Archive for the ‘Chemistry’ Category


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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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 February 2010 at 4:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Weekly Roundup

My blogging schedule is all over the place at the moment, but I still have time to bring you some neat things from the world of science:

Chemical party

Chemical reactions can get pretty wild, but I bet you’ve never seen them like this:

Strength in small numbers

Check out this amazing picture of an ant lifting 100 times its body weight – that’s like me hoisting 5 cars at the same time!

This photo won Dr Thomas Endlein of the University of Cambridge Zoology Department first prize in the Biotechnology And Biological Sciences Research Council science photo competition. You can see the other winners on the BBSRC site.

Well, it works for monkeys…

Did you know that learning to climb trees has much in common with the scientific method? This quaint short film explains it all – love the use of Wikipedia as “a source of reliable information”!

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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 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 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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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 11 October 2009 at 8:30 am by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Physics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Cuddly quarks

Maybe I’m just a big nerdy kid, but it seems I just can’t resist plush versions of scientific concepts. Earlier this year we had internal organs, and now this week I came across The Particle Zoo. It’s all your friends from the standard model of physics, and more! My favourite has to be the incredibly devious looking tachyon:

Time for a new table?

The periodic table has been in use for nearly 150 years, ever since its invention by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869. Is it time for chemists to rearrange the furniture and bring in something a little more…round? Mohd Abubakr of Microsoft India seems to think so, and presents his own version:

The circular periodic table
The circular periodic table

One advantage is that the 7 rings represent the 7 electron shells of an atom. Another is that the elements get larger as you move out from the center. As the Physics arXiv blog points out though, it’s hard to read a circular table without rotating it – which unlike the regular table, doesn’t make for a great wall poster!

Obama, the astronomical President

Colin provided me with this final roundup item, so I’ll hand over to him:

What a week it has been for President Barack Obama. On Friday morning he was woken up at 6am by his aides who broke the news that he had (rather controversially) won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.

With such news his diary commitments on Wednesday evening have largely been overlooked. Yet on that evening he and 150 local school children took to the South Lawn for Astronomy Night at The Whitehouse with guests including the second man on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin.

But what really captured the imagination was his opening speech. It was a rallying cry for a change in education, an eloquent rendition of just why science matters and a piece of science communication par excellence. Take a look for yourself:

Comments Off Posted on Friday 9 October 2009 at 2:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Physics

The past week has seen the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prizes. As with last year, I thought I’d wait for them to all come out before taking a look at the “science” ones:

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

This prize was split equally between Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for their work in the 1980s on telomeres, the “protective caps” on the ends of the chromosomes that contain our genetic information.

These caps allow chromosomes to be copied end-to-end during cell division by protecting them against degradation. Telomeres are also a key part of the ageing process; as the telomeres shorten, cells begin to age. Maintaining telomeres through use of the enzyme that forms them (telomerase) could lead to new medical treatments.

The Nobel Prize in Physics

One half of this prize was awarded to Charles Kao for research in 1966 that lead to the invention of fibre optic cables. Kao figured out how to transmit light signals over 100 kilometers, allowing high-speed transfer of data around the world. Without his work you wouldn’t be reading this, because the internet would be impossible.

The other half was shared by Willard Boyle and George Smith for the invention of the charged-couple device (CCD) in 1969. Found in everything from digital cameras to space probes, the CCD uses the photoelectric effect (for the theorising of which Albert Einstein received a Nobel Prize in 1921) to convert light in to electric signals. As well as ushering in the era of digital photography, CCDs are used extensively throughout the whole of scientific research.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Finally, this prize was also split equally, between Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz, and Ada Yonath for their work on understanding the structure of the ribosome.

Ribosomes act as a kind of molecular interrupter, translating a DNA sequence in to the proteins that make up life. Using X-ray crystallography, the trio mapped the structure of the ribosome to generate 3D models of it in action. These are used to study the effects of antibiotics on bacterial ribosomes, and thus create new treatments for disease.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 25 September 2009 at 12:27 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment

I’ve got a couple of articles going up at New Scientist. Here is the first:

Carbon dioxide may be the lead cause of global warming, but other gases are more potent greenhouse agents. So what is it about these molecules that makes them such effective heat trappers?

A team at NASA think they know, and the work could be used to create more environmentally friendly materials.

Timothy Lee and his colleagues at the Ames Research Center in Sunnyvale, California, analysed the physical and chemical properties of powerful greenhouse gases called fluorocarbons. They discovered that molecules containing fluorine atoms are particularly effective at trapping heat, especially when many fluorine atoms are bonded to a single carbon atom, which is the case with fluorocarbons.

Read the rest at New Scientist.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 1 September 2009 at 4:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

You’ve probably noticed that things have slowed down a little bit here on Just A Theory. We’re all hard at work pumping out 10,000 words of juicy dissertation goodness, and unfortunately that doesn’t leave much time for blogging. Science doesn’t stop though, and I’ve still been collecting interesting science news and links from all over the web. Enjoy:

Weird NASA mission badges

NASA create patches for each of their missions, and sometimes they like to get a little wacky. Wired Science has a rundown of some the weirdest, including this little gem:

Heroes in a half-shell probably wouldn't last long in space
Heroes in a half-shell probably wouldn't last long in space

The “ideal” David Bowie song

Health psychologist Nick Troop has created what he calls the “ideal” David Bowie song by performing a lingustic analysis. Bowie’s back catalogue was scanned to calculate the use of positive and negative words, as well as references to different categories such as sex, religion and food. Troop then used the data to write “Team, Meet Girls; Girls, Meet Team”, which he performs here:

I admit it sounds a bit like Bowie, but I when I read the headline I was hoping for some sort of average of all of his songs – “The Man Who Sold Changes to Rebel Rebel Heroes Ziggy Stardust in Suffragette City on Mars”, perhaps. Anyway, everyone knows that this is the ideal Bowie song.

Molecular paparazzi

Researchers at IBM have created this amazing image of pentacene, a molecule made of carbon and hydrogen:

The structure is clearly visible
The structure is clearly visible

Using an atomic force microscope, they mapped the chemical bonds between the molecules atoms. The instrument works by detecting changes in vibrations as a scanning tip passes close to the molecule. This previous attempts to image molecules found that the tip was just too blunt to get a decent picture, but they realised that a single carbon monoxide atom, which doesn’t interact with the pentacene, made the perfect tip.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 21 August 2009 at 2:11 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment

I’m still surrounded by cardboard boxes and half-built Ikea furniture, with a dodgy wireless connection that isn’t mine, but fellow sci-commer Mia has offered to step in for today:

It has been a few weeks since the second of two research ships of ‘Project Kaisei’ set of from San Francisco bound for the huge “island” of rubbish in the Pacific Ocean. An accidental-island build by swirling currents pushing the waste together in an area supposedly twice State of Texas. Now, a separate research group have published the results of new study looking at just what happens to plastic waste as it floats in the sea.

It has been well documented that plastics pose one of the biggest direct threat to marine animals – when they eat or get caught up in them. Researchers from Nihon University now report that plastics are not as ‘indestructible’ as once thought. With a surprisingly speedy decomposition these versatile convenience materials are resulting in a double whammy of harm as they release toxic substances into the water.

“Plastics in daily use are generally assumed to be quite stable,” said study lead researcher Dr Katsuhiko Saido, “We found that plastic in the ocean actually decomposes as it is exposed to the rain and sun and other environmental conditions, giving rise to yet another source of global contamination that will continue into the future.”

Dr Saido and his team found that when plastic decomposes it releases potentially toxic bisphenol A (BPA) and PS oligomer (both not normally found naturally) into the water, causing additional pollution. They also discovered that three new compounds not found in nature formed. These are styrene monomer (a known carcinogen) and styrene dimer and trimer- both also suspected to be. Although plastics don’t usually break down in an animal’s body after being eaten, the substances released from decomposing plastic are absorbed and could cause harm. BPA and PS oligomer are of concern because they can disrupt the functioning of hormones in animals and can seriously affect reproductive systems.

The timeframe for this process can be surprisingly short, polystyrene begins to decompose within a year. Cancers, hormonal abnormalities and reproductive problems are just the tip of our knowledge about the long term adverse effects of plastic, and yet we still can’t get enough of the stuff.

Mia Kukathasan studied biology at King’s College, London, and has taught science in secondary schools. She has written bits for Null Hypothesis and in the book Defining Moments In Science and the occasional student publication. Mia also dresses up in gorilla suits in the name taking science to music festivals, as a co-organiser of Guerilla Science. Science aside, she has a show On ICradio based on Free Music.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 18 August 2009 at 8:11 pm by Emma Stokes
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology

Now we’ve all heard that DNA could be the future of computing, in fact Sam wrote an article for the Guardian about a recent development that showed it was possible to make DNA into components such as toothed gears and pipes.

However, it has to be said I have remained a little sceptical, I think it has something to do with the fact that, after reading the stories, I often come away with weird pictures in my head – like miniscule versions of existing machines made out of DNA.

However, last week a paper was published in Nature Nanotechnology which made more sense to me than the others. It convinced me that DNA could actually be useful in computing – to make microchips.

Shapes made using different orientations of multiple DNA origami trianglesThe paper describes how DNA can be made to “self assemble” into shapes, which are then mounted on silicon and can act as tiny fastening posts for nanoscale electrical components. Because the DNA shapes are so small, they can be placed very close together, opening up the possibility of being able to build much smaller computer components. In fact, the researchers say each component could be as little as six nanometers apart, eight times closer than is currently possible.

The technique involves taking a long strand of DNA in solution, and adding shorter ‘staple’ strands. Due to the complimentary base pair nature of DNA, the shorter strands fold the long strand of DNA into shape. The solution is then poured over a silicon substrate.

This silicon substrate requires lithographic pre-treatment to make etched ‘sticky sites’, otherwise the DNA shapes would stick randomly. However, the sites are negatively charged and would therefore repel the negatively charged DNA. The silicon is therefore washed with magnesium chloride, to allow positively charged magnesium ions to attach to the etched surface. The magnesium ions then attract the DNA shapes, which bind strongly and become mounted on the silicon.

There are still a few problems with this new technology though. Since the only shapes currently possible are triangles, or shapes composed of multiple triangles, any attached components will be able to point in any one of three directions – not ideal when the direction of the nanowires and other components need to be accurate. The researchers will also need to carry out extensive research into what the best conductor is for this application. Scientists put the timescale of the development of this technology at 10 years.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 17 July 2009 at 6:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment

Two articles on the Guardian site today. First, a post on for science blog about the proposed name for element 112:

The periodic table gained a new element last month. It’s currently known as ununbium or simply element 112, but now the scientists who discovered it have proposed a name: copernicium. Sigurd Hofmann and his team at the Center for Heavy Ion Research (GSI) in Germany chose the name to honour 15th century scientist and astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus.

As the first man to realise that the Earth orbits the sun, Copernicus was vilified by the Catholic Church for removing mankind from the centre of creation. His discovery changed the way we looked at the stars and led to the realisation that the universe is a very, very big place. Star-gazers currently celebrating the International Year of Astronomy will agree that copernicium is a fitting legacy.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

Next, in the Environment section, how radar could be used to protect bats from wind turbines:

Radar beams that irritate bats could be used to prevent the animals from being diced by the spinning blades of wind turbines, according to a study of how the animals react to radar signals. The researchers discovered that a stationary beam reduced bat activity near the turbines by almost 40%.

Bat and bird populations can be significantly effected by collisions with turbines. A six-week study at two wind farms in the US recorded more than 4,500 bat deaths and the Peñascal wind farm in southern Texas is currently using radar to prevent migrating birds from flying into it.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 10 July 2009 at 12:01 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment, Yes, But When?

Many alternative energy sources have been suggested as a replacement for oil; wind, solar or biofuel just to name a few. Now another can be added to the list: urine.

Whilst abundant worldwide, this waste liquid is not the most obvious choice for weaning the world off oil. To extract urine’s energy Gerardine Botte of Ohio University employed a process called electrolysis which uses an electric current to break up molecules. The resulting hydrogen can then be put to work as a clean source of energy.

Electrolysis has already been used to create hydrogen from water, but this requires quite a lot of energy. Botte turned to urine as a way of improving efficiency. Although urine is 95% water much of the remaining 5% is urea, a chemical compound which has four hydrogen atoms per molecule. This is twice the number found in water molecules, and the atoms are less tightly bonded so extracting the hydrogen from urea instead of water requires about a third of the energy.

Originally the research team used “synthetic” urine made by dissolving urea in water, but the process works equally as well with the genuine article. Working with human urine requires special clearance, which held up the publication of their research, says Botte.

The team are now looking at the long-term feasibility of urine hydrolysis, as well as the potential for scaling it up to industrial levels. Botte believes that existing sewage plants could be put to work generating energy, as well as cleaning up waste. “We do not need to reinvent the wheel as there are already electrolysers being used in different applications,” she says.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 June 2009 at 3:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Right, Health & Medicine, Science Policy, Weekly Roundup

Sun in common-sense shocker

Sometimes I worry about being too negative on Just A Theory. With all the examples of media failings I write about, it’s easy to let the good ones slip past unnoticed. As such, I thought I’d congratulate The Sun’s Dr Keith for his recent article on misused medical terms. He informs us that we probably don’t have the flu (it’s a cold), there is no such thing as a nervous breakdown, and most of us are rarely “shocked”, in a medical sense.

New hope for Copenhagen

Later this year thousands of people will descend on Copenhagen to try and come up with a new global agreement on climate change. The United Nations, in conjunction with the International Advertising Association, have launched a campaign to re-brand the conference as Hopenhagen. The idea is to move from “coping” with climate change to a “hope” that action can be taken. A silly bit of marketing? Perhaps. But if it gets people talking, it’s probably a good idea.

Check this out. It’s awesome

“But what is it?” I hear you cry. Created by Japanese artist Sachiko Kodama, the strange substance in this art work is a ferrofluid. These odd liquids combine tiny magnetic particles with water or oil, and a surfactant, which prevents the particles sticking together. Ferrofluids react in the presence of a magnetic field, creating the wonderful structures in the video above.

Whilst they do have their practical uses, like forming a liquid seal in computer hard drives or marking areas of the body in an MRI scan, I think you’ll agree that just looking cool is good enough.

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5 Comments » Posted on Thursday 11 June 2009 at 11:38 am by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry

The periodic table is about to get a little bigger, with the addition of element 112. Whilst it was discovered over a decade ago, the “super-heavy” element has only now been officially recognised by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) – and it is in need of a name.

The honour will fall to Sigurd Hofmann and his team at the Centre for Heavy Ion Research, who first created a single atom of element 112 in 1996 by using a particle accelerator to fire a beam of zinc ions at lead atoms. This fuses the nuclei of the two elements, forming a new one.

Elements at the end of the periodic table are very large and heavy, making them unstable and liable to decay. After just a few milliseconds the nuclei falls apart, releasing energy and elements from higher up the periodic table.

The short-live nature of element 112 has made pinning it down a rather tricky task, which is why it has taken so long to be officially added to the periodic table. So far, only four atoms have ever been observed. Now, it’s ready to take its rightful place alongside the other 111 elements.

The IUPAC uses a slightly strange system for the names of unconfirmed and undiscovered elements, in order to avoid people trying to nab a name before the element is official. It uses a mix of Greek and Latin to spell out the element’s atomic number, thus element 112 is currently known as ununbium – or “one one two”-ium.

Professor Hofmann and team are currently working on a shortlist of names, but a number of suggestions have cropped up on Twitter. Ones that I’ve seen include Lehrerium, after Tom Lehrer of the Elements Song, Kryptonite, the strange space rock that weakened Superman, and Obamium, which probably doesn’t need explanation.

I think in honour of his 150th anniversary, Darwinium would be appropriate. But then, Darwin didn’t really have much to do with chemistry. Any other suggestions?

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 31 May 2009 at 3:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Growing skyscrapers

Metal crystals that look mini cities? Very cool:

A small crystal city in the palm of your hand.
A small crystal city in the palm of your hand.

Frank Swain of the SciencePunk blog found these cool crystals made of bismuth, a metal similar to lead. Grown by Ken (first name only, it seems) you can actually win one by guessing its weight.

Building a CPU from scratch

I’d like to say I know my way around the innards of a computer, as I can change a harddrive or replace a broken fan without too much fuss. For Steve Chamberlin, however, these tasks are child’s play. Instead, he’s built an 8-bit CPU (like you’d find in a NES console) from 1,253 piece of wire.

Called the BMOW or Big Mess O’ Wires, when hooked up to a keyboard an monitor the CPU is a perfectly functioning computer, if practically Stone Aged when compared to modern machines. Capable of running programs like a Chess game, it’s a pretty amazing feat of ingenuity – and patience! If you’d like more info, Wired have an article and interview with Chamberlin.

Renaming the God particle

Ian Sample of the Guardian wants a new name for the Higgs boson, or “God particle” as it is often known.

Everyone’s favourite particle smasher, the Large Hadron Collider, will resume the search for the elusive Higgs once it is up and running again. In honour of Peter Higgs’ eightieth birthday this week, Sample suggests we find a new name meeting the following criteria:

1) Names should be serious and accurate
2) It is good to name things after people, but only if you can resist the pressure to hyphenate with two or three extra names
3) Names should be evocative and inspiring.

He says Higgs boson fails 3, whilst God particle fails 1 and 2. If you can think of a better name, submit it to the Guardian and you could win a copy of Science: A Four Thousand Year History by Patricia Fara. Personally, I think it should be something beginning with “C” – if only to fit in to the title of this post!

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 30 May 2009 at 9:11 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Just A Review, Physics

This review originally appeared in the most recent issue of Imperial College’s science magazine I, Science.

I’m writing this review as a break from revision, with the ideas of science philosophers Kuhn and Popper still swimming round my brain. Both men have their supporters, but with 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense Michael Brooks is definitely throwing in his lot with the Kuhnians.

Kuhn argued that science is framed by paradigms, established bodies of knowledge that define the scientific questions of the day. Eventually problems with the paradigm will emerge, and science will undergo a “paradigm shift”. 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense is a compilation of problems with our current understanding of the universe, and Brooks suggests that solving any one of them could lead to a paradigm shift.

A classic example of such a change is the move from Newtonian to relativistic physics, and the book begins firmly in the physics camp. Over the first two chapters dark matter is put forward as a possible explanation for both the apparent “missing” mass in the universe, and the unexplained drift of the Pioneer probes. From there we move to the prospect of varying fundamental constants (like G, the gravitational constant) and a look in to the controversial subject of cold fusion.

Next we get six chapters dealing with the troubling subject of life. Where did we come from? Is there life elsewhere in the universe? And why do we die? These are just some the questions that science doesn’t yet have an answer to, but Brooks lays out some possible explanations.

The end of the book deals with two ongoing controversies in medicine, the placebo effect and homeopathy. I was intrigued to learn about the concept of epitaxy, in which the molecular structure of one material can influence another without any chemical reactions taking place. In the same way that plasticine forced through a mould will take on a certain shape, is it possible that the molecular structure of water could be rearranged by homeopathic substances to produce healing properties? No one has done the research, so I remain sceptical, but it’s an intriguing possibility.

So far I’ve skipped over one chapter in this review; number 11, entitled Free Will. In it Brooks describes a device called a transcranial magnetic simulation, in which two electric coils create a magnetic field to induce currents in the brain. Neuroscientists can use such devices to cause unconscious bodily movements in their subjects, which Brooks experience first-hand.

It is with this evidence, along with other brain experiments, that he claims the concept of free will is nothing but an illusion. Maybe it’s just my fundamental philosophical objection to giving up free will, but I found this chapter to be on far less firm ground than the others. The experiments described just didn’t seem to say to me what Brooks wanted them to.

One dodgy chapter aside, 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense is a very good read. The chapters are short and for the most part self-contained, making it easy to dip in to, and it’s refreshing for once to read a popular science book about what we don’t know. The book looks to the future rather than just recounting the past, and left me wondering when the next new discovery will allow us to whittle the list down to a nice even dozen.

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2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 20 May 2009 at 11:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Everything from electric cars to mobile phones could soon be powered by air. A new type of battery promises ten times the energy storage of current designs by sucking in oxygen to recharge.

Research led by scientists at the University of St Andrews and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has resulted in new battery design that is both ligher and smaller than its predecessors – a definite plus for electric cars.

The STAIR (St Andrews Air) cell, designed with the help of partners in Strathclyde and Newcastle, uses porous carbon as a replacement for lithium cobalt oxide. This change of material, combined with a more compact size, means that the new batteries will be much cheaper.

The battery is charged as normal, but as its energy is drained oxygen from the air is drawn through its surface. Then, the oxygen reacts with the pores in the carbon to create more energy and recharge the draining battery.

Oxygen drawn from the air reacts within the porous carbon to release the electrical charge in this lithium-air battery.
Oxygen drawn from the air reacts within the porous carbon to release the electrical charge in this lithium-air battery.

Leading the four-year research project is Professor Peter Bruce of the St Andrews Chemistry Department:

“Our target is to get a five to ten fold increase in storage capacity, which is beyond the horizon of current lithium batteries. Our results so far are very encouraging and have far exceeded our expectations.

“The key is to use oxygen in the air as a re-agent, rather than carry the necessary chemicals around inside the battery.”

You won’t be running on air just yet though, as further investigation in to the chemical reaction of the battery is needed. The team hope to build a small STAIR cell prototype soon, with the intention to power small devices such as mobile phones or MP3 players.

2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 10 May 2009 at 12:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Oxygen never looked so cute

Here is a really nice computer animation produced by Christopher Hendryx for his graduate thesis. It shows the interactions that an oxygen atom can have with other elements in the periodic table. I hope he makes more!

Just be glad they’re really tiny

An amoeba is a single-cell organism that floats around eating other smaller organisms like bacteria. It’s a bit like PacMan. Sounds pretty harmless you might thank, but I challenge you to watch this time-lapse video of an amoeba in action without recoiling in terror.

A chocolate-powered racing car

Slightly more useful than a chocolate tea pot, a team at Warwick University have constructed a car built from vegetables and powered by chocolate.

Of course, you should always eat your veg before snacking on chocolate.
Of course, you should always eat your veg before snacking on chocolate.

The unusual construction materials were created by blending vegetable fibres with resin, in order to demonstrate that green cars don’t have to be slow. Unfortunately the car is not eligible to enter the Formula 3 races it was designed for, because chocolate fuel fails to meet regulations.

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 PopSci.com, 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:

Mmm...crispy
Mmm...crispy

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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Comments Off Posted on Friday 27 March 2009 at 6:22 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

It’s happened to everyone. You’re out and about, you’ve got some important calls to make, and you remove your phone from your pocket only to find the battery has run out. Thanks to new research, you might one day be able to give the phone a few shakes and be back in business.

Yesterday at the American Chemical Society’s 237th National Meeting, scientists described a technique that could do just that. Using nanotechnology, mechanical energy from the movement of the body could be converted into electrical energy for use in our power-hungry gadgets.

A schematic of a microfiber-nanowire hybrid nanogenerator, which could be used to generate electricty from movement.
A schematic of a microfiber-nanowire hybrid nanogenerator, which could be used to generate electricty from movement.

Using nanowires made from zinc oxide, low-frequency vibrations in the form of body movements, a beating heart, or even just the wind can be converted into electricity. The nanowires are piezoelectric, meaning they generate a current when bent or pressed. They can be grown on many different surfaces, including metal, ceramic, or even clothing fabrics.

Lead researcher Zhong Lin Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology worked with his team to develop the most effective way to convert movement into electricity, and found that zinc oxide nanowires fit the bill.

“This research will have a major impact on defense technology, environmental monitoring, biomedical sciences and even personal electronics,” he said.

“Quite simply, this technology can be used to generate energy under any circumstances as long as there is movement.”

Of course, this technology isn’t just going to be used to keep your mp3 player running. The research was part-funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, as the military is keen to exploit the nanogenerators. For troops in the field, far from any energy sources, keeping a radio or other sensor equipment charged could mean the difference between life and death.

We won’t be seeing nanogenerators on the battlefield or in our pockets any time soon, however. Wang says the technology still needs work, particular in improving the power output of the generators. Until then, I recommended plugging in your phone before you go to bed!

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 25 March 2009 at 10:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Musings

Scientists who submit too many unsuccesful reasearch proposals could be blacklisted by Britain’s largest research council. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s new rules state that researchers who have submitted three or more bids for funding that are ranked “low” by the review panel will not be allowed any further applications for one year. The same will apply to those with a 25% or less success rate at applying for grants.

The EPSRC say the move will help manage demand for research grants when resources are limited, but scientists aren’t happy – particularly chemists. A statement from the Royal Society of Chemistry laid out their fears:

“The Royal Society of Chemistry is concerned about the way that the UK’s primary science funding body for chemistry is introducing new measures which have resulted in anger in parts of the chemistry community.

The RSC said that chemists in the UK could find it difficult to continue with research, and that young up-and-coming scientists may find it difficult to establish their research careers.

University departments could have to close as a result of the EPSRC’s decision, says organic chemist Karl Hale. If universities find that a significant number of their scientists have been blacklisted, they will effectively have to shut down due to lack of funding.

David Reid, head of communications at the EPSRC, responded to the critics:

“We’re facing a 3% to 5% shortfall in funding available for blue-skies research.

“A small number of people put a disproportionate burden on the peer-review system. We’re talking about weeding out consistently low-quality proposals.

“Chemists have a culture of putting in lots of short, small proposals to us. We would like to see chemists be more ambitious in their proposals and work hard on one or two bigger proposals in a year.”

In other words, grant money is tight in our credit-crunched age, and the EPSRC staff have had enough of being tied up processing all the applications they get. I don’t think this is the solution to their problem though, as it will only serve to hurt science.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 10 March 2009 at 9:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry

This will be the last short post for a while, I promise! Today I’m leaving you in the capable hands of Professor Julius Sumner Miller. Well before my time I’m afraid, but when I saw this video recently I was both amused and entertained. Whether it’s the ominous music at the beginning, the incredibly low frame rate, or Miller’s absolutely manic style, there’s something quite charming about this video on evaporation, boiling and freezing:

Part 1

Part 2

I’m yet to watch the other videos of him on YouTube, but hope to get to it soon. See you tomorrow, for some “proper” posts!

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2 Comments » Posted on Friday 13 February 2009 at 11:03 am by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Getting It Wrong

Now don’t laugh, but in the interest of bringing you a 100% factually accurate report, I’ve just been sniffing my ironing board.

It’s all because of a recent press release informing us that the aroma of chips is made up of butterscotch, cocoa, onion, cheese and ironing boards. All ready, your bullshit meter should be tingling.

Oh, where to start? First off, although the press release appears to come from the University of Leeds, if you look at the top it has actually been issued by the British Potato Council, an organisation devoted to promoting potatoes which in 2006 was reported by the Sunday Times as voted Britain’s most useless quango.

Reading on, the “research” was designed to promote National Chip Week, making it a perfect example of what Charlie Brooker recently dubbed PR-reviewed phindings. Dr Graham Clayton from the University of Leeds was in charge of a team that collected aromas from chips and analysed them with a very sciencey sounding Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry. I’m not dissing the machine, it’s a proper piece of scientific equipment used by a variety of disciplines. It seems to have been used here to create graphs you can smell, however:

The output of the analysis is a series of peaks on a graph or a fingerprint. Each peak indicates the occurrence and levels of a different component of the aroma.

Each peak was also sniffed by an analyst to record if it could be detected and the type and strength of the aroma recorded.

Clayton himself is the Commercial Manager of Food Chain CIC, a commercial entity based within the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds. His LinkedIn profile (a sort of Facebook for business) declares “[p]rojects are delivered by academics but constructed on industry needs” – in other words, he makes a living creating nonsense “science” for PR companies. The end of the press release helpfully informs us that Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry analysis is often used by food companies to determine the shelf life of food products. Guess who’s offering a shelf life check up? Food Chain.

It’s not a lie to say that he is Dr Clayton of the University of Leeds (he holds a PhD, after all) but the impression that description evokes is a bit far from the truth. It’s also not the first time this rubbish has been presented as academic research – Clayton was in the news a couple of years back with the formula for the perfect bacon buttie. You can imagine my thoughts on that particular “discovery”.

The impact of this chip aroma “research” could be pretty big, according to Clayton:

“Perhaps these findings will see chips treated like wine in the future – with chip fans turning into buffs as they impress their friends with eloquent descriptions of their favourite fries.”

Yes, I’m sure that’s exactly what will happen. Oh, and the aroma of ironing boards? Mine at least, smells like…iron.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 25 January 2009 at 8:39 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

I’m a bit pressed for time this evening, so the weekly roundup edition will be a little short I’m afraid. There are four items in today’s post thought, so perhaps that will make up for it.

Mini-museum

The Virtual Museum of Minerals and Molecules is a pretty nifty site. If you care to browse its online exhibits you’ll be able to check out the molecular structure of various materials in full 3D. The exhibits are manipulatable and come with a number of display options, so its easy to get that perfect viewing point that every molecule-buff craves. My favourite has to be buckminsterfullerene, also affectionately known as the “bucky ball” for its football-like shape.

What’s wrong with “Rover”? It works for dogs…

NASA, in partnership with Disney’s Wall-E, are offering America school children the chance to name the latest Mars rover, due to launch in 2011. Currently known as the Mars Science Laboratory, the rover will continue the search for life on the Red Planet. It’s not as cute as Wall-E though…

The Science of Back to the Future

Pop-culture blog Overthinking It has devoted an entire week to the classic Back to the Future trilogy. I particularly liked this post on the science behind the films. In it, they cover the basic problem I have with all time travel films: when you travel in time, the Earth doesn’t stay in the same place. Annoyingly, the article is spread over multiple pages, but it’s worth a read for the entertaining diagrams alone.

It won’t be long before they take over…

Wired presents the 8 best non-human tool users, including moles that wear face masks, gorillas propped up by walking sticks, and dolphins that uses sponges. Great stuff.

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 18 January 2009 at 2:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Education, Evolution, Weekly Roundup

Hugs on the inside AND the outside

Haven’t you always wished for something a bit more exciting than a teddy bear for your child to cuddle up too at night? Something…anatomical…perhaps? Well look no further: I Heart Guts have everything you need.

Hes a friendly little guy
He's a friendly little guy

They sell cuddly versions of many of your own internal organs. There’s the brain, the heart, and even the pancreas – or why not go the whole hog and purchase the entire set? Beware though: the uterus is being recalled as a potential hazard to children…

Genetic modification – it’s a laugh

GM food is always a hot issue these days, but new research shows that in the past, farmers may have breed their animals to produce new coat colours for their own amusement. The study, published in the online journal Public Library of Science Genetics, looked at how the genetic cod of wild and domestic pigs has altered over the years.

Other suggestions for the farmers’ selective breeding include changing the coat colour to eliminate camouflage, making the animals easier to to keep track of, or perhaps to mark out the animals with the best traits. Dr Greger Larson, one of the researches at the University of Durham, had this to say:

“The Mesopotamians had different-coloured farm animals 5,000 years ago and, in that regard, they were no different to Paris Hilton, who has a pink Chihuahua, or anyone else with animals with unusual coat colours.

“This study demonstrates that the human penchant for novelty stretches back thousands of years.”

Killing jelly babies – it’s for science, honest

The other day I stumbled across this video, which demonstrates the “death of a jelly baby” experiment. Apparently a favourite of school chemistry teachers, it involves dropping the sweet into a heated test tube of potassium chlorate, and then sitting back and watching it “scream” as it burns. It’s supposed to demonstrate the principle of oxidation of sugar, but you confectionery-murderers aren’t fooling anyone.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 16 January 2009 at 5:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Space & Astronomy

…but is there life on Mars? “Maybe” is the latest answer from NASA, with news that methane has been detected in the red planet’s atmosphere. The gas, which consists of four hydrogen atoms bonded to a carbon atom, could have biological or geologic origin according to NASA and university scientists.

The discovery of methane is significant, because many organisms here on Earth produce methane as by-product of digestion – cow flatulence being the famous example. We can’t say for sure the same thing is happening on Mars however, as methane can also be produced underground in a geological process that is similar to rusting. This could have happened in the past, when Mars was more volcanic, and it is only now that the methane is bubbling to the surface.

Something must be actively releasing methane though, because the gas is quickly destroyed in the Martian atmosphere. If it is indeed a form of microscopic life, it must be far enough below the planet’s surface to be insulated from the cold Martian air, as liquid water is necessary for all known forms of life to exist.

Dr. Michael Mumma of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is the lead author of a paper in on the research which appeared in Science Express yesterday. He believes that organisms on Mars could be similar to those on Earth:

“On Earth, microorganisms thrive 2 to 3 kilometers (about 1.2 to 1.9 miles) beneath the Witwatersrand basin of South Africa, where natural radioactivity splits water molecules into molecular hydrogen (H2) and oxygen. The organisms use the hydrogen for energy. It might be possible for similar organisms to survive for billions of years below the permafrost layer on Mars, where water is liquid, radiation supplies energy, and carbon dioxide provides carbon.”

Unfortunately, it will be 2011 before we can get any further answers. It is hoped that NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory rover, due to launch in a couple of years, will be able to discover the origin of the Martian methane. By measuring the isotope ratios of the gas (isotopes are heavier versions of elements that are sometimes produced), the mission will be able to determine if life, which tends to use lighter isotopes, is the origin of the methane. I guess we’ll wait and see…

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 2 January 2009 at 3:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology

A British company has developed a new type of cement that can suck up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Its use could transform the cement production from a harmful emitter of CO2 into an environmentally beneficial process.

Traditionally, cement requires intense heat to burn the raw material used in production – typically limestone. A large amount of energy is needed to generate this heat, and so CO2 is released. The effect is further compounded by the release of CO2 from the burning limestone itself.

Novacem, based in London, have created a new mixture of cement based on magnesium silicates. It requires much lower temperatures during production, and as it sets it actually absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, making the material actually carbon negative.

The company claims that in a normal lifecycle their cement can absorb 0.6 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of cement. This is a dramatic improvement over the regular stuff, which emits about 0.4 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of cement.

There are doubts over the suitability of the new cement, however. A spokesperson for the British Cement Association said that although much work is done in laboratories on new types of cement, they aren’t yet ready for the market:

“The reality is that the geological availability, and global distribution, of suitable natural resources, coupled with the extensive validation needed to confirm fitness-for-purpose, make it highly unlikely that these cements will a be realistic alternative for volume building.”

Chief scientist of Novacem, Nikolaos Vlasopoulos, countered such claims, as an estimated 10,000 billion tonnes of magnesium silicates are available worldwide. He acknowledges that the cement requires further testing until it is safe for use in buildings, but is confident that Novacem is the way forward.

For myself, I have to applaud Novacem for their efforts. Cement might not be glamorous, but it’s scientific developments such as these that will help us tackle climate change. No one is really going to get excited about a new type of cement, but adapting our existing industrial methods will certainly make a difference.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 December 2008 at 1:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

With the year wrapping up, science news is thinning out and the last weekly roundup is looking a bit lean. Still, here we go!

It might not be an iPhone, but it can help save lives

Using only a cheap camera phone and some light sensors, scientists at UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute have developed a portable blood tester that could monitor HIV, malaria and leukaemia, as well as detecting other diseases.

Super-phone to the rescue!
Super-phone to the rescue!

The work of Dr. Aydogan Ozcan at UCLA will cut out the more traditional method of sending blood to a lab and waiting weeks for a result, allowing accurate analysis in mere minutes. Not only will it cutting waiting time, but the phone scanner is a fraction of a cost of the massive machines used by lab technicians.

The phone is the perfect tool for developing countries, with use already widespread in areas without a landline network. Phones that come with both a camera and the ability to run the analysis software provide everything needed to save lives in one tidy package.

Nano-nano vroom-vroom

With oil supplies dwindling, car companies are increasingly developing smaller and smaller vehicles for everyday use. None of them can compare to the latest development of one Prof. James Tour however, who recently picked up the Foresight Institute Feynman Prize for the development of a car just four nanometres across.

Pimp my nano-ride.
Pimp my nano-ride.

It consists of a chassis and working engine, a suspension system and rotating wheels made from a special form of carbon known as the buckyball, which forms a sphere-like shape from 60 carbon atoms. Tour hopes that inventions like his nanocar and an accompanying nanotruck, capable of carrying a payload, could one day be used to build large scale objects such as buildings by shunting around atoms.

He’s not expecting such developments any time soon however – he says that such applications are so far off that it isn’t even worth patenting the technology, because by the time it could be used to make money the patents would have expired!

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 19 December 2008 at 7:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry

…and if anything, I’m feeling worse! Hopefully that means I’m actually getting better, but we shall see. Untill I’m feeling up to it I’m afraid posts are going to be pretty short, but perhaps some amusing links might make up for it. May I present to you the Table of Condiments That Periodically Go Bad and the Periodic Table of Awesoments.

It’s a tough choice over which I prefer, with the Table of Condiments actually providing (somewhat) useful information, but ultimately I think Awesoments has to win out, simply because the first element is “bacon”, and it only goes up from there.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 1 December 2008 at 8:11 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Physics

A couple of months ago I wondered whether we were seeing a new development in science communication; namely scientific rapping. First there was the Large Hadron Collider Rap, which was then followed by the Astrobiology Rap. Alas, it seems that no further offerings have emerged.

All is not lost, however, as it seems we have a new form of communication: dance. A while ago, the journal Science put out a call for scientists around the world to share their Ph.D research in the form of interpretive dance – an unusual request, I grant you, but one that has resulted in some interesting compositions.

Prizes were awarded in four categories: Graduate Students, Postdocs, Professors, and Popular Choice. I’ve embedded the videos for you below; see what you make of them and then click through to the article to find out what they’re all about. Warning: I may have purposely miss-categorised this post to confuse you!

Graduate Students

Postdocs

Professors

Popular Choice

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2 Comments » Posted on Friday 28 November 2008 at 3:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Education

I’ve been pretty hard on the Royal Society of Chemistry recently. The RSC’s seminal work on Yorkshire puddings and the Italian Job did little to impress me. Luckily for them, a recent report has got me back on the RSC’s side. In June 2008 the society ran a competition entitled The Five Decade Challenge, in which GCSE pupils from across the country were invited to tackle chemistry questions from the 1960′s to the present. How did they fair?

Pupils found modern questions much easier. (Graph from the RSC report)

Well, it seems there is definitely weight to the argument that exams are getting easier. The average score on questions from the 1960s was just 15%, rising steadily to 35% for questions from the past decade. It is possible that is due to changes in the language used in questions in the past 50 years pupils struggled with the comprehension of older questions, rather than their content – I certainly remember GCSE papers having a particularly idiosyncratic nature. It is unlikely that this provides a full explanation for the differences, however.

Pupils found questions requiring a single mathematical step (one multiplication, for example) to be the easiest, but multi-step, unprompted mathematical questions – common in older papers – were much harder. The RSC see this as evidence that mathematical education needs to be beefed up in order to further science education. As they say in their report, science teachers should not have to be teaching fundamental numerical techniques.

They Society also call for new grading standards. Although the majority of pupils taking the challenge were of A or A* standard, many failed to score well. There were exceptions however, with the top scoring pupil gaining a total of 93.8%. The report calls for the meaningful differentiation between pupils of this level – though thankfully they don’t seem to suggest the introduction of an A** grade!

So, are exams getting easier, as this report suggests? I think that a combination of factors are at play here. The science syllabus has changed greatly over the years, as one might expect. Much more importance is placed on “science-in-society” – applying science to pupils everyday lives and the world around them. I would argue that this is no bad thing. Not everyone who takes GCSE chemistry will study chemistry at university, and a sound knowledge of chemistry in the wider world will serve pupils much more than memorisation of the periodic table.

On the other hand, we must not fail the highest achieving pupils who will go on to be the future chemists of the nation. Teaching to the test means that these pupils gain high marks with ease, but leaves them ill-equipped for undergraduate chemistry. Somehow, a balance between these two interests much be struck.

I’m not suggesting that these problems apply only to chemistry – far from it. I’m sure physics, biology and other scientific subjects would show similar results. I do however applaud the Royal Society of Chemistry for this useful report, and hope that they stick more to education reform and less to silly competitions!

As a footnote, if you want to have a go at the challenge it is included in the report linked above, but the Guardian have handily stripped out both the questions and answers. Ironically, I think I found some of the 60′s questions easiest due to their highly mathematical nature, allowing me to ignore the chemistry all together!

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 26 November 2008 at 5:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

We are well into autumn now, and when it comes to weather there’s one thing you can be certain of in Britain (besides the cold) – rain. Woe betides those who leave home without waterproofs and umbrellas. Even with such paraphernalia you might still get wet if the downpour is heavy enough – there’s only so much water a brolly can take.

Not so with a new waterproof material developed in Switzerland. Researchers at the University of Zurich have come up with a new type of fabric made from fibres of polyester that are coated in millions of minuscule silicone fragments. It’s the most water-repellent material suitable for making clothes ever produced.

Water droplets form perfect spheres on the new material.

Lead researcher Stefan Seeger took their inspiration from examples in nature, such as the surface of Lotus leaves. These biological water-repellents have a particular nanostructure that the new material emulates. Silicone nanofilaments, just 40 nanometres wide, coat the polyester and stop water seeping through.

A stream of water bounces right off.

They also trap a small layer of air that means water never even comes into contact with the underlying polyester. In a demonstration of hydrophobic power, the material was submerged underwater. When it was removed two months later, it was still dry to the touch. Seeger spoke to New Scientist about his creation:

“The combination of the hydrophobic surface chemistry and the nanostructure of the coating results in the super-hydrophobic effect,

“The water comes to rest on the top of the nanofilaments like a fakir sitting on a bed of nails,” he says.

It’s not just polyester that can be protected in this way, although it currently gives the best results. The silicone coating can also be applied to other materials such as wool and cotton. It could even lead to the invention of self-cleaning clothes!

3 Comments » Posted on Sunday 16 November 2008 at 12:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Evolution, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

The RSC are at it again

The Royal Society of Chemistry are clearly not reading Just A Theory. Not one week after I pointed out the bizarre competitions they have been running, they announce a recipe for Yorkshire pudding.

The Society was replying to the inquiry of one Ian Lyness, who wanted to know why his Yorkshires had failed to rise in the mountainousness Colorado, despite previous success elsewhere in the US. Though they haven’t answered Ian’s question, the RSC have decreed that the perfect Yorkshire should be at least 10 cm tall.

Chemical scientist Dr John Emsley of Yorkshire claimed that only his fellow Yorkshire men and women could produce “worthy” puds. All extremely unscientific conclusions, you might agree. Emsley also provided the “chemical formula” for a pudding, namely carbohydrate + H2O + protein + NaCl + lipids.

I know they’re just trying to appeal to a wider audience (and it worked, the story was run by many papers), but the RSC really should give up on this kind of thing.

A robot that’s uncanny

The uncanny valley is a commonly held belief that as robots and animations become more humanlike, there is a point before they reach perfection at which they become abhorrent. It’s not been scientifically proven, but I’ve certainly experience the phenomenon for myself.

The latest example is Jules, a creation of the Bristol Robotics Lab. Jules is designed to mimic the facial expressions of other human beings, thanks to the motors embedded beneath its “skin”.

Robotic engineers Chris Melhuish, Neill Campbell and Peter Jaeckel spent three-and-a-half years creating the software that powers Jules’ interactions. You can see their results, and Jules’ slightly creepy monologue, in the following video:

This cannot be said enough: science and religion can live happily ever after

The Guardian have an article by Micheal Poole on that old chestnut, science and religion. He’s a visiting research fellow in science and religion at the department of education and professional studies at King’s College London, so unsurprisingly he has a thing or two to say on the matter.

He makes the point that whilst ideas intelligent design and young Earth creationism are nonsense, they do not discredit the concept of creation, or rather Creation as preformed by a Creator. I’ve said similar in the past, but Poole’s argument is very nicely laid out, and worth a read.

He reminds us that creation is a religious concept, not a scientific one, however, it can also not be disproved by science. Science can answer questions about the processes of the natural world; it cannot determine if these are the results of actions by God. In other word, it’s a matter for religious philosophers to fret over, not scientists. Region and science are not enemies, and they should cease to be portrayed as such.

1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 9 November 2008 at 3:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Mathematics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Cash for codebreakers

Bletchley Park, home to the Allied codebreakers of World War II, has secured a grant of £330,000 to restore the roof of the historic site. The Grade II-listed mansion is at risk due to previous neglect.

Codebreakers who were at Bletchley include Alan Turing, arguably the founder of computer science. The need to crack the German Enigma machine lead to great developments in cryptoanalysis and other sciences. It’s a fascinating place that I’d love to visit one day, so hopefully this new money will help preserve the site.

China plans their own Moon buggy

The Chinese media has reported the nation’s ambitions to put an unmanned buggy on the moon by 2012 as a step along the road to a full-on manned mission.

The news follows on from China’s previous space efforts at the end of September, in which they broadcast footage of a first space-walk back to those watching on Earth. It could also be seen as an answer to the American’s testing their latest moon buggy prototype.

China says that its lunar mission will include three steps of “orbiting, landing and returning”, but has not yet set any dates for manned moon mission yet.

Not lead into gold, but tequila into diamonds

Mexican scientists have discovered a way to turn tequila into diamonds. It turns out that the chemical makeup of the drink has a ratio of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon atoms which places it within the “diamond growth region.”

The scientists turned to tequila not for its intoxicating quality, but because previous efforts to create diamonds from organic solutions such as acetone, ethanol, and methanol had proved unsuccessful. They then realised that their ideal compound of 40% ethanol and 60% water was remarkably close to tequila.

Luis Miguel Apátiga was one of the researches from the National Autonomous University of Mexico:

“To dissipate any doubts, one morning on the way to the lab I bought a pocket-size bottle of cheap white tequila and we did some tests,” Apátiga said. “We were in doubt over whether the great amount of chemicals present in tequila, other than water and ethanol, would contaminate or obstruct the process, it turned out to be not so. The results were amazing, same as with the ethanol and water compound, we obtained almost spherical shaped diamonds of nanometric size. There is no doubt; tequila has the exact proportion of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms necessary to form diamonds.”

The diamonds were made by heating tequila to transform it into a gas, and then heating this gas further to break down the molecular structure. The result: solid diamond crystals, about 100-400 nanometres in size. They could be used to coat cutting tools, or as high-power semiconductors, radiation detectors and optical-electronic devices.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 31 October 2008 at 11:15 am by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment

Olives could turn out to be more than just a tasty snack or delicious pizza topping – or rather, their stones could. Often discarded in the cultivation of the olive for oil or other uses, it is estimate that every year the olive growing industry produces 4 million tonnes of olive stones as waste. Scientists at the University of Jaén and the University of Granada, both in Spain, have demonstrated a method of extracting bioethanol from the stones.

Bioethanol is a renewable source of fuel that can be produced from many kinds of waste plant matter, but it has recently come under fire. Turning fields over to growing fuel instead of food has seen grain prices rise and increased the threat of hunger. Nevertheless, the push towards bioethanol continues, with the UK government mandating that by 2010 all cars run on 5% biofuel. Thus, producing energy from an unwanted food by-product looks increasingly attractive.

The fuel was extracted by first blasting the stones with high-pressure hot water and then adding enzymes to break down the organic matter into sugars. This mixture was then fermented with yeast in order to produce ethanol, with a maximum yield of 5.7 kg per 100 kg of olive stones.

They won't be powering your car just yet.

If this process could be applied to all 4 million tonnes of stones produced each year it would result in 228,000 tonnes of ethanol. Government figures for 1997 (the only ones I could find, unfortunately) indicate that 22,243,000 tonnes of petrol were sold that year. Unfortunately for olive producers, this means that waste stones would only be able to provide around a fifth of the UK’s bioethanol needs in 2010 – let alone any other countries.

It’s not all doom and gloom however. This research shows that energy can be extracted from the most unlikeliest places, and will perhaps encourage others to seek out other forms of energy from waste bio-materials.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 18 October 2008 at 10:16 am by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry

I’m away in Cambridge this weekend, so today I’ll have to leave the science to Mythbusters’ Adam Savage, who explains how gases can effect the sound of your voice:

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 13 October 2008 at 9:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Physics

Those of you who actively follow science news might have been wondering this past week why I hadn’t yet commented on the Nobel Prize announcements. No, I haven’t forgotten in all the course-starting excitement – I just thought it would be more useful to wait until all of the prizes had been announced. Before the results however, a bit of history.

The Nobels have been awarded for over 100 years, with the first prizes given out in 1901. The Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, wishing to to atone for his inventing dynamite, specified in his will that his fortune should be used as a fund that would celebrate intellectual achievement. He decreed there should be awards given annually to five disciplines: Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature. Later in 1969, a prize for Economics was created in honour of his memory.

I always wondered why there is no Nobel for Mathematics. A story I’ve often heard is that Nobel’s wife cheated on him with a mathematician, but it turns out this story is completely unfounded – for one thing, Nobel was never even married. There is no concrete reason as to why Mathematics was omitted, but many feel it is because Nobel viewed it as a science with little practical benefit for humanity. So there! On to this year’s prizes:

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Half of this prize was awarded to Harald zur Hausen “for his discovery of human papilloma viruses causing cervical cancer.” The second most common cancer in women, cervical cancer is estimated to cause 253,500 deaths worldwide each year. The work done by zur Hausen has lead to vaccines that provide greater than 95% protection against infection by two high risk strains of human papilloma viruses, HPV types 16 and 18.

The other half of the prize was split between Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier “for their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus.” By isolating and cloning HIV, their work allowed other groups to prove the virus’s link to acquired human immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Working with the virus to create diagnosis methods and antiviral drugs would not have been possible without the pair’s discovery.

The Nobel Prize in Physics

Yoichiro Nambu received half of the prize “for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics”, whilst one quarter each went to Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa “for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature.”

Symmetry breaking is responsible for the universe around us – without it, we wouldn’t be around to award Nobels! When the universe was created, matter and antimatter particles annihilated each other in a great cosmic battle for supremacy. If there had been an equal amount of particles on both sides, the universe would have been left empty as both matter and antimatter were completely obliterated. It’s thanks to the “breaking” of this matter-antimatter symmetry that matter was able to achieve dominance and lead to the universe we see today. Even one extra particle of matter for every ten billion of antimatter was enough to break the symmetry.

Nambu was the first to mathematically model how this symmetry breaking could occur at the subatomic level, and in doing so helped refine the standard model of particle physics. The symmetry breaking model formulated by Kobayashi and Maskawa suggested an extension of the standard model was required to explain some observations in particle physics, and they hypothesised the existence of third family of quarks, the fundamental particles that make up many matter and antimatter particles. Their model predicted in the 1970′s particles that weren’t observed until the late 1990′s.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008

The Chemistry prize this year was split an equal three ways, by Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie and Roger Y. Tsien “for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP.” First observed in the jellyfish Aequorea victoria in 1962, this protein is used by scientists around the world to learn more about biological processes.

Pigs with GFP modified DNA glow green.

By modifying a subject’s DNA to attach GFP to another protein as marker, scientists can visually follow the progression of the protein around an organism as it glows green. It can be used to watch the growth of nerve cells, or observe the development of cancer. Following the discovery of GFP, other colours were added to a biologist’s toolkit, allowing further flexibility in their use. One group of researchers even marked the different nerve cells in a mouse’s brain with a multitude of colour, without harming the mouse in any way.

The Nobel Prizes in Literature and Peace and The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2008

Whilst great achievements, the other Nobel Prizes fall a bit too far outside the “science” umbrella to discuss here. Nevertheless, congratulations to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization”, to Martti Ahtisaari “for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts”, and to Paul Krugman “for his analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity.”

Indeed, congratulations to all of the Nobel Lauretes (the Nobel foundation does not like to call them winners, because it’s “not a competition or lottery, and therefore there are no winners or losers”) on their fantastic achievements. Who do you think should be up for the honour next year?

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 29 September 2008 at 2:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment

It’s quite possible you already have significant amounts of dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) inside you. According to the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division in Newark, Delaware, this chemical has many industrial applications, and can easily enter the body. Indeed, it is often unintentionally ingested as it is found in many different food substances. It’s even used by terrorist organizations such as al-Quaeda.

This colourless and odourless substance is most often found in liquid form (large quantities have been reported in the world’s oceans, affecting the indigenous sea life), and can cause death if inhaled, although liquid DHMO is inert to human skin. Prolonged contact with DHMO in either a solid or gaseous state, however, can also lead to death.

There is also strong evidence to show that DHMO strongly contributes to climate change – indeed, some weather configurations can lead to sudden localised deposits of the liquid chemical.

A survey by US researchers Patrick K. McCluskey and Matthew Kulick found that nearly 90% of participants would sign a petition supporting an outright ban on the use of DHMO in the United States. Studies carried out elsewhere seem to agree with these findings; the majority of public citizens want to see an end to DHMO, but world leaders refuse to act. Continue reading for my suggested action to combat the spread of DHMO.

This pipeline has been contaminated by DHMO.

Well, you should probably just do nothing. Dihydrogen monoxide, more commonly known as H2O, or ‘water’ can be extremely dangerous if misused – it’s easy to burn your self in boiling water, for example – but I don’t think we need to worry about it.

I wrote this post because I myself was caught out by this oldy-but-goody science prank recently – the latest issue of New Scientist mentions it in the Feedback column. I read along going ‘oh, it’s already in my blood steam, really’ and ‘well I haven’t heard of this but it sounds pretty bad’, until finally, the penny dropped.

It’s a classic (albeit harmless) example of intentionally using science to confuse and miscommunicate. Leading the post with a headline highlighting the ‘risk’ to yourself or loved ones, mentioning terrorists/climate change and talking about the outrageous lack of political action are all designed to whip you up into a fury: ‘something must be done!’ you cry. No wonder so many people get swept along by scare stories such as the link between the MMR vaccine and autism; it’s just all too easy. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go sweep my kitchen for traces of sodium chloride – did you know that in large doses, it can lead to heart disease?

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2 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 2 September 2008 at 3:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry

Everyone enjoys a good curry. I actually can’t think of anyone I know who doesn’t. I’m not a sadistic hotter-than-the-sun curry lover, more of a korma/tikka masala kind of guy, but there’s something about spicy food that really gets the taste buds going.

That something is a molecule called capsaicin (pronounced “cap-say-sin”) which is found in all varieties of chilli peppers. Capsaicin is hydrophobic, meaning that it repels water molecules – which means drinking water won’t cool your burning tongue after a mouthful of too-hot chilli, but if cold enough it might numb your mouth for a bit.

I cook a lot, and I’ve learnt to treat raw chillies more like radioactive waste than a tasty ingredient. My worst experience with capsaicin came when I decided to take a shower after preparing a curry. I didn’t know that I still had juice from the chilli (and thus capsaicin) on my fingers and the act of showering spread the substance all over my face and hands because the capsaicin does not dissolve in water. I began to realise this only once my skin started burning. In the end, I don’t think I got to sleep until the early hours of the morning thanks to the pain!

There was only one thing that provided any relief. Capsaicin will bind to fat molecules, so bathing your hands in a fatty substance can help to stem the pain – this is also why Indian meals are often served with an accompaniment of raita, a yoghurt based dish. My flatmate was amused to watch me cover my aching hands with anything I could find in the kitchen that contained fat – I tried butter, oil, and finally milk which worked best. I cursed myself for being a semi-skimmed drinker, rather than the full-fat variety!

At least the chillies I had used weren’t that strong, relatively speaking. The “heat” of a chilli is measured on a scale named after its creator, Wilbur Scoville. The more Scoville heat units (SHU) a chilli has, the deadlier it is! Pure capsaicin has a Scoville rating of 15 to 16 million SHU, whereas chillies you would normally buy in a supermarket are rated around 2500 SHU. Some hot sauce manufacturers even proudly display their Scoville rating on the packaging – check out this 600,000 SHU sauce!

Scoville’s original method for rating chillies was actually pretty unscientific. Known as the Scoville Organoleptic Test, it requires an extract of the chilli to be mixed with a water and sugar solution. This concoction is then given to a panel (normally of five people) to taste. If three out of the five agree they do not detect any heat from the chilli, then the ratio of dilution is the SHU rating. For example, if a certain chilli must be diluted with one part extract to 100 parts water and sugar, then it has a rating of 100 SHU.

This subjective test has since been replaced with a machine – known as a high performance liquid chromatograph – which can measure the capsaicin in a chilli. This measure can then be converted back to the Scoville units for comparison, although industry consensus is the modern technique yields a Scoville rating about 20-40% lower than the original method.

So, the next time you tuck into a tasty curry, whether it be a mild korma or a deadly phall, remember capsaicin, watch out for the Scoville rating, and always have a glass of full-fat milk on hand!

1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 23 August 2008 at 4:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry

Just a brief post today, although I will be making it up with a longer than usual weekly roundup tomorrow. All I have today is a game that challenges you to name all of the elements of the periodic table, in under 15 minutes. I mustered a meagre 24 out of 118, and missed out a few embarrassingly obvious ones. As a hint/bonus, I offer The Elements, a song by the most excellent Tom Lehrer.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 10 August 2008 at 7:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Getting It Wrong, Physics, Weekly Roundup

The Guardian reports on the Advertising Standards Authority’s decision to allow Miracle Gro to advertise their organic compost as “100% chemical free”. The ASA’s reasoning is that viewers understand the word “organic” to mean no man-made chemicals are used in the manufacture of a product, so the advert is permissible. I’m not quite sure how a compost without any chemicals would be beneficial to plants, so it seems Miracle Gro are playing on the commonly held beliefs that chemicals, particularly man-made chemicals are inherently bad, and “natural” and “organic” products are free from such nasty things. Tut tut.

Scientists at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York have used graphene, a material made from carbon that is one atom thick, to create the world’s smaller balloon. They produced membranes innumerable to gas that measured from 1 to 100 square micrometres in area and 0.25 to 3 micrometres deep. A micrometre is one millionth of a metre, meaning around 1.5 million of these balloons could fit on your thumbnail. If only they could work out a way to write “Happy Birthday” on them. Until then, the suggested uses of the balloons include tiny weighing devices and pressure sensors.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 9 August 2008 at 10:46 am by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry

Organic food is becoming ever more popular as people aim for a green and healthy lifestyle, but research by Dr Susanne Bügel and others from the Department of Human Nutrition at the University of Copenhagen has found that organic food has no nutritional benefit over food grown with pesticides.

The researchers looked at carrots, kale, mature peas, apples and potatoes using three different farming methods. The first used only organic-approved products such as animal manure, the second added in as much pesticide as allowed by regulation, and the third swapped out the manure for as many fertilisers and pesticides as are legally allowed. The crops were grown side by side at the same time, to alleviate any changes in weather or season that could have affected the result. Dr Bügel said:

‘No systematic differences between cultivation systems representing organic and conventional production methods were found across the five crops so the study does not support the belief that organically grown foodstuffs generally contain more major and trace elements than conventionally grown foodstuffs.’

I’ve always been slightly sceptical of organic food, and cynically thought that there probably wasn’t much difference in some produce when compared to the non-organic variety. On the other hand I’ve also found that organic chicken “tastes better”. I’d like conduct a blind taste test at some point to see if that is actually the case…

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 6 August 2008 at 4:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Getting It Right

The internet moves pretty fast, so I apologise if you have already seen this. If you haven’t, then you’re in for a treat. The University of Nottingham’s Chemistry department has created The Periodic Table of Videos. The site has a video for each of the 188 elements, from hydrogen to ununoctium.

Each video is only a few minutes long, and gives you a quick overview of the properties of the element, as well as example experiments – many of which are considered “too dangerous” to be demonstrated in secondary schools any more. They are a highly enjoyable watch, and a great use of modern technology to teach people all over the world about chemistry.

The two main presenters are Pete Licence, who is great at demonstrating the explosive properties of sodium or the flow of liquid mercury and Martyn Poliakoff, who provides much of the hard facts from his office plastered with many periodic tables, including the periodic table of desserts. He also has the most wonderful mad scientist hair I have ever seen.

I haven’t yet made it through all of the videos, but I’m enjoying visiting the site for half an hour or so at a time as I check out some elements and brush up on my chemistry. I think this should be required viewing for all GCSE science students, and I can’t praise UoN enough. I hope they see a spike in their chemistry admissions next year! If I still haven’t convinced you, check out this trailer and you’ll hopefully be hooked.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 3 August 2008 at 9:47 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

I have decided that Sunday’s post will be a roundup of all the links that didn’t quite make the cut during the week. Enjoy.

The NASA Phoenix lander has found water in a soil sample on Mars. Previous probes had observed water-ice, but this is the first time actual water has been analysed by a probe. Apparently the White House has been briefed to expect a more “provocative” announcement than just the discovery of water, but I don’t think we can expect little green men any time soon.

A study of bees could help police hunt serial killers. The thinking is that bees create a “buffer zone” around their hive in which they do not forage for pollen, in order to avoid predators finding their home. Similarly, those who commit a series of murders tend to stay close to home, but not in the immediate area around their house. Scientists at Queen Mary, University of London tagged bees with coloured markers in order to track them as flew around a field of fake flowers filled with artificial nectar. Using “geographic profiling” – a technique used by police to hunt serial killers – they were able to identify the buffer zone and pinpoint the location of the bees nest. The study allowed them to refine the geographic profiling technique, which in turn will allow more accuracy for deceives in the search for a killer

Nearly all Spanish bank notes are contaminated with cocaine. I’d heard this one before (for British bank notes) but I didn’t actually think it was true. Chemists at the University of Valencia found the notes contained an average concentration of 155 microgrammes of cocaine, the highest in Europe. A full study has not been conducted on British notes, but data exists suggesting between 40% and 51% of bank notes are contaminated with 0.0011 microgrammes of cocaine per note.

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