Archive for March 2010

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 March 2010 at 7:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, Weekly Roundup

The Periodic Table of Periodic Tables

In the past I’ve linked to all kinds of periodic tables, from the edible to the audiovisual. Now, someone’s gone all meta and created a periodic table to list all of these periodic tables:

You can see a larger version here, complete with links to all the other tables.

And you think your job is tough…

Popular Science has drawn up a list of the ten worst jobs in science, which includes thankless tasks such as “armpit detective” and “whale slasher”. Don’t let them put you off pursing a career in science however, as the list also reveals the best job: “multispecies baby tickler”. Where do I sign up?

Fire! De der deeeer, der der…

A Ruben’s tube is a nifty demonstration of standing waves with a healthy dose of burnination:

A really geeky maths joke

I probably find this joke far more amusing than I should:

An engineer, a physicist and a mathematician find themselves in an anecdote, indeed an anecdote quite similar to many that you have no doubt already heard.

After some observations and rough calculations the engineer realizes the situation and starts laughing.

A few minutes later the physicist understands too and chuckles to himself happily as he now has enough experimental evidence to publish a paper.

This leaves the mathematician somewhat perplexed, as he had observed right away that he was the subject of an anecdote, and deduced quite rapidly the presence of humour from similar anecdotes, but considers this anecdote to be too trivial a corollary to be significant, let alone funny.

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6 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 24 March 2010 at 11:53 pm by Colin Stuart
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Musings

Anyone who knows me will attest to my often unwavering love of science. I pay my rent talking about science; not a day goes by when I’m not entrenched in the latest scientific discoveries. But it has to be said, sometimes science is a twat.

Science is often applauded as a discipline of progress, the great giver of development and improvement to life. And yet science has deprived a forgotten generation, a generation who suffer the indignity of progress and yet reap very few of the benefits.

My great aunt, simply known by everyone as Auntie, is very nearly 89 years old. Born in 1921 she is basically all my grandparents rolled into one. All my natural grandparents were gone by the time I was seven and so she had to bear the brunt of surrogate grandparenthood. And I wasn’t the easiest of surrogate grandchildren. Being a science geek, and being perpetually unpopular, meant that I won several academic awards during my high school years. Whilst these awards were mostly for science, I did win the Year 8 award for French.

However, what has to be said is that these awards ceremonies were as about as enlightening as a Gordon Brown YouTube video. And yet she sat diligently through several mind-numbingly tedious and over-bureaucratic awards ceremonies.

Despite her willingness to suffer such torture, science, the subject that enforced her to endure such an ordeal, hasn’t been kind to her. Scientific progress has meant that she now lives in a world where it is commonplace for people to reach her age. And yet the human body is simply not designed to last that long.

Our younger generation laud science as the bringer of technology. Science gave us the internet, the iPhone and HD TV. Yet she was born between world wars, in a time when such ideas were fanciful. What has science done for her? It has extended her life so that she now has to deal with dementia, her body wearing out under the strain of scientific progress. Last week she sneezed and fractured a vertebra. A woman who served in WW2 as part of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) now needs four care visitors a day just to help her stay in her home.

If, as she will soon surely need, she has to move into a care home, it will cost around £1000 per week. The travesty is that if she hadn’t worked hard all her life and had no savings then care would be provided. But my point isn’t a political one.

Is the subject that I love causing such problems? On our exponential march into the future are we leaving behind those that don’t reap the benefits? Those of a religious persuasion are sometimes shaken in their convictions by a lack of faith. Just sometimes I wonder whether a world without science would be kinder….

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 24 March 2010 at 10:44 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Health & Medicine

Students and alcohol are never far apart, but most manage to hold off the booze when they’ve got an important test the next morning. Now it seems they needn’t worry, as researchers from the Boston University School of Public Health have found that combining last-minute revision with a couple of beers isn’t a problem. Heavy drinking the night before an exam had little effect on a student’s academic performance, but they did have worse moods and slower reflexes.

The researchers recruited 196 student for the study, and randomly assigned them to either a strong beer or a non-alcoholic placebo beer. The students spent the evening drinking in a controlled environment before retiring for the night, and then in the morning were subjected to both academic and mental performance tests. One week later they did it all over again, but with the opposite beverage.

Drinking sessions lasted just over an hour, during which male students had to drink an average of around 3 pints of beer, while females were served closer to 2 pints. The particular amounts were tailored to each individuals body weight, with the aim of achieving a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.12%. The US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines “binge drinking” as a BAC of 0.08%.

Unsurprisingly, 70% of students assigned to the alcoholic beer complained of a hangover the next morning. This didn’t seem to affect their exam performance however, as regardless of beverage all students scored relatively high on a mock exam and a quiz on a lecture from the previous day. Despite this, students rated their own test performance as worse if they were hungover.

These findings contradict previous research showing links between alcohol consumption and academic problems. The researchers suggest that a third factor such as personality could be the cause of both – perhaps some failing students are driven to drink. They also warn the research shouldn’t be used as an excuse for excessive drinking:

“We do not conclude…that excessive drinking is not a risk factor for academic problems. It is possible that a higher alcohol dose would have affected next-day academic test scores. Moreover, test-taking is only one factor in academic success. Study habits, motivation and class attendance also contribute to academic performance; each of these could be affected by intoxication.”

I’d be inclined to agree with them. Taking exams isn’t fun and neither is being hungover, so why risk the combination? Instead, wait until the test is over, then head to the nearest pub. Just don’t spend the entire evening dissecting the exam questions!

Howland, J., Rohsenow, D., Greece, J., Littlefield, C., Almeida, A., Heeren, T., Winter, M., Bliss, C., Hunt, S., & Hermos, J. (2010). The effects of binge drinking on college students’ next-day academic test-taking performance and mood state Addiction, 105 (4), 655-665 DOI: 10.1111/j.1360-0443.2009.02880.x

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 18 March 2010 at 9:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution

Man’s best friend was likely born in the Middle East, according to a paper published this week in Nature. A genetic analysis of 85 dog breeds revealed they have more in common with wolves from countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran then in any other part of the world.

An international team of scientists lead by the University of California, Los Angeles compared genetic data from more than 900 dogs and 200 wolves to create a “family tree” that shows the connections between the various breeds. Previous research suggested that dogs originated in East Asia, but that was based only on genetic changes in mitochondria, tiny structures found in all animal cells. This new work examines a much larger section of the canine genome, comparing 48,000 different locations across species DNA.

Dogs and wolves are all connected.
Dogs and wolves are all connected.
Comments Off Posted on Sunday 14 March 2010 at 9:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Pi for all

Here’s an extract from an article I wrote for New Scientist in honour of Pi Day today.

The stars overhead inspired the ancient Greeks, but they probably never used them to calculate pi. Robert Matthews of the University of Aston in Birmingham, UK, combined astronomical data with number theory to do just that.

Matthews used the fact that for any large collection of random numbers, the probability that any two have no common factor is 6/pi2. Numbers have a common factor if they are divisible by the same number, not including 1. For example, 4 and 15 have no common factors, but 12 and 15 have the common factor 3.

Matthews calculated the angular distance between the 100 brightest stars in the sky and turned them into 1 million pairs of random numbers, around 61 per cent of which had no common factors. He got a value for pi of 3.12772, which is about 99.6 per cent correct.

A serious science survey?

The BBC reports that one in 10 children believe the Queen invented the telephone, while others suggest Charles Darwin and Noel Edmonds. The results come from a survey of 1,000 school kids, but rather than despairing at the state of science education, I’m actually amused by this story.

These types of articles seem to crop up fairly often, with children giving nonsensical answers to questions about historical facts. Everyone always interrupts them fairly seriously, but I think it’s far more likely that the kids are just having a laugh.

High-gravity lava lamps

Would a lava lamp work on Jupiter? There’s only one way to find out – build a giant, semi-lethal centrifuge out of Meccano, and take your lamp for a spin:

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3 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 9 March 2010 at 4:47 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Space & Astronomy

Yesterday details emerged that China has selected its next generation of astronauts; a crew of five men and two women. However, to be one of those two women, recruiters demanded a rather unusual qualification, motherhood.

The Chinese space programme is known to be stringent in its selection of potential astronauts; even bad breath can shatter your chances. However, this requirement for maternity doesn’t stem from an inferred ability of mothers to better cope with the gruelling conditions of space. Instead China fear for what damage space-based radiation might inflict on a would-be female astronaut’s ability to have children in the first place.

Xu Xianrong, an expert at the air force general hospital, is quoted on the Guardian website as saying of the unique approach,

“It’s out of the consideration of being responsible for the female pilots. Though there is little evidence on how the space experience will affect the female constitution, we have to be extra cautious. After all, it’s unprecedented in China.”

Such things may be unprecedented in China, but the radiation dangers experienced when leaving the protective cocoon of the Earth have long been considered.

There are two main types of radiation that can cause damage to space travelers, high energy particles from the Sun, and cosmic rays arriving from the galaxy beyond. For those of us on the Earth’s surface our planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field duly shield us from these potential dangers. However, those in space can be hit with their full force, particularly when venturing to places like the Moon, which has neither a magnetic field nor an atmosphere.

In fact, the Apollo astronauts of the late 60’s and early 70’s knew full well the risks that an event like a solar storm could unleash and they travelled to the Moon anyway, albeit keeping mission length to a premium to narrow the risks. Such a storm would rain high energy particles upon the unprotected astronauts, penetrating their skin and ripping apart the DNA in their cells. Cosmic rays, coming from outside the solar system, represent a longer term threat; it is thought they could cause illnesses ranging from cancer to cataracts.

Clearly these doses of radiation harm both men and women alike, what is unclear are the effect such doses would have on female fertility. What is looking increasingly clear, particularly with President Obama’s recent cancellation of NASA’s Constellation programme, is that the next feet to scuff the lunar dust will be Chinese. If such feet happen to be female, then their obligatory offspring would be rightly proud.

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 2 March 2010 at 5:30 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

The devastating earthquake which struck Chile on February 27th may well have had an effect on the rotation of the Earth itself according to a NASA scientist. Richard Gross of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has used computer models to calculate that our day is now about 1.26 microseconds shorter than it was on February 26th.

A small amount and yet it serves as a reminder that whilst we have exactly twenty four hours in our standard day, this never quite matches the actual rotation period of the Earth. Back in 1999 Gross published a paper in Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors in which he modeled the spin of the Earth from 1832 to 1997. The shortest day on record was apparently August 2nd 2004 whereas the longest day was sometime during 1912, the year the Titanic sank.

“The annual changes in the length of the day are caused mostly by the atmosphere – changes in the strength and direction of the winds, especially the jet stream. The Sun warms the equator more than the poles. That temperature difference is largely responsible for the jet stream. Seasonal changes in that temperature difference cause changes in the winds and, hence, the length of the day,” says Gross.

More significant events, like those in Chile, can enhance this process. The quake, which measured 8.8 on the magnitude scale, is also likely to have knocked the Earth’s axis slightly out of its previous alignment by about 2.7 milliarcseconds (roughly 3 one thousandths of one 3600th of a degree) or the equivalent of about seven centimetres.

Whilst this might not sound significant, knowing the precise alignment of the Earth is crucial for many modern day technologies such as GPS. And in an age where solar system exploration is on the increase, knowing the precise location of the Earth’s orientation with respect to these craft is a fundamental part of planning successful interplanetary maneuvers.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 1 March 2010 at 3:28 pm by Colin Stuart
In Space & Astronomy

The Royal Observatory, Greenwich (ROG), in partnership with the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Zooniverse are launching Solar Stormwatch, a new web project where anyone can help spot and track solar storms and be involved in the latest solar research.

The Sun is much more dynamic than it appears in our sky. Intense magnetic fields churn and pummel the Sun’s atmosphere and they store enormous amounts of energy that, when released, hurl billions of tons of material out into space in explosions called Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) – or solar storms.

Solar Stormwatch volunteers can spot these storms and track their progress across space towards the Earth. Such storms can be harmful to astronauts in orbit and have the potential to knock out communication satellites, disrupt mobile phone networks and damage power lines. With the public’s help, Solar Stormwatch will allow solar scientists to better understand these potentially dangerous storms and help to forecast their arrival time at Earth.

Julia Wilkinson, a Solar Stormwatch user says,

“The fact that any Solar Stormwatch volunteer could make a brand new discovery about our neighbouring star is very cool indeed. All you need is a computer and an interest in finding out more about what the sun is really like.”

Dr. Chris Davis, one of the STFC scientists behind Solar Stormwatch says of the project,

“The more people who can take part in Solar Stormwatch, the more we will know about solar storms. Collective measurements by many people are worth much more than the subjective opinion of one person.”

The project uses real data from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft, a pair of satellites in orbit around the Sun which give scientists a constant eye on the ever-changing solar surface. The UK has a major input in STEREO, providing the two widest-field instruments, the Heliospheric Imagers, which provide Solar Stormwatch with its data. Each imager has two cameras helping STEREO stare across the 150 million kilometres from the Earth to the Sun.

Solar Stormwatch is the latest chapter in a long history of solar research at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, dating back to the 1870’s, when the Observatory housed a photoheliograph, a telescope that took daily photos of the Sun to track sunspots. Visitors will be able to see this telescope again when the Altazimuth Pavilion at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, reopens in March 2010.

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