Archive for the ‘Getting It Right’ Category

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 8 October 2011 at 7:49 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology

This is the first chance I’ve had to actually write about it, but on Thursday I was very happy to receive the BT Information Security Journalism award for best news story of the year for an article on the cyberweapon that could take down the internet.

I wrote the article very soon after joining New Scientist and was pleased to see it do very well – if I remember rightly it was one of the top read stories on the site for around a week. It also got picked up by a lot of other publications, which was nice, though some did better than others at covering the subtleties of the story.

Congratulations should also go to my colleague Sally Adee, who won best privacy feature of the year for an article on online reputation management and burying your digital dirt, along with all the other winners.

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2 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 1 June 2010 at 5:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Health & Medicine

Wikipedia may be your first choice for trivial information, but would you trust it with your life? Surprisingly, researchers from Pennsylvania have found that the community-built encyclopaedia measures up on both accuracy and depth when compared to a peer-reviewed information service for cancer patients – it’s just not very well written.

Doctors often caution their patients against seeking medical advice online, fearing that the information they find could be inaccurate. After all, anybody can create a website that claims to provide expert knowledge, but how can you be sure they’re telling the truth?

You’d think the problem would be even worse on a website that anyone can edit, but Wikipedia turns out to be just as accurate as the National Cancer Institute’s Physician Data Query (PDQ), which was specifically created to cater to patients needs.

Yaacov Lawrence, an assistant professor of Radiation Oncology at Thomas Jefferson University, selected the key facts about ten types of cancer from standard textbooks and ask medical students to compare them against Wikipedia and PDQ. They found that less than 2% of the information of both sites was inaccurate, and the depth of coverage was comparable.

The key difference in the texts was revealed by a readability test, similar to those found in Microsoft Word. Analysing the text of both websites showed that while PDQ was suitable for 14-year-olds and up, cancer articles on Wikipedia are at a university student’s level.

“PDQ’s readability is doubtless due to the site’s professional editing, whereas Wikipedia’s lack of readability may reflect its varied origins and haphazard editing,” said Lawrence. “Overall our results are reassuring: on the one hand Wikipedia appears to be extremely accurate, on the other, the resources invested in the creation and upkeep of the PDQ are clearly justified.”

Of course, just like Wikipedia, this research could be subject to change. Perhaps some knowledgeable science communicators will take it upon themselves to whip up the cancer articles into something a little more readable? Go ahead and hit that “Edit” button…

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

The Year’s Most Amazing Scientific Images

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

Robots under the sea

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

Have yourself a very little Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LHC a-go-go

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

What if the Earth had rings?

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

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

Field less players to win the World Cup

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

Bacteria that can detect landmines

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

1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 8 October 2009 at 7:03 pm by Colin Stuart
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

Scientists and curious onlookers are gearing up for what many are calling the day NASA ‘bombs’ the Moon in search of water. Tomorrow, at approximately 12:30pm UK time, the Lunar Crater Observing and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) will send 2,305kg of American engineering headlong into the south pole of our nearest neighbour in space.

The impact will see a new crater added to the already much pockmarked lunar surface with this man-made moon scar stretching twenty metres across. The momentum of the impact will hurl a 350 tonne plume of material into lunar orbit which the waiting Shepherding Spacecraft will fly through, searching for traces of water before impacting the Moon itself four minutes later.

The target is Cabeus, a crater found some 100km from the Moon’s South Pole, a location that precludes much penetration from sunlight, rendering the maximum temperature 100K.

Such low temperatures and data from a previous mission have led scientists to predict the existence of water ice hidden in Cabeus’ murky shadows. Slamming into the lunar surface is the best way to unveil the Moon’s hidden secrets.

As Jacob reported earlier in the year, evidence for lunar water has already been provided by the Indian Chandrayaan-1 probe and further evidence of water on the Moon would add to our understanding of our Solar System.

However, despite its scientific merits there has been a backlash against the mission with accusations of extra-terrestrial terrorism. Apparently LCROSS is NASA committing “an eco-sin on a galactic scale.” Nevermind that the Moon is 385,000 km away and the galaxy is 100,000 light years across.

With these words the blogger of warns that, “the Moon is a celestial body revered by Earthlings of all cultures, inspiring poets, shamans and lovers across the globe.”

These feelings seem to be echoed by the imaginatively titled who quoth that, “it is dangerous to bomb the moon when we are unclear of the outcome. We feel that bombing the Moon could bring us consequences that are both psychic and physical. Disruption of cycles.” take the celestial biscuit though when they philosophise that, “the problem is this, by bombing the moon in many exopolitic experts opinion is this action will cause an all out war in space with extraterrestrials. These same extraterrestrials even have bases and crafts placed on the Moon.”

This last totally absurd notion aside, there seems to be this wide held belief that the Moon is sacred and that by making a miniscule pinprick in it that somehow we are going to cause apocalypse. Never mind that asteroids hit the Moon all the time. Never mind that with your very own eyes you can see evidence of hundreds of much larger impacts which have left our “cycles” untouched. This isn’t the first time lunar lunacy has made it onto one of my blog entries.

There are just so many things wrong here. However, part of the blame for such nonsense has to lie at the media’s door. In their perpetual attempt for an attention grabbing headline they have fashioned this notion of ‘bombing’ the Moon, a label which quite misrepresents what is actually going on.

Depending on which camp you sit in, you can either watch an innovative scientific experiment or the destruction of life as we know it from 11:30am tomorrow at

1 Comment » Posted on Friday 11 September 2009 at 5:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right

Since the deadline for handing in our dissertations has just passed, I guess today marks the end of the Science Communication MSc at Imperial. I’ll probably write up some thoughts about the course in the next week, but it seems only fitting to talk about some recent research in to the relationship between science and the media.

A study published in the summer 2009 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly has found that not only do scientists realise the importance of speaking to journalists, they’re actually happy to do it more than once. While scientists have been known to trade horror stories of interaction with the media, it seems not all of them have been scared away.

The researchers interviewed 1,200 epidemiology and stem cell scientists, whose work often sparks media interest. They found that about one-third of respondents had had up to five contacts with journalists during a three-year period, while another third experience more than six contacts in the same time frame. The remaining third had no contact at all.

Interestingly, these results are similar to previous studies in the 1980s and 1990s, suggesting that the level of contact scientists have with the media has remained consistent. In other words, they aren’t being put off by bad experiences.

One surprise is that while scientists might view the general coverage of science as poor or inaccurate, this perception does not include coverage of their own field. I would have expected it to be the other way around – a scientist is always going to be able to spot a journalists mistakes when writing about their own research!

I have to say, my experience in this past year is that once scientists are more than willing to talk about their work – and why shouldn’t they be? They obviously think that it’s important, else they wouldn’t be doing it! And if you want to spread information and let other people know why your work is important, engaging with the media is the best way to do it.

3 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 22 July 2009 at 11:14 am by Colin Stuart
In Getting It Right, Health & Medicine, Musings

This week has seen a once in a lifetime event. As the spectacle unfolded those who were lucky enough to witness it were turning to those around them whispering of how, in years to come, they would tell the story that they were here. As this epic event reached its climax the spectators spontaneously rose in religious fervour and burst into rapturous applause.

I am not, however, talking about the Moon gliding across the Sun and entrenching those huddled on the ancient banks of the Ganges into more than 6 minutes of mid-day darkness. Rather I refer to the unforgettable events that unfolded on Monday morning in North West London.

After four days of epic Ashes cricket, England had negotiated themselves into a position to achieve the unthinkable; victory over that most ultimate of enemies, at the home of cricket, for the first time in 75 years. However, a massive stand between two typically resilient Aussie batsmen on Sunday night had given the visitors the faintest sniff of victory and seriously threatened the finger nails of England supporters.

In times of need there was nothing else for it; give Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff the ball. No matter that his knee is as crocked as Gordon Brown’s smile and about as stable as the flagging economies of the world, for this was Freddie’s hour. Retiring at the end of this series due to the knee problems that have plagued him throughout his career, he stood defiant against the Aussie onslaught, determined to lay into them one last time.

Flintoff hurtles in and roughs up the Aussies despite needing injections in his right knee

From the outset of that final morning, he pounded down the hallowed turf of Lord’s, slamming his arthritic knee into the ground and hurling that red cherry at 90mph straight at the Aussie batsmen. During an unforgettable 10 over spell, he broke a bat, hit Clarke on the helmet, and provided us with that most joyous of sights, scattered Aussie stumps. By the end of the game he had achieved his first (and sadly last) 5 wicket haul at Lord’s, becoming only the 6th player in over 125 years to have achieved that feat as well as notching up a hundred runs on the ground.

Now that you have indulged my boyish excitement, for there is nothing I enjoy more than watching the Aussie’s squirm, it’s about time I brought in the science. Despite the sheer defiant grit and determination of a cocky Lancashire lad, he had a little help from a very unlikely source; the intestines of horses.

After years of serving England and Lancashire his right knee might as well belong to an octogenarian. In order to play he has to have constant injections in the joint to reduce the inflammation that bowling so intensely summons. The England medical team inject him with Ostenil, which is effectively a lubricating liquid, made by purifying bacteria that is originally found in horse entrails.

Ostenil is a safer alternative to steroids, which normally pose a risk of more permanent damage to the muscles and ligaments they are trying to protect. Ostenil is basically a form of Hyaluronic Acid, you know that stuff beauty adverts are always trying to palm off on us. However, scientists make this stuff in the lab, based on the original bacteria from horse gut. Results of studies show that Ostenil is just as effective as steroids and pain levels are kept low for two days after the jab; perfect for Freddie to skittle the Aussies and put England into a 1-0 lead in the Ashes.

If England win the series and that little urn returns to English hands, no doubt it will be down to King Freddie, his buggered knee, and those horse gut injections that allow him his final swansong as a Test cricketer.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 16 July 2009 at 8:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy

The piece I wrote for the Guardian today hasn’t gone up yet, so instead of linking to that I’ll write briefly about something else that happened today – albeit, 40 years in the past. On 16 July 1969, Apollo 11 blasted off in to space. Today marks the 40th anniversary of what would be humanity’s first journey to another world.

It’s amazing to think that nearly two decades before I was even born, men walked upon the surface of the Moon. Sometimes that seems so unlikely, it’s hard to get your head around the fact that it actually happened.

NASA has released restored video of the landing to celebrate. Whenever I watch the famous footage, I can’t help but imagine what a modern day landing would look like. I hope that it isn’t too many years until we can find out.

For now, you will have to settle for the past. We Choose The Moon allows you to follow Apollo 11 in “real time”. As I write this, the mission has entered stage 6, with the ignition of the command service module.

Occasionally the voices of the crew crackle through on the radio, communicating with mission control. These are recordings of the actual conversations the astronauts had on their way to the Moon. It’s incredibly well done, and I feel as if I’ve been transported back to 1969, awaiting the landing in just under four days time. Great stuff.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 16 July 2009 at 12:57 pm by Seth Bell
In Getting It Right, Just A Review, Psychology

Why do we demolish evil houses? Could you wear a Killer’s cardigan? Would you let your wife sleep with Robert Redford? The psychologist Bruce Hood poses these questions in Supersense and offers an intriguing explanation for our answers.

The central argument of the book goes like this. Most people hold some kind of supernatural belief, ideas which defy natural laws. Hood thinks that supernatural thinking is in fact a perfectly natural mechanism which develops in childhood and often persists into adulthood, even in otherwise perfectly rational people. According to Hood, supernatural thinking is an intuitive process and is not dissimilar to common sense; hence he terms it ‘supersense’.

Hood blends together anecdotes, psychological experiments, argument, popular culture and hints of philosophy exceptionally well, making Supersense a fantastically engaging book. I read so much of it on the tube that I actually began to look forward to tube journeys, which is about as much praise as I can give.

One of the particular strengths of the book is the range of supernatural thoughts it covers. Going beyond the well-trodden ground of religion and the paranormal, Hood draws our attention to all sorts of supernatural beliefs – sentimentality, mind-body dualism, the superstitions of tennis players and the idea of transferring essences to objects like cardigans.

The science is interesting and well explained, but not too dense. The experiments about childhood thinking are intriguing and prompt the reader to examine their current beliefs in relation to their childhood beliefs. Musings about the psychological implications of disgust permeate throughout the book and keep your attention. And even though Hood is a scientist and explains a lot of science very well, you never get the feeling you are reading book about science – which for me, on the whole, is a good thing.

At times Hood labours his central argument a little too much, but he acknowledges this himself and the surrounding material more than makes up for it. I think the reason he works so hard to relate the material to it is because he strongly believes that what he calls our supersense is natural and fundamentally embedded into the way we reason, and that it is unlikely that we will ever be rid of it.

This conclusion is bad news for the likes of Richard Dawkins, but for Hood our supersense allows us justify our sacred values – our morals, our ideas about interconnectedness, our sense our self and our attachment to objects.  This is enough to make them rational and even desirable on some level.  Whether you agree with this ultimate conclusion or not Supersense makes for a highly entertaining read and makes you think. So read it.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 15 July 2009 at 8:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Just A Review, Mathematics

Those of you expecting The Tiger That Isn’t to be a book on the evolution of the big cat family, prepare to be disappointed. The book’s subtitle, “Seeing through a world of numbers”, gives the game away – it’s about maths. More specifically, The Tiger That Isn’t exposes the common misuse and abuse of numbers by politicians, government institutions and the media.

Don’t be too downhearted though, because Blastland and Dilnot, the creator and former presenter of Radio 4′s excellent More Or Less programme on statistics, have written a fantastically interesting book based on their knowledge from the show.

The unusual title refers to the human capacity for pattern recognition. We have evolved the powerful ability to identify patterns, and to notice deviations from those patterns. This important skill allowed our ancestors to see, for example, the distinctive stripes of a tiger in the jungle and run away to safety.

Pattern recognition comes at a cost however. Sometimes our over-active brains will see the tiger that isn’t – a chance occurrence of light shining through the long grass that gives the impression of a non-existence tiger.

This downside is reflected in modern life by our need to enforce order on a random world. We forget that correlation does not imply causation and find tigers where there are none.

The Tiger That Isn’t guides readers through common mistakes in the use of statistics with examples plucked from the headlines. An NHS deficit of £1bn sounds immense, but it works out as less than 1% of the total NHS budget, and just £16 per head. League tables are revealed as effectively useless, with schools shooting up and down based on little more than random chance. And as we already know, the media is notoriously bad at reporting health risks.

If you’ve ever enjoyed an episode of More or Less, read a newspaper and wondered where all the numbers come from, or even just uttered the phrase “lies, damned lies and statistics,” this is a book you will enjoy. In addition to being entertained, you’ll finish The Tiger That Isn’t with a much better understanding of what numbers can and can’t tell you. Read it.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 12 July 2009 at 9:24 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology, Science Policy, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Drayson vs Stuart, round two

Our very own Colin Stuart had an article in the Times Higher Education supplement this week, in a continuation of his Twitter debate with science minister Lord Drayson. In it, he criticises the decision to merge science with business, fearing it will result in pure science losing out as applied science is brought to the fore.

The internet…in space!

A headline I never get tired of, because it always sums up a story beautifully. The internet now has a permanent connection to space, aboard the International Space Station.

The space internet differers slightly from our Earth-bound version. The regular internet uses TCP/IP connections, which repeatedly sends information until the computer knows they have got through. This wouldn’t work in space due to bandwidth issues, so the computer aboard the ISS uses delay-tolerant networking, which holds on to information at each step in the communication chain until it has been received.

Citizen science exposes false vegan restaurants

This is pretty neat. Vegan food blog were worried about imported vegan foods being served in a number of restaurants in Los Angeles, so decided to run some tests.

Using industrial food testing tools, they examined meals from 17 establishments for traces of egg, cheese and shellfish – all foods which are not compatible with a vegan diet. The found evidence of these foods in all of the meals, suggesting that the common source of production, Taiwan, has not been enforcing strict vegan regulations.

What I like about this is the way their investigation is presented in a very scientific manner. Hypothesis, methods, results and discussion are all laid out in such a way that anyone wishing to dispute or replicate their results can do so. In fact, that’s exactly what happened, with many of the restaurants contacting the blog to say they would conduct tests of their own. It just goes to show, you don’t have to be a scientist to follow the scientific method.

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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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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 25 June 2009 at 4:25 pm by Jessica Bland
In Biology, Getting It Right

Despite appearances, here at Just A Theory, we don’t spend all our time trying to bash the media’s representation of science. Sometimes we try to join in. This week I even managed to get something published internationally (hurray!): here is my short article in The Economist.

It’s on recent research that shows that dinosaurs were not as big as we thought. In the spirit of Just A Theory, I try to go beyond the “Jurassic Park was wrong” story and explain, with the help of one of the research’s authors, a little bit about what they say in the actual paper. Leave a comment if you can – it only takes a second to register on The Economist website. It would be great to know whether people really want to know more than just whether Brachiosaurus weighed the same as three or seven African elephants…

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2 Comments » Posted on Friday 19 June 2009 at 8:27 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong

“Science is inevitably biased to some extent,” says Dr Daniele Fanelli, “because it’s made by human beings.” One might easily dismiss this claim as unfounded, but Fanelli has the numbers to back it up. His recent research paper combined over 20 previous studies on scientific misconduct, and found that nearly 2% of scientists admit to falsifying or fabricating data.

Whilst most scientists would shudder at the thought of distorting or inventing results, it seems that a small number are prepared to do so. Fanelli, a researcher in science and technology studies at the University of Edinburgh, believes quantifying and identifying this practice is essential to improving science.

He’s not alone. The UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO) is an independent advisory body set up in 2006 to support good practice in research and help address cases of scientific misconduct. UKRIO head James Parry stresses that whilst misconduct is not a common occurrence, it is a problem. “We need to take steps to actively promote good conduct and research,” he says.

What causes a scientist to turn away from good conduct, and good science? Fame and fortune are obvious answers, but Fanelli argues some scientists might feel forced in to it. “There is an excessive pressure to publish, an excessive reliance on publication record to assess scientific careers.” With scientists needing to keep up appearances, perhaps publishing a falsified paper in an obscure journal seems like the only solution.

It isn’t just smaller journals that fall foul of misconduct, as even the giants of the science publishing world can get it wrong. Parry recalls the case of Jan Hendrik Schön, a physicist at Bell Labs in New Jersey. Over the course of a few years Schön published a slew of papers on superconductivity in high profile journals, including Science and Nature. “It turned out he was faking results,” says Parry. “Some of the data used in one paper had actually been used in another – he’d just labelled it differently.”

Intentionally mislabelling data is high on the list of crimes against science, but Fanelli’s research shows that a much larger proportion of scientists are guilty of lesser offences. One third of those asked admit to a variety of “questionable research practices”, including dropping data based on gut feeling or allowing funding sources to influence a study. Whilst these may just be the research equivalent of a parking ticket or speeding fine, their high prevalence is worrying.

More worrying is that the true misconduct figures could be even higher. Scientists in the surveys Fanelli analysed were self-reporting, and may have chosen not to admit their misconduct. When asked about their colleagues, 14% reported knowing someone who had falsified results, whilst 72% suggested other questionable research practices were taking place. Even these figures don’t paint the whole picture, because one case of misconduct could be reported multiple times. “How these figures relate to the true frequency of misconduct is partly an open question,” says Fanelli.

Whilst just answering a survey might be easy, actually dealing with a colleague’s misconduct can be harder. “It’s a very stressful situation,” explains Parry, but the UKRIO can help. “If someone comes to us with concerns, we offer confidential and independent advice and guidance.” This support can play a crucial role in exposing potentially harmful misconduct, especially when it comes to health and biomedical research. “It’s the area where there is the most potential for mishap if things go wrong,” says Parry.

It is also the area with the most reported misconduct. “Medically related research has consistently higher admission rates,” says Fanelli. There are two possible explanations for this. Perhaps these researchers are more aware of issues surround scientific misconduct and so are more honest, or maybe misconduct rates simply are higher in medicine. Both explanations could be true.

Should we be concerned that we don’t know how many researchers are cooking the scientific books? Fanelli believes this behaviour is not necessarily bad for science, because dodgy data can be used to support research that is subsequently accepted as true. The 19th century scientist Gregor Mendel was posthumously accused of data that was too good to be true, but his work forms the foundation of modern genetics. Thus science is self-correcting in the long term, but for contemporary research misconduct is more of a problem.

The solution, says Fanelli, is greater transparency. “Scientists should report more faithfully what they actually did.” He suggests that if dropping a few data points lends weight to an argument then scientists should go ahead and do so, but must admit to it. And of course, he practices what he preaches: “I’m trying to be as unbiased and objective as I possibly can.”

Fanelli, D. (2009). How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data PLoS ONE, 4 (5) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0005738

1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 18 June 2009 at 5:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Psychology

Much of the scientific research in to the effects of video games on players’ behaviour concludes that violent games promote aggression. Gamers (including myself) often dismiss these findings, resulting as they nearly always do from poorly designed studies. One infamous experiment used the length of time a person held an air horn down before and after gaming as a measure of aggression – nonsense.

I doubt gamers would say the same of this latest piece of research, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, which shows that playing “prosocial” games can encourage people to be more helpful and considerate to others. Douglas Gentile, an Iowa State University psychologist, was lead author:

“Dozens of studies have documented a relationship between violent video games and aggressive behaviours,

“But this is one of the first that has documented the positive effects of playing prosocial games.”

The paper presents the findings of three separate studies conducted using different scientific methods and an different countries. This, says the authors, is the best way to establish the true effect of video games on behaviour.

One study asked young teenagers in Singapore to list their favourite games as well as filling out behavioural surveys. Those who played violent games were more likely to hurt others, but players of prosocial games were more likely to help others. Whilst this is useful data, you can’t prove a causal link with this kind of research – did the games make people behave this way, or did their behaviour make them choose certain games?

The second study comes closer to an answer. Nearly 2,000 Japanese children aged 10 to 16 completed two surveys, three to four months apart. Those who increased their exposure to prosocial games became more helpful when questioned later.

Finally, a group of US college students were assigned to play a prosocial, violent or neutral game. They then had to assign puzzles of varying difficulty levels to a partner, who stood to win $10 if they could complete them all. Those who played prosocial games were more likely to assign easy puzzles, whilst hard puzzles were the choice of the violent game players.

I found reading this research very interesting, and it challenged my opinions. The scientists involved weren’t on a “games are evil” crusade, and instead conducted a series of well designed studies that show video games can have both positive and negative effects on players’ behaviour.

It’s easy for me to dismiss those who would attack video games as nothing more than murder-training simulations. It’s harder to do so when they claim positive effects. As the paper concludes: “Video games are not inherently good or bad, just as any tool is not inherently good or bad.” In future, whether I’m on a one man crime spree in Grand Theft Auto, or spring-cleaning a house in Chibi Robo, I’ll be sure to think about the effect games can have.

Gentile, D., Anderson, C., Yukawa, S., Ihori, N., Saleem, M., Lim Kam Ming, ., Shibuya, A., Liau, A., Khoo, A., Bushman, B., Rowell Huesmann, L., & Sakamoto, A. (2009). The Effects of Prosocial Video Games on Prosocial Behaviors: International Evidence From Correlational, Longitudinal, and Experimental Studies Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35 (6), 752-763 DOI: 10.1177/0146167209333045

Comments Off Posted on Friday 12 June 2009 at 8:38 am by Jessica Bland
In Getting It Right, Psychology, Science Policy

I wrote the following for Felix newspaper at Imperial College. I was interested in the US definition of torture. The story has become more relevant this week with the revelations about possible Waterboarding used by the Met: an interesting case of copycat tactics which shows that the US attitudes can have repercussions well outside their national borders. The news on Wednesday adds force to Shue’s comment that by not changing the US definition of torture, Obama has not done enough to prevent another Guantanamo…


We have a right not to be tortured. It is a basic human right – one that stretches across borders and cultures to societies that share few other values. The condemnation of torture is a constant where many other things are not.

But what do we mean by torture: forcing prisoners to stand for hours at a time? Playing them the same song over and over for three days? Recreating the feeling of drowning? Under international law, none of these are. They are mentally, but not physically abusive.   And torture is defined as physical abuse.

The public debate following Obama’s release of the details of CIA interrogations in Guantanamo has centred round whether or not these mentally abusive techniques are torturous enough to make them illegal. And new research published last week in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry adds to the mounting evidence that they are, or at least that they should be.

Torture victims from former Yugoslavia countries and Turkey rated the stressfulness of their overall torture experience. Those that experienced high levels of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment (CIDT), such as forced stress positions or waterboarding, rated their overall torture experience as more stressful than those who suffered physical torture. CIDT victims also showed higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“There is a widely held misconception of torture,” said Dr. Metin Basoglu, author of the study. “It is not just something that happens in the course of the interrogation process. It incorporates all of the other circumstances in which these events occur.”

Basoglu identifies 46 different contextual factors and it was the stress these caused that participants were asked to rate. “Think of it from the perspective of the person. They perceive a wide range of stressors, even when these stressors are not intentionally inflicted upon the person for torture purposes.”

It is not just that context is important. It is more important than the amount of physical pain. There is no clear correlation between increased physical pain and overall stress. But the correlation between CIDT and overall stress implies that psychological context is influential.

Therefore, Basoglu argues, the definition of torture used in International law should be modified. “It would be based on four parameters” Intent, purpose and removal of control are all widely-accepted criteria for torture. But Basoglu adds a fourth criterion: “multiple stressors must be present.” So, both combinations of physical events and psychologically stressful situations would constitute torture under this definition.

Others argue this kind of international redefinition is impractical and unnecessary. “Changing international law is not a relevant solution requires a lot of energy and negotiations. And it would take a long time to go through,” said Professor Henry Shue, Professor of International Relations at Oxford University and author of an influential writer on torture. Instead, he believes that what needs to be changed is the US legal definition of torture.

“Under the UN Convention law both torture and what Basoglu calls CIDT are illegal. So the distinction between them does not much matter. But when the US ratified the convention in 1988, Reagan interpreted the convention as only applying to physical abuse and psychological conditions arising from physical abuse.” This meaning is the one that was incorporated into US law in 2006 in the Military Commissions Act.

Shue emphasised that “this is not something that started with Richard Cheney and George Bush”. But under the recent Bush administration it became law. And despite publishing torture memos detailing interrogation techniques used in Guantanamo, Obama has done nothing to reverse the distinction between the UN convention and US law.

“I am disappointed with Obama’s response on this issue. He has said he wishes to abolish torture, but has not addressed the definition of torture,” Shue said. He explained that it still leaves open the possibility of future Guantanamo like interrogations.

In the face of research like Basolgu’s, it is difficult to see how America can keep using the narrow Reagan definition. Redefining torture might seem like a pedantic effort in the case of international law. But in the US, we have already witnessed the horrifying consequences of leaving a gap between what is torturous and what is law. Let’s hope the Obama administration doesn’t let this linger – that they don’t let it become their first mistake.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 19 May 2009 at 7:00 pm by Jessica Bland
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Science Policy

On the Guardian website last week, George Monbiot launched an all out attack on UK science funding entitled ‘These men would’ve stopped Darwin’. The men he is attacking are current research council bosses, as well as Lord Drayson, minister for science and innovation. Monbiot accuses them of damaging economic interference in science funding.

Last month’s budget ringfenced £106 million for science that showed “economic potential”. This was accompanied by a new mandate from research councils, asking that all new grant applications include a rundown of the research’s economic implications.

UK science is certainly becoming more business savvy. And this is changing how science is done. But it is not necessarily damaging it. Monbiot jumps from arguing that economic aims should not control scientific funding to the conclusion that scientists’ imaginations alone should have that job. For him, proper science is when scientists are free to pursue their passions; “it is about wonder and insight and beauty”.  He puts an absolute divide between scientist-led science and business-led science. If economic interests encroach on science funding, then, according to Monbiot,  scientist-led science will disappear.

But this is going too far. There is no great chasm between what scientists aim at and commercial aims. There is certainly tension between the two, but they are not distinct. Harold Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York uses one particular example to illustrate this. Research into the biological processes behind cancer has been productive in recent years. So much so that work at the level of cell-processes is almost complete. In order to increase our understanding in this area, and perhaps develop new treatment, we do not need more medicalresearch but better computer-modelling. We need more mathematical research. If mathematicians working in abstract areas had not been publically funded over the last few decades, then we would be much further away from the relevant models.  The economic potential of new cancer treatments is huge. Whichever mathematicians get there first will open up the road to large-scale commercial possibilities. But this could not have been foreseen. IT was serendipitous.

Lord  Drayson’s response on Sunday made this point. Unfortunately, it was lost alongside both his defense of his own commercial record and forceful, pro-Labour concluding remarks. 

Drayson agreed that scientific serendipity is a necessary part of how science works, and that this scientist-led science should be protected. But this does exclude asking scientists to consider the economic implications of their work. Nor does it make it any easier to ask for more science funding from Alastair Darling’s already tight budget without promising the money to projects with economic potential.

Public spending on science is justified in one of two ways:

(1) Science is an academic discipline that finds out wonderful things.

(2) Science is part of the foundation of a knowledge economy and it’s output will help improve the economic climate.

Neither fully captures the real need for continued spending on science – that is a mixture of the two. But what Monbiot fails to acknowledge is the importance of the second. If you are in the business of convincing politicians to give more money to science, then talking in terms of economic outcomes looks like the more profitable route. And so that is the rhetoric that Drayson et al needs to use, even if they know in reality science doesn’t quite work like that.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 8 May 2009 at 10:00 am by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong

Last month it was widely reported that a study had found Facebook users have lower grades. At the time I had my doubts about some of the conclusions newspapers were drawing. Now a new study criticises the original, and finds no link between Facebook and grades.

The authors were unhappy that although the previous study, which they refer to as “FG”, only looked at simple correlation, ‘Facebook harms grades’ became an established fact as it disseminated through the media. They found 500 references to this in three day span, despite the “unpublished and inadequately reviewed” FG study being merely reported in a press release.

It’s not just the media at fault though. They say the FG study used a sample of convenience which did not adequately reflect the population it sought to examine. It was heavily weighted to graduate students with only six first- and second-years, making it “unrepresentative of any university population at all”. Other aspects of the FG study, such as a lack of control for demographic variables, also come under fire.

Not content with mere criticism, the paper also describes a new study lead by Josh Pasek, a Ph.D. candidate in political communication at Stanford University. The researchers looked at three groups of students. One consisted of 1,060 first-years at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), whilst two others were drawn from a larger study, the annual National Annenberg Survey of Youth (NASY), for another 1,250 participants.

In all three groups there was no negative link found between grade point averages (the typical US measure of academic performance) and Facebook use. Results were mixed, either showing no correlation or a small positive one – Facebook users were more likely to have slightly higher grades. This increase was not statistically significant however when limiting the sample to just university students, as the previous FG study did.

The researchers are quick to point out that their results should not be used as a definitive answer to the question of Facebook’s effect on grades. They warn that since Facebook only emerged in 2004 it could be too early to tell, and predictions are difficult because of our “constantly evolving media environment”. They also point out that excessive participation in any activity, be it browsing Facebook or otherwise, will have an “extreme time replacement effect”. As I said in my post on the FG study, procrastinators procrastinate in any way they can.

Interestingly, published alongside the paper in online journal First Monday is a response from the author of the FG study, Aryn Karpinski of Ohio State University. She defends her study as “merely planned…for a conference”, and makes the fair point that she was a victim of media sensationalism.

Karpinski in turn criticises the new study’s methods, particularly their choice of samples. She argues that the UIC sample of first-years is not representative of the country as a whole, and the NASY survey is invalid as it only had a 45% response rate. It could be that those who didn’t respond are negatively impacted by Facebook use. The statistical methods used in the study are also attacked.

It doesn’t end there. In the same issue of First Monday Pasek et al respond to Karpinski’s response to their study, which was in turn a response to her original study. Perhaps it would have been easier simply to have the discussion on their Facebook wall-to-wall. They defend themselves of course, and ultimately “look forward to a continued rigorous academic dialogue on these issues”. Quite.

Josh Pasek, Eian More, & Eszter Hargittai (2009). Facebook and academic performance: Reconciling a media sensation with data First Monday, 14 (5)

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5 Comments » Posted on Friday 1 May 2009 at 2:10 pm by Seth Bell
In Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Good news for the appearance-conscious this week, as it is announced that an ‘anti-ageing’ cream produced by Boots, ‘No 7 Protect & Perfect Intense Beauty Serum’, really does reduce wrinkles. And it is not just Boots who are claiming this, but qualified scientists from The University of Manchester who have given their seal of approval of the product by publishing a double-blind, randomly sampled test of the cream in the British Journal of Dermatology.

The test is essentially a clinical trial: Thirty people were given the product, whilst another thirty people were given the vehicle – the base moisturiser with the suspected anti-ageing agents absent. The participants were not told which product they were using. After six months their wrinkles were examined and compared to their previous degree of wrinkling. At this point it was revealed which product subjects were on and they were given the opportunity to keep using it for a further six months, after which time their wrinkling was examined again. The cream was shown to noticeably reduce wrinkling.

Sceptical? Well I was at first; after all we are all used to the beauty industry relying on “scientific” studies to advertise their products. But this study is published in a reputable journal and does seem to represent a genuine attempt to explore the science behind anti-ageing products. The analysis at least relies on real statistics rather than consumer surveys.

The results show that after six months 43% of people using the product show an improvement compared to 22% of people who were using the vehicle, however the authors of the paper point out that these results are statically insignificant. After twelve months the results become statistically significant, where 70% of people showed an improvement using the product compared to 33% using the vehicle.  So, strictly speaking, the authors of the study are claiming the benefit of the anti-ageing effects are only noticeable after twelve months (despite this, the BBC, The Sun and The Guardian all report the statistics for the results after six months rather than twelve.)

In 2007 No. 7 Protect & Perfect Beauty Serum became Boots’ fastest ever selling product after it was shown on BBC2 Horizon, demonstrating that science as a brand can have enormous influence on consumer attitudes.

Does it work then? Well, to be honest, I’m still not completely convinced. The results are based on photo comparisons such as the one below. I cannot really observe much improvement, but then I’m not a qualified dermatologist. In addition, the difference between the product and the vehicle may be as a result of an inherent difference to the way a person’s skin reacts to moisturiser.

But despite this I’m genuinely encouraged by this study. The comments section of The Guardian article provides an amusing read: amidst the petty abuse some have complained that this study does not constitute proof, that peer-review is not a foolproof process. I agree with the claim that peer-review is not foolproof, but at least Boots (who provided funding for the study) are making an effort to scientifically investigate their products. Author Professor Chris Griffiths points out that Boots were taking a gamble:

“We did this in a purely independent way. Either way this paper would have been published otherwise we would have not entered into the study. I suppose Boots were confident or foolhardy, whichever way you want to look at it.”

And even though I’m not convinced by the findings, I don’t’ begrudge Boots their increase in sales on the basis of the study. Consumers are more media savvy than they are usually given credit for and will understand that, even if the results are taken at face value, the product has a chance of improving their wrinkles but that there is no guarantee.  If it doesn’t work for them, they’ll end up trying another product. I think it is more hope than science which will drive people to Boots.

Terms like ‘anti-ageing agents’ do conjure up an image of beauty-treatment advertising jargon, which many of us hold a long-enduring scepticism toward. But a cream which reduces wrinkles is not particularly pie-in-the-sky compared to other achievements of mankind. I’m fortunate enough to be wrinkle-free at the moment, but am hopeful that an anti-ageing cream will be scientifically proved to work in the future. We’re not there yet, but I think this study is a least a step in the right direction.

Watson, R., Ogden, S., Cotterell, L., Bowden, J., Bastrilles, J., Long, S., & Griffiths, C. (2009). A cosmetic ‘anti-ageing’ product improves photoaged skin: a double-blind, randomized controlled trial British Journal of Dermatology DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2133.2009.09216.x

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 21 April 2009 at 2:03 pm by Jessica Bland
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

At the beginning of the month, NASA told us that last year’s record low in Solar activity may well be bettered in 2009. 87% of the days in the first quarter of this year had no solar flares. 73% of the days in 2008 saw similarly inactivity. The Sun is keeping very quiet.

Today, the BBC’s Pallab Ghosh produced a video news report on UK astronomers’ reaction to this. One of the physicists he interviewed, Professor Mike Lockwood from Southhampton University, was on the Radio 4′s Today show discussing it.  And, inevitably, the conversation turned to climate change.

It was inevitable because Solar radiation effects our weather: it certainly feels much warmer when the Sun is out. But, climate change patterns are a very different thing to our day-to-day local weather. There is significant debate over both the possible scale and nature of the sun’s affect on climate change. The Royal Society have a brief summary that explain the situation better than I can.

A clip of Lockwood’s Today show interview is available here. There is a wonderful Radio 4 ‘ah’ when Lockwood explains that there might be changes on Earth because of this lack in solar activity, but that solar variation is only by  “hundredths of percents”. And so the effects are likely to be very small. Lockwood’s story is not really related to climate change. The excitement for scientists is that the Sun, the things they spend all day studying, is doing something strange.

To give Ghosh credit, that is what he reports. Nor were the Today show’s team at fault either. They have a political mandate and were right to take this angle during the interview: particularly given the extent to which some climate sceptics rely on solar activity as an argument against anthropogenic climate change. They questioned the scientist hard about the potential climate repercussions, leaving no room for spin-off reports to exaggerate the claims made. A good interview technique in my book. Even if it did aggravate Professor Lockwood a little.

There was nothing loaded about the questions and reporting here, but back in 2007 the BBC was criticised by its own news executives for having a biased stance on climate change. It was planning a PlanetRelief day that would encourage green-thinking in everyday activities.  This was seen as pro-anthropogenic climate change campaigning, and the day was eventually cancelled. What aggravated me at the time was that most of the BBC reporting on climate change is of the kind we saw today: interview-based and quite science heavy. It is not biased in general, but was tainted by that episode.

The exception to that rule was Dr David Whitehouse, BBC Online’s science editor and now author of ‘The Sun: a biography’. Yet, he was biased against anthropogenic arguments: the opposite point of view to the one the BBC were criticised for. He expounded his minority views about solar effect on global warming on the BBC website for almost ten years without any comeuppance.

In 2000, Whitehouse reported on weather records found in Armagh in Ireland that supposedly showed that the Sun has been the main contributor to global warming over the past two centuries. He did not mention of the complex scientific debate behind the solar effects on our climate, choosing instead to quote Dr John Butler, who discovered the records: “I suspect that the greenhouse lobby have under-estimated the role of solar variability in climate change.”

Four years later, he reports on the high solar activity levels in the later 20th century. A group from the Institute of Astronomy in Zurich claimed that over the last century the number of sunspots rose at the same time that the Earth’s climate became steadily warmer. According to the article, there is a causal link. The only reason why the Sun’s recent low activity (it was low in 2004 as well) is not matched by a reverse climate change is because fossil fuel burning is starting to have some effect. Again, nothing about the debate over whether the sun can really effect climate change.

By 2007, Whitehouse starting writing in the mainstream press. Interestingly his tactic changes. He is no longer arguing that the Sun’s high levels of activity last century increased global warming. He claims instead that the Sun’s potential inactivity over the next fifty years might cause global cooling, reducing the effects of man made warming.  He wrote a long feature for The Independent, “Ray of hope: Can the Sun save us from global warming?”, in December that year.

That newspaper piece takes a much less contentious stance than the BBC reports. This is in part due probably to the increase in evidence against Whitehouse’s position. But it also highlights the difference in care taken over an online piece buried in a Science and Technology tab and one in the mainstream press. Which is worrying. Not least because that BBC tab is taking more and more of the newspaper readership.

Today’s reporting of solar activity showed a return to form by the BBC. There was no climate change headline: no overenthusiastic claims about a new model for global warming. Instead, the science came first. The sun is being a bit strange, which has got some scientists very excited. But that’s it really – no one really knows what it means for next summer’s hose-pipe ban.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 19 April 2009 at 12:49 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy

This week in Ben Goldacre news

Everyone’s favourite doctor/columnist has put an extra chapter of his book Bad Science online for free. I’m actually a bit behind the times on this one, it was meant to go in last week’s Roundup but I forgot, so you might have already read it. If not, you can grab the PDF here.

The chapter deals with vitamin pill salesman Matthias Rath, who was suing Goldacre and The Guardian when the book was first published. Now that they have won the court case the book is being republished with the extra chapter, but Goldacre was kind enough to provide it for everyone else as well. Isn’t he nice? For the next few days you can also see him on the latest episode of Charlie Brooker’s Newswipe. His section starts around 11 minutes in, with a tirade against “the media’s greatest ever science hoax”, the MMR vaccine.

New science journalism course at City University

The Association of British Science Writers has highlighted a new science journalism course starting this September at City University. With tuition fees of £7,495 it’s a lot more expensive than the Imperial course (which covers more than just journalism), and the general feeling on the ABSW members mailing list is it’s perhaps just a re-branding of City’s existing journalism courses with a bit more science thrown in.

The Exquisite Corpse of Science

Speaking of Imperial, fellow sci-commer Tim Jones has put his group project online for all to see, and it’s a far cry from my group’s altar piece. Along with Arko Olesk and Graham Paterson, Tim drew inspiration from the exquisite corpse of the surrealist movement to create a picture of science as perceived by the public, the media, and scientists. Go have a look.

Time to feel small

As both Douglas Adams and I have said before, space is big. Really big. So big that I’m only able to include a small part of this excellent illustration in the post:

You ain't seen nothing yet.
You ain't seen nothing yet.

Go here if you want to see the rest, and appreciate just how vast the universe is. Unless that’s just too much for a Sunday afternoon!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 12 April 2009 at 12:53 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Nine scientific words that are actually from science fiction

Jeff Prucher, freelance lexicographer and editor for the Oxford English Dictionary’s science fiction project has put together a list of common scientific words that originated in fiction. Such terms include “robotics”, “ion drive” and even “zero-gravity”.

Reading the comments of the article however, it seems that this may not be entirely accurate. Jack Williamson is credited with coining “genetic engineering”, but one commenter points out that Williamson himself admits “some scientist beat me by a couple of years.” He does claim credit for “terraforming”, however – but that’s not even on the list.

The technologies of Red Dwarf

Red Dwarf returned to our screens this weekend, and as a long-time fan of the sci-fi sitcom I wasn’t too impressed. Oddly enough, I felt that the lack of a laugh track actually harmed the show – something I’d never normally say!

To mark the occasion, Cnet gives us Red Dwarf’s six greatest technologies, along with a comparison to real-world equivalents. Some of the links are tenuous at best (is Facebook really the equivalent of storing someone’s personality on disk?), but it’s good for a laugh.

The time-travellers cheat sheet

On a more serious note, if you found yourself travelling back in time to a technologically-barren past, would you have the knowledge to rebuild society yourself? If the answer is no, you need this handy cheat sheet:

Click for a bigger view, and hang it in your time machine.
Click for a bigger view, and hang it in your time machine.

Created by, this handy document covers everything a would-be time traveller needs to know to get things up and running again. How do you make penicillin? What’s the speed of light? Do you know the chemical formula for super glue? It’s all in there, along with a whole lot more – and remember, because you’re doing it before the original inventors, take the credit.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 5 April 2009 at 11:33 am by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory, Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Before we get on with the Weekly Roundup, I should introduce the latest Just A Theory blogger. You may have already noticed Emma’s post yesterday about tasty vaccines, but if not go and have a read. She previously studied pharmacology at Newcastle University before joining the sci comm course at Imperial, and works part time at Understanding Animal Research. Welcome Emma! Now, on with the roundup.

Finding the science behind the news

It’s terribly annoying to read an interesting science story with no link to the original paper. Ever since I started writing Just A Theory, I’ve come across this problem again and again. When I write something, I’ll always link to the paper if I’ve been able to track it down.

A new tool will hopefully make this a little easier. Recently launched, the science behind it will hunt down those pesky papers for you. It currently only works for stories on the BBC and Reuters and since it uses PubMed it’s generally only of use for biological or medical research articles. It seems that designer Adam Bernard is planning to expand its scope though.

I had a go with the “robotic scientist” story that Sam wrote about on Friday, and it seems to work quite well. The result could be a bit prettier, but that’s a fairly minor complaint if it means I can get my hands on a few more papers!

Life on Mars Russia?

Ah, David Bowie, where would we be without you? Having to come up with original headlines for stories about Mars, that’s where. Earlier this week the Institute for Biomedical Problems in Moscow began a 105 day experiment to simulate a journey to the Red Planet.

Six volunteers climbed into their new home, three windowless steel capsules only 550 cubic metres big – just enough space to hold a tennis court under a moderately high ceiling. Inside, each volunteer has their own cabin furnished with bed, desk and chair. They will be able to contact the outside world, but only with a simulate Earth-Mars delay of 20 minutes.

Although it sounds like a potential Channel 4 reality show, the volunteers will be conducting serious science. As well as finding out how astronauts might deal with a cramped journey to Mars, they will conduct experiments and wear electrodes as they sleep to monitor brain activity.

It could be worse. If this experiment is a success, a subsequent experiment lasting 520 days will simulate a round trip to Mars with a 30 day stay on the surface. Unlike a real Martian mission however, the volunteers will be allowed to leave if they wish to abandon the task, though this will be counted as “death” for the purposes of the experiment…

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 21 March 2009 at 12:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) this week declared that all MIT papers will be freely published online and be readable by all. The MIT faculty voted unanimously to approve the motion, demonstrating a strong commitment to open access.

The rules will apply only to papers published since Wednesday, which was when the vote took place. This decision makes MIT, which is one of the top ten universities in the world, the first institution to promise full access to all of its research papers. All such articles will be held in MIT’s own online repository.

Individual researchers will however be allowed to opt-out of the open access scheme. This is in order to allow publication in journals that wont allow work to be distributed elsewhere. Harold Abelson, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and part of the committee that made the decision, thinks that the opt-out will be used “a fair amount” initially.

He hopes though that the new policy will allow MIT to use its prestigious standing in the academic community to negotiate new terms with publishing companies. MIT is also hoping to avoid paying journal subscription fees, often necessary for simply accessing their own papers. In 2007 the university spent three-and-a-half times more on subscriptions than in 1986; the new measures will attempt to combating this price increase.

MIT will now look to other universities to follow in their footsteps. Although some departments at Stanford and Harvard already have similar policies in place, Abelson sees this as just the beginning:

“It’s going to take a while to work things out. Even though MIT, Harvard, and Stanford are big places in terms of the amount of published papers, in the world of research, they represent a small fraction of published papers.”

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 15 March 2009 at 6:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Webcams in spaaace!

NASA have stuck a webcam on the outside of the International Space Station, so that we can watch the world go by. The camera will normally transmit 6pm to 6am GMT, whilst the astronauts inside are asleep. Outside of this time, you’ll see a map of the world showing the current location of the ISS, streamed in from Mission Control in Houston. Pretty cool.

The Map of Science

Scientists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory have created a “Map of Science“, which describes how different areas of science link together. Similar projects have been undertaken before, but the team lead by Johan Bollen took a new approach.

“This research will be a crucial component of future efforts to study and predict scientific innovation, as well novel methods to determine the true impact of articles and journals,” Bollen said.

Rather than relying on citations in papers to find links, the new method tracked user requests for online scientific papers. By observing how scientists would hop from one paper to another, Bollen and team were able to study the network of articles and journals.

Whilst the citation method typically places the natural sciences at the centre, this latest map gives prominence to the humanities and social sciences. These areas can act as interdisciplinary bridges that can connect otherwise unrelated areas of science. The map could also be used to indicate emerging relationships between scientific areas, such as ecology and architecture.

What’s the risk?

I stumbled across this interesting tool for exploring risk. As regular readers will know, I can get quite cross about the confusion between relative risk and absolute risk. By playing with this little application, you’ll easily be able to get an understanding of the difference.

The tool allows you to display in various ways the increased risk of cancer from eating bacon sandwiches. There are of course options for relative vs absolute, but you can also choose to see the results in text form, pictorially, or as a variety of graphs. Have a go, and hopefully you’ll find it useful

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 12 March 2009 at 8:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right

A few months ago Alom Shaha asked me to contribute to his “Why is science important?” project. I, like many others, submitted an answer to his website, but the site was only one part of the project. Alom has now completed the accompanying film, and you can view it online for free.

I’ve had a watch, and I’m really impressed. When Alom first told me about the project, I wasn’t quite sure how the website was going to link in to the film – would it just provide more information for interested viewers? It turns out that the website is really the star of the film, with Alom using it to work out just why science is important.

Many of the website contributors, such as Susan Blackmore and Adam Hart-Davis, pop up in the film to reiterate their message. Others make their way into the film with choice quotes from the website, including yours truly.

I can tell Alom had a lot of fun making this film. He gets to run on hot coals, take a spin in a giant centrifuge, and travel the country in search of an answer. It’s been produced for Teacher’s TV, so is understandably a little classroom focused at times, but I enjoyed the chance to have another think about this thing we call science.

My original answer for Alom took me a number of drafts, and I still wasn’t quite satisfied with it. Alom’s effort lets the viewer hear from a range of people and figure it out for themselves – it’s definitely helped me refine my thoughts.

As a follower of everything Web2.0, I’m also intrigued by the idea of linking a website to a film. Don’t look out for Just A Theory: The Movie at your local cinema any time soon, but I’ve definitely got a few ideas brewing…

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 9 March 2009 at 9:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Physics

I wish I had more time this evening to write about this wonderful video:

Forget your science raps, science musical puppet theatre is where it’s at. This delightful tune about nanotechnology is in aid of the What is Nano? competition, and has a website detailing the making of the video. Quality stuff.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 7 March 2009 at 10:19 am by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Mathematics

If you’re not already reading xkcd, then you should be. It’s full of gems like this one:

I sometimes wonder whether the first ten minutes of every school science class shouldn’t be just the chanting of “correlation does not imply causation” until everyone has it burned into their brains. So many misunderstandings of science would be cleared up.

Autism on the rise? Increased use of the MMR vaccine? Yes, there is correlation. Without an underlying mechanism however, there is no causation – and that’s where the science happens. We don’t really care that two things are happening at the same time unless there is something connecting the two. If there is, well designed experiments will help us figure it out.

Sometimes events are just correlated, nothing more. So, the next time someone tells you that Facebook gives you cancer or some other nonsense disguised as statistics, ask them to explain how exactly one causes another. Now, excuse me whilst I return to my morning chant…

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 18 February 2009 at 12:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right

The University of California, Berkeley has launched a new website, Understanding Science, as a resource for teachers and the public about science and the scientific method. Roy Caldwell, one of the leaders of the project and a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology, hopes that new site will show how science “really works”:

“The Web site presents, not the rigid scientific method, but how science really works, including its creative and often unpredictable nature, which is more engaging to students and far less intimidating to those teachers who are less secure in their science.”

The “science is AMAZING!” tone of the site is a bit too much at times, even for me, but there are a few nice areas. I particularly liked the science checklist, which can assist in sorting the science from the psuedo:

Is it science? Check the checklist.
Is it science? Check the checklist.

As well as working through the site in a linear fashion, visitors can take “sidetrips” for more information. For example, whilst reading about the requirement for science to be evidence-based, I took a small diversion to find out about scientific funding. It’s a nice way of providing additional information for those who want it, whilst also avoiding an overload. These sidetrips also examine what isn’t science by measuring intelligent design and astrology against the checklist.

Other topics covered include a more realistic view of how science works than the typical textbook model of question, hypothesis, experiment, data and conclusion (including an info box on the phrase “just a theory”), what science has done for you, and how to evaluate scientific messages in the media.

Overall, I think the site is a really good resource. There are a few more “coming soon” notices than I normally like to see, but there is already enough content up there to make this only a small issue. Whilst it probably is best used in the classroom, there’s no harm in having a read even if your school days are far behind you. It’s also an improvement on the British government’s recent effort, Science: [So What? So Everything], which as I’ve said before seems to be mostly style over substance. Perhaps DIUS should take a look across the pond in order to understanding understanding science?

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 11 February 2009 at 5:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Health & Medicine, Just A Review

After Ben Goldacre’s recent troubles I decided that it was probably time to pick his book up off my post-Christmas reading pile. Now I regret not getting to Bad Science sooner, as I’ve been unable to put it down – to the extent of perversely wishing that my Tube journeys were longer so I could keep reading!

Goldacre could have made writing a book very easy on himself – package up favourites from his Guardian column and blog, write a short introduction, and then slap a cover and a price tag on them. In fact, that’s exactly what fellow Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker did in his book Dawn of the Dumb. I’m not knocking Brooker, I find him hilarious, but Goldacre has done so much more.

Goldacre manages to be as methodical as he is amusing in his examination of the pseudoscience peddled by nutritionists, homeopaths and the media at large. Much of the work is based on his columns – in research for my post yesterday about risk I came across a treatment of the subject on, then coincidentally read more or less the same passage in the book later that evening – but it is expanded and refined in the way a weekly column just can’t hope to be.

The chapters are more or less standalone, but the book is still best read in order to appreciate Goldacre’s building to his finale: The Media’s MMR Hoax. He clearly explains the history of the fiasco as well as the actual evidence showing that MMR is not harmful. Throughout the book we are taught how the quality of a study can be evaluated, and in the final chapter Goldacre puts this knowledge to good use. The studies are even fully referenced in the back of the book, so you can go and check them out for yourself if you fancy that sort of thing.

If there’s one criticism I have, it’s that the title of the book should really be “Bad Medical Science”. As a medical doctor it’s only fair that Goldacre cover his field of expertise, but I’m not sure I detected even the smallest whiff of physics.

It doesn’t really matter. I heartily recommend Bad Science to everyone. It’s completely accessible, a cracking read, and you’ll actually learn something whilst laughing. It’s a shame to think that the people who most need to read this book, the people throwing away their money on useless treatments peddled by charlatans, probably never will.

Goldacre admits as much, closing the book by speaking directly to those he has criticised. “You win,” he says, attributing their victory to a near-complete media dominance. To Goldacre I say this: keep fighting. You’re an inspiration to the rest of us.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 3 February 2009 at 5:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Right, Just A Review

If there’s anyone who should be talking about Darwin and the theory of natural selection, it’s Sir David Attenborough. For more than 50 years Attenborough has fascinated and enchanted his audience with the wonders of the natural world. His latest programme is a one-off entitled Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, available on iPlayer until Sinday.

Although everyone is probably sick of being reminded, let’s have it once more for those not paying attention at the back: 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Indeed, I must admit I sat down to watch the programme with a slight thought of “oh, not another bloody Darwin doc”, but my mind was soon changed.

Yes, all the usual stuff was there. Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, his discoveries on the Galapagos islands, and his fear of the world’s reaction to his theory that lead to a delay in publishing, until prompted by rival theorist Alfred Russel Wallace.

Attenborough is a master of his craft however, and not content just to lead us through a potted history of evolution. Everything is explained so clearly and concisely that it is a joy to watch.

In demonstrating how one species can transform into another through the process of natural selection, Attenborough turns our attention to the more familiar artificial selection; namely, dog breeding. All dogs are descended from wolves, transformed by humans as they were domesticated.

Whilst the many breeds are technically still one species, it is clear that the massive Great Dane cannot physically mate with a Chihuahua – although artificial insemination is possible. In a sense, the two breeds are actually different species, and this is after only a millennia. Over the millions of years that natural selection occurs, it is easy to see how a species can become another.

As well as view on Darwin we also get a window into the life of Attenborough. Footage from his previous programmes are spliced into the documentary, and the juxtaposition of a young Attenborough being narrated by his present self is pleasing. In addition, we hear some about some of his time at university and as a young boy looking for fossils. Amusingly, he was once told by a Cambridge lecturer that the idea of continental drift was “pure moonshine” – this is well before the theory of plate tectonics was developed.

The crown jewel of the programme is a marvellous animation of the tree of life, showing how single-cells evolved and evolved to provide us with the diversity of life we see today. The Wellcome Trust have a website devoted to this new vision of the tree, where you can download the video in HD and even get a copy of the 3D models used to create it – all licensed under Creative Commons, meaning they can be reused and reworked by anyone. You can also watch the sequence here:

If you have the time to watch the full programme, you really should. I was left thinking how wonderful it is that science has been able to provide us with the knowledge of where we come from, and looking forward to further Darwin 200 festivities. Attenborough succeeds in every way that Dawkin’s programme last year failed – he doesn’t preach, he doesn’t berate, he merely shares. I’ll leave you with Attenborough’s closing thoughts, and an important message:

“…Darwin has shown us that we are not apart from the natural world — we do not have dominion over it. We are subject to its laws and processes, as are all other animals on earth to which indeed we are related.”

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 20 January 2009 at 3:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Mathematics

The mathematical formula that proves couples should NOT have sex on their first date” proclaimed a Daily Mail headline from last week. You’d have thought I would jump all over a story like this, much like I did for Blue Monday yesterday. The reason I’ve taken a few days to think about this post is because here we have a “formula” story with a difference – it’s actually science.

In a paper appearing in the Journal of Theoretical Biology entitled Duration of courtship effort as a costly signal, researchers Robert M. Seymoura and Peter D. Sozoud use a branch of mathematics called game theory to model a “courtship encounter” between a male and a female.

If you saw The Dark Knight last summer then you’ve seen game theory in action. In a re-working of a classic game theory problem, Heath Ledger’s Joker has rigged two ferries with explosives. On one, the good citizens of Gotham. On the other, a prison-load of thugs and criminals. The Joker, maniac that he is, gives the detonators of each ship to the other ship – so that the citizens can choose to blow up the criminals, and vice versa. He informs them that if they killer their counterparts in the next 30 minutes they will be spared, otherwise he’ll just blow up both ships.

Game theory informs us that the best strategy is for one ship to blow up the other – but of course, this means that both ships will be destroyed anyway, just as the Joker planned. Thankfully, dramatic forces (and Batman) intervene before anyone is harmed. If you want to know more about the maths behind it, a decent explanation is here, but my point is that game theory is a genuine branch of mathematics, and not some crackpot PR nonsense.

The game considered in this paper consists of a male and a female (of any species) engaging in courtship. As time goes on, both parties pay a “cost” for participating in the game. In a human context, this might be a man paying for dinner, whilst the woman he is dating suffers a “cost” to her time – i.e., she might be wasting the evening with an unsuitable mate when she could be finding someone more to her liking. The model also takes into account other species however, for example a male bird singing to a female.

The game ends either when one of the two quit playing (give up to try with someone else) or the female accepts the male as a mate. It is also assumed that males are either “good” or “bad” from the female’s perspective, but she isn’t able to tell good from bad directly. It is only when the pair mate that the female receives a positive payoff from a “good” mate, or a negative payoff from a “bad” one.

The research shows that when the game plays out, a “good” male will participate longer than a “bad” male, allowing the female to weed out a suitable mate: the longer they hang around, the more likely it is that the male will be “good”. Now, this is quite far off from the Daily Mail headline, but the point is that in this case the science is sound. The authors admit that their generalised species model probably doesn’t fit well with humans, especially in a society where contraceptive is readily available. What this research provides is a possible explanation for the evolution of lengthy courtships in many species, including humans. It may not be earth-shattering, but it is science.

R SEYMOUR, P SOZOU (2009). Duration of courtship effort as a costly signal Journal of Theoretical Biology, 256 (1), 1-13 DOI: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2008.09.026

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 24 December 2008 at 2:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Health & Medicine

Now call me a cynic if you like, but when I read a story about a blind man navigating a maze that he cannot see my bullshit meter immediatly starts to tingle. As it happens, I’m right – to a certain extent at least.

The news is that man known anonymously as TN has successfully walked along a corridor full of obstacles, despite having been left blind by a series of strokes. This phenomenon is known as “blindsight”, the strange ability of some blind people to perceive objects that they cannot actually see.

Now, as I understand it, there is nothing physically wrong with TN’s eyes. Rather, his brain has been damaged in such a way that he can no longer control vision. He had already been noted to react to people’s facial expressions, so something must be getting through. Clearly, TN experiences a very different form of blindness compared to those who have sustained damage to their eyes.

I’m not suggesting TN is faking his blindness in any way – he really is genuinely blind. I would compare his condition to a digital camera with a broken screen. Such a camera can still take pictures, but with out a screen to view them on the camera is effectively ‘blind’. Contrast this with a camera that has a working screen, but a broken lense, and you can see the distinction I’m making here. What TN’s brain has effectively done is find a USB cable to hook it up to his brain and allow him to view the pictures – even if he doesn’t actively realise.

Why does this distinction matter? It’s all in the way these stories are reported. ‘Blind man can see’ is a very newsworthy story, but it is also cruel to misrepresent the facts to those with a different kind of blindness to TN. With that in mind, let’s see how the mainstream media reported the findings.

For once, they’ve actually all done pretty well. Each story makes it more or less clear that TN’s blindness is due to brain damage, and that his eyes are still fully functional. They all also include a quote from the study leader, Professor Beatrice de Gelder, who makes it pretty clear what’s going on:

“This is absolutely the first study of this ability in humans.

“We see what humans can do, even with no awareness of seeing or any intentional avoidance of obstacles. It shows us the importance of these evolutionarily ancient visual paths. They contribute more than we think they do for us to function in the real world.”

So, Merry Christmas guys; you all receive a Just A Theory “Getting It Right” badge of approval. Try and keep it up in 2009!

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 20 December 2008 at 6:22 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Science Policy

President-elect Barack Obama has chosen the scientists who will help shape his administation’s science policy. In his latest weekly address, he lays out the importance of science for the future of America, and introduces the new team:

(You can read the full text of the address here.)

It includes Dr. John Holdren who will serve as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a physicist known for his work on climate and energy – two of the most important scientific areas for America today.

Joining him on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technologywill be Dr. Harold Varmus, who won a Nobel Prize for research into the causes of cancer, and Dr. Eric Lander, who worked towards sequencing the human genome.

Finally, Dr. Jane Lubchenco will be Administrator the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is in charge of conserving marine and coastal resources as well as monitoring the weather.

It’s a refreshing change to see Obama surrounding himself with knowledgeable men and women in order to properly inform himself about the scientific issues at hand. Hopefully the new team will hit the ground running – unlike under Bush’s watch, who’s science advisor wasn’t even appointed until 10 months in to his administration.

A slight tangent, but an interesting point nonetheless, is how I learnt of this news. It wasn’t from the mainstream media – indeed, a glance at major news outlets seems to show that they aren’t even running the story. Rather, I picked it up from The Intersection blog (I’m currently reading Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science, so look for a review soonish), and then watched the video on Youtube to hear the news straight from the man himself. Obama truly is the internet President, and I’m extremely interested to see how his use of technology will shape his administration.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 11 December 2008 at 3:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right

Much of the discussion on the Science Communication course is on how the public should communicate with science, and not just vice versa. Scientists should listen to the public, as well as speak to them. It’s a simple point, but one that is often missed.

The reason I bring it up is this story about the publication of clinical trials results. Every year, an estimated 2.3 million people in the United States volunteer to be a part of clinical trials, but once the trials are over and the results are determined, participants often don’t get to hear about them. Rather, they are squirrelled away in an inaccessible journal, unavailable to the public. Potentially, this could leave people without important health information that they actually helped gather – understandably, patients feel like they aren’t being listened to.

Currently, medical researchers in America are only required to inform participants in medical trials if new information is discovered that might make them change their mind about being part of the study – a dangerous reaction to a drug, for example. A new report from the University of Rochester Medical Center has suggested a way that both patients and researchers can be happy. The author, Ray Dorsey, M.D., strongly believes that this information should be shared:

“Individuals who volunteer to participate in clinical research frequently expose themselves to risks, both known and unknown,

“Because of their participation, they should be informed of the results of these studies in a timely and personalized manner.”

In his paper he details an attempt to communicate the results of a clinical trial for an experimental drug (ethyl-EPA) for Huntington’s disease. The goal was to let people know the results within 48 hours of the official release. Information was posted on the study’s website, as well as sent via email to members of the Huntington’s disease community. Participants in the trial were also telephoned directly, and the study’s principal investigator Ira Shoulson, M.D. held a conference call for interested parties, summarising the results and answering questions.

After this communication, participants were surveyed for the report. It turns out that 56% heard about the result with in 48 hours, with most (73%) getting their information from the telephone call. They also reported a high level of satisfaction with the communication afforded to them, and had developed a strong understanding of the drugs benefits and risks.

In other words, great news. It’s only fair that participants in a trial for a drug that could potentially change their lives get to know about the outcome, and it really can’t be too much of a drain on resources for the scientists. Keeping people happy will also only serve to increase participation in trials, so it’s a win-win situation.

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2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 4 December 2008 at 8:24 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy

Just a short little story for you today, but it’s quite a sweet one. Earlier this week, four teddy bears have been sent to the very edge of space by a group of 11-, 12- and 13-year-olds, with the help of members of the Cambridge University Spaceflight student club.

Boldy going bears!

The brave bears were lifted to just over 30 km above sea level with the aid of a helium-filled latex balloon. Each bear wore a different space suit, designed by the kids to determine which materials provide the best insulation against the -53 °C temperatures they would encounter during their mission.

The Daily Mail have a few quotes from the kids involved. Thia Unsworth, aged 12, said:

“It was unbelievable to see the balloon take off and it’s incredible to see the pictures of the teddy bears in space.

“I’ve always loved science before, but I now understand how it helps in the real world.”

It’s great to see kids involved with activities such as these, which allow them to see that science isn’t just sitting in the classroom and reading textbooks; it also involves getting out into the field and designing experiments. Their teacher, Steve Hinshelwood, seems to agree, as he told the Guardian:

“Suddenly scientific ideas such as insulation, convection, conduction and radiation became important. Thinking about weight made ideas of buoyancy, pressure and the composition of the atmosphere relevant,” he said.

“The need to get the teddies back gave the students a chance to think about computer control and radio communications.

“I don’t think that the students realised how much science they were learning – they were just having fun.”

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 19 November 2008 at 12:03 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Getting It Right, Science Policy, Yes, But When?

[This post was meant to go up yesterday, but due to technical difficulties with Virgin Media my internet access is currently limited. Blog updates may be unfortunately sporadic this week.]

Conservative MPs are to be made scientifically literate from the next election, The Times is reporting. Newly elected members will be taught about scientific method and other concepts, in a move to address concerns about the lack of scientific knowledge in Parliament. Existing MPs and peers from the House of Lords will also be offered the chance to attend the induction sessions.

The plan is being spearheaded by Adam Afriyie, the party’s spokesman for science and innovation. He does not have a scientific background himself, but, sees the importance of a basic scientific understanding for politicians. Speaking to The Times, he said:

“The evidence-based scientific approach extends well beyond subjects like embryology or GM crops. It is also critical to social policy and criminal sentencing, and it cuts across all areas of government.”

Be it climate change, GM food or stem cell research, science is increasingly entering in to the political sphere. Despite this, the over whelming majority of politicians and civil servants come from a humanities background. According to the Times, both the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet have just one member each with a science related degree; John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, who studied chemistry; and Liam Fox, Shadow Defence Secretary and a medical doctor.

I have to congratulate the Conservatives on this new initiative, and can only hope that Labour and the Lib Dems will follow suit. The Tories are acknowledging that science plays an important role in our society, and that basic understanding of the facts is a necessity in navigating the issues arising from that role. Hopefully their MPs will now avoid phrases such as “humanzee” and “minotaur” when discussing hybrid embryos, for example, and debates can be carried out in a more reasoned manner. One can only hope.

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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.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 2 October 2008 at 9:05 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy

Following on from the LHC rap, postgraduate student Jonathan Chasa (aka Oort Kuiper) has created a rap explaining all about astrobiology, the study of the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

I have to admit I prefer the LHC rap (indeed, I actually found myself humming it at one point…) but Chasa’s effort is a good one, with lots of scientific language presented in an accessible way. Commissioned by NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine European Edition, the rap was reported on by the BBC and already has over 65,000 views on YouTube. Watch it for yourself:

Which scientific topic will be next for the rap treatment, I wonder?

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 7 September 2008 at 2:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Mathematics, Psychology

Something doesn’t sound quite right

The type of music you like could be linked to your personality, suggests a study carried out by Professor Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University. Apparently fans of country and western are “hardworking, outgoing” whilst indie lovers are “low self-esteem, creative, not hard working, not gentle”. Sounds like a bunch of nonsense to me – what if you like both country and indie? I haven’t been able to find a published paper on the research, which might validate it a little more, but I’m not holding my breath.

Because I say so

In the latest of a series on statistics in the media, Michael Blastland talks about the pitfalls of causation and correlation. Just because event A occurred before event B, it does not mean that A caused B – and yet so many stories in the media report just that. One you should always watch out for, so have a read.

Fruit for thought

Finally, some amazing photos of fruit taken using a scanning electron microscope. The colours may be false, but its all still very pretty.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 1 September 2008 at 3:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Evolution, Getting It Right, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

As promised, here is the roundup for the past week

Live like a Pharaoh in Dubai

Would you like to share you home with 1 million other people? A Dubai-based firm Timelinks has announced plans to build a gigantic futuristic pyramid, designed to hold an entire city whilst only taking up 2.3 square kilometres. The Ziggurat, as it is known, is the latest in a series of wacky developments in Dubai. What’s more, Timelinks claim the whole thing will be carbon neutral. I’ll believe it when I see it – and not just as a rendered mockup:

Home of the future?

An evolving education

Here’s a great article from the New York Times we learn what it is like to teach evolution to highly religious students in America. Richard Dawkins could stand to learn a few things from high school teacher David Campbell, who starts his classes with the “evolution” of Mickey Mouse, from Steamboat Willy to the present day. A highly recommended read.

I’m not sure if I should say “Aww” or “Urgh!”

Finally, we have a video of Tan Tan, a giant panda giving birth to the first baby born as a result of artificial insemination in Japan in the past 20 years. It’s both cute and disgusting at the same time.

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2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 21 August 2008 at 2:58 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Right

The magazine Environment have published The Short List: The Most Effective Actions U.S. Households Can Take To Curb Climate Change. In it, the authors Gerald T. Gardner and Paul C. Stern discuss how people are willing to change their habits in order to use less energy, but either don’t know how or are acting ineffectively.

Most people emphasise visible changes, such as switching off a light bulb when leaving the room, but there are many “hidden” improvements to be made that can have a much greater effect on energy reduction. Gardner and Stern believe the media is partly to blame, with most information and articles offering advice in a “laundry list” format, with no indication as to the best actions to take. They propose to tackle this problem in a clear and logical manner: investigate different methods of cutting energy usage, and then rank them according to effectiveness.

They begin by looking at where our energy goes. In 2005 in the US, 38.6% of all energy use was by private motor vehicles – by comparison, the commonly attacked air travel was only 3.4%. The next largest use is in space heating, where 18.8% of energy goes to keeping houses warm. For the gadget lovers, TVs, computers and dishwashers barely break 3% when combined, so don’t feel too environmentally concious about that new HDTV.

Next up: what can be changed? It turns out there are a few surprises. Carpooling, commonly touted as a way to reduce vehicle emissions, turns out to be around a third less effective than buying a more fuel-efficient car. Upgrading from a car that gets 20 mpg to one achieving 30.7 mpg could save 13.5% of all the energy you use, whilst sharing your ride will only get you up to 4.2%. All in all, a more efficient car that is well maintained could save as much as one-fifth of your energy usage.

In the home, we see similar results. You could turn your thermostat down a bit at night in order to save 2.8%, but you’ll probably just forget or give up after a week or so. Install proper insulation in your attic however, and you can sleep easy knowing you’ll have saved up to 5% on your energy bill.

Encouraging efficiency rather than curtailment is the name of the game here. Improve the way your energy is used, and you won’t have to feel guilty about accidentally leaving the light on when you go on holiday. As an additional benefit, your electricity and gas bills will be permanently lowered – providing you remain in your house for long enough to recoup the initial costs of efficient replacements. It’s a similar idea to one I’ve discussed before [PDF].

So what are the top changes you can make? I’ve reproduced their list at the end of this post, but it isn’t as clear as it could be, so I’ll spell it out in the order you should follow:

Actions you can take now, with little or no cost

  1. Carpool with a friend.
  2. Replace 85% of all your old lightbulbs with energy savers
  3. Get frequent tune-ups to maintain your car.
  4. Turn down the thermostat two degrees during the day, and another two at night.
  5. Eco-drive by avoiding harsh acceleration and braking.
  6. Combine shopping trips to take fewer journeys.
  7. Cut your speed on motorways from 70 to 60 mph.
  8. Use a lower setting on your washing machine.
  9. Maintain the correct tyre pressure for your car.

Longer term actions, with higher costs

  1. Buy low-rolling resistance tyres to reduce road friction.
  2. Switch to a more fuel-efficient car.
  3. Seal heat-leaking gaps by weather-stripping your home.
  4. Install improved attic ventilation.
  5. Buy a more efficient heating unit.
  6. Swap to a smaller and more efficient fridge.
  7. Replace your boiler with a more efficient unit.

Better get started!

Click for a fullsize version
Comments Off Posted on Thursday 7 August 2008 at 2:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Right, Physics

Tomorrow should see (if all goes to plan) the switching on of the Large Hadron Collider, a massive particle accelerator which scientists hope will enable them to pin down the elusive Higgs boson. I’ll be posting more about the collider tomorrow, but until then, enjoy the LHC rap:

Yes, it’s pretty silly, but it actually has a decent amount of scientific content. See you tomorrow for something slightly more sensible!

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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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