Archive for the ‘Inventions & Technology’ Category

1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 8 October 2011 at 8:19 am by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?
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.

Comments Off

6 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 13 September 2011 at 7:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Musings

I’ve been thinking about learning to program and thought I’d blog about it in the hope of soliciting some tips or advice.

First off, why do you want to learn programming?

Almost every day I write about people doing cool things with computers. I’d like to do some of those cool things. I also don’t get to do very much abstract problem-solving during my day job, of the type I did during my maths degree. Writing programs seems like a good way to come up with puzzles to solve.

There are also some practical reasons – I often get annoyed that software can’t do exactly what I want it to do. If I learn to program, I could maybe write software that meets my needs. And finally, I’ve got this vague idea that journalists of the future should know much more about making a computer do things than I currently do.

So what DO you know?

I’m not coming at this as a complete novice. I played with BASIC as a child, took courses in Python during university and dabbled with SQL in a former job, so I know about a bunch of the building blocks of programming such as variables and loops. I’m a bit more fuzzy on other concepts – I’ve heard of object-oriented programming, for example, but I don’t really know what it is.

How can I help you?

There are so many resources out there that I don’t really know where to begin. Ideally I’d like a single solid resource I can come back to, be it a website or a book. I had fun playing with Codecademy, an interactive Javascript tutorial, but as a start-up it’s fairly limited – are there more established alternatives out there?

I also don’t know if I should pick a particular programming language, and if so, which one? I’ve got a vague idea that I’d like to learn Java, with the aim of one day writing an Android app, but perhaps I should learn to crawl before I sprint.

Any and all advice would be appreciated. Also, if anyone else is in the same position and fancies learning to program together, perhaps we could berate/encourage each other – just let me know in the comments.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 12 June 2011 at 10:45 am by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Musings

Jonathan Coulton at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis (Image: abiodork)

Last night I went to see Jonathan Coulton, an American musician who writes songs about all things geek. During the gig, it struck me just how much the event was both reliant on and improved by technology.

I first heard of Coulton on the internet – I don’t remember where exactly, perhaps a YouTube video of one of his songs – but he really rose to prominence in 2007 with the release of Still Alive, the song which plays during the credits of the video game Portal.

Coulton also wrote a song for the game’s sequel, Portal 2. It was released this year and when he asked how many people had played the game to completion, I’d say over 90% of the audience put their hands up, me included.

If Coulton’s popularity is based on technology, so is his marketing.  I only heard about the gig because I saw a friend tweet that he was going to the Manchester leg of the tour. This isn’t a guy who runs massive advertising campaigns, but he was able to fill Union Chapel with a good few hundred people.

Twitter was also incredibly useful on the night of the gig itself. We got to the venue at 7pm to find a massive queue of Portal tshirt-wearing fans stretching down the street. Rather than join the long wait, we went for dinner at a nearby fish and chip place, and I used my phone to monitor the tweets of the people in the queue by searching for “Union Chapel” and “Jonathan Coulton”.

After about half an hour I saw people tweeting that they’d got inside, but some were still queuing, so I knew there was no rush for us to leave. We finished our meal at 8pm and joined the now much shorter queue, waiting for just a few minutes. Naturally, I used my phone to show our ticket confirmation, since I hadn’t thought to print it out.

While monitoring tweets I’d also seen that Jonathan Ross was attending the gig. Sure enough, I spotted him in the front row. Very few people approached him, but he did get a lot of hellos on Twitter. Technology also made its way in to the actual performance, with Coulton using an iPhone to control his laptop, triggering samples and adding vocal harmonies.

None of this technology is particularly novel, in the sense that it’s all been around for a number of years now, but it struck me how different the experience was from the first time I went to a gig, seeing System of a Down at the Brixton Academy in 2002.

It’s more than just my musical tastes that have changed. I probably also bought the tickets for that gig online but I would’ve found out about it from a listings magazine, not Twitter. While waiting in the queue, I would’ve had no knowledge of the thoughts and actions of the people around me, unless I actually spoke to them.

And with the camera phone barely taking hold back then, let alone the smartphone, there would’ve been no sea of screens recording and sharing the event online, though I imagine some people did risk their digital (or even film) camera  in the mosh pit. In comparison, I can search Twitter this morning and immediately find a picture of the gig from someone I’ve never met.

People often bash Twitter as pointless, full of inane people sharing what they had for breakfast, but by concentrating on the social networking element they miss the really useful part: Twitter turns the internet into a real-time stream of conciousness.

Smartphones take that concept a step further, focusing those thoughts locally at certain areas or events. What’s the next step, I wonder? Augmented reality is clunky, but I think there is some value in bringing the internet back into real space. For it to really work though, I think it has to be seamless – a heads up display in digital glasses, perhaps. As Coulton sings, it’s gonna be the future soon.

Comments Off

1 Comment » Posted on Friday 10 June 2011 at 4:44 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology

I’ve spent the past two days on a data journalism course taught by Paul Bradshaw. Here’s the result – my Hans Rosling-style attempt at showing the rise of the internet:

It’s interesting to see that GDP generally seems to creep upwards, but the percentage of a country online is all over the place – many countries shoot up and then crash back down. The US is of course way off in the top right of the graph by 2006, and nations we generally consider to be high-tech naturally occupy the top line. Cool stuff. Feel free to tweaks any of the axes by the way, as the graph is interactive, and let me know in the comments if you spot any interesting trends.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 25 April 2010 at 7:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Print your own skin

Researchers funded by the US military are working on a way of printing new human skin as a treatment for burn victims. What’s more, they’ve using a regular inkjet printer and cartridges filled with human skill cells:

Grow your own font

Typographer Craig Ward has developed a typeface with a difference – each letter was grown from live cells and moulded into the correct shape.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Monday 19 April 2010 at 7:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Not really, I’ve just been ill, but that sounds less dramatic. On with the roundup!

Emailers or e-liars?

It’s more tempting to lie when you’re sending a message via email compared with using pen and paper, say psychologists at DePaul University in Chicago. They asked 48 students to split an imaginary pot of $89 by choosing the amount in the pot they would tell their partner and how much they were willing to share. Some conveyed their choice using email, while the rest wrote it down.

Nearly all of the emailers (92%) lied about the amount of money available, versus just 62% of letter writers. Participants reported they felt more justified in this deception, and also kept more of the money for themselves. Next time you’re doing a financial deal, be sure to get it in writing of the non-digital variety…

Don’t drink and drag

Everyone knows that smoking and drinking is bad for your health, but it seems that doing both at once could be even worse. Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, such as two small glass of wine per day, has previously been linked to a reduced risk of stroke, but a 12-year study has found that smoking may counteract this benefit.

The study followed the drinking and smoking habits of 22,524 people in the UK. Moderate drinkers who didn’t smoke were 37% less likely to have a strike than non-drinkers, but the same wasn’t true of smokers.

Less is more when it comes to dating

Speed dating is increasingly popular these days, but it may not be the best way to find “the one”. When meeting a large number of potential partners, the brain may become overwhelmed by choice and end up resorting to surface values, instead of what’s inside.

A study published in Psychological Science found that people at speed dating events with 24 or more dates were more likely to pick a partner based on their weight or height, while those at smaller events took a deeper look, taking in into account attributes such as education and employment.

Comments Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 23 February 2010 at 4:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Musings

In a crossover of my two main interests, I’ve written an article about science and video games:

Video games have always been children of science. The earliest games were written on punch cards in university laboratories and played on enormous computer mainframes only available to researchers. Now the entire video game industry is dependent on technological breakthroughs brought about by unfaltering scientific progress. But what have video games given science in return?

Take the world’s most famous video game scientist, Dr. Gordon Freeman. Despite holding a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, he’s no more a scientist than Mario is a plumber; as the silent protagonist of a first-person shooter, Freeman is essentially just a gun on a stick. His Half-Life colleagues don’t win any Nobel Prizes for personality, either. The game’s late-’90s graphical limitations meant its scientists are based on only four different character models, all wearing an identical uniform of a lab coat and tie.

Read the rest at The Escapist.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 11 February 2010 at 9:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology

A new material could form both the battery and the body of next generation electric vehicles, say scientists at Imperial College. The composite is strong enough to be used as a bonnet or a door, while also storing and discharging electricity to power the wheels.

Current electric cars are limited to a range of a few hundred miles before they need recharging, as the heavy batteries must be small enough to keep the vehicle’s weight down. The new material could increase a car’s range without making it heavier, allowing them to be used on cross-country trips rather than being constrained to urban use.

It would also reduce the need for internal wiring, as electronic gadgets such as built-in sat nav could be powered directly from the bodywork, and may eventually find use in other electronics, according to project leader Dr Emile Greenhalgh:

“You might have a mobile phone that is as thin as a credit card because it no longer needs a bulky battery, or a laptop that can draw energy from its casing so it can run for a longer time without recharging.

“We’re at the first stage of this project and there is a long way to go, but we think our composite material shows real promise.”

The composite is made of carbon and glass fibers embedded in a polymer resin. The energy storing process isn’t reliant on chemicals, so works faster than a normal battery and is slower to degrade.

The team at Imperial are working with Volvo to try out the new technology. The first prototype will replace part of the boot where the spare tire is stored, known as the wheel well, with a piece made from the advanced material. Volvo say this could reduce the weight of their cars by up to 15%.

Comments Off

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

Chimp cinema

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

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

Mars movies

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

See more on his YouTube page.

Magnets…in space!

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

Comments Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments Off

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

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

Fart FAQ

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

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

Wii tech good enough for physio

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

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

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

Comments Off

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

Another New Scientist article today:

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

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

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

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

Comments Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments Off

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?

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 29 November 2009 at 5:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Universities must do more to stop formula stories

This week Times Higher Education have an interesting article about your favourite and mine, the “formula for” story. Of particular concern is the move by PR companies to use students to advertise their dodgy equations, such as the formula for a perfect night out from last month.

The concern is that students could be damaging their scientific reputations by taking part in this kind of PR activity, and that universities should take more care in publicising the work through their press offices. It turns out that Leeds University, home to “VKendologist” Phillippa Toon, were happy to facilitate media interviews for the nonsense formula story. A bit worrying, really.

Test-tube burgers, anyone?

Would you eat meat grown in a petri dish? Scientist in Holland have produced lab-grown meat for the first time – though they haven’t tasted it yet.

Cells taken from the muscle of a live pig grew into sticky muscle tissue, which doesn’t sound very appetising because the meat needs exercise to give it a more normal consistency.

I’d certainly welcome lab-grown meat, as long as it tasted like the real thing. It would take much less space and resources than breeding pigs or cattle, and animals wouldn’t have to die before we tuck in. I’m sure many people will be horrified by the idea, but a meat cell is a meat cell, wherever it grows.

Oh nos!

It had to happen eventually. The lolcats have got in to the Large Hadron Collider, and I think we all know how it’s going to end:

Comments Off

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.

Comments Off

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.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 8 November 2009 at 2:28 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Large Hadron Collider taken down by bread

Earlier this week the Large Hadron Collider suffered yet another setback, when it was dive-bombed by a bird carrying a piece of baguette. You just can’t make it up.

The rogue bit of bread caused a short circuit in part of the LHC’s above-ground electronics, leading to an automatic shutdown of the giant ring’s cooling system. Thankfully the LHC was only knocked offline for a few days this time, and systems are now running normally. Lets just hope the scientists at Geneva have invested in a couple of scarecrows.

Eating fast makes you fat – now we know why

It’s often said that eating too fast will lead to putting on weight, because your brain doesn’t have enough time to catch up with your full stomach. Now, new research has found a possible physiological explanation for why this might happen.

Dr Alexander Kokkinos of the Laiko General Hospital in Athens found that eating too quickly can slow the release of two hormones from the gut, PYY and GLP-1. Volunteers were given 300ml of ice cream to eat at different rates, and those who ate the slowest had the highest hormone concentration.

X-rays top the charts

Back in June I reported on a Science Museum survey to pick the most influential scientific infection in their collection. The results are in, and it seem X-rays take the top spot, followed by penicillin and the DNA double helix.

It’s a bit of an odd choice, I think. In my original post, I went for the Pilot ACE Computer, because it was the first multi-tasking computer. It seems others disagreed though, because it came in at a lowly seventh place. Still, X-rays over penicillin? I’ve taken antibiotics far more than I’ve been X-rayed, as have most people I would’ve thought. Strange.

Comments Off

1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 29 October 2009 at 8:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Psychology

Smokers looking to quit could be helped by a cigarette-crushing video game, according to a study published in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior. A group of Canadian researchers discovered that smokers placed in a virtual reality environment full of cigarettes to be destroyed showed a significant reduction in nicotine cravings.

The study took 91 regular smokers and randomly assigned them to two groups. All participants went through a 12-week anti-smoking program involving questionnaires, tests and counselling, as well as four weekly sessions with a head-mounted video game set in a medieval castle. One group was tasked with collecting virtual balls, while the others had to track down and crush cigarettes.

Crushing cigarettes in a virtual world
Crushing cigarettes in a virtual world

The results showed that the cigarette-crushers had a significant reduction in nicotine cravings compared to the ball-collectors. At the end of the 12-week treatment, 15% of the cigarette-crushers had abstained from smoking, while just 2% of the ball-collectors had managed to give up.

Virtual treatment also had a lasting effect. When interviewed six months later, only 20% of the ball-collectors said they had not smoked in the last week, but 39% of the cigarette-collectors had resisted lighting up.

The researchers suggest a number of reasons why cigarette-crushing helps keep from smoking. The act of destroying a virtual cigarette could boost a person’s confidence in their ability to give up real cigarettes, or make them want to give up more. Enjoyment in the game could also lead them to change their response towards cigarettes – presumably from “I’m dying for a smoke” to “die, cigarettes!”

Whatever the explanation, this research could lead to new anti-smoking treatments. Instead of reaching for the nicotine patches, you might end up patching your PC with some cigarette-killing software. Anyone for a game of capture the fags?

Girard, B., Turcotte, V., Bouchard, S., & Girard, B. (2009). Crushing Virtual Cigarettes Reduces Tobacco Addiction and Treatment Discontinuation CyberPsychology & Behavior, 12 (5), 477-483 DOI: 10.1089/cpb.2009.0118

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

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

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

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

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

The Nobel Prize in Physics

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

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

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry

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

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

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 4 October 2009 at 4:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Autotune the cosmos

Autotune is a piece of software designed to tidy up slightly out of tune singers, but people have discovered it can also be used to turn almost anything in to a song. Results vary, but this Autotuned version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos is actually really good:

Ig Nobel 2009

This year’s Ig Nobel awards, which celebrate “improbable research” in science, were announced earlier this week. Amongst the winners were a team who investigated whether it is better to be hit over the head by a full botle of beer or an empty one, and the creators of a bra which can convert in to two protective face masks.

The best seat in the house

Above is Bruce McCandless II, around 100 meters away from the space shuttle Challenger. He’s the furthest out in space that anyone has ever been, and he’s got quite a view.

Comments Off

2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 23 September 2009 at 7:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy

Recently I’ve been getting quite excited about the prospect of augmented reality. If you’ve not heard the buzzword, its about about overlaying digital information on to the real world. With the rise of powerful handheld devices like the iPhone, augmented reality is becoming more common – check out this Tube-location app that helps you navigate around London.

Mobile phones are a start, but what I’m really interested in is a wearable computer. Rather than living in your pocket, such a device would be built in to a pair of glasses or even contact lenses. Its not a new idea – people like Steve Mann have been using wearable computers for decades – but now there seems to be a greater appetite for a proper commercial product.

The WEAR in action
The WEAR in action

That goal could be getting closer, thanks to some experimental kit being used on the International Space Station. Astronauts are trialling the Wearable Augmented Reality (WEAR), developed by Belgium-based Space Applications as a replacement for their current system – pen and paper. This surprisingly low-tech solution allows the ISS crew to consult operational manuals with ease, but requires them to physically hold on to their instructions. WEAR offers voice-activated hands-free controls, highlighting important objects in the real world and displaying information directly in the user’s field-of-vision.

The WEAR is built from off-the-shelf components, but is currently limited by scheduling and budget constraints, rather than technology. All equipment used on-board the ISS is subject to strict checks, and the team behind the WEAR found it easier to use what was already up there. Rather than using an ultra-modern PC, the WEAR interfaces with tried-and-tested laptops that are over five-years-old. As a result, the WEAR can only operate for an hour at a time before the batteries need recharging.

While the hardware up in space may be limited, there are no such restrictions here on Earth. Space Applications is considering applying the technology to fire-fighting, presumably as a way of navigating smoke-filled buildings. I’m excited to see new uses of augmented reality coming up, and I’m looking forward to eventually trying it myself!

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 26 August 2009 at 4:12 pm by Seth Bell
In Inventions & Technology

I’ve been away for a while, poncing around in Switzerland. In between burning my back to a crisp and getting stung in a very painful place by a wasp (lets just say it couldn’t happen to a woman), I’ve actually been doing a bit of journalism for a online magaine called international Science Grid This Week, based at CERN.

If you’ve never heard of it, grid computing is a cool way for computers to share processing power remotely (in the same way that the World Wide Web allows people to share information remotely).

Anyway, heres the first few paragraphs of an article I’ve written about a project called The Lost Sounds Orchestra. In a nutshell its about a real-life orchestra which consists of dead musical instruments, the sounds of which have been recreated using complex computer modelling. Its pretty cool stuff.

Last September, iSGTW reported upon the return of the “epigonion,” an ancient Greek wooden stringed instrument resembling a harp. Ancient instruments can be lost because they are too difficult to build, or too difficult to play, but the epigonion was heard again after ASTRA (Ancient instruments Sound/Timbre Reconstruction Application) recreated its sound using grid-enabled computer modeling.

More ancient instruments are to be heard soon, after the organization’s official Lost Sounds Orchestra finishes its preparations for a unique performance towards the end of this summer.

It should include a whole host of other lost instruments, including the barbiton (an ancient base guitar), the syrinx (a pan flute), an ancient lower Mediterranean frame drum, the salpinx (a kind of ancient trumpet) and the aulos (an ancient oboe).

 You can read the rest here if thats sparked your interest.

Comments Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments Off

5 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 12 August 2009 at 12:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology

Are a generation of children growing up with text messaging at risk of turning their brains to mush? The Daily Mail seems to think so.

“Predictive text messaging changes the way children’s brains work and makes them more likely to make mistakes generally, a study has found.”

The study in question was recently published by the journal Bioelectromagnetics, and did indeed look at mobile phone use and cognitive function in children. What Michael Abramson and colleagues did not find, however, was a causal link, despite what the Mail might think. Remember folks, correlation does not imply causation.

Researchers tested the mental abilities of 317 Australian 12 and 13-year-olds, and recorded their mobile phone usage. Results show children who had more calls and text messages were less accurate in memory tests, but completed them faster. The paper goes on to suggest that text messaging could be responsible, as predictive text “train[s] the user to favour speed over accuracy.” A quote from Abramson in the Mail article backs this up:

“We suspect that using mobile phones a lot, particularly tools like predictive text, is behind this.

“Their brains are still developing so if there are effects then potentially they could impact down the line, especially given that the exposure is now almost universal.

“The use of mobile phones is changing the way children learn and pushing them to become more impulsive in the way they behave.”

In a word: bollocks. The data gathered simply does not back this up. It may be completely true, but it’s not a statement that can be drawn from the evidence available in his paper. Makes a nice sound bite, though.

This line of argument is further undermined because the same correlation was seen with phone calls, not just texts, implying the underlying mechanism might be the same. Perhaps children who use their phones more often are just naturally more easily distracted, thus pay less attention? There is no way to tell from this study.

That doesn’t stop Baroness Susan “Facebook makes you fat” Greenfield weighing in, with her usual attacks on anything invented in the past couple of decades. In addition to suggesting “Generation Text” will cause the downfall of humanity, she has a go at Twitter:

When I was a child, if I wanted to tell someone about my day, I spoke to them face-to-face, I wrote them a letter or I walked to the phone box down the road.

Communication was far from instant and, although we were not aware of it at the time, it influenced what information we deemed worthwhile sharing.

Today, we can ‘tweet’ to the universe such inanities as: ‘I’ve just put my socks on.’ A friend can respond – ‘Congratulations!’ – within seconds.

A Twitter search for “I’ve just put my socks on” does admittedly turn up a single result, but this is just one of the thousands of message sent every day. Despite this common criticism of banality, I don’t think most people actually use Twitter in this way. No one cares what you had for breakfast, so tweeting about it probably results in a quick exodus of followers. Of course, I have no evidence to confirm this other than my own anecdotal experience, but at least I admit as much!

I agree with Greenfield that new technologies must be evaluated for potential harm. Where we differ is my requirement for causal links and solid evidence, rather than conclusions pulled out of thin air.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 11 August 2009 at 10:52 pm by Thom Hoffman
In About Just A Theory, Inventions & Technology

So I wrote a post a few weeks ago about some new software that looked to help emails self destruct, hoping to spark a debate about online privacy. I got in touch with the producer of the BBC World Service’s Digital Planet and got commissioned to do a radio piece on it. You can download the podcast here, my piece starts at 13.40. It is also available  on the website to stream directly (Episode 11/08/2009).

I interviewed one of the inventors Yoshi Kohno, Assistant Professor at the University of Washington and Peter Sommer, a Digital Forensic Specialist and Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics.

It was great to make the blog go auditory and hopefully there will be more to come soon.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 9 August 2009 at 7:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Mathematics, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Another 100 metres

High-speed running will sap the energy of even the top athletes, but it seems scientists never tire of it. Dutch statisticians have declared the 100-metre sprint could potentially be run in just 9.51 seconds. The current record, set by Usain Bolt in 2008, stands at 9.69 seconds.

If this sounds familiar, its because I wrote not one but two blog posts last year on the very same subject. This time, the researchers used a branch of statistics called extreme-value theory to analyse previous records.

As the name suggests, extreme-value theory is used to answer questions about extreme events. It’s normally used by insurers to calculate the risks of natural disasters, but it seems that a record-breaking sprint can also be classed as “extreme”.

Machines are better than you

Japanese engineers have built a robot that can move faster than the human eye can see. Watch, with the aid of slow mo, how the robotic hand deftly controls balls and sticks as no human can:

LHC will run on half power

Ah, the Large Hadron Collider. It’s been good to Just A Theory, providing a wealth of blogging material from raps to rants, but has faired less well in actually working. Even the classic technological fix, “have you switched it off and on again?” hasn’t worked, because when the LHC boots up again this November, it will only operate at 3.5 TeV, half normal operating power.

The massive ring had to be shut down in September last year after damage caused by an incident that caused the temperature to rise rapidly. The LHD will run through Christmas to let researchers gain experience in running it, and then the power will be boosted to 5 TeV. If all goes to plan, the machine will be shut down again at the end of 2010 to prepare for full power operations of 7 TeV.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 2 August 2009 at 6:53 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

A week on the Guardian’s Technology desk means I haven’t been keeping up with all the science news as much as I normally would. Don’t worry though, I’ve still got some good stuff in this week’s roundup.

Run Forrest.exe, Run!

Toyota have created a robot that can run. Not an easy task, as the machine must keep its balance whilst moving at fast speed, but the result looks promising:

Will we eventually have millions of these little guys running about the place, I wonder?

LaTeX tech

Bit of a geeky one this. LaTeX is a language used by scientists and other people to create documents containing lots of equations. I’ve used it in the past, and whilst it produces nice results, it can be tricky to use because of all the commands you have to learn. Remembering the codes for mathematical symbols can be especially difficult. Detexify allows you to draw the symbol you want with your mouse, and it will give you the code. Even if you have no use for LaTeX, it’s fun to have a play and watch the symbol recognition in action. Try drawing a smiley face!

Kill or cure?

Kill or cure? is a website that seeks to “make sense of the Daily Mail’s ongoing effort to classify every inanimate object into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it.” Where else can you learn that ketchup prevents cancer, but toothpaste causes it?

Kids vs climate change, round 2

A while back Sam wrote a post laying out the environmental reasons not to have children. It inspired quite a debate between some commenters, and now his position has been backed up by new research. Statisticians at Oregon State University found that in the US, having one less child will have an almost 20 times larger impact on the environment than things like changing the car you drive, or recycling.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 July 2009 at 7:11 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Mathematics, Yes, But When?

I guess it’s fitting that I should write a story about bacteria whilst feeling ill:

Computers are evolving – literally. While the tech world argues netbooks vs notebooks, synthetic biologists are leaving traditional computers behind altogether. A team of US scientists have engineered bacteria that can solve complex mathematical problems faster than anything made from silicon.

The research, published today in the Journal of Biological Engineering, proves that bacteria can be used to solve a puzzle known as the Hamiltonian Path Problem. Imagine you want to tour the 10 biggest cities in the UK, starting in London (number 1) and finishing in Bristol (number 10). The solution to the Hamiltonian Path Problem is the the shortest possible route you can take.

Read the rest at the Guardian

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 22 July 2009 at 8:16 pm by Thom Hoffman
In Inventions & Technology, Psychology

‘Never write anything in an email that you wouldn’t want your mother to read’. The idea behind the saying is that nothing on the internet ever dies, and could one day come back to haunt you. Unfortunately roughly 85% of the emails I send I would rather not have read by my immediate family.

Realistically a throwaway email or Facebook message never truly gets thrown away. Recent cases of information interception, specifically tabloid phone-tapping, have featured prominently in the news. It seems reasonable to assume that emails are an even easier target. You can only guess what Damian McBride would have given for those emails he sent to Derek Draper to stay private.

Researchers at the University of Washington have released a paper and an open source beta version of a piece of software that aims to change the way sensitive messages are sent over the internet. Other encryption services are available but they usually require some element of trust in a third party or some additional key which may be retrieved retrospectively.

The team in Washington have created Vanish, a piece of software which takes a body of text from an email or online message; encrypts it with a key, which never gets revealed to the user, destroys the local key copy and sends it in fragments via peer to peer sharing (such as bit torrent).

Peer to peer systems are also known as Distributed Hash Tables (DHT). The fragmented data sent is lost as the DHT’s evolve. DHT nodes carrying information cleanse themselves over time, a process known as ‘churning’.

The receiver uses the same software to convert the encryption. After 8 hours (or multiples thereof) the message then becomes purely the random encryption. The original message is rendered inaccessible by either party (or by any third party) forever. The software takes only seconds to work for normal sized emails and messages. Watch a cool demonstration video here.

The reality is that many social networking sites and ISP’s archive data for long periods of time. Some of which you may want to keep private. Sure it’s great to look back at old emails you sent and had completely forgotten about. It is fascinating to revisit the mistakes of your life which you have invariably forgotten, repeated, forgotten, repeated and forgotten again. Or is that just me? Either way there are certainly some messages which need not linger in the aether forever.

The debate about this type of technology is incredibly interesting. It seems that this type of software will benefit the Damian McBrides of this world but more worryingly the criminals and terrorists. Some may argue that ordinary, law-abiding people have nothing to fear by having all their messages stored. Something about this perspective worries me a lot.

There will, most likely, be governmental objections to this type of software. If it, or some other software, takes off and becomes ubiquitous, the culture change will be pronounced. Is it important that we can send all data privately; or should we just accept that there is no such thing as true privacy on the net? Are consequences for what you put out into cyberspace fair enough?

Should we safely assume that ‘the man’ does not care about your membership to Nipple-Tasslers Anonymous or that you got off with your boyfriend’s best mate last weekend?

One of the most popular email providers Gmail; already scans your email to offer targeted marketing based on the content of your message. This is pretty obvious to anyone reading emails, especially when your spam folder has adverts for SPAM alongside. This seems neither particularly malevolent or sophisticated.

Are the desirable interceptions and consequences of data monitoring enough for us to relinquish our everyday privacy concerns?

The internet and cloud-computing in particular, are becoming more prominent in our lives. As we give more of ourselves away publicly, it seems vital, to me, to be able to keep some things genuinely private.  We just have to make sure we find out about those hidden terror plots somehow too…

There are complex debates to be had but I think the answer can simply be summarised  like this :

7²rþpÐåhT5bfE©‡\[%ùx‹mž€ÉÐôÏ™v¢²aZeƒ#€Êȁú\sdßae×—O†eEoÂÕÃØ,‹ìÉŽsF Á^B³ þ¯Ä±°Egžˆ ¹é£ÜºÕ<ÑQ—_1qË®S±¹wÒRéÍ(+ŠÐû$Ý&iš8mfI÷ÔÅŸçÉé ™ä1‘©ÿml”VMÚ¦Yð`¿z°­R«N3*cd Eä ôó#ö÷þ>p= 1XÍÐL”jlH^5¼ˆ„JèÌFˆ tï½aP°£¡~þ¤y,«7±§zCIé( R?Îp¥?GA…è YÈ@šÚ ó$M€d…Q˜nø MÅqžø`~@펉G( G„îQÙ =Ö¤Q·,æTg}a


I’m amazed we didn’t think of it before.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 22 July 2009 at 7:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology

I created this radio package on vinyl records for an assignment in the final term of the science communication course. Speaking to jazz critic John Fordham, UK bass producer Joe and Dr Patrick Naylor of Imperial College, I learn about why vinyl is still popular, its history and its future. Click the player below to have a listen.

A Brief History of Vinyl

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Monday 20 July 2009 at 7:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy

To mark the anniversary of Apollo 11 touching down on the lunar surface, Google have decided to release an updated version of their Google Earth software, featuring detailed maps of the Moon:

On 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took their first small steps on to the surface of the moon. Forty years later you can join them, thanks to a new release from Google. Moon in Google Earth brings the lunar landscape to your desktop, complete with photos, video and guided tours provided by the astronauts themselves.

Downloading the new Google Earth software allows users to roam the moon in full 3D for the first time. You can visit the historic Apollo landing sites to see the astronauts at work, or fly above the surface hunting for your favourite crater.

Read the rest at the Guardian

Comments Off

4 Comments » Posted on Sunday 19 July 2009 at 9:47 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Mathematics, Weekly Roundup

Travelating in slow motion

The moving walkways used in airports actually slow you down, according to scientists in America. Research has found that people reduce their speed when stepping on to a travelator, making the human conveyor belts only marginally faster than walking. This is only true on an empty walkway however, as any congestion will drop your speed to less than a normal walking pace.

Manoj Srinivasan of Princeton University created a mathematical model to investigate the problem. Publishing in the journal Chaos, he found that the conflict between what your eyes see and your legs feel is responsible for the reduction in speed.

Visual cues tell the brain you are travelling faster than your legs are walking, so in order to conserve energy you slow down. This means that using an empty travelator will only save you about 11 seconds for every 100-metre stretch, compared to walking on regular ground.

But as any regular fliers know, airport travelators are rarely empty. Another study by Seth Young of Ohio State University found that delays due to other travellers getting in the way occur so often that you are better off avoiding the walkway all together. “Moving walkways are the only form of transportation that actually slow people down,” said Young, speaking to New Scientist.

Wii-ly good for you

Active video games like Wii Sports can be a good alternative to moderate exercise for children, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics.

While not a replacement for more intensive sporting activities, scientists at the University of Oklahoma found they were comparably to a moderate walk. Children aged 10-13 were monitored as they watched television, played the Wii and walked on a treadmill. Both gaming and walking increased the number of calories burned by two to three times. As such, the researchers suggest encouraging kids to play active games instead of more passive ones.

Facebook for scientists

UK researchers have created myExperiment, a social networking site for scientists. Intended to challenge traditional models of academic publishing, it allows scientists to share “Research Objects”.

Rather than just publishing a paper, myExperiment lets users share data, files, and other information required to understand and reuse research. The site also allows the usual social networking interactions, such as messaging and groups.

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.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Monday 6 July 2009 at 7:54 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Whoops. Wrote this yesterday but somehow failed to put it on the site. Warning: incoming link dump. I’ve still got loads of interesting stuff left, so I thought I’d burn it all off at once.

Honours for UK astronauts

The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) have created an award for people from the UK who have flown in to to space – all five of them.

The silver pins were give to Helen Sharman and Richard Garriott, who were backed by private funds, and Michael Foale, Nicholas Patrick and Piers Sellers who all became US citizens to fly with NASA.

Despite UK government resistance to human spaceflight, the BIS have made up another five pins that they hope to give to future UK astronauts.

One quarter of Londoners believe in creationism

The figure falls to one in seven nationwide, which is still fairly concerning. Worse though are the one in five Londoners who have never even heard of Darwin – you don’t have to believe the guy, but at least know his name!

US Navy is building electromagnetic plane guns

As in, guns that fire planes. Well not quite, but the Pentagon has spent half a billion dollars on building a new launch system for aircraft carriers.

Currently, they use “steam catapults” to launch planes off the short carrier runways – which is pretty much what it sounds like. The new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System will instead use an electric linear motor to shoot the planes off in to the sky.

Self-help books don’t

A psychological study has found that self-help books can actually have the opposite effect to that intended. The research showed that people with low self-esteem actually feel worse about themselves after repeating typical self-help statements like “I am a lovable person”.

Monkeys barter and trade on a simian stock market

Instead of pounds or dollars, non-human primates use grooming as currency. Scientists from the University of Strasbourg in France examined monkey exchange rates by placing food in a box that only one female was trained to open.

An hour after she did, the other members of the group rewarded her with longer and more frequent grooming, and she reciprocated less.

Her new-found wealth wasn’t to last however. When the scientists introduced another trained monkey, the first female’s grooming “stock value” decreased as the second female’s rose. Eventually the “market” equalised and they were both groomed for the same amount of time.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 June 2009 at 2:25 pm by Sam Wong
In Inventions & Technology

This is just awesome. Maverick designers James Auger and Jimmy Loizeau have built a collection of robotic furniture that generates its own energy by catching and digesting vermin. No, really.

This picture shows an LCD clock with a strip of flypaper on a roller. At the bottom of the roller,a blade scrapes the flies off and they fall into a microbial fuel cell, to be digested by bacteria to yield energy.

Image: Auger-Loizeau

This lamp lures flies with ultraviolet LEDs, then traps them like a pitcher plant.

Image: Auger-Loizeau

This wall-mounted robot is designed to encourage flies to build webs on it. A camera detects when a fly gets caught, then when the fly stops moving, a robotic arm nabs it from under the spider’s nose.

Image: Auger-Loizeau

Its energy needs are supplemented by the UV fly-killer depicted below.

Most gory of all is this innocuous-looking coffee table. In the centre is a trapdoor on which crumbs can be set as bait. One of the table legs is hollow, and mice can crawl up the inside. Infra-red motion sensors detect when a mouse walks onto the trapdoor, and send it tumbling into the fuel cell below. All it’s missing is the ability to emit a Bond-villain style evil laugh as the rodent is slowly devoured.

Sadly, as far as I’m aware, Ikea have no plans to sell flat-pack versions of any of these items.

The robots were inspired by was designed by the Ecobot, an energetically autonomous robot designed by Bristol Robotics Laboratory. Ecobot uses sewage to attract insects into its microbial fuel cell, where they get digested by sludge bacteria. As the bacteria metabolise the sugars yielded from breaking down the robot’s prey, electrons are released, which can be harnessed to generate an electric current. You can get your own, yeast-based microbial fuel cell from the National Centre for Biology Education at Reading University.

A brief glance at Bristol Robotics Laboratory’s website reveals that they’re working on numerous fascinating biology-inspired projects, like robots that can sense their surroundings with rodent-like whiskers, robots that can keep their vision focused on something while moving (by mimicking the vestibulo-ocular reflex) and flying robots that can save energy by soaring like albatrosses. But I can’t help getting the impression that these people are hell-bent on bringing about humanity’s destruction at the mechanical hands of robots. Some of the other projects that they’re working on are robots with the ability to heal themselves, robots that can work as a team to find food, and even robots that can develop their own culture. A project they’re involved in called SYMBRION ‘may lead not only to extremely adaptive, evolvable and scalable robotic systems, but might also enable the robot organisms to reprogram themselves without human supervision; to develop their own cognitive structures and, finally, to allow new functionality to emerge: the most suitable for the given situation.’ And there I was thinking that Terminator was far-fetched.

If you think BRL’s projects are wacky, wait until you see Auger and Loizeau’s previous work. Their website catalogues an array of mind-bogglingly bizarre projects, all aiming to offer ‘services that contrast and question current design ideology’, and ‘instigate a broader analysis of what it means to exist in a technology rich environment and its cultural implications for the present and the near future.’

The interstitial space helmet is like a digital burka that brings to reality Susan Greenfield‘s nightmare scenario in which nobody interacts face-to-face and all interaction is mediated through telecommunications devices. Social tele-presence is a system that allows the user to effectively occupy someone else’s body, or even a dog’s. The subliminal watch is a device for those too lazy to look at their wrist and instead want the time zapped into them through electric shocks. The isophone aims to make phone calls a fully immersive experience by enclosing the user’s head in a digital helmet while the rest of their body floats in water.

Ramping up the ridiculousness yet further, we have digitised banality, a series of products that revel in their own pointlessness: a device that counts ripples in a lake, an electronic leaf that alerts its owner when it falls off a tree, and a chair that records an ever-increasing total of all the weight it has ever borne. Best of all is a range of inventions designed to aid animals, including an aquatic stealth jacket for whales, an acorn positioning system for squirrels, and ‘omnivore dentures’ that allow big cats to munch on vegetable matter.

Who says technology has to be useful? I think this stuff’s bloody brilliant.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 24 June 2009 at 10:37 am by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology

Training to be a doctor is difficult, and not just for the medical students. For prospective physicians to have real life experience they must examine real patients, but this can be awkward for more intimate procedures such as breast exams.

Up until now the solution has been for students to practice on lifeless prosthetics, but a new initiative by the University of Florida, along with three other universities, uses a combination of prosthetics and computer technology to better simulate the experience.

A mannequin allows students to conduct the physical exam, whilst a computer representation of the patient, named Amanda Jones, responds on the screen above. This “mixed reality human” lets medical students converse with their virtual patient whilst conducting an exam.

A mixed reality breast exam in progress.
A mixed reality breast exam in progress.

Students can talk to Amanda in realtime thanks to computer speech and voice recognition software. This allows them to discover her medical history and respond to questions or concerns during the exam.

Feedback is also provided by sensors within the prosthetic breast that send data to the computer simulation, providing a colour representation of the pressure students are applying.

Different situations can be programmed in to the system, such as whether a breast abnormality is present or not, and dialogue lines can also be changed to prevent an unscripted experience. Benjamin Lok, an assistant professor of computer and information sciences and engineering at the University of Florida, says this communication practice is key.

“Studies have shown that communication skills are actually a better predictor of outcome than medical skills,” Lok said. With the virtual patient, “all of a sudden, students have to not only practice their technique, but they also have to work on their empathy.”

Although the mixed reality system is not intended to replace real exams, it does help students get more experience when volunteers are scarce. Thanks to the success of the breast exam system, researchers are now looking in to simulation other intimate procedures. Lok and team are now building a virtual prostrate exam for students to practice on.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 24 June 2009 at 10:25 am by Colin Stuart
In Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy

The days of the lone astronomer are long gone. Modern astronomical research is a multi-national and highly organised outfit with million dollar telescopes perched high on mountain tops in some of the most remote places on Earth. These optical leviathans don’t even need a pupil at the eyepiece; computers are more than capable of doing that for us.

You might think then, that this world of highly mechanised, suped-up star-spotters was beyond the clutches of your average Joe, but you’d be wrong. Around the world an army of enthusiastic amateurs, often armed with nothing more than their home computers, are reeling in the secrets of the universe. Meet the citizen astronomers.


David Evans works for SERTEC, a company based in Coleshill, Warwickshire, specialising in the manufacture of parts and components for the automotive industry. At least that’s what pays his bills. David’s real passion is astronomy and he has discovered nineteen comets previously unknown to science, all from the comfort of his home PC.

“My first discovery was confirmed 22 June 2002 by Derek Hammer of NASA. I found the comet in images which were taken by the SOHO Space Telescope on 13 June 2002,” David explained, referring to a telescope whose job it is to stare at the Sun. As these comets pass in front of the Sun their silhouettes can be spotted by those who have the patience to sift through the mountains of data produced by modern telescopes.

And that’s the appeal of citizen astronomers to those who research the cosmos for a living. Often a human is still better at discerning detail than computers, but the professional astronomers simply don’t have the time or the resources to analyse all the data. By farming it out in manageable chunks to citizen astronomers, more research can be done and the public get a real chance to contribute to cutting edge science.


One extremely successful example is Galaxy Zoo, a citizen astronomy project designed to get members of the public classifying galaxies. Galaxies are huge collections of stars gathered together in space, and they come in many different shapes and sizes. The Galaxy Zoo community are presented with photos of galaxies and asked simple questions about what they can see. They might be asked to choose from a sliding scale as to how round it is, or how many spiral arms it’s got.

The beauty of Galaxy Zoo is that it sends out the same photo to many users and only if a consensus is reached between a high percentage of users do the team know they can trust the classification. Such has been the success of the project that a completely new type of galaxy has been discovered this way.

Melanie-Jane Ryal, a personal assistant, is a keen Galaxy Zoo user, “The Galaxy Zoo project is amazingly easy to get involved with. All you have to do is register and then do a short test to ensure you know what you’re looking at. As an amateur it allows you to feel involved as you’re helping to classify galaxies that very few other people have seen,” she said. That’s the kicker, sometimes you get to be the very first human ever to lay eyes on a particular galaxy, a galaxy that contains billions of stars, and perhaps even other life forms.


And the search for aliens, or more officially The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), hasn’t been overlooked by citizen astronomy; in fact it was one of the trail blazers. I’ve previously blogged about the SETI@home project celebrating it’s tenth year keenly listening to signals from space and trying to detect evidence of an interstellar phone call. But the key to the success of this project has been that, in true citizen astronomy style, the data is farmed out to you and I. SETI@home uses your spare computer power to work its way through the radio waves received by the giant Arecibo Telescope in Puerto Rico.

Once downloaded to your PC the SETI@home program gets to work whilst your not. When you’re away from your PC having a cuppa or fielding a phone call, SETI@home kicks in and starts using your computer to decipher the messages. No signal has been found yet that astronomers believe not to have come naturally from space but thanks to home PC’s they are getting through the data much faster than would otherwise be possible.

Public Engagement

It is appropriate that SETI@home is celebrating it’s inaugural decade, just as astronomers are celebrating another temporal milestone. This year has been designated International Year of Astronomy or IYA2009, to mark four centuries since Galileo first used the telescope to gaze at the heavens. IYA2009 has been an opportunity for professional astronomers to engage with the public and Dr Marek Kukula, Public Astronomer at The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and sees citizen astronomy as an indispensable tool in this process.

“Citizen astronomy is a tremendous opportunity to engage members of the public with real scientific research in a way which would have been impossible only a few years ago,” he said. And he agrees that the astronomers get more than just an extension of their computing power. “It’s not a one-sided process either – the scientists also benefit enormously because it enables them to answer questions which they simply couldn’t tackle on their own, getting extra value out of the large amounts of data which are now routinely gathered by telescopes, space missions and earth-monitoring experiments.”

So citizen astronomy is many things. It’s an opportunity for astronomers to engage with the public. It’s an opportunity for that public to actively, and often indispensably, contribute to cutting edge research. But most importantly it’s a way for astronomers to unlock the scientific secrets hidden amongst the astronomically sized sets of data churning out of the myriad of hardware both in space and on the ground.

As we move into the 401st year of the telescope, the next great discovery could just come from you, your friends, or the citizen astronomer next door.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 14 June 2009 at 4:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Tweeters aren’t psychic

Earlier this month I reported on Richard Wiseman’s Twitter experiment which hoped to use the social networking site to study psychic ability. Now the results are in, and you don’t need to be able to see the future to predict them.

The experiment consisted of Wiseman going to a location each day, then asking people to Tweet their impressions of where he was. They would then select from five pictures of possible locations. In all four trials, the majority voted for an incorrect location. Even those who declared they had some form of psychic ability with high confidence scored zero. Sorry guys, but you’re not special.

Who Pooped?

A strange question yes, but one with an important answer. Scientists are able to determine the nature of an animal from their fecal matter alone, and now you can too in a game brought to you by the Minnesota Zoo. I guessed all three correctly, so perhaps there is a new career waiting for me.

Ten icons of science – but which is the best?

To celebrate its centenary, the Science Museum have selected 10 objects from their collection that changed the future. From the steam engine to penicillin, each invention or discovery has a huge influence on our lives today, but which one gets your vote? I think I’ll have to go for the Pilot ACE Computer – the first multi-tasking computer. So much of the modern world revolves around computers, and most importantly of all, you wouldn’t be reading Just A Theory without one!

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 10 June 2009 at 9:48 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Two stories today of new technology that could one day be built in to mobile phones. The first, developed by engineering students at Duke University, would allow people to write short notes by simply waving their phones in the air. The technology makes use of accelerometers already inside many newer phones, like the iPhone, which are used to switch the display from portrait to landscape view.

“We developed an application that uses the built-in accelerometers in cell phones to recognize human writing,” said Sandip Agrawal, one of the developers of the PhonePoint Pen. “By holding the phone like a pen, you can write short messages or draw simple diagrams in the air.

“The accelerometer converts the gestures to images, which can be sent to any e-mail address for future reference,” Ionut Constandache said. “Also, say you’re in a class and there is an interesting slide on the screen. We foresee being able to take a photo of the slide and write a quick note on it for future reference. The potential uses are practically limitless. That this prototype works validates the feasibility of such a pen.”

Whilst I can see the appeal of this, I’m not sure what more it offers over just using buttons or a touchpad keyboard. Perhaps if the keys are too small for you it would be useful alternative, but I think I’ll pass.

Perhaps more useful is this second story: Nokia are working on a phone that charges itself without being plugged in. This seemingly magical feat is made possible by sucking in power from the sea of electromagnetic energy that surrounds the modern world.

We are constantly wading through radio, TV and WiFi signals emanating from all directions, and scientists at the Nokia Research Centre in Cambridge have created a phone that harvests tiny amounts of power from a wide range of frequencies. So far though they have only achieved a tiny 5 milliwatts, which isn’t much use. Their next goal is 20 milliwatts, which would allow a phone to remain on standby indefinitely. Ultimately they hope to reach 50 milliwatts, enough to slowly recharge the handset.

You’re going to have to wait a while for both of these new gadgets though. In the case of PhonePoint Pen the team expect to put a prototype up for download in the next few months, but the recharging phones are at least three to five years off.

Comments Off

1 Comment » Posted on Monday 8 June 2009 at 11:12 pm by Seth Bell
In Inventions & Technology, Psychology

If there is one thing which I’ve learned from watching films, it’s that in the future robots are going to cause a lot of trouble for human beings. Once they become advanced enough they will join together to kill us, enslave us or perhaps just keep us in containers to be used as a power source. Terminator Salvation, released last week, tells the story of how human beings are fighting against the machines for their survival even in 2018.

Can’t we just work together and get along? Well, maybe we can. Researchers on the JAST (Joint-Action Science and Technology) project are looking into ways to build robots which can anticipate human action, allowing them to collaborate with human beings on simple tasks.

The JAST team is multidisciplinary, bringing together scientists from robotics, psychology and the cognitive sciences. In order to make human-robot interactions more natural the team first examined how humans collaborate together, in particular how we observe each other when working together on an activity.

When we watch someone doing a task our brains activate mirror neurons to map the activity. This allows us to work out what is going on and notice when someone makes a mistake. The JAST team have programmed their robot to use a similar observation based system, allowing it to compare a person’s action to the task at hand.

The net result is that the JAST robot does not just learn how to do a particular task, but rather it learns how to work with a human being to accomplish it. For example, it can distinguish between different tools and different ways in which their human partner can hold it for different functions.

This looks like a step towards improved human –robot relations. Maybe we will never need John Connor for our salvation, but I still can’t shake of the feeling that robots like these are just trying to lure is into a false sense of security…

You can see a video of the robot on the ICT results website. It doesn’t look as cool or sophisticated as most movie robots, but I do like its orange top.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 4 June 2009 at 10:52 am by Jacob Aron
In Happenings, Inventions & Technology, Just A Review

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

Wallace & Gromit, the nation’s most beloved plasticine duo, have arrived at the Science Museum. I went along with I,Science editor Mico Tatalovic to check out the new exhibition, Wallace & Gromit present A World of Cracking Ideas.

The duo are known for their crazy inventions that inevitably go horribly wrong, and it seemed that the Science Museum’s lifts were getting in to the spirit of things. As we waited for a ride to the exhibition floor one of the Museum’s sleek glass lifts arrived, but refused to open its doors before shooting off again. It eventually returned and we step aboard, only to find ourselves stuck between floors. “Perhaps we’ll get the stairs next time,” I said to Mico. Thankfully we were not trapped for long and, for the rest of the morning at least, the inventions on display behaved themselves.

Working in collaboration with Wallace & Gromit creators Aardman Animation, the Science Museum have recreated their home, 62 West Wallaby Street, and stuffed it full of things to see and do. With funding from the Intellectual Property Office, the £2m exhibition is designed to inspire the nation’s creativity and get us all inventing.

Visitors will find “Idea Stations” in each room of the house where they can scribble down their new creations, before sending them off to Wallace & Gromit through a suitably wacky delivery process, the Eureka Brainwave. This overhead conveyer belt channels ideas through the exhibition to the Thinking Cap Machine, which…turns them into paper hats. A bit of a let-down if you have just submitted your idea for the next iPod killer, but kids will love it.

As well as coming up with your own ideas, you can play around with Wallace & Gromit’s. In the living room you’ll find the Tellyscope, their answer to the television remote. After throwing enough balls at a target (both myself and Mico were hopeless throws), a television will move towards a massive sofa. Take a seat, and a series of levers move a gloved hand to select the button of your choice, which will play a short video clip. Very silly, very Wallace & Gromit. Other fun things include a slide down the plughole from the bathroom to the garden, where you’ll be to take part in a modelling clay activity.

It’s not just Wallace & Gromit’s inventions on display though. The Science Museum have dug through their extensive catalogue to find examples of weird and wonderful inventions from the real world. Displays range from an early electric kettle to 1960’s food packaging. You can also track the development of inventions like the telephone, from Alexander Graham Bell’s original to the latest shape-shifting Nokia prototype – unfortunately a model, and not the real thing just yet!

If old inventions aren’t your thing, there’s still a lot on show for Wallace & Gromit and fans. Sets from the films are lovingly displayed, and simply walking through the house really feels like you’re taking part in one of their crazy adventures. It would be very easy to spend almost two hours taking in everything the exhibition has to offer.

I have just one very minor criticism, of an ideological nature. A message throughout the exhibit is the importance of protecting your intellectual property by registering inventions with the Intellectual Property Office, and I have no qualms with that. Up in the bathroom, in a display all about music, was a poster that left me feeling rather different.

Nestled in a corner, away from the karaoke disco in the shower and a charming vinyl jukebox, it said that the music industry is the only way for artists could “avoid losing out to copycats” and “benefit from hitting all the right notes”. In other words, sign a record deal or go broke. In a world where internet exposure and digital distribution is making the music industry increasingly irrelevant, it struck me as nothing more than an out-of-place attempt at propaganda. I’m sure though that kids will just run past without a second glance as they head for something fun to do, so perhaps it doesn’t matter.

My woolly liberal sensibilities aside, Wallace & Gromit present A World of Cracking Ideas is well worth a visit. You might not learn anything as such, but you’ll be too busy having fun with all the crazy contraptions to care. The exhibition will run until 1st November 2009, and the usual fees apply: Adults £9, Concessions £7, with extra deals for families. Cracking good time, Gromit.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Monday 1 June 2009 at 1:39 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Psychology

I’ve been using Twitter for a while now, and I’m still not entirely sure what the point of it is and what you can do with it. Well, starting tomorrow we can add one more use for Twitter to the list: science.

Psychologist Richard Wiseman, in conjunction with New Scientist, plans to conduct the first scientific experiment on Twitter. Wiseman is a professor at the University of Hertfordshire, and specialises in studying possible psychic abilities. He plans to harness the power of the Twitter crowd to investigate remote viewing, the supposed ability of psychics to identify distant locations.

Every day this week at 3pm, he will travel to a randomly selected location and then ask everyone on Twitter to give him their thoughts on where he is. Thirty minutes later, he will follow up with another Tweet showing five photos – one of the real location, and four decoys. Participants will then vote for the photo they believe to be genuine.

Today’s experiment, taking place in just over an hour, is just a test run to make sure the system works, so Wiseman will only be counting data from the rest of the week. If you’d like to participate, simply follow him on Twitter. Word of warning, he has a rather unusual background image on his Twitter page!

But is it actually worth you while to do so? Is Twitter a suitable tool for this type of experiment? It all comes down to statistics. For each location, participants have a one in five chance of choosing the correct photo simply by random chance. If some form of psychic powers truly do exist, we would expect a higher proportion of correct guesses.

The odds are stacked against you with each subsequent test however. Whilst you may have a one in five chance of getting one location right, only one in 625 participants will correctly guess all four. Wiseman hopes that 10,000 people will answer his Twitter call. A quick calculation tells us that we can expect just 16 Twitterers to score four out of four. If the results are significantly higher than this, it suggests something odd is going on – though not necessarily psychic powers!

So Twitter really is a good way of conducting this experiment. For very little cost, Wiseman can find the large numbers of people he needs to make his study work. There are problems – what if people simply re-Tweet what they view as likely guess – so I’m not sure we’re going to get any amazing results out of this trial, but I look forward to taking part.

Comments Off

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

Growing skyscrapers

Metal crystals that look mini cities? Very cool:

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

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

Building a CPU from scratch

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

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

Renaming the God particle

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

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

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

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

Comments Off

3 Comments » Posted on Thursday 28 May 2009 at 3:18 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Musings

Saw this on the Twitterverse and thought I’d share. Channel 4 have commissioned a piece of research into the young peoples’ relationship with technology, and I found the results quite interesting. Obviously I haven’t seen the full report, amusingly entitled A Beta Life, but here are some stats on the average 12-24 year old.

  • They personally own 8 devices (including MP3 player, PC, TV, DVD player, mobile phone, stereo, games console, and digital camera)
  • They frequently conduct over 5 activities whilst watching TV
  • 25% of them agree that “I’d rather stay at home than go on a holiday with no internet or phone access”
  • A quarter of young people interviewed text or IM (instant message) friends they are physically with at the time
  • They have on average 123 friends on their social network spaces
  • And the first thing the majority of them do when they get home is turn on their PC

I was surprised to realise that the majority of these apply to me:

  • I’m scared to even count the number of “devices” I have, but it’s certainly closer to 18 than 8.
  • Geeky as it is, I’m not a huge fan of going on holiday, and lack of web access is a factor. Thank you, inventor of the internet cafe.
  • Who hasn’t texted their friend in the pub?
  • I’ve got 113 friends on Facebook and 61 followers on Twitter. There is certainly some overlap, so I can’t be much over 123
  • The first thing I do when I get up is turn on my PC. It’s already on by the time I get home again in the evening.

The only thing I can’t fathom is conducting five activities whilst watching TV. What are these activities? All I can think of is watching TV whilst perhaps surfing/IMing on a laptop, and texting on a phone. That’s just four. Any hardcore multitaskers care to enlighten me? My personal favourite is playing video games whilst on the exercise bike, listening to podcasts. If there is some super multitasking combo out there, I’m yet to discover it.

What will the effects of this increasingly connected generation be? It doesn’t seem to be a decrease in the amount of time spent physically with others. The research found that hanging out with friends and watching TV still take up most of young adults free time. It’s just that phones, Facebook, etc allow me and my contemporaries to stay in contact even when we’re apart.

Earlier this month Seth wondered Can web 2.0 technology change our nature? and I pretty much agree with his conclusion. Whilst I doubt Facebook gives you cancer, constant connectivity is certain to change our social structures and the way we lead our lives. After all, I probably wouldn’t have even written this if it weren’t for Twitter!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Monday 18 May 2009 at 6:18 pm by Seth Bell
In Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Musings

The other day Jacob wrote about Susan Greenfield’s claim that Facebook can make you fat. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the Internet can change the structure of your brain. However, it seems fairly self-evident to me that web 2.0 technology is offering us ways to change how we live and think.

We have greater freedom to express our thoughts and opinions to both friends and strangers through Twitter, Facebook, comment forums and blogs like this. Even Gordon Brown has got in on the action by broadcasting on YouTube.

The Internet offers better medium for dialogue than traditional print or broadcast media. Do web 2.0 technologies have the potential to change the fundamental structure of our society?

Brian Appleyard, writing for the Sunday Times, doesn’t think so. He argues that it is historically ignorant to believe that technology can fundamentally change society:

“”The internet”, says David Edgerton, professor of the history of technology at Imperial College London and author of The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900, “is rather passé . . . It’s just a means of communication, like television, radio or newspapers.”

Edgerton is the world expert in tech dead ends. Fifty years ago, he points out, nuclear power was about to change the world; then there was supersonic passenger flight, then space travel. The wheel, he concedes, did change the world, as did steam power. The web is not in that league.”

I’m not really convinced by this argument. I agree that there are a plethora of ‘revolutionary’ technologies which failed to change the world, but communication technologies (like television, radio or newspapers) did change the very structure our society. The extent to which they did is difficult to articulate because of the difficulty for us to imagine our lives without them.

Similarly, I don’t think that blogging, twittering and the like are an optional fad which will simply be incorporated into our existing cultural framework. In western society we live a culture intensely interested in celebrity. Web 2.0 technology offers a way for people to express their need to be recognised and acknowledged by a wider audience than just the people they see in the pub.

I recently attended a talk at the dana centre (Dinner@Dana: Social Surveillance) which questioned whether sites like Facebook endanger our privacy. I don’t think this is the question we need to be asking. We should instead be asking how new technologies will change the way we think about privacy itself. If new generations grow up micro-broadcasting and making their lives public to others it seems likely that our current notions of ‘privacy’ will gradually be replaced by a very different animal.

So, whilst I don’t think the Internet has the potential to change our brains, I think it does have the potential to change the way we think.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Monday 11 May 2009 at 3:15 pm by Seth Bell
In Inventions & Technology

It didn’t work out so well for the three little pigs, but it turns out that houses made of straw may be more resistant to huffing and puffing than the old fairytale makes out. Tests have been carried out at the University of Nevada to see whether houses made mainly of straw can remain stable during serious earthquakes. And they can.

The houses, designed by the team at the University of Nevada and the non-profit organisation ‘Pakistan Straw Bale and Appropriate Building’ (PAKSBAB), were tested at the Large-Scale Structures Laboratory at Nevada and subjected to seven simulated earthquakes of increasing magnitude. The houses remained standing even after the final and most powerful test.

Admittedly the houses are not just made of straw. The straw is used as a load-bearing component and for insulation, whilst the foundations rest on clay and gravel. Importantly, the houses are relatively simple to build and all the additional materials are cheap and locally available in developing countries, giving them an advantage over existing straw house designs.

There have already been nine such houses built in Mansehra in Pakistan, a region devastated by an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale in 2005, which left over three million people homeless. The results of the earthquake tests are encouraging and may help minimise the impact of future earthquakes in countries such as Pakistan. PAKSBAB already runs a programme which helps local residents learn how to build the houses.

Meanwhile in the UK, North Kesteven District Council in Lincolnshire has recently announced that they too will soon be building straw houses as a way of providing affordable housing. The straw provides such good insulation that the houses will not require a central heating system.

Straw houses are showing a lot of promise in both developing and developed countries. Who thinks those three little pigs will be moving back to their old digs?

Comments Off

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

Oxygen never looked so cute

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

Just be glad they’re really tiny

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

A chocolate-powered racing car

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

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

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

1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 3 May 2009 at 5:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Hand-drawn holograms

This video from William Beaty, the self-styled Science Hobbyist, demonstrates a rather interesting concept: hand-drawn holograms.

Holograms are traditionally created using lasers, but these ones use just a compass and some copper. There appears to be some debate about whether they are really holograms, but I think they’re too cool to worry about silly definitions.

How much sugar?

It’s interesting how simply communicating things in a different way can change their meaning. If I tell you that a can of Coca-Cola contains 39 grams of sugar, what does that mean to you? Probably not much. If I show you this picture however, you might think twice before reaching for a Coke:

That's a lot of sugar!
That's a lot of sugar!

You can find this image along with many more at Sugar Stacks, a website dedicated to revealing the “hidden” sugar in drinks and snacks. It’s US focused so there are a lot of things I don’t recognise, but you get the idea. I wouldn’t snack on one sugar cube, let alone the 10 in a single can of Coke, so perhaps I’ll avoid the stuff from now on!

Compulsory bicycle helmets might hurt more

An Australian mathematician has concluded that legally requiring cyclists to wear helmets could actually increase healthcare costs.

Piet de Jong of Macquarie University in Sydney reasoned that requiring helmets leads to a decrease in the number of cyclists, so more people miss out on the health benefits of cycling.

There is a bit of debate around this, with various figures for the increased health costs and reduced number of cyclists being thrown about. To solve the problem, de Jong created a model that could be adjusted for a variety of values.

It was only under extreme circumstances that mandatory helmet laws resulted in a net benefit. Head injuries must make a up a large proportion of cycling accidents, a small number of people must stop cycling due to helmet laws, and the benefits of cycling must be low.

With that in mind, de Jong hopes that this model will lead to more informed policy, but he doesn’t discourage the use of helmets:

“I go to Holland and places like that, and I don’t wear a helmet,” he says. “I used to live in London, and I wore a helmet all the time.”

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 28 April 2009 at 10:11 am by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Physics, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Nearly over! Normal service resumes tomorrow.

Tesla coil art

Who doesn’t love Tesla coils, the high voltage lightning generators that are fun for all the family? An Australian named Peter Terren is certainly a fan, and has used them to create some rather striking images:

It tickles.
It tickles.

Can you appreciate the gravity of the situation?

If Tesla coils aren’t you thing, how about gravity waves? Not be confused with gravitational waves which are fluctuations in spacetime that have yet to be directly detected, gravity waves occur when two fluids meet. I remember studying them on a fluid mechanics course, but they were never as cool as this:

Confusingly, the “fluid” in fluid mechanics doesn’t refer to just liquids, but can also include gases. Here the gravity wave occurs when clouds meet the air.

Staying up late better than getting up early

Whilst revising for these exams I’ve been attempting to get up early in order to get a lot of work done, but perhaps I’ve been doing it wrong. A study by the University of Liege in Belgium has found that night owls concentrate better than earlier risers

Splitting participants into two groups, one which stayed up late whilst the others went to bed, the researchers found that after 10 hours of being awake the early group showed reduced brain activity in areas linked to attention. They were also sleepier and slower to perform tasks. Sounds like an excuse for a late night!

Comments Off

1 Comment » Posted on Monday 27 April 2009 at 8:29 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Before I head off for the first day of exams, here’s the next roundup.

Pope goes solar powered

No, unfortunately His Holiness hasn’t developed the ability to absorb sunlight though his skin. Vatican City soon will though, with the announcement of a €500 million solar power plant. The 100 megawatts generated by solar energy will produce more than enough to power the tiny state, making Vatican City effectively the first country in the world powered entirely by renewables. The Pope may spout some dodgy science, but this time he’s done good.

Twitter your thoughts – literally

Twitter’s opponents decry the banality of sharing your every thought with the world, but researchers at the University of Wisconsin have taken the concept one step further. Using a machine which can translate brainwaves into movement of an on-screen cursor, a team of neuroscientists can literally tweet their thoughts.

It’s not simply for a laugh, however. They hope that the technology can be used by sufferers of locked-in syndrome; people who are concious but unable to move or communicate.

A map of global warming

Even though we know it’s happening, we don’t know exactly how much the Earth’s surface will heat up due to global warming. The image below shows one possibility:

Could the Earth warm this much?
Could the Earth warm this much?

Created by Global Warming Art, a wiki devoted to bringing data about global warming and climate change to the public, it is based on data from the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Change. The map shows a world much warmer than the one we currently live in, with some areas of land warmed by as much as 6 or 7°C.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 April 2009 at 5:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Talking in your sleep can be an annoying habit for anyone you share a bed with, but applying the same principle to computers could help combat climate change. ‘Sleep talking’ PCs are a new development from the University of California, San Diego and Microsoft Research that allow the computer to continue communicating on a network whilst in power-saving ‘sleep’ mode.

Computer science Ph.D. student Yuvraj Agarwal was lead author of a paper outlining the new technique, dubbed ‘Somniloquy’ – Latin for ‘sleep talking’. He says that people are leaving their PCs switched on even when they are not doing very much, simply because they want to remain online:

“Large numbers of people keep their PCs in awake mode even though the PCs are relatively idle for long blocks of time because they want to stay connected to an internal network or the Internet or both,

“I realized that most of the tasks that people keep their computers on for can be achieved at much lower power-use levels than regular awake mode.”

I know I’m guilty of going out for the day and leaving my PC on just to download a few files, and it turns out that I’m not alone. Previous research has shown that the average home PC is on 34% of the time, but only in use for half that.

Somniloquy works by plugging a piece of USB hardware into your PC that can communicate with other computers in the network. Low-intensity tasks can be performed whilst the PC is asleep, and if a bit more computational oomph is required Somniloquy will wake the PC up.

The current prototypes will work with any type of computer or network, and consumes anything from 11 to 24 times less power than a switched on, but idle, PC. This could mean a reduction of power consumption by 60 to 80% – quite a significant saving.

I’m a big champion of small, unglamorous ideas that can be rolled out on a large scale to lower energy usage and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Somniloquy looks to be a great idea in this vein, and I look forward to installing it on my own PC.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 18 April 2009 at 5:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Inventions & Technology

Who would have thought it possible to create a prosciutto-powered thermal lance? Theodore Gray of, that’s who. Despite referring to the meat as “bacon”, his crazy idea actually works.

Prosciutto, more usually found on deli counters and in sandwiches everywhere, takes the place of the traditional iron rod in this power tool with a tasty difference. Gray first created seven tubes of prosciutto by wrapping them around a fiberglass rod and baking them in an oven. These tubes were then wrapped in more meat, and baked again to create the thermal lance’s fuel core. Attach a supply of oxygen and set the thing on fire, and you’re ready to start cutting:


For the veggies amongst you, Gray also created a meat-free version made from a hollowed out cucumber and some breadsticks. It’s not as powerful, but that’s only to be expected – anyone who has ever eaten Quorn will tell you that vegetarian alternatives are never quite as good as the real thing.

Despite being really cool, what’s the point of this little experiment? As Gray says, it demonstrates that the food we eat really does contain quite a lot of energy. Feeding pure oxygen into the mix makes the energy release much faster than normal, but it’s the same calories that add to your waistline as are cutting through pure steel here.

Much derided by those looking to shed a few kilos, calories are simply a way of measuring energy. The official definition of a calorie is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. In other words, a Mars Bar which contains 280 calories (according to Mars’ stupidly designed website which won’t let me provide a proper link) provides enough energy to boil nearly three kilograms of water when starting from 0° C. It’s not much of a surprise then that meat can cut metal.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Friday 17 April 2009 at 9:27 am by Jessica Bland
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

This week the internet security company McAfee released the results of a survey they commissioned on the carbon footprint of email spam. The survey shows that the annual energy used to transmit, process and filter spam totals 33 billion kilowatt-hours (kWh). This is equivalent to the electricity used in 2.4 million homes. And 80% of it comes from us searching for and deleting spam emails from our inboxes.

Wow. That’s huge. Imagine how goody green-drops we would be if we had some way of getting rid of spam? Well we don’t need to imagine, we can just buy McAfee’s Spamkiller software.

There is nothing wrong with a company paying for a survey that might increase the brand-profile of one of its products. After all, that just makes good business sense. But there is something a bit sad about the way this was picked up by mainstream, well-respected publications and reported as news. The worst case is a New Scientist article in their online Tech section. This was a near verbatim repeat of McAfee’s press release with the addition of one quote – from Jeff Green, McAfee’s senior vice president of product development.

There are similar articles hopping around cyberspace, replicated in part or whole on various sites. They all do the same thing; they report the story as straight news, with a carbon footprint quote from someone at McAfee. My favourite is James Murray’s report for entitled Spam Epidemic Results in Giant Carbon Footprint. Getting “epidemic” and “Carbon Footprint” in the same heading is pretty impressive. I challenge anyone not to click on the article if it appears in their Google news results.

Luckily, that particular article dose not actually appear on a Google news search for “carbon footprint spam”. The top article in that search is, in fact, a piece where the writer appears to have grasped more than the copy and paste functions of a keyboard. Jeremy A. Kaplan from should be applauded for being the only writer I found who applied his critical faculties to the McAfee study.

In Why the Spam Carbon Footprint Study is Wrong Kaplan makes the simple point that most of the energy we use whilst filtering and deleting emails (the process that accounts for 80% of the carbon footprint McAfee have calculated) comes from having a computer switched on. And by including a computer’s footprint in their calculations the study grossly overestimated the true effects of the spam epidemic.

Kaplan’s article was posted later than many of the other pieces and it illustrates well why taking time over a story can make for better journalism. If you read the McAfee study properly, mulled it over for a bit and then set about deciding whether it’s newsworthy, queries like Kaplan’s tend to crop up. Then when you speak to or, more likely, email someone at McAfee, you might just ask them about why the study they commissioned points more to the carbon footprint of computer uses rather than of spam emails. And that way, you might do more than play your part in their corporate marketing scheme. You might do some journalism.

All this is even more surprising given a similar statistical manipulation that burned a bona fide journalist at The Sunday Times back in January. Google and You’ll Damage the Planet claimed that just two Google searches has the same carbon footprint as boiling a kettle. This was almost instantly refuted by Google as Jacob reported. A search is equivalent to 0.2g of carbon, whereas a kettle burns 7g. The Times Online version of the article now carries a clarification. It claims that the original article based its numbers on the amount of carbon produced in the average number of searches done before some one finds the information they need, rather than in a one-click search. But this correction didn’t matter. The response from Google spread across the web quicker, discrediting the article.

The Google-Kettle episode taught us how precarious calculations of computing carbon footprints are. But those reporting the McAfee survey chose to forget that in favour of an easy article. Maybe that’s a little harsh; perhaps they are just too busy filtering their spam mail to do any real reporting.

Comments Off

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 14 April 2009 at 9:58 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology

This it seems is the week of extraneous body parts. First, from Geneva, a city used to the media spotlight of late, came the news that a pensioner had developed a completely imaginary but yet perfectly working third arm. And then yesterday it was announced that Australian performance artist Stelarc would be giving a talk in Edinburgh about his third ear. An ear it is worth noting that happily resides on his forearm. I can see we are going to need some clarification so let’s start in Switzerland.

Doctors at the Geneva University Hospital have reported in the Annals of Neurology a rare case of Supernumerary Phantom Limb (SPL) syndrome in a 64-year-old stroke patient. A few days after her stroke the pensioner told of how she could not only perceive a third arm, but see it and move it as well. In fact, not only could she move her imaginary appendage but could use it to scratch a very real itch on her cheek.

Curious about the veracity of her claims, neurologist Asaid Khateb put her through an MRI machine and studied the activity of her brain. Remarkably when asked to move her ‘phantom limb’ her motor cortex was activated, suggesting that the brain thought the arm truly existed and was able to be moved. Furthermore, her visual cortex showed signs of activity suggesting she could also see this apparition.

The team in Geneva believe this to be the first case of its kind where a patient can intentionally move a make believe member.

For our second anatomical add-on we must move to Scotland, where yesterday’s Guardian website reported that Stelios Arcadiou, Visiting Professor at Brunel University, would be leading a session at The Edinburgh Science Festival. Arcadiou, better known as Stelarc, is a performance artist with a twist, that twist being an extra ear on his lower arm (see picture below) that was cultivated from stem-cells in 2006. In his talk, entitled Alternate Anatomical Architectures: Fractal Flesh Chimeras & Extra Ears, Stelarc hopes to “explore and extend the concept of the body through human-machine interfaces.” After waiting ten years to find a surgeon willing to construct his aural addition out of human cartilage, he is now trying to hook it up to the internet so that people all over the world can tune into to the delightful acoustic surroundings of his forearm.

Stelarc and his third ear.
Stelarc and his third ear.

In days gone by, people with more body parts than traditionally adorned with by nature would be cruelly toured around the world in so called freak shows, glorified circus acts. It seems to me that a modern day self promoting circus act is just what Prof. Arcadiou may be.

1 Comment » Posted on Monday 13 April 2009 at 2:12 pm by Seth Bell
In Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology

The Kyoto box isn’t just a theory. It’s just a box (well technically it’s two, but that just sounds less snappy.) It’s a solar cooker made from cardboard boxes which won the Climate Change Challenge, a $75,000 prize organised by Forum For The Future. For the Kenyan-based entrepreneur behind it, Jon Bøhmer, it’s a bit like winning Dragon’s Den. Except it has the potential to save millions of lives. Almost as good as Levi Roots’ Reggae Reggae sauce?

How to assemble: Take one cardboard box (ask at your local Tesco if you don’t have one lying around), cover in silver foil. Place newspaper at bottom of box for insulation. Place second cardboard box inside and paint black. Cover top of second box with acrylic to trap sun-rays.

That’s it. Sounds like half an episode of Art Attack, or a particularly good GCSE technology project. Except this disarmingly simple box can cook stuff using the power of the sun alone and it only costs 5 Euros to make at a manufacturing level. Apparently it can reach over 100 degrees no problem. Perhaps the most amazing part is that no one has had this idea before (or if they have, that they failed to market it successfully).

The Kyoto box is very good news for the population of developing countries for a whole host of reasons. First, it offers a very cheap and easy way to sterilize water.  Second, for the three billion people who still rely on firewood for cooking the Kyoto box offers a wood-free method of cooking. Not only is this better for the environment, but it’s also safer – apparently 1.6 million women and children die from smoke inhalation during indoor cooking every year.

So I’m a fan, as were the judges (who included my old boss Richard Branson) and the prize money will be used to trial the Kyoto box in 10 different countries, including South Africa and India. 

The appeal of the Kyoto box is not just its potential to save lives, but its simplicity.  If you read the About page for Just A Theory, Jacob warns us of the danger of journalists who dumb down science. How do you dumb down the Kyoto box? You can’t, and this is the joy of this story. There is no elaborate scientific experiment or incomprehensible statistics for us to struggle with, because the concept behind the Kyoto box is beautiful in its simplicity. 

For me, science is at its best when clever thinking about simple ideas leads to a remarkable result (such as when Einstein developed Special Relativity using only high school mathematics) and the Kyoto box is a prime example of this. I’m all in favour of complicated experiments and expensive particle accelerators, but scientists would do well to remember that sometimes a small, simple idea can go a long way.

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.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 4 April 2009 at 2:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Today may be the Grand National, but I’m more interested in a different type of racetrack. New research in to a new type of computer memory means hard drive failure could be a thing of the past.

Physicists at the University of Leeds, in conjunction with IBM Research’s Zurich Lab, have been working on developing “racetrack” memory which could replace current hard drives. Good news for anyone who has ever lost crucial data thanks to a dead drive.

Existing storage technology works like a tiny record player. Information is stored on metal discs made up of groups of magnetised atoms called domains. These discs spin beneath a “head” to read off your mp3 files, documents, and emails.

Racetrack memory was conceived last year by Stuart Parkin at IBM Research’s Almaden Lab, and uses no moving parts, meaning disks using the technology would be much less likely to break. Instead, the information is moved about by an electric current, which switches the magnetic direction of the domains.

The new research, published in Physical Review Letters, uses an electron microscope that can “see” magnetism to investigate how these tiny magnetic devices behave. The aim is to reduce the electric current required to move information along the racetrack.

As well as being more reliable, racetrack memory could also be much cheaper and faster. The price of iPods and USB memory sticks could fall, with the cost of racetrack memory 100 times cheaper per bit than flash memory. With no moving parts and no time needed to search the disk for information, computers could potentially boot up in an instant.

All this wonderful stuff is still a long way off, however. The next stage in the quest for improved memory is to develop better materials with which to construct the racetrack. It’s expected that the new memory will be available within 10 years.

Comments Off

1 Comment » Posted on Friday 3 April 2009 at 4:49 pm by Sam Wong
In Biology, Inventions & Technology

Scientists have always worked in a perpetual state of unease concerning whether or not they would get their next grant. Recent funding cuts and the spectre of the global recession have only exacerbated worries about job security. And now this.

It was reported in Science this week that a robot scientist called Adam created by researchers from Aberystwyth University successfully identified 12 genes that encode enzymes in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Adam generates hypotheses about the likely locations of genes that encode particular enzymes. He then devises a method to test his hypotheses. He can select the appropriate yeast mutants, incubate cells and measure their growth rates.

Meanwhile scientists at Cornell University in the US have developed an algorithm that can deduce laws of motion from observing a dynamical system (also in this week’s Science).

We’ve certainly come a long way since the days of Jacques de Vaucanson and his Digesting Duck. While the 18th century’s crowning achievement in robotics was an avian contraption with the ability to defecate, today’s automata are being devised with genuinely useful practical applications in mind.

As The Times notes, ‘robots are proving increasingly valuable because they can carry out large numbers of repetitive tests that in a person would induce boredom and loss of concentration’. In the final year of my biology degree, I decided not to pursue a career in science precisely because I found lab work so mind-numbingly tedious. If we can build machines that do all the mundane tasks for us, so much the better.

We should expect robots to make excellent scientists. The 20th century sociologist Robert K Merton came up with four ‘norms’ of science, a set of ideals to which scientists should aspire. These were communalism – the common ownership of scientific discoveries; universalism – the assessment of hypotheses on the basis of objective, impersonal criteria; disinterestedness – abstention from self-aggrandisement; and organised scepticism – the collective scrutiny of scientific endeavour. These are all qualities we should expect to come naturally to robots (providing we program them in the right way).

Not everybody is quite so enthusiastic about these developments. Understandably, many scientists are becoming slightly nervous about their future careers.

‘I believe many researchers would be threatened by this new technology’, said Daniel Goodman, a systems biologist at Imperial College, London, who also works on yeast. ‘After years of incredibly intense training, “Adams” are going to swoop in to replace human scientists who have worked day and night to get to where they are today. Open-mindness and intellectual flexibility are key attributes in a good scientists. A robot would have thrown away Fleming’s contaminated plate as trash rather than see the potential that lay within.’

Professor Ross King, who led the Aberystwyth team, played down the threat to human jobs. ‘We hope to have teams of human and robot scientists working together in laboratories’, he said. He obviously hasn’t seen The Matrix, or I, Robot.

King’s team are already building a successor to Adam, called Eve. They declined to comment on the suggestion that Eve would be more prone to breaking down than Adam and less able to perform several tasks at once.

What next? Robot writers that will keep me out of a job? Clever algorithms like this one are already rendering the Daily Mail journalist obsolete. Thankfully, intelligent blogging like that what we do at Just A Theory remains the preserve of the human. For now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 26 March 2009 at 3:08 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

A new type of biometric identification may soon be joining fingerprint and retina scanners, in the form of X-ray photographs of a person’s knees, according to Lior Shamir of the National Institutes of Health and Salim Rahimi, a computer engineer at State University of New York.

Their report, to be published in the International Journal of Biometrics, suggests that an individual’s knees differ enough from any others to make them of use in identification. Using an algorithm known as wnd-charm, which is normally used to diagnose medical knee joint issues, the authors suggest that knee X-rays are a viable alternative to external biometrics.

Whilst it is possible to fool existing biometrics with fake fingerprints and contact lenses, the pair say it would be much harder for any would-be impersonators to spoof another’s knees. It seems that knees also stay consistent, with X-rays taken several years earlier still suitable for verification purposes.

The new technique doesn’t quite measure up to existing technology, with accuracy results lower than retina or fingerprint identification, though the researchers say refining the wnd-charm algorithm could improve this.

I say don’t bother. I think biometrics are a terrible, terrible idea. They can’t be replaced if someone succeeds in spoofing your identity, as it would be difficult to legally acquire a new set of knees. There is also the issue of those who cannot use their eyes, fingerprints or indeed knees to identify themselves, because they don’t have them. In a society where knee-ID becomes the norm, how could such people function?

Finally, X-raying people’s knees repeatedly to authenticate them sounds like a really bad idea. Multiple exposures to X-rays is incredibly dangerous, which is why your dentist will hide behind a protective screen when scanning your teeth.

The average person will be exposed to relatively small doses of X-rays during their life, so there is no need to worry about routine medical procedures. Biometric techniques however must be used all the time if they are to be of any use, and scanning knees in this way would undoubtedly cause health issues. The authors suggest terahertz imaging in the place of X-rays could offer more precise data, and it would also solve the problem of repeated exposure. I wonder though, do we really want to be asked “Can I see your knees, please?” at every security checkpoint? No thanks.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 5 March 2009 at 7:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy

Hopefully you didn’t notice, but yesterday’s post was of the “here’s one I prepared earlier” variety. I’m smack in the middle of the busy period that began a few weeks ago, with two essays due next Tuesday, so being able to fall back on pre-written posts is always nice.

The reason for that rather rambling intro is that today I was amused to stumble across even more astronomy software! Coincidences, eh? Robert Simpson, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University, has been working on scripts for Google Earth, Google Sky and Twitter.

If you’re a Google Earth user you can import his data to show you the current location of satellites in orbit around Earth. This includes the International Space Station (ISS), the Hubble Space Telescope, and even space junk. If you spot some satellites of your own, you can input the time and place, and the software will calculate a trajectory for you.

Google Sky, the outer space aspect of Google Earth that is also available online, gets its own additions. Using information from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope SCUBA data, Simpson’s add-on will overlay thermal maps of space dust on to the visible spectrum.

Finally, everyone’s favourite Web 2.0 application Twitter gets in on the action. Subscribe to one of the many Twitter feeds for cities from Amsterdam to Vancouver (and a few others I’ve never heard of) and you will be alerted when the ISS and other objects of interest are about to pass over. The feeds give around a 30 minute warning and tell you where to point your telescope. Cleverly, you’ll only get a tweet when the weather is good enough for satellites to be visible. Neat stuff!

I’m increasingly geeking out over the possibilities of Twitter and other web applications for communicating science, so I just had to take a break from essaying to point these cool toys out. I’m afraid you can expect slightly slimmer pickings over the next few days, though I will hopefully still be putting something up daily.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Friday 20 February 2009 at 7:53 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology

To be fair to the Daily Mail, their headline was the slightly more reserved “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer“, but the sentiment is the same. Are users of the popular social network putting their health at risk with every status update?

The Mail’s report is based on a paper published in the journal Biology by Dr Aric Sigman, who has previously suggested that watching sex on TV makes teenagers more likely to become pregnant – so he’s already sliding in to the “spouts nonsense” category of my personal sliding scale of scientists. His paper is available for anyone to read though, which wins him back a few points. I decided to have a read before drawing any conclusions.

First off, it’s important to point out that Signman has not actually done any new research, but merely analysed the work of others. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as this type of so-called meta-analysis can often produce interesting and useful results.

Sigman begins by referencing two papers that describe the dwindling hours people spend with real-world, face-to-face, contact. Fair enough, except that one is based on data from 2004 and the other from 2000, although both sources published this data some time later. What’s the problem? Well, MySpace launched in late 2003 and Facebook in 2004. Now the two biggest social network websites, they would have had little or indeed no impact when this data was collected.

The paper is entitled Well Connected?: The Biological Implications of ‘Social Networking’, but as far as I can tell none of the references it draws on make any mention of online social networks. Instead, the papers that Sigman has reviewed tend to discuss the health effects of real-life social networks.

I’m torn here. The Daily Mail’s headline is clearly wrong, but I feel I can’t place full blame at their feet. Sigman has extrapolated from other sources, and mistaken correlation for causation. It’s one thing for a paper to say that patients with increased social activities show higher levels of Natural Killer T cells (tumour fighters, essentially), but it’s quite another to say that communicating online will have a detrimental effect. Who knows, it might even have the same effect – Sigman doesn’t know either way, because he hasn’t actually looked into it.

There is also the matter of this graph:

Pretty damning evidence from the looks of it: people are spending more time with computers and the like, and less with each other. Certainly a correlation, but does that mean that one has caused the other? No.

In addition, the caption reads “Hours per day of face-to-face social interaction declines as use of electronic media increases. These trends are predicted to increase (data abstracted from a series of time-use and demographic studies)”. In other words it has been cobbled together from a bunch of different sources, and as the origin of data is not listed it’s hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from the graph.

I think it’s safe to say that Facebook, nor indeed any other website, will give you cancer. At the same time, I’m struggling to figure out whether Sigman has anything at all to say about the health effects of social networking, or if he has just thrown together a bunch of information in the hopes that some of it sticks to the likes of the Daily Mail. Hmm.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 19 February 2009 at 8:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Just A Review

This review originally ran in the most recent issue of Imperial College’s science magazine I, Science. Since we haven’t quite managed to get the mag online yet, I thought I’d reproduce it here:

Upon entering the Science Museum’s Japan Car exhibition, you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve wandered in to the wrong room. Visitors are greeted by a display of bonsai trees, the miniature Japanese trees. Don’t worry, you’re in the right place – these were created by artist Seiji Morimae to complement the cars on display. Indeed, each bonsai display contains a small model car, evoking the natural stones typical of the bonsai art form. All very good, but isn’t this the Science Museum?

Moving in to the next room, we find “The view from there”, a short film that artistically explores the urban landscape of modern Japan. Roads weave across the three large screens in a pleasantly relaxing manner, but I couldn’t help feel like I was watching an extended car advert – an impression that would only grow as I walked through the rest of the exhibition.

Leaving the film to its eternal looping, I entered the exhibition proper. The stark white appearance of both the cars and accompanying displays gave the effect of being inside an iPod. Everything oozed style, but in a way that seemed extremely calculated. Looking down at my feet, I spotted the exhibit barriers, and winced. Bamboo-like poles supported by tripods made from chopsticks, clearly intended to evoke Japanese culture, just seemed a little bit crass.

Each of the 14 cars in the exhibit are displayed along side information about the relationship between their design and Japanese culture. It all comes off very slogan-like, with titles such as “One of the Very Best Off-Road Performers” and “Cars Finely Honed for Fuel Efficiency”. I almost expected to be offered zero-percent finance.

Determined to find some actual science content, I pressed on. One car had all of its inner workings laid out for easy viewing – interesting, but It didn’t tell me anything about how the pieces actually fit together to make the car run. Later displays explained the principles of hydrogen fuel cells, but with the information directly above Honda’s latest model, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable about the commercial undertones.

One of the last pieces in the exhibition is the Toyota i-REAL, a concept car in the loosest sense of the word. Looking somewhat like a cross between a wheelchair and a motorcycle, its sleek aesthetic instantly reminded me of the film Wall-E. In Pixar’s 2008 animated hit, intrepid robot Wall-E discovers that human beings have been reduced to mega-obese consumers who glide around in hovering wheelchairs very similar in form to the i-REAL. Probably not the image intended by Toyota, but once I’d made the connection I couldn’t get it out of my head.

Understandably the exhibition was put on with the aid of leading Japanese car manufacturers, and a little bit of product placement can be forgiven, but having reached the end in under half an hour it seemed that Japan Car is all product and no exhibition. When you consider the £8 cost of admission, it’s hard to recommend to all but the most devoted petrol-heads or Japan-o-philes. If the exhibition had been put on at the V & A museum, the focus on design and culture might have felt more comfortable, but in the Science Museum I want a little more substance.

Japan Car is open until 19th April 2009 – see the website for details.

Comments Off

2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 8 February 2009 at 12:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Here’s the rest of this week’s roundup.

LED the way!

I’ve always said that CFL light bulbs are only a stop-gap solution until LED bulbs are ready for commercial use. Now, New Scientist report that they could be coming soon. A team at the University of Cambridge have developed a new method for creating LEDs at a fraction of previous costs.

Currently LEDs are made from gallium nitride, which cannot be grown on silicon like other similar electrical components because it shrinks twice as fast as silicon when cooling. The solution in the past has been to use sapphire, which of course makes the result LEDs too expensive.

Colin Humphreys and colleagues at the University of Cambridge have figured out a way to grow LEDs on silicon, by adding layers of aluminium gallium nitride, which shrink much slower than any of the other materials, balancing it out. The result is a 15 cm silicon wafer costing just $15 whilst containing 150,000 LEDs – perfect for commercial light bulbs.

The FT likes science

The Association of British Science Writers points out that whilst the Financial Times’ decision to cut its sports coverage is bad news for those losing their jobs, it’s actually pretty positive for science.

Why? Well, unlike CNN, the FT clearly value their science journalists and their reporting more than that of its sports department. It’s a shame that cuts have to be made, but at least it’s not science getting the chop this time.

Time for a swim

More animal pictures from the Daily Mail I’m afraid! This time it’s the turn of polar bears.

Polar plunge. Photographer: Steven J Kazlowski/Barcroft Med.
Polar plunge. Photographer: Steven J Kazlowski/Barcroft Med.
Comments Off Posted on Sunday 1 February 2009 at 4:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

The Flesh of Physics

Carl Zimmer over at Discover magazine has a really interesting post about biomechanics – the study of life in motion. It began in 1872 when Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University, allegedly placed a bet of $25,000 that when a horse is trotting there are instances when none of its legs are touching the ground. He paid a photographer to capture a horse in motion using a series of cameras and tripwires, and was eventually proved right. Thus the field of biomechanics was born.

Interestingly enough, even though we know now much about how animals move, depictions of motion are often horribly inaccurate. Apparently 41% of museum displays pose their animals incorrectly, and a shocking 63.6% of animal anatomy books depict positions an animal would never adopt in real life. Check out the full article for an interesting read.

Pretty lights and sounds

Peter Bennett, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, has invented a nifty little sequencer that uses ball bearings to place the beat. It’s been doing the rounds (here’s a Telegraph article) so I thought I’d share the video:

Science on the BBC

The BBC are launching a new line up of science programmes on BBC2, starting this year with a four-part series featuring Professor Lesley Regan who will examine the science behind the marketing of drugs, diets, and other health products.

Two more will follow in 2010, with a look at The History of Science (working title), a programme presented by Michael Mosley that will take a look at some of the big scientific milestones, and Seven Wonders of the Solar System, in which Brian Cox will explore space using the magic of CGI. Apparently, another big science announcement from the Beeb is due this month.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 13 January 2009 at 12:32 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

Now this is a bit interesting. Yesterday I (and many others) examined the claims of one Dr Alex Wissner-Gross, as reported by the Times, that two search on Google release as much CO2 as boiling a kettle. Today, speaking to TechNewsWorld, Dr Wissner-Gross says he has been misquoted.

The original study (which as I must remind you, I don’t have access to and thus haven’t read) apparantly never mentions Google, or indeed kettles. Both elements of the story seem to have been entirely manufacture by the Times.

“For some reason, in their story on the study, the Times had an ax to grind with Google,

“Our work has nothing to do with Google. Our focus was exclusively on the Web overall, and we found that it takes on average about 20 milligrams of CO2 per second to visit a Web site.” Dr Wissner-Gross told TechNewsWorld.

This quote gives us another figure to add to the growing bag of statistic on this matter: 20 milligrams, or 0.02g of CO2 per second of web usage. If you recall from yesterday, Google claimed that the average search on their servers took less than 0.2 seconds, which given this new figure would result in a CO2 emission of just 0.004g; pretty far off Google’s own estimates of 0.2g. Perhaps the remaining emissions come from the users PC as they read the results.

In the end, these statistics become meaningless. Google aren’t going to release their methodology; it would mean revealing the details of how their servers are set up, something they probably don’t want to share. Meanwhile, I still don’t even know where the original study was published, let alone how to access it. I’m considering emailing Dr Wissner-Gross, but I don’t think a message from a lone blogger is likely to get a reply when competing against the world’s press. Sigh.

I’ll sum up with another quote from Dr Wissner-Gross in he TechNewsWorld article:

“Everything online has a definite environmental impact. I think everybody can agree on that, including Google.”

It’s not just everything online that has an environmental impact, pretty much just everything does. If we’re going to worry about the carbon cost of Googling (rather than larger concerns such as cars or power plants) then we might as well take it to the ultimate logic conclusion: the greenest thing you can do is to kill yourself.

Comments Off

1 Comment » Posted on Monday 12 January 2009 at 8:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

Running just two searches on Google releases as much carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle, says Harvard University physicist Dr Alex Wissner-Gross. He says that each search produces 7g of CO2, but just how did he come up with such a figure? Well to be honest, I don’t know. I can’t find any original sources for his figures, only media reports. It’s still possible to infer some information from these reports, however.

The Times reports a similar estimation by Chris Goodall, author of Ten Technologies to Save the Planet, who suggest a Google search emits between 7g and 10g of CO2. This estimate assumes a total of 15 minutes computer use for one search however, which seems incredibly slow to me. Closer to the mark would be 15 seconds – type your search, hit enter, check the results and click a link – normally the first one, thanks to Google’s accurate searching technology.

Since both Goodall’s and Dr Wissner-Gross’s estimates agree, its not unreasonable to suggest they must be making similar assumptions – inaccurate assumptions, in other words. Google agree, and have responded to the claims. They say that as the average search takes just 0.2 seconds, their servers only use 0.0003 kWh of power per search – about the same amount of energy as an adult human body burns in ten seconds, apparently.

In terms of CO2 emissions, this works out at about 0.2g per search, far from the 7g claimed by Dr Wissner-Gross. Now, we’ve only got Google’s word for these figures, but I see no reason to believe Dr Wissner-Gross over them for one simple reason – he runs a company that offers to make your site carbon neutral. As is to be expected, everyone reporting the story has plugged his website so I won’t give him any more free publicity, and it does rather bring in to question his motivation for releasing his study.

I also question the comparison to boiling a kettle, which we are told is roughly equivalent to two search in carbon terms. The trouble is, “a kettle” is not the most scientific definition. A kettle will take a different amount of time to boil depending on how much water there is inside, and thus the electricity used is variable. As a basis for comparison, it’s a bit lacking.

Finally, consider the alternative to Google. Finding out information would involve travelling to a library, most likely by car, hunting down the book you require, and then searching through it. All of these activities require energy, be it in the form of petrol to power your car or food to fuel your muscles, and emit far more carbon into the atmosphere than simply loading up Google. I don’t know about you, but I think I will continue to Google with a green and guilt-free conscience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 30 December 2008 at 5:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Physics

Last night I watch the first of this year’s annual Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution. The lectures, first given by Michael Faraday in 1825, are designed to educate and entertain children with science.

This year the overarching topic for the lectures was “The Quest for the Ultimate Computer”, and they were given by Professor Christopher Bishop who works at both Microsoft and the University of Edinburgh. This first lecture was entitled “Breaking the speed limit”, and covered the evolution of the microprocessor, the building block of all computers.

The ever-increasing power of computers is all down to Moore’s law. In 1965 the founder of computing giant Intel, Gordon E. Moore, noticed that the number of transistors that can be placed on a computer chip doubles roughly every two years. Amazingly, this means that computers made two years from now will have as much processing power as every computer ever made in the past.

Prof. Bishop used his first lecture to explain exactly what a transistor is – something that I had never had an easy-to-understand explanation for. A transistor is basically an electronic switch that also uses electric current to turn on and off – in other words, no moving parts. This makes them perfect for the construction of logic gates, the very simplest possible computational element. Logic gates come in many forms, but all of these can be built from transistors.

In a number of practical demonstrations, the audience is shown how chips are be manufactured; it’s a rather clever technique. Since the circuitry of a chip is so small and complex, they are actually designed on a much larger scale and then projected on a screen. Light from this screen is shrunk down by a lens on to a light-sensitive material, which marks out the exact design in miniature.

The “speed limit” that Prof. Bishop talks about is actually a physical limit – we simply can’t squeeze any more transistors on to one chip. The solution at the moment is to include many chips in one computer – most PC’s sold these days are marketed as “dual-” or “quad-core”. Not all tasks can be sped up by splitting the workload however; as Prof. Bishop tells us, it takes a woman nine months to make a baby, but nine women can’t make a baby in one month!

If we can’t figure out a way to make better transistors, computers won’t be able to get any faster, as they will just get too hot. This is comically illustrated by making all the children stand up and sit down as fast as they can. If we continue with current technology, in 10 years time chips would be as hot as the surface of the sun. Not something you want in your laptop!

A future solution could be to use carbon nanotubes, which would produce a transistor capable of switching 1,000 times faster than our current silicon models. We could even one day be using DNA to do our computations, though Prof. Bishop admits this is very far off. It sounds like a neat idea however, as the DNA of just one human being can store more information than all of the computers in the world put together.

If you’re as interested as I am to learn about the future of computing, you can watch the remainder of the Christmas Lectures every day this week on Channel Five at 7.15pm. Tonight’s lecture promises “Chips with everything”, so tune in and find out more!

Comments Off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nano-nano vroom-vroom

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

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

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

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

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 14 December 2008 at 6:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Google + Magazines = Moogle?

Earlier this week, Google added a large collection of magazines to their already extensive Book Search catalogue. Of particular interest for the scientifically inclined is the entirety of Popular Science magazine, right back to the first issue published in May 1872. If nothing else, it’s quite fun watching the cover design evolve over the decades. You can also check out the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which for much of its history featured the Doomsday Clock on the cover.

No, you can’t call him Batman

Researchers at Purdue University in Indiana are auctioning the chance to name a newly discovered bat. The winner of the bid (which will start at $250,000) gains the scientific naming rights to a species of bat found recently in a Central American forest. Proceeds will be used to fund environmental research in education at the university, and in the animal’s country of origin.

Dr John Bickham, professor of forestry and natural resources at Purdue and discoverer of the bat, is being cagey about the exact location of its habitat, but the winner of the auction will be invited on an expedition to the area with Dr Bickham. They better have a serious name, however:

“We want this to be a serious thing. Anyone willing to put up this kind of money would probably not do so just to be flippant,” said Dr Bickham. “In science, we name species after someone who we wish to honour. We want to find someone who’s passionate about the environment and issues of biodiversity. This is about doing something meaningful.”

Watch the chocs at Christmas – dark will fill you up quicker

Everyone loves a bit of chocolate, but at Christmas it’s easy to over do it. Over at the Faculty of Life Sciences (LIFE) at the University of Copenhagen, they’ve found that dark chocolate may be the solution. Scientists at the Department of Human Nutrition got 16 young men to fast for 12 hours, then offered them 100g of chocolate. One session used milk, and another later on on used dark.

Two and a half hours after the chocolate feast, participants were offered as much pizza as they liked, and instructed to eat until full. It turns out that in the dark chocolate session, they ate 15% less pizza, and reported feeling less like eating sweet, salty or fatty foods.

Dark chocolate has already been shown to have health benefits over milk, what with its healthier fatty acids and antioxidants, but it seems it could now also stop you from overeating. It probably is still to hard to resist that second helping of stuffing, however…

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 13 December 2008 at 3:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Space & Astronomy

TIME magazine, as part of their “Top 10 Everything of 2008″ series have released the ten most impressive scientific discoveries of the year. “Discoveries” might be stretching it a bit for some of the entries – accomplishments, perhaps? Semantics aside, let’s have a look at the list:

1. Large Hadron Collider

No surprises here. The LHC was the biggest thing in science for most of the year, with extensive coverage in the mainstream media. Even here at Just A Theory I’ve written quite a bit on everyone’s favourite particle accelerator. Unfortunately, there won’t be any discoveries made at CERN for a while yet – a helium leak soon after it was started means the collider won’t be up and running again until sometime next June.

2. The North Pole of Mars

Well, we already knew it was there, but this year in May NASA’s Phoenix probe landed in Mar’s far northern region. No signs of life were found, but we now have further confirmation that Mars was once a wet planet, much like our own Earth.

3. Creating Life

Geneticist J. Craig Venter, instrumental in mapping the human genome, wrote the genetic code for an entirely new type of bacterium, Mycoplasma laboratorium. He and his team put together 582,000 base pairs that make up the genetic information of the new species. Next, this DNA must be inserted into a living bacterium to see if it can take over, effectively creating artificial life.

4. China Soars into Space

The world’s biggest country made new strides into space this year, with the first Chinese spacewalk spacewalk. Pretty impressive, since it’s only their third mission in a space programme that began in 2003.

5. More Gorillas in the Mist

For once, some good news on animal conservation. It turns out that previous estimates of the number of western lowland gorillas were too low, and the Republic of Congo is now thought to contain 125,000 gorillas – twice as many as previously thought.

6. Brave New Worlds

The discovery of extrasolar solar planets continued at a rapid pace this year, with 45 new worlds announced in June by Swiss astronomer Michel Mayor. Later on in November, we got the first ever pictures of planets around another star thank’s to good ol’ Hubble.

7. The Power of Invisibility

Scientists at Berkeley, University of California, announced the invention of an invisibility cloak. Nanotechnology and metamaterials make it possible for an object to completely vanish, but don’t expect your own cloak soon – it’s far from ready to be practical yet.

8. Cenozoic Park?

In Novemeber, biochemistry professor Steven Schuster of Penn State University revealed 80% of the genome of the ancient woolly mammoth, painstakingly recovered using fossilised hair. This lead to speculation we might one day be cloning the furry creatures – has no one seen Jurassic Park?!

9. Can You Spell Science?

Between 1979 and 2006, the percentage of science literacy in adults has doubled to 17%. It’s not that great news though – according to the survey by the University of Michigan, a quarter of the US population count as “civic scientifically literate”. In other words, three in four adults will struggle to understand science stories printed in the media – I wonder if that includes this blog?!

10. First Family

Finally, we have the discovery of the first “nuclear family”. In Saxony-Anhalt in central Germany, a 4,600-year-old grave was discovered to contain the remains of an adult male and female, and two boys aged 8 to 9 and 4 to 5. DNA evidence confirmed their relationships: they are indeed the First Family.

Comments Off

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

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

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

Water droplets form perfect spheres on the new material.

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

A stream of water bounces right off.

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

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

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

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

Comments Off Posted on Monday 24 November 2008 at 9:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology

Sorry guys and gals, but with an essay deadline looming in a little over 12 hours I’m afraid I don’t have much time to blog today. Thankfully, I’m at the “editing and finishing up” stage, rather than the “ohgoditsalmostmidnightandihaven’tstarted” stage, but I’m still going to have to pass the buck on this one.

You’re in luck though, as earlier this evening I came across this snazzy little video about the history of the light emitting diode. They’re in practically every electrical appliance you own, but have you ever stopped to think about where they come from? Well, now you can. Enjoy.

P.S. Don’t worry, Einstein & Eddington is still on it’s way!

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 19 November 2008 at 3:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Spanish surgeons have performed the worlds first transplant using a tissue-engineered organ. A windpipe grown from the patients own stem-cells was transplanted allowing the medical team to return 30-year-old Claudia Castillo to perfect health. Without the procedure, she would have lost a lung due to tuberculosis. Five months later, she is able to lead a normal life once more.

Scientists in Bristol grew the organ for transplant, tailoring it to Ms Castillo’s immune system. This means that the transplant is also the first to not require anti-rejection drugs. They began with a donor windpipe, or trachea, and then used chemicals to wash away any traces of the original cells, leaving only a framework of fibrous protein. Adult stem cells, which can be grown into many other types of cells, were taken from her bone marrow, and encouraged to grow on the framework which was placed inside a rotating bio reactor.

In conjunction with cells from her original organ, these cells coated the new trachea in just four days, ready to be implanted. Professor Paolo Macchiarini of the Hospital Clínic of Barcelona performed the operation last June:

“I was very much afraid. Before this, we had been doing this work only on pigs.

“But as soon as the donor trachea came out of the bioreactor it was a very positive surprise.”

He was not the only one to be afraid. As is understandable with a never-before performed procedure, the patient had some nerves as well:

“I was scared. I had the illness for four years and in January they told me they had to operate,” said Ms Castillo.

“He told me that it was a trial that had never been carried out before and that this would be the first in the world.”

The resounding success of the operation put all fears to rest, however. Ms Castillo encourages the team to continue the work, and help others in the same way as her. Professor Martin Birchall, who helped grow the new trachea and is professor of surgery at the University of Bristol, certainly plans to. He believes that in 20 years time, nearly any organ for transplant could be grown in this way:

“This will represent a huge step change in surgery.

“Surgeons can now start to see and understand the potential for adult stem cells and tissue engineering to radically improve their ability to treat patients with serious diseases.”

Comments Off

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 13 November 2008 at 12:48 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology

The phrase “google-fu” is used by some as a description of one’s ability to efficiently use the famous search engine, but it’s not to be confused with the recently released Google Flu.

Google have used their gigantic databases of search terms to come up with something quite interesting: predicting levels of flu activity in the United States. By aggregating data on flu-related searches, the search giant was able to get accurate results up to two weeks faster than the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch of the Influenza Division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Google's flu predictions match the CDC's surprisingly well.

By speeding up predictions, Google can provide an early warning system for influenza outbreaks. The CDC report that each year in America, 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications and about 36,000 people die from the disease – although these is some debate about these figures. In an early version of a paper that has been accepted for publication in the journal Nature, Google researchers state:

Up-to-date influenza estimates may enable public health officials and health professionals to better respond to seasonal epidemics. If a particular region experiences an early, sharp increase in ILI physician visits, it may be possible to focus additional resources on that region to identify the etiology of the outbreak, providing extra vaccine capacity or raising local media awareness as necessary.

Google is also keen to reiterate it’s company’s unofficial motto: Don’t be evil. Using search engine data in this way brings up questions about privacy issues, but Google assures its users that they can not be identified from the data used in Google Flu. Which is nice. Now if they could just invent Google Where In The Damn Hell Did I Leave My Keys

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 25 October 2008 at 6:33 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Physics, Yes, But When?
Spec-tape-ular: visible light is generated in this 30-second exposure of peeling tape.

A paper in the latest issue of Nature has revealed that peeling sticky tape can produce X-rays.

It has been known since 1939 that tape can produce visible light when peeled. This is called triboluminescence, and is due to the energy released during the breaking of the chemical bonds between the two layers of tape.

The research by a group of scientists at the Department of Physics and Astronomy of University of California in Los Angeles found that in addition to this visible light, tape could also produce X-rays and radio waves, both forms of electromagnetic radiation but with different wavelengths to that of light.

The equipment used in the experiment

They used an interesting looking set-up (left) to search for the X-rays. An automated peeling machine removed the tape with a measurable force, whilst a detector looked out for an X-rays that were emitted. All of the equipment had to be placed in a vacuum, as the X-rays cannot normally be generated otherwise – which means that you’re safe when reaching for the office supplies.

The X-rays are produced as electrons jump from the main roll to the sticky side of the peeling tape. When they hit the other side they slow down, losing energy in the process. This energy has to go somewhere, and it just so happens to come out as X-rays.

It’s not all fun and games however, as the X-ray tape could have useful applications. Medical X-rays are made using costly and bulky equipment, but with some refinements the team believe that inexpensive X-ray machines could be produced for use by paramedics, or places where access to electricity is limited – all you need is a bit of tape. The researchers have applied for a patent on the concept. They were able to produce an image of one of the team’s thumbs:

An X-rayed thumb, produced using tape.
Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Friday 17 October 2008 at 10:49 am by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology

Will computers ever be able to talk to us? The Turing Test, posed by the mathematician and Bletchley Park cryptographer Alan Turing, is meant to answer the question. Turing suggested that if a human conversing (via on-screen text) with both another human and a computer could not tell which was which, then for all intents and purposes the computer had succeed in acting like a person.

He predicted that by the year 2000 a computer with 125MB of memory would be able to fool 30% of people during a five minute conversation. It appears that here in 2008 we’re still not quite there – but we are getting close.

The Loebner Prize, now in its 18th year, is up for grabs to any computer (and it’s programmers!) that can pass the test. A bronze medal and $2000 are awarded to the most human-like computer that year, but the Grand Prize of $100,000 and a gold medal is reserved for the first computer to fool 30% of the judges.

This week, a program named Elbot came close. Three out of the 12 judges, or 25%, were fooled. One more would have bumped it over the 30% threshold, and won the grand prize. Unfortunately, Elbot’s creators had to settle for bronze.

Elbot is actually online for anyone to converse with, so I decided to interview the artificial intelligence to see how it felt about winning:
Read more

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 5 October 2008 at 11:43 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Better luck next year

Everyone has heard of the Nobel Prize, one of the highest achievements a scientist can win, but what about the Ig Nobel Prize?

The organisers say they honour achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think” – and winners have certainly come up with some of the strangest discoveries in science. This year, the 18th Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was held last Thursday at Harvard University.

Highlights include Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert, and Michel Franc of Ecole Nationale Veterinaire de Toulouse who discovered that fleas on a dog can jump higher than those on a cat, and Dorian Raymer of the Ocean Observatories Initiative at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Douglas Smith of the University of California who mathematically proved that a heap of string will inevitably tangle into knots. You can view the full list of winners here.

It’s the freakiest show snow

It’s not quite “Life On Mars”, but maybe David Bowie would consider changing the chorus of his classic song – NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has found snow falling from clouds on Mars. Using a laser sensor from the planet’s surface, the plucky little probe detected snow 4 kilometres above its landing site. Whilst the snow evaporated before hitting the ground, scientists think it might be possible to find signs that snow has reached the surface in the past.

Another experiment that analysed soil samples has also found suggestions of calcium carbonate (which makes up chalk) and possibly, clay. These substances tend to form only in the presence of liquid water here on Earth, giving further evidence that Mars had a “liquid past”.

Could future cars be used for electric storage?

The popularity of hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius continues to increase as drivers become more environmentally concious – so much so that the Prius actually goes up in value, as hybrid enthusiasts are prepared to pay over the odds for a second hand car.

Hybrids work by using a traditional petrol-based engine in combination with a recharging battery that captures energy from wasteful actions such as braking, but plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) take this one step further, allowing you to hook up the car to a socket and charge from the National Grid.

Scientists at the University of Michigan have come up with a cunning idea to use PHEVs as overnight batteries, storing excess energy in your car whilst you sleep, and then releasing back into the gird when it is needed. Storing electricity until it is needed can often be costly and inefficient for power plants, but using this distributed model would allow the electric companies to keep up their supply without wasting energy. They’ll even pay you for the privilege of using your car’s battery – if the system ever takes off, that is.

Round ‘em up boys – it’s the carbon capturers

Carbon, carbon, carbon. Life as we know it could not exist without carbon, but this poor little element has a bad reputation these days. Really, it’s only when carbon gets together with two of it’s oxygen friends to form carbon dioxide (CO2) that the trouble starts. Now, a team of climate change researchers at the University of Calgary have invented a machine that pluck CO2 straight out of the air.

Although CO2 only makes up around 0.04% of the Earth’s atmosphere, it is the main contributor to global warming. Removing CO2 molecules from the air would help slow down climate change. The new machine uses less than 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity to remove one tonne of CO2 from the air, and can capture the equivalent of a US citizen’s average yearly emissions – around 20 tonnes CO2 per annum – on one square metre of scrubbing material. Team leader David Keith is optimistic about the technology’s prospects:

“This means that if you used electricity from a coal-fired power plant, for every unit of electricity you used to operate the capture machine, you’d be capturing 10 times as much CO2 as the power plant emitted making that much electricity,”

At the moment, however, the machine is still in its early stages. The current cost of capturing CO2 is too high to make it commercially viable, but work continues on bringing the technique to market.

Tiny pictures, big prizes

You can now vote for your favourite entry in the 34th Annual Small World Photomicrography Competition. Some stunning pictures of the very small have been entered, so I encourage you to take a look. Winners will receive thousands of dollars worth of Nikon photography equipment, and personally I’m going for this strange looking chicken embryo.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 3 September 2008 at 5:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology

I often find myself frustrated with the stupidity of computers. If I’m performing a simple but repetitive task such as resizing pictures or uploading files, I begin to wonder why the computer can’t do it for me. All you have to do is click there, then drag that, then check this – surely the computer can learn this?

A team of computer scientists at Stanford university had the same idea, but set their sights on a task much more impressive than simple file management: flying a remote control helicopter. After “watching” expert radio control pilot Garett Oku demonstrate a series of stunts, the autonomous helicopter (controlled by a computer on the ground) was able not only to match the performance, but to actually better it as well.

The Stanford team pose with their helicopters. Graduate students Pieter Abbell (left) and Adam Coates (right) worked under the direction of Professor Andrew Ng (center)

The computer has multiple ways of observing the human-controlled flight. A system of cameras on the ground measure the position of the helicopter in the sky, whilst a sensor inside the craft tracks orientation during the loops and spins of the stunts. Data from multiple demonstrations is then fed into the computer, which calculates the ideal way to carry out a stunt. This is much more complicated than simply taking an average of a human pilot’s control input; this approach would soon result in a crash landing.

The key idea was to imagine that the expert demonstrations were nearly perfect, but not quite there. Perhaps on one run the helicopter goes a bit too wide, but on another it flies too low to the ground, and so on. By taking the best bits of each run, the computer can piece together the best possible stunt. It’s a bit like trying to view a large painting through a small hole – one viewing doesn’t tell you very much, but move the hole around and you can put together the image in your mind.

A plot of the helicopter's change in position during a loop. The coloured lines are the human-controlled demonstration, whilst the black line shows the much rounder ideal path calculated by the computer.

This clever software crunches the numbers 52,000 time a second, and enables the performance a range of difficult stunts with absolutely no human input. One of the most impressive is the “tic toc”, in which the helicopter points straight upwards and vibrates from side-to-side like the pendulum of a clock. Professor Andrew Ng, director of the research, called the stunts “by far the most difficult aerobatic maneuvers flown by any computer controlled helicopter.”

The team have a YouTube channel where you can watch the results of their experimentation, including the helicopter putting on a show all by itself:


Adam Coates, Pieter Abbeel, Andrew Y. Ng (2008). Learning for Control from Multiple Demonstrations ICML

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Friday 29 August 2008 at 12:58 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

A team at MIT have created microscopic batteries built with viruses. The tiny batteries are half the size of a human cell and could have many applications such as powering implanted medical devices such as a pacemaker.

Microbatteries, each only four micrometers in diameter.

They could even be spun into fibres and then woven in to your clothes – although the researchers are still working on that, according to team leader Angela Belcher:

“We definitely don’t have full batteries on those [fiber architectures]. We’ve only worked on single electrodes so far, but the idea is to try to make these fiber batteries that could be integrated into textiles and woven into lots of different shapes.”

The batteries are made by genetically engineering viruses to form wires from individual molecules of materials such as cobalt oxide. The viruses have been specifically engineered to make them ideal for working at room temperature and pressure. They also can’t reproduce by themselves, and will only infect bacteria. They form a wire 17,000 times thinner than a sheet of paper that is packed together to make part of the battery.

The teams next goal is to work on applying thee batteries to curved surfaces, as well as looking at integrating the batteries with other biological organisms.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 24 August 2008 at 12:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Psychology, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Going, going, found!

A new species of insect was found this week – on eBay. Dr Richard Harrington, vice-president of the UK’s Royal Entomological Society, paid £20 for a 40-50 million-year-old fossilised insect trapped in amber. After struggling to identify it he sent the purchase to Professor Ole Heie, an aphid expert in Denmark, who confirmed it was a previously undiscovered type of aphid.

Professor Heie named the insect Mindarus harringtoni after its purchaser, but Dr Harrington himself had wanted to go for something slightly more unorthodox. “I had thought it would be rather nice to call it Mindarus ebayi,” he said. “Unfortunately, using flippant names to describe new species is rather frowned upon these days.”

Because you can’t just have one…

If you are trying to lose weight, going for a small bag of crisps rather than a larger one might seem the obvious route, but researchers from the Technical University of Lisbon and Tilburg University in the Netherlands have found that this may not be the case. Participants in a study were asked to complete a questionnaire on body satisfaction and dieting, then weighed and measure in front of a mirror in order to active their “dietary concerns” – in other words, to get them to watch their weight. Along with a control group who had not had their “dietary concerns” activated, they then watched episodes of Friends (aside: why Friends? Perhaps due to its constant looping on E4…) and were asked to evaluate the adverts.

In fact, the researchers were watching their consumption of the crisps that had been provided. Available in large or small packaging, the study found the “dietary concerns” group given large packages at the fewest number of crisps. The conclusion was that large packages made participants think of overeating and dieting, but small packages were “innocent pleasures” that did not trigger dieting concerns. My conclusion: I now want some crisps.

Power adaptor tyranny could soon be over

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a few gadgets. When ever I travel anywhere I have to take a mess of power adaptors to feed my phone, mp3 player and Nintendo DS – I’m just thankful I don’t have a laptop to add to the mix. It’s also easy to forget to plug the damn things in, leaving me to play the “do I have enough battery life to make this call?” game. I’ve often thought of a solution – a “power pad” on my desk, where any electrical device would charge simply by being left there and forgotten about.

The technology exists – your electric toothbrush is charged not by wires, but by magnetic induction. Flowing electrons in a circuit generate a magnetic field which in turn induces electron flow in nearby circuits – bam, wireless electricity. I had assumed that the process was too slow to be of use with general electronics, and left it at that.

Turns out I should have got to work on a prototype, because MIT and Intel have found a way to make it work – and not just in close contact. They demonstrated a 60-watt light bulb powered by an energy source three feet away, with no wires in sight. The technology is at least five years away however, especially one-quarter of the energy is lost in transmission. In a world increasingly looking to improve energy usage, 75% efficiency is pretty unacceptable. Still, I can’t wait to get rid of those chargers.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 14 August 2008 at 4:48 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology

What constitutes a brain? Scientists at the University of Reading have connected neurons from the foetus of a rat to a bank of electrodes which control a small robot. You can watch the robot learning to turn in this video:

This experiment has been widely reported by the media as a “rat-brained robot”. This instantly conjures up the mental image of a B-movie experiment gone horrible wrong – “Rat-Brained Robots…FROM SPACE!” perhaps – quite far from reality.

Neurons are the cells that make up the majority of the nervous system, including the brain. There are around 100 billion of these cells in a human brain. The robot is controlled by 300,000 rat neurons, less than 2% of the 21 million in a rat brain. Do these randomly connecting neurons make a brain? Clearly one neuron cannot be call a brain – it’s just a single cell after all. At what point do you go from a clump of neurons to a fully fledged brain? The Reading team themselves are unclear on this point, using phrases such as “brain material” and “brain culture” along with just plain old “brain”.

What is clear is this experiment is not “cruel”, as many commenters on the news websites seem to be saying. They haven’t cut the brain from a living adult rat and placed it into a robot in some kind of twisted transplantation – for one thing, I imagine they would have no idea how to hook up a rat brain to a robot. The neurons aren’t even physically attached to the robot, as their organic nature requires a temperature-controlled environment. Instead, communication takes place with the robot via Bluetooth.

So what’s the point of it all? Once the robot has learnt to navigate its environment and recognise its surroundings by forming connections between neurons, the researchers plan to disrupt these connections in an attempt to recreate conditions that cause memory loss such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. In other words, they aren’t trying to build an army of robo-rat slaves.

Comments Off

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 30 July 2008 at 2:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Inventions & Technology

Following on from yesterday’s story on Virgin Galactic’s latest airborne creation, we have the Martin Jetpack (the site is pretty slow at the moment, presumably due to all the current media attention.) Not a jetpack in the truest sense as it is powered by large duct fans rather than an airplane-like jet engine, it can nevertheless reach six feet into the air. The designer, Glenn Martin, expects to eventually reach 8,000 feet – although it would normally be operated much lower at between 1,500 and 2000 feet at a top speed of over 60mph.

Harrison Martin demonstrates the Martin Jetpack at AirVenture

The machine was revealed to the public at the AirVenture air show yesterday, where it was piloted by Martin’s son Harrison who has been testing the craft in secret since he was 15 years old. Now 16, his demonstration took place just a few feet off the ground, and he was assisted by helpers holding him down on either side.

Glenn Martin plans to sell the jetpacks for $100,000 dollars each, and will begin training the first 10 Rocketeer hopefuls next year in New Zealand where Martin lives. His website states “all owners are required to pass the Martin Aircraft Company approved training program before receipt of their aircraft,” and that although a pilots license is not necessary, “to attempt to fly any aircraft without professional instruction is extremely foolhardy.”

I can’t help but agree with him. I am currently learning to drive, and find handling a vehicle in two dimensions difficult enough. The prospect of strapping two large fans to my back and navigating the skies is frankly terrifying, and unlike yesterday’s promised of mass spaceflight, I’m not sure that we will every see jetpacks in use by the general public – if only because governments will never fully allow it. On the other hand, the media was equally as doubting of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, and now millions of people fly in planes daily. Perhaps the personal jetpack is just waiting to take off.

Comments Off