Archive for the ‘Just A Review’ Category

5 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 2 December 2009 at 6:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Radio 4 comedy is sometimes good, but often terrible, while their science programmes are normally pretty decent. A new series called The Infinite Monkey Cage attempts to jam both science and comedy into one show, and as you might expect, the results are mixed.

The regular presenters are physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince, a self-confessed “keen idiot” when it comes to science. They’re joined in the first episode by the comedian Dara O’Briain, who studied cosmology at university, and Alice Roberts, an anatomist and science communicator. You may remember that Cox and O’Briain previously worked together on Physics Rocks, which formed part of the BBC’s LHC coverage last year.

It’s a good cast, and the chatty tone makes it easy to imagine yourself joining them down the pub for a drink and a natter about science, but I think billing the programme as a comedy is misleading. O’Briain draws an interesting parallel between scientists and comedians, who both effectively spend their lives comparing things to other things, but the conversation quickly takes a more serious turn.

When I’m listening to a comedy show, I don’t expect questions such as Cox’s “how do we educate people to respect the scientific method?” – not that it isn’t worth discussing, but its not funny either. They later try and bring things back with a sketch on the absurdity of science funding, but this was extremely “Radio 4″ comedy – in other words, dire.

Following up with Cox briefly interviewing science minister Lord Drayson just adds to the overall feeling of a programme trying to do too much. Is it about cracking science-themed jokes, or is it about discussing science as part of our wider culture? Am I meant to laugh, or learn?

Mixing science with comedy is difficult to do well, and The Infinite Monkey Cage doesn’t quite manage it. I’d much prefer something like Punk Science – big on laughs and lighter on content, but you still come away with some sort of insight. I’ll be checking out the next episode (it’s running for another three weeks) to see if they do any better.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 22 October 2009 at 6:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Just A Review, Psychology

Last week saw the start of a new series of Horizon, the BBC’s long-running science documentary programme. I wasn’t particularly impressed with last year’s offering, but I decided to give the show another chance this time around.

I managed to miss the first episode thanks to a confusing BBC press release, but caught this week’s which featured the media’s go-to mathematician and not-so-recently appointed Oxford Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Marcus du Sautoy. He submits himself to a variety of bizarre experiments in an attempt to answer a puzzling question: how do we know who we are?

Humans are one of just nine species that pass what is known as the mirror test for self-awareness. A dot is placed on the test subject’s face and they are placed in front of a mirror. If they notice the dot, by trying to look at or touch it, they’ve recognised the reflection as themselves. Otherwise, the subject views their reflection as an entirely separate individual.

Du Sautoy sees this test in action early on in the programme, and it’s quite striking. A young baby completely ignores the dot, while a slightly older child immediatly attempts to peel it off. Is this where conciousness begins? What does conciousness even mean?

The programme doesn’t have an answer – it’s still an open question in science, of course. It’s certainly interesting watching du Sautoy exploring the limits of his conciousness though. One experiment placed him under the effect of heavy anaesthetic while in an MRI scanner, his conciousness seeming to slowly slip away as he rambled in a drunken fashion. In another, du Sautoy wears a pair of video glasses that can appear to place his sense of self behind his body – or even inside another person.

I’ll admit I’m already fairly familiar with all of these experiments from my readings in the annals of popular science, but seeing them being performed really adds to the experience. A shame then that some of the programmes editing had quite the opposite effect.

Look. I understand that putting together a science programme is a difficult task – shot after shot of talking head doesn’t make for great TV. Did we really need to see du Sautoy walking around hooked up to a Steadicam as he ponders? It made him look like a cleaned up Sir Digby Chicken Caesar.

Camera gripes aside, this episode was certainly an improvement on the last time I sat down to watch Horizon. It’s worth a watch, and I’ll be making an effort to check out a bit more in the coming weeks.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 17 September 2009 at 12:17 am by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Creation is a fantastic film about a man coming to terms with the untimely death of his young daughter. It’s also a rather unfortunate account of the life and work of Charles Darwin. I was invited to see the film before its UK release next week at a special screening in the Science Museum’s IMAX theatre. Going in to the cinema, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. Coming out again, I wasn’t quite sure what I’d seen.

Paul Bettany and Martha West as Darwin and his daughter Annie are superb, and I was genuinely moved by their on-screen relationship. But, for every touching father-daughter moment there came scene after scene of Darwin manically running after the ghost of his dead child.

The real Darwin struggled to live with Annie’s death, and suffered throughout his life from a mysterious illness that likely caused him great mental trauma. He was not however stark-raving mad, as the film portrays him, and after the first few interactions with the ghost of Annie, my sense of immersion was shattered.

The film is a dramatisation though, and not a documentary, so some bending of the truth is allowed. I imagine what more people will take issues with is the portrayal of religion. Darwin’s wife Emma, played here by Bettany’s actual wife Jennifer Connelly, was deeply religious, and Darwin delayed publication of his theory for many years because he feared her (and the world’s) response.

This is played out in the film, but perhaps in the most ham-fisted way possible. “Science is at war with religion,” declares Thomas Huxley near the start, and Darwin must win the fight for science.

Why must the theory of evolution always be set against religion in this way? It is perfectly possible to both accept the truth of evolution and believe in God – not a philosophy I ascribe to personally, but nor one I feel the need to constantly assault.

If Creation is meant to convince people of the truth of evolution over God, then it will fail. As the lack of a US distribution deal indicates, those who do not wish to have their minds changed will simply refuse to see it. But if the film is meant to appeal to Darwin’s loyal supporters, then the sight of him raving at the ghost of his daughter is unlikely to please.

Who then is Creation intended for? I don’t know. It’s certainly a film worth seeing; I enjoyed it as a well constructed piece of cinema. I’m just not sure that I liked it.

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 29 July 2009 at 8:49 am by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review

Monday night saw the première of Bang Goes The Theory, the BBC’s new flagship science show in the vein of Tomorrow’s World. I’ve been anticipating the first episode for some time now, wondering whether it would be any good.

Sitting down to watch, my first impressions can be summarised in two words: “oh dear”. The CBeebies style intro and open-plan set immediatly made me think of Blue Peter, and a four minute section on dodging CCTV cameras left me wondering whether we’d get any science at all.

Eventually they got to the point: new technology has been developed to identify people on CCTV from the way they walk. Two of the presenters, Liz and Dallas, demonstrated the capabilities of the system, but when Dallas decided to do a John Cleese-style silly walk in an effort to fool the system, we weren’t told whether he succeeded or not. “Oh that’s really annoying, we had to cut that bit out,” he said back in the studio. Yes, it was really annoying!

I was ready to give up at this point, but the next section hooked my interest. Cribbing from both Top Gear and Mythbusters, presenter and special effects guy Jem introduced us to the vortex cannon. This contraption forms a concentrated ring of air that can travel long distances, and with the addition of explosive gas it can pack quite a punch. Pretty cool stuff:

Other segments included an interview with geneticist Craig Venter, who is attempting to create artificial life. I cringed when they used the word “Frankenstein” in what seemed like a persistent effort to introduce “controversy”. There was also a rather nice science-as-street-magic from Dr Yan Wong, Bang Goes The Theory’s genuine scientist. He demonstrated how to cook an egg using a paper frying pan, and his street audience were clearly impressed.

It was a nice bit of TV, but it worried me. The promotional material implied that all four presenters would work as a team, but Wong appeared only briefly, and didn’t interact with the other three. His official bio is also a bit “ooh, what a boffin”. I’m concerned that the guy on the show with the most scientific knowledge is being somewhat ghettoised.

Overall, the first episode of Bang Goes The Theory was decidedly average. I really liked the vortex cannon, so I’m hoping we’ll see more segments in the same vein. I’ll definitely be watching the second episode, but I have a vested interest. My girlfriend, who is of the non-sci comm persuasion, wasn’t so sure she’d be tuning in, making me wonder how the programme faired amongst the general public. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Comments Off Posted on 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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3 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 4 March 2009 at 9:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review, Space & Astronomy

It may have slipped by you with all the Darwinmania that’s about, but 2009 is also the International Year of Astronomy. With that in mind, I thought I’d take a look at some of the software out there that can allow you to explore the universe to your heart’s content.

Now, there really is no substitute for the real thing; a night’s sky crammed with stars truly is a wondrous sight to behold, but unfortunately I’ve only ever experienced it on rare holidays to the middle of nowhere. If you live in a city like London, a combination of cloud cover and light pollution mean it’s hard to even see the brightest stars on most days.

Enter Stellarium and Celestia, two free open source simulations of space with two slightly different approaches.


Stellarium is a planetarium for your computer. The slick interface allows you to select any location on Earth from which to view the stars, as well as a whole host of other options.

Stellarium after the initial load (click for bigger)
Stellarium after the initial load (click for bigger)

You can move about the sky at will, zooming in on objects of interest at any point in time – controllable at will, backwards and forwards. As you can see from the initial image, I couldn’t see much to begin with – it was day time! After a bit of fiddling, such as removing the atmosphere and adding in some labelling, I was able to come up with this:

That's more like it (click for bigger)
That's more like it (click for bigger)

There are a whole host of other options however, such as some rather nice constellation art – and not just Western constellations. Other cultures have their own starlore, and Stellarium can accommodate many other celestial join-the-dots. You can even change the ground view from the default field to a few other options – including the view from a Mars rover.

Stellarium is a very nice piece of software, and the ease of use is especially impressive considering it is currently at the very early version 0.10.0! My only criticism is that it’s very Earth-centric – exploring the galaxy (or beyond) is a little tricky. To be fair, that’s because Stellarium is designed to be used from the Earth’s point of view, unlike our next piece of software.


Would you like the entire universe on your desktop? That’s what Celestia offers – well, not quite. Memory limitations mean the “universe” is cut short at about 16,000 light-years from the Sun, but a fully 3D representation of even this relativity small section of space is pretty impressive.

Celestia's default view (click for bigger)
Celestia's default view (click for bigger)

You’re not just shackled to Earth, either. A few keyboard commands will send you whizzing off in any direction, travelling at anywhere from walking speed to much faster than light. The entire solar system is modelled in 3D, as is much of the rest of the galaxy.

As with Stellarium, Celestia allows you to manipulate time to your whims at a number of speeds – although the date will freeze at the year 5,874,774! Also included are a guided tour of the solar system, and an eclipse finder, demonstrated below.

An eclipse due to take place later this year, simulated in Celestia (click for bigger)
An eclipse due to take place later this year, simulated in Celestia (click for bigger)

Celestia is much less use friendly than Stellarium, however. Not much can be done with the mouse, so I was forced to leave the list of keyboard commands on screen (as you can see above) which rather spoils the view. Having said that, once you get to grips with it Celestia is the more powerful of the two programs.

In addition to natural phenomena, Celestia can also display a number of man-made objects up in the sky. I enjoyed watching the International Space Station floating serenely over the Earth’s surface – it’s seriously tiny. If that’s not enough, you can add to the default object set with a series of add-ons – even fictional places from Star Wars and Star Trek!


It’s hard to choose between these two great pieces of software, as they both have their strengths and weaknesses. Ultimately, it’s a toss up between depth and dedication. If you just want a quick look at some stars, plum for Stellarium with its easy interface. On the other hand, for a galaxy and more at your fingertips, Celestia is your answer, provided you take the time to learn to use it.

I will add one caveat: as I said before, Stellarium is still fairly early on in development. Hopefully as the software improves more features will be added, and if so it might just pull ahead. Even so, both programs are a great way to admire the stars.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 24 January 2009 at 1:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review, Physics

I had been wanting to read Surely You’re Joking… for a while now, so I was pleased to receive the book for Christmas. I finished it the other night – not that it has taken me a month to read! As a collection of memoirs transcribed from recordings by Feynman’s friend Ralph Leighton, it’s very easy to dip in and out of. I kept it besides my bed and enjoyed a few of his crazy adventures every night before going to sleep.

For the uninitiated, physicist Richard Feynman was best known for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics (for which he received a Noble Prize in 1965) and his widely-appealing lectures on physics and nanotechnology. He also worked on the Manhattan Project, and claims to be the only person to have viewed the detonation of the first atomic bomb without the aid of dark glasses – he used the window of a truck to screen out harmful ultraviolet radiation instead.

This story is just one of the many anecdotes relayed by Feynman in the book. He begins his recollection at age 11, when he would fix radios in the local area, and continues the many amusing tales that make up his life from there.

Reading Surely You’re Joking…, I couldn’t help but think that two words summed up Feynman again and again: mischievously curious. He loved to find out new things; and if that knowledge could be applied in the form of a practical jokes, then so much the better. For example, whilst on the Los Alamos base where the atomic bomb was being developed, he taught himself to crack safes, and would go around playing tricks on the rest of the staff.

He also had a great passion for women – it feels like nearly half the stories are about an attempt to get with some girl or another! He must have had some success it seems, as he was married three times over the course of his life.

Even if you have no interest in science (although if that’s the case I’m not quite sure why you’re reading this blog), I would recommend Surely You’re Joking…. Feynman always liked to try new things – as well as the aforementioned safe cracking, he had a stint being a samba musician in Brazil as well as an amateur artist. His life was so full of adventures, you can’t help but be enthralled.

Of course since you’re here you probably are interested in science, and there is a bit of it. Feynman isn’t trying to teach here however, so science is often mentioned in passing as part of a large anecdote, and always in his easy-going, easy to understand style. It’s simple: read it. I enjoyed it so much that I plan to follow up soon with the sequel: What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. I’ll let you know what I think.

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1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 17 January 2009 at 4:51 pm by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review

When I went along to Punk Science at the Science Museum’s adults-only Dana Centre this past Wednesday evening, I not expecting to end up on the stage eating a tarantula. Of course, this is precisely what happened. I’ll get to exactly why in just a moment!

Punk Science are Jon and Dan, the Dana Centre’s resident comedy duo. They propose a “pub-level” understanding of science – explaining stuff to your mates with a drink, in other words. In the past they’ve tackled Einstein, climate change and happiness, but this week it was the turn of food in their new show Eat It.

The evening’s entertainment began, not unreasonably, with an introduction. Jon wandered down the aisle shouting “Hello! Hello! Hello!” to every individual in the audience, leaving me both amused but also slightly intimidated – a fairly accurate description of my state of mind throughout the show!

The Punk Scientists are big on audience participation, and as such use a voting system to gauge people’s opinions. It works like this: option A (The Jon) is a double thumbs up with a slightly insane grin, whilst option B (The Dan) is playing air guitar. Last but not lost, option C is The Religious Zealot, a manic waving of your hands in the air. Voting is accompanied by Dan’s slap bass soundtrack, as Jon attempts a headcount.

We were quizzed on a variety of topics, such as what we most look for in our food, and whether food miles were a factor in our shopping. It was this last one that got me in to spider-eating trouble. Sitting in a row with my fellow SciCommers, we all plumbed for option C – something like “I don’t really look at food miles”. What can I say? We’re students, cheap, and proud.

This got us dubbed the “evil row”, and moments later the duo were looking for a volunteer to come up on stage and eat some locally produced food. They decided to pick on us, and of course I was the one foolish sitting in the aisle seat. Walking up on to the stage, I wondered what they were going to offer me.

It started out ok, with an apple from Kent and shortbread from Scotland, but I could sense a punchline was inevitable. A beer was ordered from the bar, so I could wash my mystery food down. I found my self staring in to a bowl of giant ants.

Whilst one half of my brain was trying to make me run off stage, out of the Dana Centre, and away from South Kensington forever, the other half attempted swift rationalisation. “You like prawns, don’t you?” I thought. I ate it. It tasted a bit like a pretzel.

Next up, thai green curry crickets. I had actually seen these before – a friend had bought and eaten them, much to my disgust. It seems that now it was my turn. Figuring it couldn’t be much worse than the ants, I was actually a little disappointed – the crickets didn’t taste remotely like thai green curry.

Finally, Jon informed me they had one more item. “Is it spiders?” I asked. “It might be spiders,” he replied. “I have a bit of a problem with spiders,” I admitted. “Well then,” he said, “it’s time to get revenge.”

A bowl was passed round the audience, and I watched as the looks of disgust swept over their faces. It came back on stage, and of course, it was a tarantula. This is not just any tarantula thought, this is M&S oven baked tarantula.

I was actually quite nervous at this point. What was I to do? In the end, I said I’d try a leg. Plucking one off with trepidation, the audience chanted my name as I chewed and swallowed. All I could think was that it felt like I was eating a twig.

With a round of applause, I exited the stage, and another volunteer (who must be crazy) offered to go up on stage and eat the whole spider. Still recovering from my ordeal, I could barely watch.

If my rather gruesome description of bug-eating has put you off attending a Punk Science event, you shouldn’t let it. In spite of my unusual culinary experience, I actually had a really good time. The show was full of stunts like this, including how to drink your own urine (though I suspect it might have been apple juice really) and the old classic of liquid-nitrogen ice cream.

In the end, Punk Science are more stand-up than science, and whilst I may not have learnt anything during the event, you can bet I’ll be looking at food mile labels in the future!

3 Comments » Posted on Thursday 8 January 2009 at 10:10 am by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review

Well, it seems that the reviews are coming thick and fast this week. Today it’s the turn of a new science-based TV quiz show for children: Richard Hammond’s Blast Lab. As you may have guessed from the title, it features the Top Gear Hamster himself as the host. I heard about the programme from last week’s New Scientist, in which Hammond had an editorial lamenting children’s loss of interest in science due to formal education. Of course, he was plugging his show as remedy, but isn’t that always the way?

Hammond is no stranger to science programmes, having been presenter of Sky’s Brainiac (which always seemed to be a poor-man’s Mythbusters), and his editorial seemed fairly sincere, so I was interested to find out what Blast Lab was like. Jumping on to my beloved iPlayer I tracked down the first episode, originally broadcast last Saturday morning on BBC2.

It’s been a while since I watched a children’s show, but they don’t seem to have changed much. Lots of shouting and bright colours are still very much the name of the game. The intro sequence consists of a cheerfully cheesy comic book/live-action style montage, in which Hammond drives to his “mansion” and down in to the “secret underground lab”. It reminded me very much of a CITV show I watched long ago, the name of which escapes me.

Down in the lab, we’re introduced the Hammond’s helpful Lab Rats, as well as his Ninja Nan. It’s exactly what it sounds like – an elderly woman attempting to perform kung fu. I was slightly unsure of the relevance (Hammond mentions the need to defend his underground lab) but she was quickly shuffled off and never seen again. Strange. Next up are the red and yellow teams, three kids to each, who get a quick introduction before we are into the first round.

This consists of responding “true” or “false” to statements such as “there are 300 bones in a child’s body but only 206 in an adult” (true, as children’s bones fuse as the grow) or “the Earth is completely round” (false, it bulges in the middle). The answers are determined by Oliver, Hammond’s “artificially intelligent” car, which honks its horn and flashes its lights according to the answers in its “Fact Nav”.

Hammond never quite seems comfortable with the children, almost mocking them at time for getting the wrong answers. It’s as if he has left his Top Gear hat on and thinks he’s arguing with Jeremy Clarkson, not school kids. Maybe it’s just teething troubles in the first episode, but I found it a bit off putting.

That aside, he did a good job in the next round. The two teams had to fly a “balloon rocket” across a pool of gunge (that old children’s TV staple) in order to score points. The balloons must be attached to a small guiding rope, and then fly across.

Whilst this is being set up, Hammond explains exactly why the balloons act in this way: Newton’s Third Law. “Oh, here we go,” I thought, but I was perhaps too cynical, too quick. Hammond gives a decent and entertain explanation (all actions have an equal and opposite reaction), as well as praising Newton as a Blast Lab hero.

Unfortunately, that’s the highlight of the program science-wise. The next segment consisted of a man with a jet-pack (Eric Scott) attempting to sink a basketball in a net 30 metres high, but there wasn’t much explanation of why the jet-pack was able to lift him into the air, whilst an earlier attempt by a Lab Rat consisting of two fire extinguishers wasn’t.

The final part of the show was classic game show, and not really scientific at all. The two teams had to fling pellets across yet more gunge using a large catapult. The only “science” was Hammond warning them against going too near one end of the gunge pool, because he had placed a uranium rod there earlier, making it rather hot. Oh dear.

The team with the most points at the end got a whole host of science and non-science related goodies, whilst in a rather cruel twist the prizes for the other team are placed in a bidet and blown up. Yes, I’m not sure why either.

So, to sum up, in a half hour program we only really got once decent bit of science on Newton’s Laws of Motion. To be honest, for early morning on a Saturday, I think you could actually do a lot worse. At least Hammond seems to have a genuine passion for science, whilst presenting a distinctly non-science personality. Cringe-worthy as it may sound, he actually makes science “cool”!

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 6 January 2009 at 6:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Just A Review, Mathematics

Ah, iPlayer. What would I do without you? I didn’t manage to catch the BBC4 broadcast of the first episode of Science and Islam last night, but thanks to the wonderful catch-up service I am able to provide you with a full review. Of course, services like the iPlayer would be impossible without the internet, which in turn could never arisen without first inventing the computer. And what makes computer software tick? Algorithms.

An algorithm is basically a set of instructions, broken down in to simple steps. A computer can follow an algorithm to do pretty much anything, which is why we find them so versatile. As presenter Jim Al-Khalili (a physicist born in Bagdad) tells us, algorithms were invented by a Persian man known as Mohammad ebne Mūsā Khwārazmī, or al-Khwārizmī. Even the word algorithm is derived from his name.

It’s not just algorithms that have been given to us by medieval Arab scholars. The words algebra and alkalis both betray their Arabic origin, but so much of science is attributed to the West. The three part series seeks to unearth the unsung heroes of Islamic science.

The rulers of the Islamic empire realised that with knowledge comes power, and as they spread their influence across the globe the sought out scientific texts from many different regions and cultures. These texts were translated into Arabic, the official language of the empire, which just so happened to be a very scientific language. Originally intended to communicate the teachings of the Koran without misinterpretation, its detailed scripts allowed a precise and unambiguous description of many scientific phenomena.

Much of our modern knowledge can be traced back to this extensive library. In one part of the programme, Al-Khalili visits a modern surgeon to get him to perform a cataract operation by following an Arabic text and using replica instruments from the time. Thankfully for the squeamish the operation is carried out on an eye that has long since been separated from its owner, and the surgeon admits that the instructions are based on sound principles. Indeed, Islamic science provides us with one of the very first anatomical diagrams, showing how the eye is controlled by surrounding muscles.

It’s easy to draw parallels between this programme and an earlier BBC4 one, namely Marcus du Sautoy’s The Story of Maths. Both adopt a sort of travelogue approach, but whilst the earlier programme consisted of nothing but all du Sautoy, all the time, Science and Islam is nicely broken up with contributions from many others. They do cover similar ground however, especially when Al-Khalili meets mathematician Ian Stewart to examine one of the early texts on al-jabr; that is, algebra.

The conclusion of this episode is that by gathering texts from many different places, Islamic scientists proved that science is a universal concept that belongs to no one religion or culture; rather, it can be appreciated by everyone. No arguments here. I will say that at an hour, the programme was perhaps overly long. I can lay the same criticism against it as I did to The Story of Maths – less of our narrator wandering through generic marketplaces please! At least there was no dodgy CGI, however.

As I said at the start, I watched the programme on iPlayer, so of course so can you. If you liked The Story Of Maths, or perhaps if you missed it but want to learn about the history of science, I suggest you give it a look.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 5 January 2009 at 8:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Evolution, Just A Review

Well, we’re less than a week into 2009 and already the Darwinmania has begun. This week Radio 4 present a season of all things Darwin, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth this year. Amongst other programmes on the great man’s life and work is Dear Darwin, a five-part series broadcast every day this week at 3.45pm, which allows five modern-day scientists to write a letter to Darwin to tell him about the impact of his work.

The first episode today featured Dr Craig Venter, who popped up in TIME magazine’s top 10 scientific discoveries of 2008 for his work towards creating artificial life. He is most well known as being one of the researchers to first map the human genome.

Dr. Venter uses his letter to tell Darwin about the discovery of DNA, and how ideas from the Origin of Species can now be confirmed with modern genetic analysis. Looking at the similarities between human and chimpanzee DNA (which I talked about a couple of days ago), it is very clear that we must share a common ancestor as Darwin predicted. Dr. Venter tells him that we differ from the chimps by only 5-6% of our DNA – and some large stretches by only a little over 1%.

Darwin has clearly been a huge inspiration to Dr. Venter. He tells of following in Darwin’s footsteps on a voyage similar to that of the Beagle, but the goal of his expedition was to look for micro-organisms that would have been invisible to Darwin with the tools available at the time. The ocean provides an unimaginable bounty for the interested explorer; 1 million bacteria and 10 million viruses are to be found in every litre of sea water.

The letter also touches on the discovery of oil, and the effect that it has had on our world. Many of the species that were alive in Darwin’s day are now extinct, in part due to industrialisation. Now, Dr. Venter says, we must take control of evolution if we are to solve the problems of climate change, and engineer bacteria to suck up all our waste CO2.

At its heart, the programme has quite a nice idea. I’m sure Darwin would be amazed at the work that has been done today as a result of his natural selection. Unfortunately however, it doesn’t really make great radio! Dr. Venter’s voice is rather monotone, and uninterrupted for the entire course of the programme. As a letter, that’s how it has to work I guess, but I was glad that it only lasted 15 minutes!

If I haven’t put you off, here is the obligatory iPlayer link, and as I said above the other episodes will be every day this week on Radio 4, at 3.45pm.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 15 December 2008 at 1:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Just A Review

The Wellcome Collection’s new War and Medicine exhibition warns that “visitors in may find some images in this exhibition disturbing”. It’s true that the images of warfare, particularly those of survivors, can have quite an effect, but you shouldn’t let that put you off visiting this interesting and thought-provoking display.

Advances in medicine have often been driven by warfare. The exhibition charts this, contrasting the many soldiers killed by disease and famine in the Crimean War with the advances in sanitation and food provision in World War I and II, and through to present day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Artefacts from these wars such as pill boxes and food rations are presented alongside letters from soldiers, telling tales of terrible conditions.

Visitors also learn of the many medical innovations that resulted from new types of injuries during war. Plastic surgery was a response to the terrible gas attacks of the First World War trenches, and it is this part of the exhibition that exhibition that I found the most harrowing. Nevertheless there is some positivity, with more recent photos of those who have been able to lead normal lives thanks to reconstructive surgery. Nowadays, the most common injuries are to the limbs, which body armour can do nothing to protect against roadside bombs. This in turn is driving research into artificial replacements

I particular appreciated the text on the walls of the exhibition, which presented questions of just how medicine has benefited from war. Yes, a great many medical discoveries have arisen as the result of conflict, but have large wars also draw research away from areas with less military appeal? It certainly left me with ideas to think about.

The only criticism I can lay on the exhibition is one particular exhibit. Near the entrance, a panoramic film of the interior of a rescue helicopter plays in a darkened room. Unfortunately the room is so dark, and the projection under-powered, I found it almost impossible to see what was going on. Indeed, a course-mate walked into a bench in the room because he simply had been unable to see it. My annoyance with this exhibit was furthered by the low droning sounds of the helicopter reverberating around the rest of the exhibition, removing me from my introspective thoughts.

The exhibition opened on 22nd November, and runs until 15th February. Admission is free, and I recommend you go – as long as you can handle the powerful imagery.

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2 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 25 November 2008 at 11:52 am by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review, Physics

Einstein is one of the most famous scientists who ever lived. You may not know the meaning of E = mc2, but you’ve certainly heard about it. Eddington on the other hand – who is he? Even I can only name one of Eddington’s achievements; namely the 1919 expedition to the South African island of Principe to observe a solar eclipse. It was here that Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity was put to the test, and it is here that the BBC drama Einstein and Eddington begins.

As Eddington awaits the eclipse, hoping for the rain to end, we flashback to five years earlier. The First World War is beginning, and the conflict between England and Germany has spilled over into science. Germany is rounding up its experts in preparation for war, and there is one man they desperately want: Einstein. Eddington is tasked with finding out why.

Einstein and Eddington is a treat for fans of science fiction as much as fans of science. Andy Serkis (Gollum from Lord of the Rings) and David Tennant (Doctor Who) take the titular roles and make them their own. Writer Paul Moffat takes every opportunity to contrast the two men, and Serkis’s crazy-haired womanising Einstein is a far cry from the homosexually repressed Quaker Eddington, who makes a welcome change from Tennant’s typically manic Tardis dweller.

At times, this was perhaps taken a little too far – although I admit to not being widely read on Eddington, I’ve literally never seen any mention of him being gay. It might be that this aspect of his personality was accentuated a little to further stand apart from Einstein.

This could be because their differences were essential to the message of the film: science transcends all. Eddington, railing against a proposal to banish all German members from the Royal Observatory following the gas attack at Ypres cries “The pursuit of truth in science transcends national boundaries, takes us beyond hatred, and anger and fear! It is the best of us!” Einstein is equally horrified by what his countrymen in Berlin have done, and his outbursts lead to him being denied access to the University.

These two men, so different in their approach both to science (Einstein was a theorist, whilst Eddington prided himself on being “the best measuring man in England) and to life, brought about a scientific revolution and overthrew Newton despite only corresponding by letter. Indeed, our protagonists don’t even meet in the film until one, final, handshake.

It’s undoubtedly great drama, but is it great science communication? As is perhaps unavoidable, much of the science is conveyed outside of the drama. Einstein explains his ideas to his son, and Eddington turns to a convenient German family which he rescues from beatings at the hands of the English. The concepts are there, including a nice demonstration of the curvature of space using a tablecloth, a loaf of bread and an apple, but it can’t help but feel slightly off. Still, the ideas are presented as interesting enough for the casual viewer to pursue if they wish. Disputes about the accuracy of Eddington’s confirmation in Africa are also swiftly brushed under the table – but that’s only to be expected, as they don’t fit into the tidy narrative.

If I sound a little down on the film, I’m not. I really enjoyed it, and the forthcoming DVD release has already been added to my Christmas wishlist. If you don’t want to wait that long, you can watch on BBC iPlayer until this Saturday evening. Even if you aren’t interested in the science (though of course I hope you are) it’s a well made period drama that can be appreciated by all.

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 12 November 2008 at 4:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review

As I sit down in the Soho Theatre, someone tries to hand me a programme. It’s not an usher however, but Josie Long herself. “I’m sorry, do you mind sharing?” she beams, offering a collection of folded paper covered in her endearing and often hilarious scribblings. “Only I didn’t photocopy enough.”

This pretty much sums up Josie’s approach to comedy. Her props are random objects from her personal life, she illustrates her points with hand-drawn graphs, and invites a friend to embroider handkerchiefs live on stage for the entire evening. Throughout the act she will pause, correct herself, comment on how the jokes are being received, and generally chat with the audience. It actually feels a bit like you are watching the directors commentary of a movie – whilst trying to watch the movie proper on a separate screen entirely.

Josie’s latest show is about her new found fascination for science. As a child she felt you had a to pick a side between the arts and science. As she says, she went with the poetry and self harm crowd, because scientists are all nerdy virgins – of course. Now that she’s older however, she’s realised there is no such need to close yourself off from science. She’s been reading about all manner of subjects, from the Enlightenment to astronomy, and whilst the show is far from a lecture it did send me scurrying to Wikipedia to read up on some of her references.

Many stand-up comedians appear constantly miserable, as if the world is all too much for them to take and only dry wit will sustain them. Josie on the other hand seems to find delight in every corner of her life, be it watching regional news reports, buying a bottle of water or gazing into the heavens. Her enthusiasm is infectious, and you can’t help but smile when you realise just how pleased she was with that last joke. This can mean that at times she is so eager to get to the next gag that she forgets to finish the previous one, but this slightly scatterbrained approach simply adds to the appeal.

The show is summed up with Josie’s views on science. It’s not about coming up with an idea and saying “this is the truth for all time.” Rather, you should take the view that “hey, it may not be perfect, but it’s the best we know right now, and maybe someone will coming along and make it better in the future.” A pretty good description of the way science works.

You’re unlikely to come away from All of the Planet’s Wonders brackets Shown in Detail close brackets (as Josie calls the show) feeling that you’ve learnt something, but you will certainly have been entertained, and if you’re lucky some of Josie’s bubbly enthusiasm might have rubbed off on you. The show runs 11 – 15th November at the Soho Theatre with tickets from £10 to £17.50. Do go along – if you don’t get to leave with one of the live embroidered handkerchiefs, you’ll at least walk out with a smile on your face.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 7 October 2008 at 7:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review, Mathematics

Last night BBC 4 broadcast the first episode of a new four part series entitled The Story of Maths. It’s presented by Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford professor and pop-sci mathematician extraordinaire, who takes a look at the history of maths and why it is so important. This initial outing focuses on the three ancient civilizations who were the founders of maths: the Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Greeks.

The Egyptians were practical problem solvers, and their need for bureaucracy and land management lead to the development of a counting system. Common problems, such as how to split nine loaves of bread between 10 people, were worked out in detail, but the Egyptians never realised the power of a generalised proof, forcing them instead to work out the same problem multiple times, but with different numbers. As he walks around a modern Egyptian market, and marvels at the Pyramids, du Sautoy demonstrates some of their ancient methods. (For those still wondering, each person receives one half, one third, and one fifteenth of a loaf.)

The Babylonians used maths to solve every day problems as well, but they also taught more generalised solutions in schools. Most of the mathematical records we have from those times are actually preserved clay tablets that record the workings of school children. They knew about quadratic equations like x2 + 3x + 2 = 0, and du Sautoy blames the “recipes” used to solve such problems for poor maths teaching in modern classrooms.

Finally, we get to the Greeks, who in du Sautoy’s opinion are the true founders of maths – they were the inventors of proof, which opened up “a gulf between the other sciences” and are as true today as they were 2,000 years ago (a point he feels the need to make twice).

It’s a good primer to early maths, and I imagine it will be the most accessible programme of the series, since mathematics is a field that builds on its past and becomes increasingly complex. As one of the talking heads points out, Greek mathematics is still taught in schools today – because more modern concepts are completely inaccessible. Even at undergraduate level I spent most of my time learning about the 17th and 18th centuries; the 1970s were about the upper limit. This does make me wonder whether the series will remain engaging to the average viewer as it reaches more modern times.

I only have one criticism and it’s nothing to do with du Sautoy, who was excellent as always. It might be a small quibble, but the computer graphics used to illustrate his narrations were absolutely terrible. As du Sautoy was sent flying around on slices of Pyramid and hot air balloons, I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on what he was saying, as all I could think about was how cheap and cheesy looking the animations were. Seriously, they would not have looked out of place a decade ago. It seems silly to knock the programme for this reason, but production values are an important part of getting your message across, and doing it badly just doesn’t help.

Next week, du Sautoy heads east. I expect we will be hearing about Chinese and Arabic mathematicians, along with algorithms and the number zero. It should be interesting, and I do recommend you watch this first episode, despite the dodgy CGI.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 19 September 2008 at 2:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review

Even if you’ve never read a book by Terry Pratchett, you’ve probably heard of him. Creator of the Discworld, which floats through space supported by four elephants standing on the back of a giant turtle, and last year diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, Pratchett is the UK’s second best-selling author (after J.K. Rowling, naturally). Why though, am I reviewing his latest novel Nation on a science blog?

For one thing, Pratchett is no stranger to science. A few years back he teamed up with mathematician Ian Stewart and biologist Jack Cohen to write The Science of the Discworld. Both entertaining and informative, the book used the Discworld setting to explore scientific concepts, alternating between fiction and non-fiction. It was successful enough to spawn two sequels.

Nation, however, is straight fiction – and also Pratchett’s first non-Discworld novels in a while. Set 150 years ago, it’s about a boy named Mau who returns from the ritual that will make him a man to find his island home has been devastated by a great wave. His family, his people, his Nation, gone. He encounters Ermintrude, a girl from Britain who’s father is 138th in line to the throne. Shipwrecked on the island by the wave, she prefers to be known as Daphne, because Ermintrude is “exactly the kind of name that would invite a young man to tea and mess it all up.” Gradually, they are joined by other survivors from surrounding islands, who have turned to the great Nation to protect them.

Only, it isn’t really about all that. Nation is a book about science, it’s a book about quantum mechanics, the scientific method, and generally just having a good long hard think about why the world is the way it is.

Mau cannot accept that the gods would allow such devastation – and begins to wonder if the gods are really there. The voices of his ancestors fill his head with commands, but he begins to question them. Meanwhile, Daphne tries to understand the strange ways of the Nation, like a beer that is poisonous unless you spit in it then sing a song, by following the scientific method demonstrated by her heroes at the Royal Institute. Eventually the pair make a discovery that will turn the world upside down…

Pratchett is treading some familiar themes here – Mau resonates particularly with Johnny Maxwell from Only You Can Save Mankind and Brutha from Small Gods. All three protagonists find strength in their weakness, and find that people follow them because they view the world in a different way. Free of Discworld trappings, however, Nation is probably the most accessible book to anyone who hasn’t yet picked up a Pratchett. Most of all, I liked it because my first thought as I turned the final page was “hey, isn’t science amazing? Wow.” I’ll leave you with a quote, a character’s answer to a child’s question about belief in science and religion, and whether God exists:

“Perhaps. I just believe. You know, in things generally. That works, too. Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science.”

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 17 September 2008 at 6:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Coincidentally tying into yesterday’s post on Science Debate 2008, the new series of Horizon was kicked off last night by speaking to “leading scientists” about the scientific knowledge a President requires. What did they have to say for themselves?

Initially, not much. It seems they had all been bundled into a darkened room only to have spotlights shined into their blinking, deer-in-the-headlight eyes. I’m not entirely sure why the BBC chose to shoot their guests in this manner – its a toss up between wanting to appear “edgy”, and just being too cheap to build a set.

A few uncomfortable introductions: Richard Dawkins, James Watson (one of the discoverers of DNA), and others. Cut to the scientists scribbling random equations on blackboards. Oh good. Right, a bit of history: Kennedy was a good friend to scientists, who in turn helped out America by sending men to to the moon. Everyone else since then has been rubbish. Especially George Bush.

More meaningless equations, this time floating in the sky between buildings. What do they mean? It doesn’t matter, it’s SCIENCE! Really, does the BBC thing we have such short attention spans these days that if we don’t see something shiny every few seconds we’ll lapse into a coma of boredom?

Six minutes in, and it’s time for the programme to start. Apparently a President must understand e = mc2 in order to be able to push the nuke button. Funny, I thought it just took a finger – a thumb even, in an emergency. Oh no, turns out that the President is “shadowed by a uniformed officer”, holding a case full of launch codes.

Sorry, where were we? Right, science, but not too much science. Richard Garwin, designer of the first hydrogen bomb, shows us how how much enriched uranium is needed to start a nuclear reaction in a power station (yes, we’re on power stations now, do keep up), then mutters under his breath for a few seconds whilst working out how long the reaction would take – one millionth of a second. Beaming, he says “and you can calculate all that yourself!”

No! Not calculation! The science has gone too far! A horror-movie style musical stab plays as we cut quickly over the evil, evil numbers on the blackboard. The monster of mathematics has reared its ugly head, and we must move on sharpish before it devours us all.

There’s some nonsense about detecting Iran’s nuclear progress, with former CIA agent Robert Baer telling us that ninjas and James Bond will not be coming in and shutting them down. That’s not the way that world works. Yes, ninjas and James Bond were the actual words he used.

Oh right, science. Well, a President must also know about stem cell research. Sir Paul Nurse guides us through his laboratory full of duplicated equipment: thanks to the ban on federally funded research, one set of machines can be used for stem cell research, and the other (privately funded) can’t. The are even hooked up to separate electrical meters, so no American tax dollars go to those filthy anti-life scum. What does a President need to know? Some people don’t like stem cells, it seems. They even have signs saying so. Better watch out for them.

Physics, biology – isn’t there something else on our list we need to tick off? Ah: chemistry. We’re reminded of that “dreaded of science class icons, the periodic table” – apparantly “little could appear less interesting.” Really? Someone better tell the Periodic Table of Videos to shove off, because Horizon is back on the case.

Chemistry is all to do with photosynthesis. That’s what a President needs to know. Sorry, sorry, did I say photosynthesis? Silly old me, I meant climate change. Oh, but now we’re back to nuclear power. I guess we didn’t cover that in enough detail earlier.

At the end of the program, what does a President really need to know about science? The answer, it seems, is to choose a science advisor. Good to know. If you like, you can watch The President’s Guide to Science online with BBC iPlayer until next Tuesday, but frankly, I wouldn’t bother.

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 5 August 2008 at 5:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Last night Channel 4 showed the first part of a three part series, The Genius of Charles Darwin. Presented by biologist Richard Dawkins, it celebrates the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s great work, On The Origin of Species. If you missed it, you can watch it on the Channel 4 website for the next 7 days.

I found the programme interesting, but not without flaws. I know that Richard Dawkins is a militant atheist, but the manner in which he presented was sure to immediately annoy any religious viewers he was attempting to reach. The statistic is that 40% of the UK population reject Darwin’s theory of evolution, and these would be the people best served by the programme. I imagine he lost quite a few of them after the following opening:

I want to persuade you that evolution offers a far richer and spectacular view of life than any religious story. It’s one of the reasons I don’t believe in God.

He might as well have said “the cultural and spiritual traditions you have been brought up with are wrong, and you should immediatly turn you attention to me, for I am far, far more intelligent than you.” In fact, this is more or less what he said to a group of 16-year-olds as he attempted to teach them about religion. He had a fair point; just because you were brought up with a particular belief system does not make that belief system right, and if presented with reasonable evidence to the contrary any rational person should change their mind. The trouble is he was so confrontational that the students weren’t at all receptive to his message.

I am not religious in the slightest, indeed I am no fan of religion in any form. However, religious beliefs are so ingrained into the people who follow them that anyone disrespecting those beliefs are not likely to hold their interest for very long. If Dawkins’ aim was to communicate science, then why not leave room for God as the creator of natural selection? If you choose to believe that then you can agree with evolution without compromising your beliefs. I fear that at times during the programme science took a back seat to Dawkins’ agenda, and atheistic evangelism is just as distasteful as the religious variety.

Once we get past all this there is some nice content. Dawkins chronicles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, and follows in his footsteps to the famous Galápagos Islands where Darwin made many of his incredible discoveries. When we go back to the students, Dawkins has taken them to a beach to search for fossils. None of them look very impressed or interested – hardly the sign of someone learning.

Dawkins then visits Darwin’s own house, and uses his piano to illustrate the vast length of time over which evolution takes place. At one end of the piano, the origin of life. At the other, modern day. Up until just over half way along the keyboard, life consisted of nothing but bacteria. Dinosaurs are about 10 notes below the highest, with their extinction a mere five notes later. Apes and monkeys arrive on the highest note, and the whole of human history occupies a space less than the width of a piano string. It’s a great explanation, and not a mention of religion in sight.

Later on in the programme, Dawkins is talking to genetics with Craig Ventor, one of the scientists who mapped the human genome. They discuss how similarities in genetic code between species provide one of the greatest proofs that all life on Earth is related. Ventor utters “to me it’s not a theory any more.” How I wish he hadn’t. Evolution isn’t “just” a theory, it is a theory. The theory of evolution is our explanation of the observed phenomenon of natural selection. By saying “it’s not a theory any more” you play right in to the hands of anti-Darwinism and those who love to say “just a theory”. To his credit, Dawkins also seems a bit annoyed by this, stating that evolution is fact – which it is, as well as a theory.

In the end we return to the students. A few already agree with evolution, others may have been convinced, but some still dismiss it in favour of their religious beliefs. If they didn’t before, they now see evolution as a direct challenge to religion – which it is not, even if both Dawkins and fundamentalists wish to portray them as such. Sadly, Dawkins has failed to communicate to them the wondrous ideas behind evolution.

Next week’s episode looks to be about evolution as applied to human society – a subject I found myself wondering about as I watched this weeks episode. Do our advances in medicine and technology mean that “survival of the fittest” no longer applies to the human race? I look forward to finding out – just please, leave the religion bashing at the door.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 1 August 2008 at 9:42 pm by Jacob Aron
In Just A Review, Mathematics

Andrew Hodges’ inspiration for the title One to Nine was Sudoku, the immensely popular number puzzle. Hodges comments that newspapers insist the puzzles require no mathematical knowledge, in order to not scare away an often maths-phobic British public – indeed, Sudoku does not even require numbers, since substituting nine letters or symbols into a puzzle would leave the logic required to solve it unchanged.

Hodges describes logic as one of the most fascinating elements of ‘adult mathematics’, wholly different to the ‘school maths’ that newspapers try to distance themselves from. The book aims to provide an insight into this for those who may have been turned off the subject at school.

Unsurprisingly, the book is split into nine chapters, One through Nine. Each begins with a characterisation of the number; seven ‘needs sifting and sorting out’, whereas three ‘doesn’t just talk’, but ‘thinks big’. The chapter titles are a bit of a gimmick at times. Six is the first perfect number, so-called because 6 = 1 + 2 + 3 = 1 x 2 x 3, and this leads to a discussion of factorials. Six is 3! (pronounced ‘three factorial’) because 3! = 1 x 2 x 3., and the factorial of a number n is simply the product of all numbers from 1 to n. The chapter continues with probabilities, the Enigma machine, and Euler’s equation – all very interesting topics with links to factorials, but do they really relate particularly to six, more so than any other number?

Gimmicks aside, One to Nine is a whistle-stop tour of pop-sci mathematics, with sections ranging from black holes to game theory to musical harmony. Each topic is well described and often accompanied by many useful diagrams, although some appear to have been lifted straight from a .jpg file, complete with ugly compression artefacts – a bit more care could have been take in order to provide high quality images.

Numerous equations may discourage the casual reader, but they are always accompanied by a thorough explanation in the text. Stephen Hawking was told when writing A Brief History of Time that ‘each equation in the book would halve the sales’; I hope this is not the case else I will have already lost 75% of my readership! For those who really will not abide equations, relax – they can for the most part be skipped.

Sprinkled throughout the text are problems rated on a Sudoku-like scale, from GENTLE to DEADLY. I found these to be a welcome addition, but normally skipped over any that I was unable to solve in a minute or two, so as not to slow down the pace of the book. Placing these at the end of each chapter would have made me more inclined to give them a go.

Helpfully, all of the solutions are provided on the website for the book, along with further notes and comments. Unfortunately the book does not feature a bibliography or recommended reading list, so if you do become engrossed in a particular topic you will have to hunt out more information by yourself, but the website does go some way to assisting with this.

If you would like to learn how mathematics is used in a variety of scientific fields and are not too afraid of a few equations, One to Nine is a good place to start. In fact, Hodges’ appropriation of Sudoku is quite apt. If you enjoy the use of logic in a Sudoku puzzle, but have dreaded school memories of multiplication tables, perhaps One to Nine can show you the world through the filter of ‘adult mathematics’.

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