done in Photoshop. I had to combine the various photos we took, add objects and sometimes change scenes entirely. I also applied various filters to make the images look more like paintings. I’ve also uploaded my original Photoshop work to give a clearer idea of the images – we intentionally made them look worn for the actual altarpiece. Once again, watch out for large files!

So, that’s what I’ve been spending much of my time on in the past few weeks. I’m not completely satisfied with the final result as some of my Photoshop work could have been a bit better – particularly the rather dodgy beards – but I think it’s pretty good, and I enjoyed working on it. Now I just have to wait and see what mark it gets…

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 1 April 2009 at 6:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Musings

Today is of course April Fool’s Day, and both the media and internet in general just love to get involved. The Guardian claims to be switching from print to Twitter, whilst Youtube have flipped all their videos upside down.

During my daily science news read, I was sure to be on the look out for any potential shenanigans. When I came across a BBC story headlined “Baby chicks do basic arithmetic” I was certain I’d found a Fool, but after further digging I’m not so sure.

The story, which was also reported by The Telegraph, The Guardian and others, says that Italian scientists have show that newborn chicks can do basic sums.

Chicks are known to try and stay close to objects they are reared with, and will go towards groups that contain the most familiar objects. Exploiting this trait, known as imprinting, Prof. Lucia Regolin and Rosa Rugani designed an experiment to see if the chicks could count. I’m linking to their university pages to prove that they actually exist, and seem to have done research in this area in the past.

Using the little plastic containers found in Kinder eggs, which do bear some resemblance to chicks, the team hid differing numbers of containers behind a screen whilst the chick was held watching in a transparent box. Once released, the chick headed for the screen that hid three objects as opposed to two.

Even moving objects from one screen to another didn’t phase the chicks. They were able to count the difference as the containers were moved, and still pick the screen with the largest amount.

Is there any doubt then that this is real research? It would be quite unusual for multiple outlets to run the same April Fool’s Story, unless they themselves had been duped. My only concern is that the findings were supposedly published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and yet the journal webpage makes no mention of the work. It could be that they’re just slow to update.

Let this be a lesson to scientists: if you’ve spent a long time working on something that seems even slightly wacky, perhaps it’s best not to announced it until April 2nd?