Archive for November 2009

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 29 November 2009 at 5:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Universities must do more to stop formula stories

This week Times Higher Education have an interesting article about your favourite and mine, the “formula for” story. Of particular concern is the move by PR companies to use students to advertise their dodgy equations, such as the formula for a perfect night out from last month.

The concern is that students could be damaging their scientific reputations by taking part in this kind of PR activity, and that universities should take more care in publicising the work through their press offices. It turns out that Leeds University, home to “VKendologist” Phillippa Toon, were happy to facilitate media interviews for the nonsense formula story. A bit worrying, really.

Test-tube burgers, anyone?

Would you eat meat grown in a petri dish? Scientist in Holland have produced lab-grown meat for the first time – though they haven’t tasted it yet.

Cells taken from the muscle of a live pig grew into sticky muscle tissue, which doesn’t sound very appetising because the meat needs exercise to give it a more normal consistency.

I’d certainly welcome lab-grown meat, as long as it tasted like the real thing. It would take much less space and resources than breeding pigs or cattle, and animals wouldn’t have to die before we tuck in. I’m sure many people will be horrified by the idea, but a meat cell is a meat cell, wherever it grows.

Oh nos!

It had to happen eventually. The lolcats have got in to the Large Hadron Collider, and I think we all know how it’s going to end:

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 27 November 2009 at 8:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

Cliff Arnall is back, and he’s got enough dodgy “formula for” stories to see us through til Christmas. The man behind the worst and best days ever has now come up with a formula for the “perfect toy”. As with all the finest scientific research, you can find the details in the Daily Mail.

If you don’t remember him, Cliff Arnall often pops up in to the media peddling mathematical nonsense. The Mail bill him as “Professor” Arnall, which is a new one, but it’s not entirely clear which institution he’s from. Certainly not Cardiff University, who have made repeated attempts to distance themselves from Arnall after he left their employ as a part-time tutor.

Let’s have some fun playing with the formula then. The Daily Mail have a handy explanation:

All the variables in the left column are basically arbitrary scores out of 5, and thus fairly meaningless. In the right column, T, L and C are at least all quantifiable, in that we can assign a meaningful value to them. Multiplying T by L is actually fine, because both of these variables use units of time. The problems start when you divide by the square root of C.

Quick anyone, what’s the square root of £1? I might as well ask for banana divided by orange – neither question makes mathematical sense, because there is no such thing as the square root of currency.

Our old friends zero and infinity make an appearance as well. If a toy is free, it doesn’t matter if you give it 0 out of 5 for everything else, because as long as your child plays with it for even a second, it’s going to have infinite play value. Dividing by smaller and smaller values of C makes the last term in the equation grow rapidly, completing dwarfing the others. In other words, Cliff Arnall’s perfect toy is crap and worthless. Just like his formulas then.

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 25 November 2009 at 7:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Today the Daily Mail and the Telegraph both reported that spending time on Sodoku and other puzzles will help you lose weight. That’s right – you can simply think yourself thin, because giving your brain a workout apparantly burns 1.5 calories a minute, or 90 an hour.

Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? Lose weight without even having to really do anything? Fantastic…until you realise that shifting just a single pound of fat requires burning 3500 calories more than you normally do. At five and a half weeks per pound, you’re not going to slipping in to some skinny new clothes any time soon.

Surely this advice comes from a well-respected brain expert though? It seems to have been announced by one Tim Forrester, who is billed as a “researcher” and “mental agility expert” by the newspapers. He also happens to run, a “a brand new internet retailer specialising in Brain Training, Educational and Skills Improvement products.”

Well that’s handy – Forrester can sell you the very same puzzles that his “research” suggests will help you lose weight! And not a conflict of interest in sight.

It’s not clear how Forrester made this incredible discovery, but a bit of Googling shows up an article from Popular Science, published in 2006. The “1.5 calories a minute” figure seems to be ascribed to Harry Chugani of the Children´s Hospital of Michigan, but it’s not clear when or where he said it. The article also says our brain requires 0.1 calories a minute simply to survive, a phrase that Forrester quotes nearly verbatim.

Thinking hard is obviously going to require some extra calories, but I have no idea how many. The figures in these articles don’t seem to be backed up by any research, and they seem fairly unlikely – walking burns around 5 calories a minute, and requires far more activity than simply thinking.

Really, it doesn’t take too many calories to recognise that these articles are nothing more than poorly researched adverts for some guy’s website. That’s bad enough, but they could also have a potentially damaging effect on someone’s health if they decide to reach for the crossword instead of the cross trainer. There are no quick fixes to losing weight, and the “Sudoku diet”, like many, is complete nonsense.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 23 November 2009 at 6:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology

I don’t know why, but I just love clever ideas for electricity generation. Maybe it’s because I’m a great big nerd with vague but constant guilt about how the energy I used is produced.

The latest idea I’ve seen comes from researchers at the City College of New York, who’ve developed a way to literally suck energy from the air flow around cars and planes. They’re using materials with piezoelectric properties, which convert physical movement in to electricity, to generate a form of wind power.

It works like this. Airplanes, cars and other vehicles all create an airflow as the move forward and push the air around the to one side. Placing a small piezoelectric device into this flow, not much bigger than your thumbnail, will produce a voltage that can charge a battery.

You’re not going to be running your car on it any time soon – the energy produced is nowhere near enough to power an engine. We use cars for a lot more than just driving these days though, and the piezoelectric devices could power internal computer systems, or charge your mobile phone. The researchers are now trying to model the best location for their devices on a vehicle to maximise the energy they produce.

I think that ideas like this are the future of electricity generation. It’s not a very sexy solution to the problems of climate change, and you won’t see any politicians crying “let’s all attach small things to our cars!”, but if we can come up with loads of small ways to produce clean power, it could add up to a significant carbon saving.

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 22 November 2009 at 3:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

A busy week has meant a pretty poor showing on Just A Theory, but hopefully a packed roundup will make up for it:

LHC a-go-go

The Large Hadron Collider is finally up and running again! As our CERN correspondent Emma mentioned last month, scientist in Geneva have been working on restarting the LHC after it had to be shut down last year. Their hard work paid off on Friday, and proton beams are now successfully colliding in the 27km-long ring of the world’s largest experiment. Now for the science!

What if the Earth had rings?

Speaking of rings, check out this short video showing how it would look if Earth had its own set, like Saturn.

At the equator they appear to be a thin line through the sky, but further north or south they make an amazing sight, lighting up the sky even at night. Anyway we can build these things and cover them in solar panels or something?

Field less players to win the World Cup

It seems that having a large squad to choose from can actually be a hindrance when it comes to top football. You might think fielding substitutions lets mangers pick the best players for every situation, but research shows that sticking with the top 11 is the key to success.

Bacteria that can detect landmines

Scientist at the University of Edinburgh have developed a strain of bacteria that glow green near explosives. By mixing them with a colourless solution, they can be sprayed from the air on to suspected landmine fields, turning the ground green if mines are detected.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 18 November 2009 at 6:27 pm by Jacob Aron
In Mathematics

This strange object is the Mandelbulb, a 3D version of the famous Mandelbrot set fractal. I’ve written an article about it over at New Scientist, so go check it out, along with a gallery of more 2D and 3D fractals.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 16 November 2009 at 4:35 pm by Emma Stokes
In Physics

And before you even think it… no this is not breaking news that the LHC has broken again! I’m also not referring to the bird/baguette incident, as Jacob covered that last week in his weekly roundup. Never the less, the bird/baguette did make for quite a few amusing headlines and I’m hoping to make some extra money moonlighting as a scarecrow…

Anyway, onto other news here at CERN:

  • after cool down of the LHC to operational temperature the proton beams have made their way half way around the LHC ring.
  • wet road + dead leaves = skidding (the phrase no shit springs to mind..)
  • what is considered first physics day (the day where collisions will occur at a high enough energy to produce new data) is now likely to be in February.

And, in an exciting development, another complex construction project has recently reached its completion: The ATLAS pop-up book.

Voyage to the Heart of Matter was officially launched to a press-packed room at the Royal Institution in London last week. I’ve been lucky enough to see this project progress from early prototype stages to completion, as it was written and designed by my boss – Emma Sanders along with a pop-up professional Anton Radevsky.


For those who don’t know, the ATLAS detector is one of the four main experiments situated around the LHC ring at CERN. It is a general-purpose detector and has been designed to measure the broadest possible range of signals. One of its main aims is to find the elusive Higgs Boson particle. Without evidence of this particle the very foundations of particle physics remain uncertain, including why the fundamental particles have different masses. The detector will also look at dark matter, super-symmetry, and extra dimensions in an attempt to better understand the universe around us, and its origins.

Book 1

So, to the book – Voyage to the Heart of Matter aims to communicate the aims of ATLAS in a fun and accessible way. Whilst only four pages long, it’s certainly not a short read, or a conventional pop-up book. In one word it’s simply awesome. The level of detail combined with the ingenuity of the pop-ups is fantastic. The book includes a pop-up control room, big bang and a model of the ATLAS detector that you can build yourself (sneaky peek video)! In what is a relatively small amount of text the science content does exactly what you want it to – it’s inspiring, informative and insightful. Balanced well with the visual content, the text aims to show just how ATLAS works and the amazing technology that is needed to build these experiments.

Book 2

Hannah Devlin of The Times was at the Royal Institution to pick up a copy, and you can read her thoughts over at Eureka Zone. It has also been featured on science blogs all over the web, and even has it’s own Facebook group!

The book will be available from the start of December at CERN, but if you’re not planning a visit you can also pick up a copy from Amazon, or direct from the publisher, Papadakis. With a price tag of 30CHF or £20 it’s a pretty interesting and unusual Christmas present (in my opinion anyway… but then again, I might just be a huge science geek!)

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 15 November 2009 at 7:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Necker cube

Everyone loves optical illusions, especially three dimensional ones. The Necker Cube is a classical example of an ambiguous drawing, one that the human mind can interpret in a number of ways. Artist Guido Moretti has created a 3D sculpture of the cube, and it’s pretty nifty:

But can they do copernicium?

Pets aren’t normally known for their understanding of molecular chemistry, but this team of golden retrievers are here to explain the science of atoms:

Periodic table of YUM!

I guess I’m just a sucker for novelty periodic tables. Behold. the periodic table of cupcakes:

So many to choose from...
So many to choose from...*drool*

Let’s just hope they didn’t include samples of each element in the icing…

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 13 November 2009 at 9:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Psychology

Behind the door? In the wardrobe? Under the bed? Many young children fear hidden monsters are coming to get them, and parents often struggle to convince them there is no such thing as the bogeyman. A study published in the journal Child Development offers some tips for showing kids that it’s safe to go to bed.

Researchers read illustrated stories to 50 children aged four, five, and seven. Each story was about a child coming across something frightning, either real or imaginary. For example, the child in the story could be confronted with a bear, or a ghost.

After the reading, the researchers then asked the participating children to predict how afraid the fictional children would be, to explain why they felt afraid, and to suggest a way to help.

One of the illustrated stories used in the research.
One of the illustrated stories used in the research.

When the creatures in the stories were real, the researchers found children wanted to actively do something. Boys mostly suggested fighting, while girls thought they should avoid the creature.

For imaginary monster, the responses were different. Younger children suggested pretending the monsters were friendly, while older kids showed the ability to remember the reality of the situation – i.e., ghost aren’t real.

These results suggest that parents should take a different approach to easing their child’s fears, depending on their age. After all, there’s nothing really lurking under the bed…

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 9 November 2009 at 8:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Cut grass, warm cakes, and dog poo. A strange combination maybe, but smelling any of the three is likely to evoke a certain memory for you. Everyone has experienced a sudden recollection after sniffing a particularly distinctive odour, and now a team of Israeli scientist have worked out why.

Graduate student Yaara Yeshurun of the Weizmann Institute of Science suspected that this memory association is formed when we first encounter a smell in a particular context. That’s why cut grass might take you back to summer’s day in your youth, but not to a walk in the park last Tuesday.

To test her hypothesis, Yeshurun and her team got 16 volunteers to look at 60 objects, each accompanied wither either a pleasant or unpleasant smell. Next, an fMRI scanner measured their brain activity as they looked over the images again and tried to recall the associated odour. Participants then repeated the test with different smells, before coming back a week later for another round of tests.

Yeshurun found that after one week, the participants showed a distinctive brain pattern when recalling the first odour – even if they remembered both equally. The scan revealed activity in the hippocampus and amygdala, the parts of the brain involved with memory and emotion, and allowed Yeshurun and colleagues to predict participants reactions based on the data from the first day of the experiment.

Investigating further, they repeated the entire experiment with sound instead of smell. Surprisingly, they found that the first-time association was not repeated. Commenting on her result, Yeshurun said:

“As far as we know, this phenomenon is unique to smell. Childhood olfactory memories may be special not because childhood is special, but simply because those years may be the first time we associate something with an odour.”

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 8 November 2009 at 2:28 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Large Hadron Collider taken down by bread

Earlier this week the Large Hadron Collider suffered yet another setback, when it was dive-bombed by a bird carrying a piece of baguette. You just can’t make it up.

The rogue bit of bread caused a short circuit in part of the LHC’s above-ground electronics, leading to an automatic shutdown of the giant ring’s cooling system. Thankfully the LHC was only knocked offline for a few days this time, and systems are now running normally. Lets just hope the scientists at Geneva have invested in a couple of scarecrows.

Eating fast makes you fat – now we know why

It’s often said that eating too fast will lead to putting on weight, because your brain doesn’t have enough time to catch up with your full stomach. Now, new research has found a possible physiological explanation for why this might happen.

Dr Alexander Kokkinos of the Laiko General Hospital in Athens found that eating too quickly can slow the release of two hormones from the gut, PYY and GLP-1. Volunteers were given 300ml of ice cream to eat at different rates, and those who ate the slowest had the highest hormone concentration.

X-rays top the charts

Back in June I reported on a Science Museum survey to pick the most influential scientific infection in their collection. The results are in, and it seem X-rays take the top spot, followed by penicillin and the DNA double helix.

It’s a bit of an odd choice, I think. In my original post, I went for the Pilot ACE Computer, because it was the first multi-tasking computer. It seems others disagreed though, because it came in at a lowly seventh place. Still, X-rays over penicillin? I’ve taken antibiotics far more than I’ve been X-rayed, as have most people I would’ve thought. Strange.

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8 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 4 November 2009 at 9:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Mathematics

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

With banks being bailed out all over the place these days, many people are asking themselves why those in charge get paid such high salaries. Are CEOs really worth their million pound bonuses? Not according to Venkat Venkatasubramanian, who has calculated that US chief executives get paid nearly 130 times what they should.

As a professor of chemical engineering at Purdue University, Indiana, Venkatasubramanian seems an unlikely candidate to dictate CEO salaries. It turns out that the maths behind thermodynamics, the study of heat and energy, can also be applied to economics.

The trick is to redefine a concept called entropy. In thermodynamics entropy measures the disorder of a system. Imagine a box full of gas particles. If all the particles are packed into one corner, the system has low entropy. If they are spread out and zooming all over the place, it has high entropy. The laws of thermodynamics mean that entropy always increases over time.

What does that mean for CEO salaries? Venkatasubramanian realised that entropy could be seen as a measure of “fairness” in economics. According to the laws of supply and demand, as markets evolve salaries and the price of goods should move towards the most fair situation for everybody.

With this economic equivalent to entropy, Venkatasubramanian found that salaries should follow a lognormal distribution, a particular way of measuring the spread of data. When he compared his theory to data from income tax returns, he found that the model fit closely for the bottom 90-95% of salaries. In other words, the 5-10% at the top are getting more than their fair share.

According to the lognormal distribution, CEOs should be paid a little over 8 times more than the average employee. Looking at the salaries of 35 CEOs from top Fortune 500 companies, Venkatasubramanian discovered that their pay was on average 1,057 times what a regular employee earns – around 129 times the ideal value.

Of course, not all CEOs pull in such vast amounts. Interestingly, investment guru Warren Buffet takes a salary of $200,000, which is about 8 times what the average employee of his company Berkshire Hathaway earns.

Venkatasubramanian points out that his figures only work for large corporations – the heads of smaller entrepreneurial start-ups will clearly be worth more than the few staff they employ. Still, he hopes that his research will be useful to governments and regulators in assessing CEO salaries, and ensuring a fair deal for all.

Venkatasubramanian, V. (2009). What is Fair Pay for Executives? An Information Theoretic Analysis of Wage Distributions Entropy, 11 (4), 766-781 DOI: 10.3390/e11040766

1 Comment » Posted on Monday 2 November 2009 at 7:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

A meteorite impact may have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, but we know a lot about them thanks to the fossils they left behind. Now it seems we might be due another extinction event, after a pair of paleontologists discovered a mistaken duplication of dinosaur species – including one named after Hogwarts, the wizard school in Harry Potter.

It turns out that scientists have been assigning different names to juvenile and adult fossils from the same species of dome-headed dinosaur, Pachycephalosaurus wyomingensis. The confusion arose because the younger ones start out with a set of horns that gradually morph into a dome as they get older.

“Juveniles and adults of these dinosaurs look very, very different from adults, and literally may resemble a different species,” said dinosaur expert Mark B. Goodwin, assistant director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology.

Working with John Horner of the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University in Bozeman, Goodwin discovered that two species, Dracorex hogwartsia and Stygimoloch spinifer, have been misidentified. They published their research last week in the journal PLoS One.

D. hogwartsia (upper left) and S. spinifer (upper right) are actually younger versions of P. wyomingensis.
D. hogwartsia (upper left) and S. spinifer (upper right) are actually younger versions of P. wyomingensis.

What’s more, Horner suggest these two might not be the only dino duplicates. “What we are seeing in the Hell Creek Formation in Montana suggests that we may be overextended by a third,” he said. His colleague Goodwin blames fellow scientists for skimping on the details.

“Early paleontologists recognized the distinction between adults and juveniles, but people have lost track of looking at ontogeny – how the individual develops – when they discover a new fossil,” he said.

I’m sure many will be said to see the Harry Potter-inspired species go, but it’s not the first time we’ve lost a great name to the rules of science. In cases like this scientists revert to the name of the first fossil discovered, which is why Brontosaurus (thunder lizard) became Apatosaurus (deceptive lizard). The former is a much cooler name, but the latter wins out because it was discovered first. A shame, but them’s the rules!

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 1 November 2009 at 6:12 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Getting It Wrong, Mathematics, Weekly Roundup

Formulas, multiplied

For some reason the Independent have decided to publish the mother of all “formula for” stories – ten examples of the best worse science reporting there is. They include ones I’ve written about before, like the formula for the perfect pancake,but also a bunch I’d not previously seen. The best has to be the equation for the perfect sandcastle, which is OW = 0.125 x S. In other words, one part water, eight parts sand.

Lunch time at the Periodic Table

This photo of a literal Periodic Table has been doing the internet rounds recently:

Turns out it’s a piece of art work at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. It was created by two student in 2003, Nazila Alimohammadi and Anna Clark. Nice work – I’m always up for a good pun!

From coffee to carbon

Also floating about this internet this week was this interactive illustration of the size and scale of various cells from the University of Utah. Starting from a coffee bean and a grain of rice, you can zoom past human cells, bacteria and viruses before ending up at a single carbon atom. Zooming out is just as fun!

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