Archive for January 2010

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 31 January 2010 at 6:39 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Chimp cinema

Earlier this week the BBC broadcast the first ever film shot entirely by chimpanzees:

The acting isn’t that great, and the special effects are terrible, but it’s still more interesting than some of the rubbish churned out by Hollywood! The film was part of a scientific study investigating how chimps perceive the world around them.

Mars movies

Although it seems we’re probably not going to step foot Mars any time soon, you can go there virtually today. Doug Ellison, founder of, has used data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to recreate a faithfully recreated flyby of the Martian surface:

See more on his YouTube page.

Magnets…in space!

Have you ever wondered how magnets work in zero gravity? “Very well,” is the answer, according to video game developer/astronaut Richard Garriot:

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3 Comments » Posted on Thursday 28 January 2010 at 11:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

Rumours are circulating that President Obama plans to scrap NASA’s new generation of rockets. It’s been leaked that his budget next Monday won’t include cash for the Constellation program, a series of spacecraft designed to replace the ageing Shuttle, and return us to the moon by 2020.

If that’s true, I’m incredibly disappointed. I understand that in a time of global economic turbulence, space exploration may not be Obama’s top priority, but his new vision for NASA seems incredibly short-sighted.

Instead of “boldy going”, astronauts will spend another ten years floating around the International Space Station. NASA will concentrate on Earth-based projects – mostly climate change related – and private companies will take over the Space Shuttle’s job of ferrying cargo in to orbit. The moon and Mars will just have to wait, it seems.

This worries me, but not because of some romantic idea of humans exploring the final frontier – my concerns are far more practical. I believe getting off Earth and colonising other planets is essential for the continuation of the human race. At the moment we’ve got all eggs in the proverbial basket – if an asteroid were to strike Earth, it could potentially wipe us out completely. Colonisation simply spreads the risk.

Building a base on the moon and then eventually Mars would not only be an incredible feat of human ingenuity, but also a kind of species-wide insurance policy. It’s a project that would take decades, and unfortunately politicians only think in four-year terms. I understand that Obama is under attack because of his healthcare plans, and the budget has to be balanced somehow, but cutting Constellation isn’t the answer.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 26 January 2010 at 9:23 am by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology

Digital trees are set to become more realistic thanks to a new animation technique that copies movements from the real thing.

Dr Peter Hall and Chris Li at the University of Bath have developed software that can analyse video footage of a tree to automatically generate a natural looking computer model. Dr Peter Hall says this will make animation much easier:

“Rendering trees has always been a headache for animators. Trees move in irregular ways, and it’s very hard to achieve natural-looking movement.

“It is so expensive that traditional animation often uses static trees – except in big-budget films. In computer graphics, tree models are just as hard to produce.

“With our system, the user can produce new trees of the same variety, with each one an individual.”

With the new software, animators will be able to grow digital forests with ease. All they have to do is draw around a tree outline in the first frame of a video, and the program will track its leaves and branches. The software can even generate slightly different trees by varying the movement data. Here’s a video explaining how it works:

As a lifelong gamer, I remember when videogames first took the leap into 3D. Rendering a complicated leaf and branch structure wasn’t possible in games like Mario 64, so they just used 2D pictures instead. Things have changed a little bit since then, but dodgy trees can still let down an otherwise realistic game. I look forward to seeing this new technique put to good use!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 24 January 2010 at 5:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Oh dear, one week in and I’m already off schedule. Two words: food poisoning. Leftover Chinese food can be deadly! On with this week’s roundup:

Next stop, outer space

Even London natives can struggle with the complicated spiderweb that is the Tube map, but surprisingly enough it is actually intended to simplify getting about the capital. Inspired by its iconic design, Harvard scientist Samuel Arbesman developed a similar map for getting about the Milky Way:

But where is Morington Crescent?
But where is Morington Crescent?

The coloured lines correspond to an arm of the spiral galaxy, and each stop is a star or other astronomical object.

Mental time travel

You won’t be journeying to the age of the dinosaurs just yet, but psychologists at the University of Aberdeen have discovered a strange form of time travel. Apparently thinking about the past or future causes people to move backwards or forwards. The researchers suggest behaviour could be the origin of temporal metaphors such as future = forward and past = backward.

Bond. Strange Bond.

The Royal Society of Chemistry continued it’s tradition of strange PR stunts this week by announcing a search for a Sean Connery lookalike.

As if devising a new ending for the Italian Job or cooking the perfect Yorkshire pudding weren’t enough, they want to use the lookalike in a bizarre photoshoot designed to highlight the importance of British research keeping the nation healthy. No, I don’t get it either.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 17 January 2010 at 8:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

In all the excitement of the new year, I forgot to explain my Just A Theory schedule for 2010. I’ve decided to post twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the usual Weekly Roundup on a Sunday. Of course, there might be the occasional post outside that schedule, but its what I’m aiming for. Remember that you can always subscribe to the RSS feed and get notified each time a post goes up.

Fart FAQ

Everybody does it, even though sometimes we don’t want to admit it, so why not learn some facts about farts with this handy infographic?

Hold your nose and click for a larger image.
Hold your nose and click for a larger image.

Wii tech good enough for physio

A video game accessory designed to help you get fit could also be used to rehabilitate stroke victims, says a physiotherapist. Ross Clark of the University of Melbourne found the accuracy of a Wii balance board compared well to lab-grade “force platforms”, which normally cost more then £11,000.

Both pieces of equipment are designed to measure pressure from a person’s foot. The force platform aids physiotherapists in reteaching a stroke patient how to stand, and Clark found that a balance board could act as a suitable replacement, despite retailing for under £100.

Its not the first report of scientists using Wii controllers as cheap sensors in their work – see this Wired story, complete with a picture of a Wiimote in a lab stand.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 14 January 2010 at 7:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

Finding it difficult to meet your perfect partner? According to the Daily Mail, a”maths genius” can explain with a “baffling” equation. That’s right, it’s the first “formula for” story of 2010!

The Mail and others have leapt on a rather silly paper by Peter Backus, a University of Warwick economist. He’s used the Drake equation, which was originally intended to estimate the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy, to explain why he doesn’t have a girlfriend.

You can visit Wikipedia for an explanation of the Drake equation, or alternatively check out Colin’s dissertation for the full details. The basic idea is to break down all the requirements for alien life in to individual factors, such as the chance of a star having planets or a planet supporting life, then multiply them together to get the number of civilizations out there in space. Trouble is, we don’t have very reliable evidence to back up most of the figures, so estimates vary wildly.

Backus has used the same principal to find his perfect woman, and “discovered” that there are only 26 women in the UK that are suitable for him. That’s a one in 285,000 chance of meeting “the one”, apparently. Of course, the exact same criticism of the Drake equation can be applied here – most of his numbers are entirely subjective and not backed up by evidence. Pick some different numbers, and you’ll come up with an entirely different answer.

I can’t really blame Backus for his formula, as it’s not like he’s trying to sell anything or has got the maths wrong. What I find annoying is the way the media leaps on the figure of “one in 285,000″ as an absolute fact, and describes maths no more complicated than multiplication as if it were some sort of advanced calculus that should only be attempted by a genius. Let’s just hope no one discovers the ancient art of “division”, or our heads just might explode.

2 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 12 January 2010 at 8:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics

Hello! It’s 2010, and I’m finally back. I had intended an earlier return to blogging here at Just A Theory, but unfortunately a rather serious computer failure held me up. The hard drive in my PC died, causing Windows to become corrupt and refuse to boot. As you can see, I attempted some minor brain surgery in an effort to revive the poor machine:

I actually had some success, and after more than 12 hours of work was rewarded with this rather understated error message:

Quite. Sadly, in the end I had to say goodbye to my faithful old PC and buy a new one, complete with Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 7. It’s quite different to the Windows XP I’m used to, especially as I’d disabled most of XP’s bells and whistles to make it run like Windows 2000. Essentially, I’ve been using the same operating system for an entire decade, and now I’ve been forced to change some long-held habits!

All of which leads me on in a fairly rambling way to what I had originally intended to talk about at the start of 2010 – whether we’re now living in a new decade. The media seem pretty convinced that we’ve abandoned the “Noughties” in favour of the “Teens”, but the maths says otherwise – it won’t be until the end of 2010 and the start of 2011 that we enter the next decade.

It’s the same argument that you probably tired of in the years leading up to December 31st, 1999. At the time, mathematicians said that millennial celebrations should be put off until the start of 2001, while the rest of the world largely ignored them.

Simply put, our calendar system starts at the year 1 AD, not the year 0 AD. One year later is 2 AD, ten years later is 11 AD, and two-thousand years later is 2001 AD. So, new decades start with years ending in a “1″.

But when we speak of the Noughties, we obviously mean the years 2000 to 2009. The year 2010 can’t be a Noughtie, because it doesn’t have a 0 in the right place. And hang on a moment, isn’t the calendar based off the life of Jesus, a man whose date of birth we know very little about? And lets not even start on the missing 11 days of September 1752.

Given the human desire for patterns and our fondness of round numbers, it’s probably best if we stick to celebrating 2010 as the new decade – it’s no less arbitrary than any other choice. Even so, I can’t help wanting to go with 2011. It may be ugly, but it’s mathematically correct!