Archive for December 2009

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 20 December 2009 at 5:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

I’ll be taking a break from Just A Theory from now until the start of next year. Now that I’m working full time I’m finding it a little harder to keep up with blogging, so I think it’ll be good to have some time off and recharge my batteries. Over Christmas I’ll be thinking about ways to improve the blog for 2010, so let me know if you have any suggestions. Enjoy the rest of 2009!

Drinking advice, straight from the source

With December 25th inching ever closer you’ve probably already been to a number of booze-fuelled Christmas parties, but have you thought about the long-term risks of drinking alcohol?

If you’re anything like me, probably not, but I did read this interview on the University of Oxford science blog with one of their scientists, Naomi Allen. She talks about the risks and benefits of drinking alcohol, and suggests middle-age women who are most at risk of breast cancer should probably hold back on the booze.

It’s good to hear the risks laid out in a clear and non-headline grabbing manner, but the interview is also an interesting example of institutional journalism. This piece could easily appear in a magazine or Sunday supplement, but Oxford have chosen to cut out the middle-man and publish themselves. We’re seeing more and more of this type of work crop up, as the media continues their struggle to reinvent themselves in a Web 2.0 world.


Who says bacteria can’t be beautiful? New Scientist have a gallery of Petri dish art created by microbiologists. My personal favourite, for obvious reasons, is this little guy:

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3 Comments » Posted on Friday 18 December 2009 at 8:00 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

NASA have released a photo of sunlight glinting off a lake on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The image, snapped by the Cassini space probe, confirmed liquid in the Northern hemisphere to add to the discovery of liquid lakes in the Southern Hemisphere in 2008.

Sunlight reflecting off a lake on Titan
Sunlight reflecting off a lake on Titan

This part of Titan has been shrouded in darkness for the last 15 years as the moon’s North pole was angled away from the Sun, but as Saturn approached it’s equinox the lake in question slowly titled into the Sun’s glare.

A clever piece of detective work has pinned down the lake responsible as Kraken Mare, an enormous body of water stretching 400,000 square kilometres across Titan.

Titan is one of the most exciting places in our Solar System, particularly when it comes to finding life, and this discovery further adds to the wealth of information scientists are collecting about the planet-sized satellite.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 16 December 2009 at 9:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine

People restricted to watching half their usual amount of television burned more calories in a three-week period, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers at the University of Vermont found that while cutting back on television didn’t affect the amount of food people ate, it did mean they were more active and burnt an average of just under 120 extra calories a day.

America’s rising obesity crisis has lead to many public health initiatives designed to get the nation eating well and exercising. The researchers suggest that smaller changes in behaviour, like watching less television, could actually have more of an effect on weight loss.

There’s certainly a lot to cut back on. The average US adult watches 5 hours of television a day, making it the most time consuming activity behind sleep and work. Watching TV has previously been associated with risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and it burns less calories than other low energy activities such as reading or talking on the phone.

To investigate the effects of cutting back on television, the researchers monitored the viewing habits of 36 adults with a BMI between 25 and 50. Each participant reported watching at least three hours of TV per day.

With a baseline set, 20 participants were random selected to have their viewing hours cut in half. A device attached to the television would switch it off once the week’s viewing limit had been reached, and not allow it to be switched back on until the timer reset a week later. Needless to say, the monitors were securely locked away to deter tampering! The other 16 participants served as a control group, continuing to watch the same amount of television.

The results showed a slight reduction in food intake for the 20 participants who had watched less TV, but this was not statistically significant. They did however significantly increase their energy expenditure, burning an average of 119 extra calories a day.

That might not sound like much, but it adds up. Over the course of a year, burning 119 calories a day would result in a weight loss of over five and a half kilograms. It seems that while watching TV won’t turn your eyes square, it does contribute to making your body round.

Otten, J., Jones, K., Littenberg, B., & Harvey-Berino, J. (2009). Effects of Television Viewing Reduction on Energy Intake and Expenditure in Overweight and Obese Adults: A Randomized Controlled Trial Archives of Internal Medicine, 169 (22), 2109-2115 DOI: 10.1001/archinternmed.2009.430

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 14 December 2009 at 6:37 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology

Another New Scientist article today:

Did four-legged dinosaurs gallop like a horse, run like an ostrich or hop like a kangaroo? All three have been suggested, but with only fossils to go on it’s a difficult puzzle to solve.

That’s why Bill Sellers, a computational zoologist at the University of Manchester, UK, has developed a new technique for simulating dinosaur movement and working out which gaits they most likely used.

Sellers and his team used a laser scanner to create a 3D computer model of the skeleton of an Edmontosaurus, a type of hadrosaur or “duck-billed” dinosaur, and added virtual muscles to make it move. Fossilisation does not preserve a dinosaur’s muscles, but educated guesses about how they worked can be made by studying animals alive today, such as ostriches.

You’ll find the rest at New Scientist, along with a video of the dinosaurs in action.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 13 December 2009 at 7:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Getting It Right, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Daily Mail: Terror in the night

Everyone likes to bash the Daily Mail, but its always nice when you can point out some good science reporting – hence the “Getting It Right” category on Just A Theory. I was pleased to read a decent account of one woman’s struggle with sleep paralysis, complete with a scientific explanation of the disorder.

I’ve actually had sleep paralysis myself, and it’s a terrifying experience. You can’t move, you can’t speak, and you feel like something is coming to get you. Although it lasts just a few seconds, it feels like an age. Thankfully when it happened to me I realised what was going on because I’d read about it previously, but those not in the know must be left extremely frightened and confused. Hopefully the Mail article will help educate them.

Tasty and informative

You can never have too many novelty periodic tables, so how about another edible interpretation of Mendeleev’s masterpiece?

See more pics at Not So Humble Pie.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 11 December 2009 at 6:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Mathematics

My latest article for New Scientist is about a new method for mapping the globe:

A new technique for unpeeling the Earth’s skin and displaying it on a flat surface provides a fresh perspective on geography, making it possible to create maps that string out the continents for easy comparison, or lump together the world’s oceans into one huge mass of water surrounded by coastlines.

“Myriahedral projection” was developed by Jack van Wijk, a computer scientist at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

“The basic idea is surprisingly simple,” says van Wijk. His algorithms divide the globe’s surface into small polygons that are unfolded into a flat map, just as a cube can be unfolded into six squares.

Cartographers have tried this trick before; van Wijk’s innovation is to up the number of polygons from just a few to thousands. He has coined the word “myriahedral” to describe it, a combination of “myriad” with “polyhedron”, the name for polygonal 3D shapes.

You’ll find the rest at New Scientist, along with some nifty images and video.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 9 December 2009 at 7:18 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Science Policy

Earlier today Alistair Darling announced Labour’s pre-Budget report. While most outlets have focused on increases in National Insurance and a tax on bankers bonuses, New Scientist point out that £600 million will be cut from higher education and science and research budgets.

I’m absolutely amazed that Labour are reducing science funding, while at the same time refusing to budge on wasteful schemes like ID cards or Trident nuclear missiles.

In the past year alone the Government has spent £81.5 million on developing biometric ID cards, and the final cost is expected to be £4.5 billion over a ten year period. This is despite the science behind biometrics not being fit for purpose.

Meanwhile, the cost of replacing our Trident nuclear missiles has been placed at £130bn over 30 years (though the Government says it will only be £20bn). This is counter to the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, if not the actual law, and a fantastic waste of money. Given the choice between expanding human knowledge, or maintaining the potential to blow people up, I know which I’d go for…

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 6 December 2009 at 1:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

The Year’s Most Amazing Scientific Images

The media loves their end-of-year lists, and science magazines are no exception. Popular Science has 62 of this year’s most amazing scientific images. Bit of a random number, but they’re great – check out this nanoscale nuclear war, which was accidentally produced during the construction of 175-nanometre-wide wires:

Robots under the sea

Also included in the Pop Sci list are these robotic jellyfish, which I discovered independently earlier this week. They’re extremely lifelike, but I guess that’s easier to achieve when you’re dealing with something as alien as jellyfish!

Have yourself a very little Christmas

Missing from the Pop Sci list however was this tiny winter creation:

At just 0.01mm across, the world’s smallest snowman was made by scientists at the UK National Physical Laboratory. They welded two beads of tin together with platinum to form the head and body, then carved the eyes and mouth with a focused beam of ions. Finally, another blob of platinum finish provides the snowman’s nose. What, no nano-carrots?

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 5 December 2009 at 3:22 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment

[Here's a post from Gareth Mitchell, one of my former lecturers at Imperial, about his experiences on a recent BBC production]

With big thanks to Jacob for hosting this on Just A Theory, here’s my account of recording the recent programme on energy production in India for the BBC’s The Climate Connection season.

The first sign of trouble was a heated exchange that suddenly blew up between an armed security guard and our driver Antony. Though the raised voices were in Tamil, it was clear that the guard was deeply unhappy, pointing angrily to my camera and recording equipment.

We were at the entrance to Kalpakkam, a small township that serves the nearby Madras Atomic Power Station. We had interviewed the plant’s chief superintendent for our edition of The Climate Connection season on the BBC, exploring how India can meet its sharply increasing demand for electricity whilst keeping its carbon emissions in check.

After the interview, we’d wandered into the township to speak to the residents. We expected them to be lauding the employment and economic benefits of having a large power station on their doorstep and crowing about this reliable source of electricity, a luxury unavailable to many who live in India’s rural communities.

Instead, we heard that the power actually bypasses the township in favour of the 8 million inhabitants of Chennai about 70km north. They told us that the power station forbids other businesses locating within the area, thereby curbing job opportunities.

Most seriously, the villagers claimed that power station workers had become ill, with several dying of cancer and that some the township’s children were sick and lethargic. How can you be sure? I asked, anything could be making them ill, you can’t be certain it’s the power station. But, they pressed on, repeating their claims that the plant was a source of harm and hardship rather than wealth and opportunity.

The guard threatened to report us to the authorities and was making noises about us being detained until Antony worked some kind of magic and the man let it go. But the villagers’ revelations were safely recorded and I had a stash of photos. Right now, it was definitely time to go.

However attitudes to the power station are different in the city.

The ever-resourceful Antony drove us to a neighbourhood of workshops and small business units in Chennai where he knew twin brothers who run a successful firm manufacturing and exporting cashew nut processing machines. The city’s creaking electricity supply only provides 70 per cent of the power they need to run their heavy machinery.

Annoying though that seems, the brothers are quite sanguine. Out in the countryside, full power is only available for five hours a day. At least their supply is relatively stable, even if it is a lower fat version of what they’d ideally like.

And, for them, the Kalpakkam nuclear power station is a good thing. It’s not, by a long way, the sole source of their electricity but the brothers are glad it’s there and they’re hoping for more nuclear plants in the future. They dismiss any suggestion that nuclear is a source of health problems. Anything that props up the power supply will be good for business.

Earlier we had interviewed Dr Pugazhendi – a firebrand of a man who has examined many Kalpakkam residents. Talking at us for forty minutes without pausing for breath, Dr Pugazhendi listed cases of cancer and other illnesses associated with the nuclear power station, insisting that he has solid evidence but that he has been blocked from carrying out full studies and publishing the findings.

The fact remains that there is no hard, published evidence that the nuclear plant has caused any illness among the local population. The station’s management told us that they take their workers’ health very seriously, regularly monitoring their wellness.

One of the villagers we met in Kalpakkam had given us Dr Pugazhendi’s mobile phone number and when I called him, he jumped at the chance of talking to us. He’d drop everything, he said, and come and find us wherever we were.

Whilst he was on his way, we turned up unannounced at the HQ of the Tamil Nadu State Electricity Board. A contact in town had recommended we speak to the board’s chairman, Mr C P Singh.

Sure enough, Mr Singh, an affable gentleman in an office overlooking the sprawling monsoon soaked metropolis granted us an interview. The most penetrating questions came from my companion Hita Unnikrishnan, a feisty young ‘Climate Champion’ of the British Council of India. A recent life sciences graduate, she now lectures in Botany at Banaglore’s Jyoti Nivas College. She was travelling with me, taking on the role as local protagonist in our programme.

Mr Singh obligingly fielded Hita’s onslaught of questions. We learned that Tamil Nadu was the first state in India to supply electricity to all households and that it is one of the most progressive in the country when it comes to green energy. Half its power comes from hydroelectric and wind.

But the board is struggling to keep up with Tamil Nadu’s rapidly increasing demand. Whilst renewables are part of the solution, the state needs more power stations. For now, there will be more power cuts and the state will have to continue buying in expensive electricity from outside.

But I spent most of the interview in a state of considerable anxiety. Earlier, after negotiating with Mr Singh’s assistant for permission to meet the boss, I had been awaiting the verdict in a holding room down the corridor, when Dr Pugazhendi called me, saying he was in the area. I let slip exactly where we were.

This, I feared, was a potentially catastrophic move. One assumes that a well-known and vocal local opponent of the state’s nuclear power station would be less than welcome in the Electricity Board’s offices.

Throughout the interview with the chairman I had unsettling visions of Dr Pugazhendi, barging his way in, pushing aides and assistants aside and insisting on speaking to the BBC.

In the event, we met Dr Pugazhendi later on in a car park down the road and our interview at the Electricity Board passed off without incident. This was good. I could have done without a second altercation with security officials in as many days.

You can hear the programme at:

Or download it here (until Thurs Dec 10):

Video on YouTube:

Photos on Flickr:

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2 Comments » Posted on Friday 4 December 2009 at 6:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Of course, that wasn’t the actual headline the papers ran with:

All men watch porn, scientists find – Daily Telegraph
Porn-loving men ruin sex study – The Sun
Pornography study that was doomed to fail after scientists couldn’t find a single man who hadn’t viewed X-rated material – Daily Mail

The story comes from this press release detailing the launch of a new study by the University of Montreal in to the effects of porn on men. Quite why you press release the launch of a study rather than its results I’m not sure, but the papers seem to have latched on to this part:

“We started our research seeking men in their twenties who had never consumed pornography. We couldn’t find any,” says Simon Louis Lajeunesse, a postdoctoral student and professor at the School of Social Work.

It turns out that Lajeunesse has so far asked 20 male students about their sexual habits, and found that they all watch porn – so I guess that definitely means all men do. From this tiny sample, Lajeunesse also determined that single men watch porn an average three times a week, for 40 minutes at a time.

Lajeunesse’s research actually seems to have a decent aim in mind – finding out whether porn can harm healthy sexuality – but the idea that you can drawn any general conclusions from the habits of 20 men is laughable. I don’t know what the University of Montreal press office were hoping to achieve with their press release, but if it was anything more than “tee hee hee, porn”, they’ve not really succeeded.

5 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 2 December 2009 at 6:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Radio 4 comedy is sometimes good, but often terrible, while their science programmes are normally pretty decent. A new series called The Infinite Monkey Cage attempts to jam both science and comedy into one show, and as you might expect, the results are mixed.

The regular presenters are physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince, a self-confessed “keen idiot” when it comes to science. They’re joined in the first episode by the comedian Dara O’Briain, who studied cosmology at university, and Alice Roberts, an anatomist and science communicator. You may remember that Cox and O’Briain previously worked together on Physics Rocks, which formed part of the BBC’s LHC coverage last year.

It’s a good cast, and the chatty tone makes it easy to imagine yourself joining them down the pub for a drink and a natter about science, but I think billing the programme as a comedy is misleading. O’Briain draws an interesting parallel between scientists and comedians, who both effectively spend their lives comparing things to other things, but the conversation quickly takes a more serious turn.

When I’m listening to a comedy show, I don’t expect questions such as Cox’s “how do we educate people to respect the scientific method?” – not that it isn’t worth discussing, but its not funny either. They later try and bring things back with a sketch on the absurdity of science funding, but this was extremely “Radio 4″ comedy – in other words, dire.

Following up with Cox briefly interviewing science minister Lord Drayson just adds to the overall feeling of a programme trying to do too much. Is it about cracking science-themed jokes, or is it about discussing science as part of our wider culture? Am I meant to laugh, or learn?

Mixing science with comedy is difficult to do well, and The Infinite Monkey Cage doesn’t quite manage it. I’d much prefer something like Punk Science – big on laughs and lighter on content, but you still come away with some sort of insight. I’ll be checking out the next episode (it’s running for another three weeks) to see if they do any better.