Archive for the ‘Weekly Roundup’ Category

3 Comments » Posted on Sunday 9 May 2010 at 6:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

Who needs facts?

We all know that science can be complicated and confusing, but don’t let that get you down – Fake Science is here to straighten everything out. Did you know that the periodic table is actually based on Scrabble, or that wind power uses giant fans to make wind? Science has never been so simple.

Want to lose weight? Keep it off your plate

Simply leaving serving dishes on the kitchen counter rather than bringing them to the dining table reduces the amount of food you eat, say researchers at Cornell University. They found that this simple dieting strategy reduces the temptation of second helpings, cutting the number of calories people consumed by 20%.

Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, said that the same idea can be used to promote healthier foods over sugary snacks – keeping fruit on display makes you more likely to eat it instead of reaching for a piece of cake in the fridge.

Animal privacy? Not in my backyard

Wildlife documentaries infringe an animal’s right to privacy, says Brett Mills, a lecturer in film studies at the University of East Anglia:

“We have an assumption that humans have some right to privacy, so why do we not assume that for other species, particularly when they are engaging in behaviour that suggests they don’t want to be seen?”

I’m a staunch defender of civil liberties, but even I think extending the right to privacy to animals is going a bit too far. Of course, great care should be taken to avoid distributing their natural habits or causing them distress, but I really don’t think animals mind us watching them doing what they do.

Green tax would hurt the poorest

A proposed tax on carbon footprints would hit the poorest households hardest, according to study from the University of Leeds. The carbon tax would cost low earners 6% of their annual income, while the richest households would only pay around 2%.

The difference is the result of poorer households spending more on costs such as heating and electricity – 40% of their income, compared to just 8% for high earners.

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.

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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.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 4 April 2010 at 2:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In About Just A Theory, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Pac-Man in the moon

Mimas is fast shaping up to be the nerdiest object in the solar system. The tiny moon of Saturn has already been compared to the Death Star from Star Wars, but the Cassini probe has revealed another geek-culture icon – Pac-Man.

Nom nom nom
Nom nom nom

The appearance of the classic video game character during a thermal scan of Mimas has baffled scientists. It could be due to differences in texture on the moon’s icey surface. Old, densely packed ice conducts heat away from the surface, while recently fallen snow acts as an insulator, trapping heat to create the distinctive Pac-Man shape.

Just A Review: Just A Theory

Physics World has published a rather nice review of Just A Theory. You’ll have to register on their site to see it in full, but here’s an excerpt:

Just A Theory offers a moderately UK-centric perspective on science news for interested members of the public and busy professional researchers alike. You will not find too many detailed, hard-science articles here, but sometimes that is not the point. As a student or professional physicist, it is easy to develop tunnel vision as you dig ever deeper into a relatively narrow research topic, but keeping the “bigger picture” in sight can be a time-consuming process in an ever-more-crowded media world.

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

The Periodic Table of Periodic Tables

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

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

And you think your job is tough…

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

Fire! De der deeeer, der der…

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

A really geeky maths joke

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

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

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

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

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

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 14 March 2010 at 9:56 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Mathematics, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Pi for all

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

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

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

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

A serious science survey?

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

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

High-gravity lava lamps

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

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

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

Chemical party

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

Strength in small numbers

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

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

Well, it works for monkeys…

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

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 14 February 2010 at 9:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Mathematics, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Valentine’s love poetry brings a hot rush of blood to the cheeks

I wrote this piece for the Guardian as part of their Valentine’s Day coverage:

Steamy love poems are always popular around Valentine’s Day, but can a few lines of tender verse really make people hot under the collar? Researchers at Aberystwyth University attempted to find out earlier this week, using thermal imaging cameras to take the temperature of volunteers reading the work of Romantic poets.

The experiment is a collaboration between the arts and the sciences, led by poet Richard Marggraf Turley from the Department of English and Creative Writing and Reyer Zwiggelaar from Computer Science. They asked six volunteers from each department to silently read 12 love poems, while a slightly less amorous text about thermal imaging served as a control. As the participants pored over poems, including Bright Star by John Keats and To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell (both are reproduced in full below), thermal cameras monitored their faces for any change in temperature that could reveal their true feelings.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

A “new” formula for marriage? Not quite

A number of news outlets have run stories on a formula for finding your “Optimal Proposal Age”, based on a press release from the University of New South Wales. Far from being a new result, it’s actually a repackaging of an old mathematical puzzle known by a variety of names, including the marriage problem.

Imagine you’ve decided to search for the perfect partner by going on 100 blind dates. After each date you decide whether you want to marry the potential suitor, and if you choose not too you can never see them again. Contrived, but then this is a maths puzzle!

How do you pick your partner? If you wait until the end of all 100 dates, you’ll be stuck with whoever is on the end of the list, whether you like them or not, but if just go for the first person you like then you could be missing out on someone who is a better match. It turns out that the best strategy is to see the first 37 potentials, then pick the next one who is better than those 37. Not the most romantic approach, but at least it makes for a quirky Valentine’s Day news story I suppose.

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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:

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 24 January 2010 at 5:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Oh dear, one week in and I’m already off schedule. Two words: food poisoning. Leftover Chinese food can be deadly! On with this week’s roundup:

Next stop, outer space

Even London natives can struggle with the complicated spiderweb that is the Tube map, but surprisingly enough it is actually intended to simplify getting about the capital. Inspired by its iconic design, Harvard scientist Samuel Arbesman developed a similar map for getting about the Milky Way:

But where is Morington Crescent?
But where is Morington Crescent?

The coloured lines correspond to an arm of the spiral galaxy, and each stop is a star or other astronomical object.

Mental time travel

You won’t be journeying to the age of the dinosaurs just yet, but psychologists at the University of Aberdeen have discovered a strange form of time travel. Apparently thinking about the past or future causes people to move backwards or forwards. The researchers suggest behaviour could be the origin of temporal metaphors such as future = forward and past = backward.

Bond. Strange Bond.

The Royal Society of Chemistry continued it’s tradition of strange PR stunts this week by announcing a search for a Sean Connery lookalike.

As if devising a new ending for the Italian Job or cooking the perfect Yorkshire pudding weren’t enough, they want to use the lookalike in a bizarre photoshoot designed to highlight the importance of British research keeping the nation healthy. No, I don’t get it either.

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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.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 20 December 2009 at 5:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

I’ll be taking a break from Just A Theory from now until the start of next year. Now that I’m working full time I’m finding it a little harder to keep up with blogging, so I think it’ll be good to have some time off and recharge my batteries. Over Christmas I’ll be thinking about ways to improve the blog for 2010, so let me know if you have any suggestions. Enjoy the rest of 2009!

Drinking advice, straight from the source

With December 25th inching ever closer you’ve probably already been to a number of booze-fuelled Christmas parties, but have you thought about the long-term risks of drinking alcohol?

If you’re anything like me, probably not, but I did read this interview on the University of Oxford science blog with one of their scientists, Naomi Allen. She talks about the risks and benefits of drinking alcohol, and suggests middle-age women who are most at risk of breast cancer should probably hold back on the booze.

It’s good to hear the risks laid out in a clear and non-headline grabbing manner, but the interview is also an interesting example of institutional journalism. This piece could easily appear in a magazine or Sunday supplement, but Oxford have chosen to cut out the middle-man and publish themselves. We’re seeing more and more of this type of work crop up, as the media continues their struggle to reinvent themselves in a Web 2.0 world.


Who says bacteria can’t be beautiful? New Scientist have a gallery of Petri dish art created by microbiologists. My personal favourite, for obvious reasons, is this little guy:

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 13 December 2009 at 7:26 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Getting It Right, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Daily Mail: Terror in the night

Everyone likes to bash the Daily Mail, but its always nice when you can point out some good science reporting – hence the “Getting It Right” category on Just A Theory. I was pleased to read a decent account of one woman’s struggle with sleep paralysis, complete with a scientific explanation of the disorder.

I’ve actually had sleep paralysis myself, and it’s a terrifying experience. You can’t move, you can’t speak, and you feel like something is coming to get you. Although it lasts just a few seconds, it feels like an age. Thankfully when it happened to me I realised what was going on because I’d read about it previously, but those not in the know must be left extremely frightened and confused. Hopefully the Mail article will help educate them.

Tasty and informative

You can never have too many novelty periodic tables, so how about another edible interpretation of Mendeleev’s masterpiece?

See more pics at Not So Humble Pie.

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

The Year’s Most Amazing Scientific Images

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

Robots under the sea

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

Have yourself a very little Christmas

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

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

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Comments Off Posted on 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:

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

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

LHC a-go-go

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

What if the Earth had rings?

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

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

Field less players to win the World Cup

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

Bacteria that can detect landmines

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

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 15 November 2009 at 7:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Chemistry, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Necker cube

Everyone loves optical illusions, especially three dimensional ones. The Necker Cube is a classical example of an ambiguous drawing, one that the human mind can interpret in a number of ways. Artist Guido Moretti has created a 3D sculpture of the cube, and it’s pretty nifty:

But can they do copernicium?

Pets aren’t normally known for their understanding of molecular chemistry, but this team of golden retrievers are here to explain the science of atoms:

Periodic table of YUM!

I guess I’m just a sucker for novelty periodic tables. Behold. the periodic table of cupcakes:

So many to choose from...
So many to choose from...*drool*

Let’s just hope they didn’t include samples of each element in the icing…

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 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.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 1 November 2009 at 6:12 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Getting It Wrong, Mathematics, Weekly Roundup

Formulas, multiplied

For some reason the Independent have decided to publish the mother of all “formula for” stories – ten examples of the best worse science reporting there is. They include ones I’ve written about before, like the formula for the perfect pancake,but also a bunch I’d not previously seen. The best has to be the equation for the perfect sandcastle, which is OW = 0.125 x S. In other words, one part water, eight parts sand.

Lunch time at the Periodic Table

This photo of a literal Periodic Table has been doing the internet rounds recently:

Turns out it’s a piece of art work at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. It was created by two student in 2003, Nazila Alimohammadi and Anna Clark. Nice work – I’m always up for a good pun!

From coffee to carbon

Also floating about this internet this week was this interactive illustration of the size and scale of various cells from the University of Utah. Starting from a coffee bean and a grain of rice, you can zoom past human cells, bacteria and viruses before ending up at a single carbon atom. Zooming out is just as fun!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 25 October 2009 at 10:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Weekly Roundup

Painted horses teach anatomy to vets

Champion horse rider Gillian Higgins has come up with a novel way for veterinary students to learn the skeletal structure of a horse – paint it directly on to the skin. Pretty cool, if slightly creepy!

Watch the carbon clock ticking

Early this year I wrote about research showing that the Earth effectively has a carbon budget of one trillion tonnes. Emitting more than this will lead to a global temperature rise of 2°C, and we’ve already spent over half a trillion.

To illustrate our spending, Professor Myles Allen of Oxford University has created a ticking carbon clock, counting down to the release of the trillionth tonne. That’s currently set for some time in March 2045 but as our rate of emissions continues to rise, this date gets nearer by the second. It’s sobering to watch.

Fancy a drink?

This photo of an ant refreshing itself after a hard day’s work was taken by András Mészáros, and won him a prize in the 2009 Veolia Environnement wildlife photographer of the year. Take a look at some of the other winners, including a wolf caught mid-jump and a stag with a crown of bracken.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 18 October 2009 at 7:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Mathematics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Apologies for my lack of posting this week, I’m once again hepped up on Lemsip as I battle against a cold. My fellow bloggers have done a great job at picking up the slack, but I still have a collection of interesting links from the past week. Here we go:

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

Cuddly quarks

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

Time for a new table?

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

The circular periodic table
The circular periodic table

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

Obama, the astronomical President

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

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

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

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

Comments Off Posted on 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.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 27 September 2009 at 4:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Scientists find water EVERYWHERE

Well, not quite, but close. In a strange coincidence, the discovery of water on the surface of both the Moon and Mars was announced this week. Future astronauts could use the water to establish a lunar or Martian bases.

The findings were made by the Indian Chandrayaan-1 probe, a fantastic result for the nation’s first lunar mission. The probe detected that light reflected from the Moon’s surface was missing wavelengths known to be absorbed by water. This was later backed up by the NASA Deep Impact and Cassini probes.

NASA also made the discovery on Mars, where the agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped pictures of melting water-ice that had been thrown up from under the surface by a recent meteorite impact.

Science rap returns

It’s nearly exactly a year since rapper Jonathan Chasa entertained us with his astrobiology rap, but now he’s back again as
Oort Kuiper to tell us about genes:

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 20 September 2009 at 11:21 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Amazing astronomy

Check out this set of astronomy images from flickr user victorvonsalza. This one below is my favourite – be sure to click through for the larger version!

The images were taken in Portland, Oregon, and show a variety of dramatic starscapes.

See-through frog

This little guy comes from an amphibian family known as glass frogs, for reasons that should be fairly obvious. It’s both fascinating and slightly horrifying that you can see their innards from the outside…

Wet Mars, Dry Mars

Giant cracks across the surface of Mars hint that the dusty planet had a much wetter past. Although the cracks have been observed before, it’s only now that their true origin has been revealed.

Ramy El Maarry, a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, created a computer model of the cracking process, which forms irregular shapes in the ground up to 250 metres in diameter. The marks have previously been attributed to the heating and cooling of the planet’s surface, but El Maarry’s model showed that this would only produces shapes as large as 65 metres.

He realised that the shapes resembled the “desiccation cracks” found on Earth when water evaporates to leave dry and dusty mud. Comparing the two side by side makes it a pretty convincing hypothesis:

Cracks on Earth (left) compared with Mars (right).
Cracks on Earth (left) compared with Mars (right).
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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 13 September 2009 at 6:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Weekly Roundup

Human nails are growing faster

Your finger and toenails are growing faster than they would have 70 years ago, according to the Daily Mail. It sounds like nonsense, but it’s apparantly true.

Research published in in the Journal Of The European Academy Of Dermatology And Venereology last week found that the average thumbnail grows at 3.55mm a month, compared to the 3mm a month reported by a study in 1938.

Our modern-day diet could be the cause, say researchers from the University of North Carolina. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to access the paper to read their full results, but another explanation does occur to me: perhaps the 1938 study was simply inaccurate, and nails continue to grow at the same rate they always have.

Green energy

Trees contain enough power to run a small electric circuit, scientists at the University of Washington have found. Although the energy output is very small, it could be put to use powering sensors to monitor environmental conditions or forest fires.

Using nanotechnology components which do not require much power, the team created a circuit that uses an average of 10 nanowatts. By comparison, a 100W lightbulb uses 10 billion times as much power. The results will soon be published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Transactions on Nanotechnology.

Despite their success, the researchers don’t yet understand where the tree power comes from, according to one of the paper’s co-authors, Babak Parviz:

“It’s not exactly established where these voltages come from. But there seems to be some signaling in trees, similar to what happens in the human body but with slower speed,

“I’m interested in applying our results as a way of investigating what the tree is doing. When you go to the doctor, the first thing that they measure is your pulse. We don’t really have something similar for trees.”

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

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

Weird NASA mission badges

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

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

The “ideal” David Bowie song

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

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

Molecular paparazzi

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

The structure is clearly visible
The structure is clearly visible

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

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Comments Off Posted on 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.

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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.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 26 July 2009 at 8:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

I,Science is now online

Many contributors to Just A Theory also worked on this year’s editions of I,Science, the Imperial College science magazine. Until now, the only way to get a copy of this esteemed publication was to pick it up around campus, but the I,Science website has now been updated for all to read.

For some reason only the first two editions of this year are up on the site. Perhaps the summer term issue, which featured a scratch-n-sniff cover, could not be so easily digitised.

How to read a scientific paper

Reading scientific papers can be intimidating if you’ve never tried, but much of the literature is fairly accessible if you’re prepared to give it a go. offers some advice on where to start.

Tips include not reading from beginning to end – the dull methods section will bog you down. Instead, skim the abstract then jump to the discussion section, before moving on to the conclusion. Worth a read.

Is it me, or is it getting dark?

Wednesday this week saw the longest solar eclipse of the 21st century. If you missed it, which you probably did because it didn’t effect the UK or US, check out this image capture by a Japanese satellite:

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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.

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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.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 4 July 2009 at 6:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Evolution, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Darwin’s children’s drawings on display

Charles Darwin used sheet after sheet of paper when writing On the Origin of Species, since redrafting before the days of Microsoft Word meant writing the whole thing out again. Only a handful of these draft papers have survived, mostly because Darwin gave his used sheets to his children for use as drawing paper.

Battle of the Vegetables
Battle of the Vegetables

Next week one such sheet will go on display in a new exhibition at Cambridge University Library. Named “Battle of the Vegetables” by Library staff, it depicts a battle between one man riding a carrot and another on what could possibly be a stale potato.

Did Michael Jackson’s death contribute to climate change?

Duncan Graham-Rowe of the Guardian asks whether we should consider the carbon cost of all the increased web activity following the singer’s death. I’ve discussed the carbon cost of Googling before – 0.2g per search, according to the company’s own figures.

As one commenter points out, if you added up the tiny contributions of all the tributary Tweets and YouTubes they probably wouldn’t exceed the Jackson’s personal carbon footprint, considering the lavish life he led.

The Guardian’s James Randerson also chimes in to say the point of the article isn’t really the carbon cost of Jackson’s death, but to highlight the issue of unsustainable internet growth. Whilst this is a problem, I can’t imagine that alternative methods of information distribution are any greener. As with many climate change conundrums, the answer is far from clear.

What’s on alien TV?

Webcomic Abstruse Goose has this rather nice image of what aliens might be watching on TV. When TV signals are broadcast some of them radiate out from the Earth, and could be picked up by any extraterrestrials out there. Like all electromagnetic radiation, the signals travel at the speed of light, so depending on how far from Earth the aliens are it’s going to take them a while to receive our latest programmes.

Whilst inhabitants of the relatively near Sirius system might have been enjoying episodes of Family Guy and The Sopranos for the past few years, everyone out in Aldebaran is still waiting for coverage of World War II to arrive. I just hope any aliens out there will forgive us for polluting space with broadcasts of Big Brother…

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5 Comments » Posted on Friday 3 July 2009 at 6:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

With all the World Conference of Science Journalists fun, there’s obviously been a lot of news this week that I’ve had to ignore. Rather than letting it slip away without comment, I thought I’d once again abuse the Weekly Roundup category for the next few days. A bit longer than my usual Roundup format today, because I’m basically cramming two blog posts in to one:

Electro-hypersensitivity: because when you make up a medical condition, it becomes real

Maybe it’s just because I own more electronic doo-dads than anyone really needs, but when ever I see people complaining that electricity/wifi makes them ill, I get annoyed. The Daily Mail published just such an account, from Sarah Dacre, who suffered from unexplained headaches and digestive problems for seven years.

Her medical problems increased over the years, and it wasn’t until 2006 when she was diagnosed with electro-hypersensitivity (EHS) by a “specialist [she] found on the internet” that she was able to over them. She moved to a country house in Kent, and was miraculously cured.

It’s a good thing that, unlike the rest of the country, Kent isn’t bathed in radio waves. And doesn’t have mobile phone masts. Or electricity. Hmm.

There is no scientific evidence to show the existence of EHS. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. A meta-analysis of studies looking at the phenomenon found that those who claimed to suffer from the condition could not tell if the electromagnetic field they were being subjected to was real or not. I don’t know what caused Sarah Dacre’s medical problems, but this ain’t it.

Vegetarianism as a way of avoiding cancer? I’d rather eat a burger

Vegetarians ‘avoid more cancers’ says the BBC headline. A study published in the British Journal of Cancer looked at cancer rates in over 60,000 Brits, and found that those who were strictly veggie or only ate fish were at a much reduced relative risk of developing cancer.

Ah, cancer and relative risk – we’ve been here before. I’m not going to do a full look at the stats, but let’s take bladder cancer as an example. The research showed that compared to meat eaters, vegetarians have a relative risk of 0.47 for developing bladder cancer. In other words, cutting out meat more than halves your chance of developing the disease.

Halves it from what though? As always, I refer you to the excellent Cancer Research UK for some numbers. For every 100,000 people in the UK, each year 16.9 will develop bladder cancer. That means roughly 10,000 people each year over the entire population. If we all stopped eating meat – and only if we all did – around 5,000 a year would avoid the disease.

Maybe I’m just too attached to eating meat, but changing the eating habits of an entire country in order to effect such a small change doesn’t really seem worth it. Though, us all cutting out meat would effect other cancer rates as well, so it’s not just 5,000 who are being spared. Should we change our diet of the back of this study then? Lead author Professor Tim Key doesn’t think so:

“At the moment these findings are not strong enough to ask for particularly large changes in the diets of people following an average balanced diet.”

Now, don’t make the mistake of thinking I just ignore all health advice. Some risk factors are worth changing your habits for. Every year, around 35,000 people die as a result of lung cancer. Almost 90% of these are a result of smoking. Saving 31,500 lives a year by banning smoking seems a pretty obvious thing to do.

Smoking is also the major preventable risk factor for bladder cancer, which leads to about 5,000 deaths a year. Yes, roughly half of these could potentially be avoided if we all went veggie, but eradicating smoking seems like a much more effective, less costly and less disruptive way to cut cancer rates.

To look at it another way, you don’t see anyone suggesting we ban cars, which would save around 3,000 lives a year. It’s a fair comparison I think, since given the choice between a life of salads and cars, or sausages and trains, I know which I’d go for!

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

Sun in common-sense shocker

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

New hope for Copenhagen

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

Check this out. It’s awesome

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

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

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 21 June 2009 at 7:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

That’s one small Tweet for man…

To mark the anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission next month, Nature are using Twitter to relive the Moon landing, 40 years on. You can follow @ApolloPlus40 in the run up to July 20th, and imagine what a mission to the Moon would be like in the internet age.

First image from Herschel

Emma covered the launch of Herschel and Planck, the two latest telescopes to be sent off in to space, and now Herschel’s first image has been beamed back.

The first Herschel image.
The first Herschel image.

It shows the Whirlpool Galazy, also known as M51. First discovered by Charles Messier in 1774, it lies 23 million light-years away. Impressive stuff.

World’s first spaceport begins construction

I’ve been following the progress of Virgin Galactic for quite some time, as they bring the promise of commercial spaceflight ever closer to reality. I even blogged about the company in Just A Theory’s very first week. It’s quite exciting then to see construction begin for Spaceport America in New Mexico. The design is fantastically futuristic:

You can tell it's the future, look at all the blue lights.
You can tell it's the future, look at all the blue lights.

Due to be completed in 18 months time, it will serve as the commercial base for Virgin Galactic, but other companies will eventually make use of the facility. I can’t wait.

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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!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 7 June 2009 at 5:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Science Policy, Weekly Roundup

New department for science

With all the political turmoil of the past week it may have slipped you by that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) is no more. As part of Gordon Brown’s reshuffle, it will merge with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) to become the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (DBIS).

What this means for science is unclear, though the government pledge that DBIS will “continue to invest in the UK’s world class science base and develop strategies for commercialising more of that science.” Lord Drayson, Minister for Science and Innovation in DIUS and now DBIS, stated that “The science ring-fence is safe and sound and the innovation agenda will further benefit from this move.”

Tetley: not everyone’s cup of tea

Tea makers Tetley have been banned from broadcasting an advert for green tea after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) ruled against misleading health claims.

The advert shows a woman about to go for a run before discovering it is raining. Instead, she makes a cup of tea, with a voice-over stating “For an easy way to help look after yourself pick up Tetley Green Tea. It’s full of antioxidants.”

Whilst the ASA dismissed four viewer complaints that Tetley were trying to equate green tea with exercise, they did decide the company were trying to claim health benefits beyond mere hydration, and banned the advert.

Whilst it’s nice to see advertisers being taken to task, I do wish the ASA would show some consistency. Why is this not allowed, when Miracle Gro can advertise their organic compost as “100% chemical free”?

Tomorrow’s World, today

The classic BBC science magazine programme Tomorrow’s World is being reinvented as Bang Goes The Theory, “a new series that looks at how science shapes the world around us.”

Terrible, terrible name aside, I’m cautiously optimistic about this new programme. The presenters all seem to have backgrounds in science and science communication, and there is even on PhD, Dr Yan Wong. The editing of the trailer (linked above) makes it look like they are trying a little too hard to be stylish, but I will reserve judgement until the first episode is broadcast. Unfortunately I can’t tell you when that is, as the BBC continue their aversion to actually telling you when their programmes start – “late July” is the best we’ve got.

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

Growing skyscrapers

Metal crystals that look mini cities? Very cool:

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

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

Building a CPU from scratch

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

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

Renaming the God particle

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

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

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

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

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 24 May 2009 at 3:01 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Flying carpets…in space!

I pretty much never get tired of that headline.

Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata has demonstrated a “working” flying carpet aboard the International Space Station, as part of a series of experiments submitted by members of the public.

A whole new world...
A whole new world...

He had to cheat a little bit, however. Wakata’s feet were stuck to the carpet with sticky tape, which if you ask me doesn’t really count.

The Science News Cycle

Courtesy of PhD Comics, the Science News Cycle:

Strange measurements of science

The BBC have an article on some of the more interesting measurements made in the name of science. From the bluest sky to the crunch of a fresh biscuit, they’re quite strange. All were requests to the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Middlesex, which is responsible for defining and standardising units in the UK. Sounds like quite a cool job, and last Wednesday they celebrated World Meteorology Day in honour of their meticulous measuring.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 17 May 2009 at 12:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Were Neanderthals wiped out by our stomachs?

Bit of a strange one this. A study published in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences suggests a possible explanation for the disappearance of the Neanderthals – we ate them.

A Neanderthal jawbone appears to show marks similar to those found on deer remains from the early Stone Age. Lead researcher Fernando Rozzi, of the Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique in Paris, believes that this idea has been suppressed in the past. “For years, people have tried to hide away from the evidence of cannibalism, but I think we have to accept it took place.”

I’m not sure eating Neanderthals is technically cannibalism, as they are a different species, but they’re human enough to make it pretty creepy. Urgh.

Beware the “super rats”

The governing principle of natural selection is that the fittest survive. In the case of rats, those with a genetic resistance to poison will survive attempts to exterminate them, and pass on this immunity to their descendants. Before you know it, we’ll be over-run by super rats.

Ratcatchers in Swindon are reporting a 500% increase in rodent populations, and Professor Robert Smith of the University of Huddersfield thinks that Darwin is to blame:

“Natural selection means that when you have a rat population in your town, poison will kill the ones that aren’t resistant, the ones that survive may have the gene, they then have babies who can receive the gene themselves,” he said.

“There are mutations and changes in their DNA that alter the ability of rats to deal with these poisons. It appears to be moving west and has now been located in Swindon and Bristol. It is a warning of things to come.”

An appropriate photo for Sunday

You may have already seen this image circulated around the press, but it’s worth another look:

The Space Shuttle and Hubble telescope pass in front of the Sun. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault)
The Space Shuttle and Hubble telescope pass in front of the Sun. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault)

Earlier this week astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis undertook a mission to repair the Hubble telescope, and photographer Thierry Legault managed to catch them in the act. The spaceships appear as tiny dots in front of the vast Sun, but you can just make out the iconic shape of the Shuttle. More pics available here.

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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!

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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 Sunday 26 April 2009 at 2:12 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Problem: exams on Monday and Tuesday coupled with an ever increasing list of interesting links to share.

Solution: stretching the definition of “Weekly” to its breaking point.

That’s right folks, to give myself a bit of breathing space over the next few days, as well as to clear my links backlog, we’re going into roundup overload.

Just a little bit of GTCA

Bio-Rad, a company that creates various products for use in scientific laboratories, have come up with a quirky little advert. It’s not a science rap, but a science cover song:

My favourite part? “These letters also spell DAN”

‘Beer goggles’ are no excuse for misreporting

A recent study into the effects of alcohol on men’s perception of a woman’s age has been given a slightly different spin by many media outlets. The research was intended to examine a common claim in cases of under-age sex; being drunk made the girls seem older.

The methodology involved rating both young and mature faces for attractiveness, either under the influence or not. Results showed that attractiveness ratings for the young were not effected by alcohol, which was reported as dispelling the ‘beer goggles’ myth. However, the results also show that alcohol had a “significant” impact on making older faces with lots of make-up more attractive – the ‘beer goggles’ effect exactly.

In other words, the study showed the opposite of what the journalists reported – or at best, gave mixed results. Perhaps a study should be conducted into the effects of alcohol on journalist’s perception of a study’s attractiveness…

Paxo’s brain for research

Jeremy Paxman will be donating his brain for scientific research after he dies. His aim is to raise awareness of a campaign by the Parkinson’s Disease Society to encourage 1,000 others to do the same. Parkinson’s effects 120,000 people in the UK, and donated brains could help find a cure.

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

Nine scientific words that are actually from science fiction

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

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

The technologies of Red Dwarf

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

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

The time-travellers cheat sheet

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the science behind the news

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

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

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

Life on Mars Russia?

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

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

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

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

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 29 March 2009 at 9:15 am by Jacob Aron
In Education, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

Stunning CT scanner art

Satre Stuelke is an artist and medical student who uses a CT scanner to examine every-day objects in a new way. CT scanners are normally intended for medical imaging, but by using them to create art and inviting others to join him, Stuelke hopes to “plant a seed of scientific creativity in the minds of all those inclined to participate.” I quite like this image of a set of Russian nested dolls:

The CT scanners reveals what's inside these Russian dolls.
The CT scanners reveals what's inside these Russian dolls.

Science exams are slipping

Ofqual, the government body that regulates examinations, has said that an investigation in to the standard of teaching in GCSE science has “raised significant causes for concern.” It said that the exams are not up to standards, and do not offer enough of a challenge to the most able students. The following recommendations were made:

  • Improved quality of questions, to stretch and challenge all students
  • Work, including further training for senior examiners,  to improve the quality of objective tests
  • Tighter marking criteria to ensure that only the answers deserving of the marks are credited
  • Some internal assessment tasks have been revised to ensure better challenge to students and a closer link to the practical work. These changes took effect from last September.
  • Where possible within the existing specifications, the number of options available to candidates has been reduced. 

It’s vital that we keep exam standards high. Ofqual said that mathematics and English literature exams are maintaining their quality, so why has science been allowed to slip?

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 22 March 2009 at 3:27 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Prince Charles, Told Off

Prince Charles’s Duchy Originals company, which recently hit the headlines with its false “detox” claims, has been .

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) informed Duchy Originals they must change the product description on their website. The MHRA granted Duchy Originals a license to sell their products, but not to make claims on their effects. At time of writing, the product page remains unchanged.

Underwater volcano

Earlier this week a volcano off the coast Tonga erupted from in the Pacific Ocean. This spectacular display has resulted in the formation of a new island, made up of pumice as the result of emerging lava and gas.

To the stratosphere on just £56

The curvature of the Earth is clearly visible in this photo taken by four Spanish schoolboys from their weather balloon.
The curvature of the Earth is clearly visible in this photo taken by four Spanish schoolboys from their weather balloon.

Four students at a Spanish school have capture images of the stratosphere using a weather balloon and camera that cost just £56. Whilst there is no clear boundary between the Earth and outer space, the stratosphere is defined to be between 20 and 50km above sear level.

Aged between 18 and 19, the students attend the IES La Bisbal school in Catalonia. Gerard Marull Paretas, Sergi Saballs Vila, Marta­ Gasull Morcillo and Jaume Puigmiquel Casamort were “overwhelmed” with their results, and had to travel 10km to find the balloon when it eventually came crashing back to Earth.

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

Webcams in spaaace!

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

The Map of Science

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

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

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

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

What’s the risk?

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

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

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 8 March 2009 at 7:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Physics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Scientists, I know it’s tricky, but please figure out a cure for the common cold at some point in my lifetime. Todays’ post is less of a roundup and more of list of links – I’m hoping that normal service will resume on Wednesday, when both my cold and essays should be a thing of the past! Here we go:

A newly discovered species of tree has been named Sorbus Admonitor or “No parking” after the sign stuck to the first known sample. Discovered in the 1930s in Watersmeet in North Devon, it is only recently that a biochemical analysis has identified it as a distinct species.

The state of Illinois has declared that Pluto is still a planet, despite the 2006 ruling by the International Astronomical Union that downclassed it to “dwarf planet”.

Don’t miss your chance to bid on Einstein’s doctorate diploma. Issued 15 January 1906 by Zurich University’s school of mathematics and natural sciences, bidding will start at around SFr20,000-SFr30,000 ($17,340-$26,000).

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 1 March 2009 at 12:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

I’ve just realised that “Weekly” Roundup is something of a misnomer if I post one on a Saturday and a Sunday. Oh well!

Could “sprites” explain UFOs?

Scientists at Tel Aviv University in Israel have identified how a natural phenomenon that could explain sightings of UFOs is formed.

A sprite appears! About 30 miles high and 30 miles wide, the strange light show is a brief occurrence.
A sprite appears! About 30 miles high and 30 miles wide, the strange light show is a brief occurrence.

Dubbed “sprites” they were first observed by accident in 1989, and appear as brief flashes high in the atmosphere anywhere from 35 to 80 miles above the ground, unlike regular lighting bolts which occur around 7 to 10 miles up. Prof. Colin Price of the Geophysics and Planetary Sciences Department lead the research:

“Lightning from the thunderstorm excites the electric field above, producing a flash of light called a sprite,” explains Prof. Price.

“We now understand that only a specific type of lightning is the trigger that initiates sprites aloft.”

“Sprites, which only occur in conjunction with thunderstorms, never occur on their own, and are cousins to similar natural phenomenon dubbed by atmospheric electricians as ‘elves,’ ‘goblins’ and ‘trolls,’”

Why do we go grey? Hair dye I know?

Well, I know because a group of scientists have discovered that hair bleaches itself as we get older. Hydrogen peroxide, commonly used by bottle blondes, is produced naturally by hair cells. As we get older, this natural concentration increases and overwhelms the production of melanin, the usual pigment of hair. The result – grey.

The discovery was made by examining human hair follicle cells. The hydrogen peroxide build-up was caused by a enzyme that would normally break it up into hydrogen and oxygen. This has a knock-on effect on other enzymes that results in a disruption of melanin production. The research was published in the FASEB Journal.

Behind the scenes at a natural history museum

Seed magazine have an interesting article about “the hidden side of natural history museums”, and all the specimens that the public never get to see. Words are great’n'all, but what really grabbed me were the pictures from the American Museum of Natural History. Lockers of elephant feet, rhinoceros hides and a wardrobe of leopard skins await you, but this has got to be the strangest of all:

Weird and wonderful. Image by Justine Cooper.
Weird and wonderful. Image by Justine Cooper.
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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 28 February 2009 at 12:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Physics, Weekly Roundup

If everything has gone to plan, I’m currently enjoying a weekend in Paris. This has coincided nicely with another bumper weekly roundup, so enjoy your two-part summary fun.

Sex began even earlier than we thought

The discovery of a long-dead fish is unlikely to get many people hot under the collar, but it appears that a 380 million-year-old fossil could have a few things to teach us about sex. Scientists have found the remains of a placoderm, an armoured prehistoric fish, that contains a two-inch embyro.

The specimen had actually been housed in the collections of the Natural History Museum since the 1980s, but it is only now that the tiny bones inside the fish are believed to be its offspring, rather than its dinner! This evidence for reproduction by internal fertilization is, when it comes to fish, pretty hot stuff. You can watch interviews with some of the scientists involved here.

The science of Watchmen

If you know anything about comics, you’ve probably heard of Watchmen. Arguably the greatest graphic novel of all time, most of the heroes it features don’t have any special powers. The one exception is Dr. Manhatten, a glowing blue man who is the very personification of the atomic bomb.

For the upcoming move adaptation of the book, the film-makers enlisted physics professor James Kakalios as a scientific consultant. Having just examined the role of such consultants on my course, I found the clip quite interesting. Does anyone really benefit by Dr. Manhatten being “explained” in such detail? I’m not convinced, but make up your own minds:

Open access papers benefit developing nations

I’m a strong supporter of open access science, in which scientific papers are placed online so that anyone can read them for free. A study published in Science last week suggests that open access articles receive more citations than those in closed journals, but the effect is particularly strong in the developed world. England and Germany saw an increase of citations by around 5%, whilst in India it was almost 25% and close to 30% in Brazil.

James A. Evans, lead author of the research, spoke to SciDev Net:

“Our study shows that people who have access to journals in poor countries use them,

“If they weren’t freely available they wouldn’t use them with the same frequency, and they may not be able, as a result, to themselves publish in top journals.”

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 22 February 2009 at 12:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Physics, Weekly Roundup

“Run LHC, run!”

CERN have announced that actor Tom Hanks has been chosen to reboot the Large Hadron Collider once repairs are complete. The massive machine was damaged soon after being switched on last September, when a helium leak caused an estimated £20 million damage.

Hanks is currently filming Angels and Demons, in which he reprises the role of Robert Langdon from The Da Vinci Code. The films plot involves an attempt to destroy the Vatican with 0.25 grams of antimatter stolen from CERN. No, really.

Must CERN resort to these kinds of PR games? Isn’t the LHC enough of an accomplishment without a Hollywood star attached? Apparently not.

Bad Science in the bathroom

Ben Goldacre has truly made it big, with this interview in the toilets of Conway Hall. He talks about the usual schtick: what’s wrong with science reporting, and what should be done to fix it. I do so admire his collection of stripy shirts.

Ben Goldacre of Bad Science talks about Sensationalised Science Reporting from Conrad on Vimeo.

Some very weird experiments

I’m cheating a bit with the title of this post, but two out of three ain’t bad. My odd one out for your this week is extremely odd – a countdown of the twenty most bizarre experiments of all time.

Some are merely quirky, such as in 1978, when psychologist Russell Clark got his students to proposition others with the line “I have been noticing you around campus. I find you to be attractive. Would you go to bed with me tonight?” in order to study gender differences.

Others are ethically questionable, like monkey head transplants and electrocuting puppies. Sometimes scientists don’t do themselves any favours when it comes to public opinion!

2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 15 February 2009 at 1:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Climate Change & Environment, Mathematics, Science Policy, Weekly Roundup

Wayne Rooney solves quadratic equations

The Independent have a lengthy interview with Marcus du Sautoy (the recently appointed Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science) about his thoughts on mathematics. He makes the argument that everyone has a “maths brain”, including Wayne Rooney:

“As a footballer, you’re trying to get in line with an incoming free kick. Wayne Rooney is subconsciously solving a quadratic equation every time he works out where to stand in the box. That doesn’t mean he can do it on paper and I’m sure he’s probably forgotten how to do it. But the point is that our brains are evolutionarily programmed to be able to do it.”

I’m never entirely convinced by this type of argument, as I don’t think your brain is really solving equations for you go about your life, but it’s always nice to see a bit of maths promotion. Have a read.

What should the government discuss?

The House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee is inviting members of the public to suggest topics for discussion at an oral evidence hearing to be held in a few months time. If you’ve got some scientific grievances that need airing in public, now is your chance.

Any topic under the remit of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills will be considered, as long as it is not already covered by an existing enquiry. Your idea must also be examinable in under two hours, and appropriately timed for either April or May.

After reading du Sautoy’s interview above, an idea might be to look into what can be done to stop bankers poaching all the top science graduates. Perhaps I’ll get around to writing it up…

Apocalypse meh

The Met Office Hadley Centre, an government organisation involved in climate change research, suggests that “apocalyptic predictions” about global warming are just as bad as claims that the phenomenon does not exist. Dr Vicky Pope is head of climate change advice at the Met Office, and says that scientists and journalists must stop misleading the public.

“Having to rein in extraordinary claims that the latest extreme [event] is all due to climate change is at best hugely frustrating and at worse enormously distracting. Overplaying natural variations in the weather as climate change is just as much a distortion of science as underplaying them to claim that climate change has stopped or is not happening.”

A common misrepresentation is to extrapolate off only a few years data, which could lead to puclic confusion when scientists’ predictions don’t actually occur, says Dr Peter Stott, a climate researcher at the Met Office.

“The reality is that extreme events arise when natural variations in the weather and climate combine with long-term climate change.”

“This message is more difficult to get heard. Scientists and journalists need to find ways to help to make this clear without the wider audience switching off.”

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 7 February 2009 at 4:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Weekly Roundup

The weekly roundup has grown so big this week that it has spilled into Saturday – and that’s even with some stories not making the cut!

Up the creek with no sign of a paddle

People do some strange things in the name of science. Daniel Bennett spent seven years searching the rainforests of the Philippines for the faeces of the rare butaan lizard, a relation of the giant komodo dragon. It’s understandable then that he was rather upset when he found that his 35kg bag of poo had been thrown away by a Leeds University lab technician. He made the discovery on his return to start the third year of his PhD.

“I was surprised to find my desk space occupied by another student,” he said. “My personal effects had been carefully stowed in boxes, but there was no sign of my 35kg bag of lizard shit.

“To some people it might have been just a bag of lizard shit, but to me it represented seven years of painstaking work searching the rainforest with a team of reformed poachers to find the faeces of one of the world’s largest, rarest and most mysterious lizards.”

The university, after a 16 month wait, offered Bennett £500 compensation which he turned down in favour of legal action. He says the loss of the bag left him “reeling” and has changed his life forever. Although he was able to complete his PhD, the depression at his loss severely affected him.

Time for climate change

I came across this rather nifty timeline of climate change at the Met Office’s website. It begins in 1824, when the French physicist Joseph Fourier (inverter of a wonderful mathematical tool, the Fourier series) realised that the atmosphere can trap heat from the Sun, warming the Earth in much the same way as a Greenhouse.

From there we move through a 1938 prediction by engineer Guy Stewart Callendar that the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for warming the planet, the Kyoto Protocol, and a number of other important landmarks in the history of climate science. The timeline speculatively ends in 2100, with world temperatures expected to rise between 1.8-4.0 °C – depending on the action we take in the meantime.


I join the Daily Mail in being a sucker for some pretty picture of animals. They’ve got some great snaps of a kingfisher diving for fish in an ice river in Land Hessen, central Germany.

The kingfisher grabs its underwater prey. Photographer: Gisela Delpho/Picture Press.
The kingfisher grabs its underwater prey. Photographer: Gisela Delpho/Picture Press.
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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.

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

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


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

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

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

The Science of Back to the Future

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

It won’t be long before they take over…

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

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

Hugs on the inside AND the outside

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

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

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

Genetic modification – it’s a laugh

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

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

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

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

Killing jelly babies – it’s for science, honest

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

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 11 January 2009 at 1:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Evolution, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

On Friday I said I’d do a big Weekly Roundup, but I quite liked the “fishy” post yesterday, so I’m going to do a couple more of those to clear my backlog of links. Look for them soon.

Science journalists need new clichés

Hank Campbell at Scientific Blogging thinks that a few science journalism phrases got overused last year, and it’s time to invent some new ones for 2009. On the list (complete with many examples) are “baffled”, “stunned”, “alarmed” and “shocked”. I’m pleased to say that according to the site’s search function, none of these words have appeared on Just A Theory! Until now, that is…

Blast off on a broomstick

Unlike the above clichés, I have talked about the concept of a space elevator before. The basic idea is a satellite orbiting above a fixed point on the Earth’s surface, with a super strong cable in between. Passengers and cargo can be lifted into space by a “climber” attached to the cable, much easier and cheaper than rockets.

Now, a new idea on how to power the climber has come from an unlikely source – a broomstick. Age-Raymond Riise of the European Space Agency proposed that by using carefully timed jerks of the cable and a specially constructed climber, getting into space would be a simple, if bumpy, ride. A suspension system would soon smooth that out, however.

Talking at the Second International Conference on Space Elevator and Tether Design in Luxembourg, he used a broomstick and an electric sander to demonstrate the concept. You can watch a video embedded in the above article – it’s a great combination of low- and high-tech!

Free poster!

Just A Theory hasn’t quite grown to the point where I can hand out freebies, but fortunately the Open University is in a slightly better position. They’re offering a free “Tree of Life” poster to celebrate Darwin’s bicentenary. Grab yours now.

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3 Comments » Posted on Sunday 4 January 2009 at 4:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Things are still a bit slim, weekly roundup wise, but here you go:

Keep on rovin’

Yesterday marked the fifth anniversary of the Mars rover Spirit, which touched down on the red planet on 3rd January, 2004. Spirit was joined 21 days later by a second rover, Opportunity

NASA had planned for the plucky little robots to last for at least three months, but half a decade later they’re still providing useful information about our planetary neighbour. The data gathered by the pair has conclusively shown that Mars was at one point home to liquid surface water, raising the possibility that life once existed there.

The pair of rovers are starting to show their age, however. Spirit has to explore the Martian surface backwards due to a jammed wheel, and Opportunity’s robotic arm has a glitchy shoulder. When they do eventually fail completely they will not be replaced until the 2011 launch of a more advanced probe, the Mars Science Laboratory, which has been delayed by technical and monetary difficulties.

The Sky in Motion

This video is made from a series of 7,000 separate images, and depicts the changes in the night sky over time. Stars dancing around, the Moon and Sun flying by, and many other astronomical wonders are all highlighted in this rather neat video:

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 21 December 2008 at 6:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Health & Medicine, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Warning: This music may cause head injuries

The British Medical Journal is reporting that head banging, the favoured dance of rockers everywhere, may be bad for your health. The detrimental effects can be avoided however, by reducing the motion of the head, rocking out to lower tempo songs or on every other beat, or even resorting to neck braces.

Declan Patton and Professor Andrew McIntosh of the University of New South Wales attended concerts of noted metalers including Motörhead and Ozzy Osbourne, in order to construct a “theoretical head banging model”. It turns out that the risk of neck injury begins at a tempo of 130 beats per minute, but the average head banging song exceeds this at 146 bpm, and could lead to headaches and dizziness. Thankfully, the authors suggest a number of remedies, including public campaigns headed by Cliff Richard and the labelling of CDs with anti-head banging warnings. Rock n’ roll.

Crackle, like a bad reception? It almost works. I’m sorry, I just couldn’t pass up the post title

Were things always better in the good old days? It seems that this may not be the case, according to a study published in the journal Psychological Science. New research has found that negative memories could possibly fade faster than positive ones, as a defence mechanism against getting old.

Scientists at Duke University showed a series of 30 photographs to two groups of adults, one with an average age of 70, another with an average age of 24. Some were fairly mundane whilst others depicted negative images such as acts of violence. It was found that the older group could remember fewer negative images than the younger group – perhaps explaining their rosier outlook on the past.

Still waiting for a comment from the bear in the woods

Pope Benedict XVI has praised Galileo for his work in demonstrating that the Earth is not the centre of the universe, and in fact revolves around the Sun. You’d be hard pressed to find anyone who disagreed with you nowadays, but back in 1633 Galileo was branded a heretic and forced to live the rest of his life under house arrest.

The Pope was speaking at an event celebrating the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first observations with a telescope. He said that understanding the laws of nature could stimulate an appreciation of God’s work.

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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…

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 7 December 2008 at 4:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Shell I never

A photo from the Boer War has revealed that a tortoise named Jonathan is one of the world’s oldest living animals, at age 176.

Jonathan in 1900, aged around 70, on the island of St Helena

It’s crazy to think that this tortoise was born in 1832. The same year saw the birth of Lewis Carroll (author of Alice in Wonderland) and the death of the mathematician Évariste Galois, whose pioneering work in group theory ended when he was killed in a duel. Of course, Jonathan has no connection to this events, but still – he’s pretty damn old.

LHC still broken, but not broke

Poor Large Hadron Collider. You just don’t seem to be able to catch a break. It seems that when the particle accelerator leaked helium earlier in the year, the damage was quite extensive. Repair costs will be almost £14m, and the LHC won’t be ready to turn back on until next summer.

Now, £14m isn’t much compared to the £4.4 billion it cost to build in the first place (yes, £4.4 billion, not million as The Telegraph is reporting…) but it’s still a fair chunk of change. LHC haters shouldn’t have to worry about the begging bowl being passed their way however, as CERN hope to meet the costs within their existing budget.

£250m for training new scientists

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the UK’s funding body for science and engineering, has pledged £250m to invest in training the scientists and engineers of the future.

The money will allow the creation of 44 training centres across the country, and give funding to more then 2,000 PhD students. Lord Drayson, the Minister for Science and Innovation, was enthusiastic about the centres:

“Britain faces many challenges in the 21st Century and needs scientists and engineers with the right skills to find answers to these challenges, build a strong economy and keep us globally competitive,” he said.

“This is an exciting, innovative approach to training young researchers and will help build a better future for Britain.”

It’s nice to see that even in these times of economic woe, scientists aren’t being forgotten!

1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 30 November 2008 at 12:03 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

We’ve got another one…

It’s the latest in a series of creepy animals! I’m not sure if it’s the Blair Witch style camerawork, or the fact that its tentacles are so long that the continue down to the bowels of the earth, but the Magnapinna squid is possibly the worst of the bunch.

No, no, NO, DON'T EAT ME!!!!!

One of Magnapinna‘s strangest features is that it appears to have elbows. Elbows, I ask you! We actually don’t know very much about ol’Magnapinna, and this video wasn’t captured by a team of biologists. In fact, it was oil company Shell who found the strange creature as they searched for new sources of fuel, two and a half kilometers underwater. So don’t worry, it’s not close enough to get you…yet.

Do cars have personalities?

I’m sure you’ve all noticed that the front end of cars often look like faces. Now, researchers at Florida State University have confirmed this to be true – and not only do we ascribe facial features to cars, we also give them personalities.

In a study published in the December issue of the journal Human Nature, 40 people we asked to view 3D computer reconstructions and printed images of 38 cars. A third of participants saw a human or animal face in at least 90% of the cars. They were also asked to rate each car on 19 personality traits such as dominance, maturity, gender and friendliness. It seems that people generally agreed in their ratings, suggest a universal way of reading faces.

Cars viewed as “powerful” had elongated hoods, pronounced lower bodies relative, and more angular headlights reminiscent of a frown. On the other end of the scale, those seen as submissive had headlights with their upper edge relatively close to the middle, and higher sides, suggesting a smile. It seems that even in inanimate objects, we can’t help but see a face.

Polar bear in lack-of-penis shocker

Oh, this is a very silly story, but I just couldn’t help myself. It seems that Japanese zoo keepers have made an interesting discovery: Tsuyoshi, a four-year-old, 200 kg, polar bear isn’t quite the stud they were expecting. The bear was introduced to a female at the Kushiro Municipal Zoo in the hope that the pair would mate, but it turns out there was a slight problem: Tsuyoshi is a she-bear.

“We thought he was a male, so we never had any doubts as we took care of him,” said Masako Inoue.

“But one day we realized that the two bears urinate in the same way, and we thought, is that how males do it? And once we started to look at things that way, we weren’t quite so sure.”

It seems it’s not unusual to confuse the gender of a polar bear, as their long hair can make it difficult to properly identify them, especially when they are young. Poor Tsuyoshi has been living as a boy ever since the tender age of three months.

For now, the Zoo plans to talk to others in the area, to see what to do about the breeding plan. I’d suggest that Tsuyoshi might not be as helpful as they thought…

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 23 November 2008 at 5:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Four months without a heart

In what is really an amazing story, D’Zhana Simmons, a 14-year-old girl from South Carolina, USA, spent 118 days hooked up to a machine that kept her blood flowing – because her heart had been removed. It is believed that this is the first time such a young person has been kept alive this long without a heart.

On July 2nd of this year Ms Simmons underwent a heart transplant operation at Miami’s Holtz Children’s Hospital, but the operation was unsuccessfully and the new organ had to be removed. Artificial substitute heart chambers were implanted and hooked up to two blood pumps, until she was was strong enough to have another, successful, transplant.

Unfortunately, doctors believe that her troubles are not over yet. Although her prognosis, is good, there is a 50% chance she will need another new heart before she turns 30.

Live longer and prosper

Increased amounts of telomerase, a naturally forming protein, in the body could prevent cells from dying and extend your lifespan, according to a team at the Spanish National Cancer Centre in Madrid.

Telomerase protects a cell’s chromosomes, but as we age and cell division activity increases this protection can get worn out, causing cells to die. By increasing natural levels of telomerase, scientists hope to stop this from happening.

The theory was tested with genetically engineered mice, whose bodies produced 10 times the normal levels of the protein, and as a result lived 50% longer than normal mice. Lead researcher, Maria Blasco, was optimistic but cautious about the results:

“You can delay the ageing of mice and increase their lifespan,” she said.

“(But)I think it is very hard to extrapolate data from mouse ageing to human ageing.”

One problem to overcome is that telomerase can lead to increased risk of cancer, but Dr Blasco believe that this could be overcome by combining the treatment with cancer drugs.

Lost in space

NASA has lost one of its astronauts aboard the International Space Station – but thankfully, it’s not one of the human crew. One of two spiders that were launched into orbit on the Endeavour last week has gone for its very own spacewalk.

After finding it absent from its tank, NASA managers insisted that the spider was not lost; it just couldn’t be found. So says Kirk Shireman, NASA’s deputy space station programme manager:

“We don’t believe that it’s escaped the overall payload enclosure,

“I’m sure we’ll find him spinning a web sometime here in the next few days.”

Efforts to search for the spider in its neighbour’s tank have been scuppered, because the poor creature is so confused by the zero-gravity environment that it has filled it with a dense web, making any search difficult.

The two arachnids had been sent into space by the University of Colorado, who hoped to answer schoolchildren’s questions about spider webs in space. It’s clearly a very sticky issue.

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

The RSC are at it again

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

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

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

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

A robot that’s uncanny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cash for codebreakers

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

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

China plans their own Moon buggy

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

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

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

Not lead into gold, but tequila into diamonds

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

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

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

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

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

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 2 November 2008 at 3:46 pm by Jacob Aron
In Physics, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Public understanding of science? Sautoy’d

Early this week mathematician Marcus du Sautoy was appointed to the University of Oxford’s Simonyi professorship for the public understanding of science, taking over from Richard Dawkins.

It will be interesting to see how his approach differs to that of his predecessor. I reviewed both Dawkins’ and du Sautoy’s most recent appearances on TV, so if you read those you probably won’t be surprised to hear I’m happy with this decision. Dawkins doesn’t really do science any favours with stunts like the “There’s probably no God” buses, and hopefully du Sautoy will steer away from religion and stick to the science.

Can certain colours make you more attractive? It’s not so red-iculous

Psychologists at the University of Rochester have published a study suggesting that for women, wearing red could make you more attractive. They found that men were also prepared to spend more money on a date with a woman in a red shirt, rather than a blue shirt.

Women shown the same pictures showed no such bias when asked to give an attractiveness rating, suggesting that there is a link with fertility, because as red is the colour of blood it can easily by used by a female animal as an external signal to a partner, according to Dr Jo Setchell, an anthropologist from Durham University:

“For example, a lot of female monkeys have bright red sexual swellings, which show that they are around the time of ovulation.

“There has been controversy over whether, in female humans, ovulation is advertised or not, although there is some evidence that behaviour, such as going out, changes around that time.

“But wearing red could give you an advantage.”

“Seriously, how hard can it be to come up with a pun about coughs?” he said

The New York Times has some rather nice images of coughs, candles, and other “invisible” liquids and gases. They were taken by engineering professor Gary Settles, of the gas dynamics laboratory at Pennsylvania State University, using a technique known as schlieren photography. By using a small, bright light source, lenses, and mirrors along with a razor blade that blocks parts of light beams, it is possible to view and even photograph the disturbances in the air caused by coughing and other phenomena.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 26 October 2008 at 7:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Does your name decide where you work?

When I first read the press release that psychologists in Belgium have discovered that a person’s initials have a link to the company they work for, my immediate thought was “yeah, whatever.” I thought that the conclusion had probably come about because some letters in the alphabet are more common than others, so a Mr E was more likely to work for E Inc. simply because there are more “E”s floating about than any other letter.

On reading the actual paper however, I can’t fault their methodology. It really does seem that a persons name can unconsciously effect their choice of work place. The phenomena is known as the name-letter effect, and has been demonstrated in other areas, for example a Jack is more likely to live in Jacksonville than in Philadelphia. It just goes to show that whilst scepticism is healthy, it’s not always right!

Now you seem them, now you don’t

The Daily Mail have some wonderful pictures of camouflaged animals. Yes, it’s a bit of a fluff piece, but they’re really quite something. My personal favourite is this one:

I'm not telling you what it is, you'll have to guess!

It came from outer space

A couple of weeks ago, The University of Western Ontario Meteor Group caught a falling meteor on camera. The team of astronomers are now looking for local residents who might have seen meteorites break off and crash to Earth.

The meteor streaks across the sky in this time-lapse image

Videos of the meteor are available online. I’ve never managed to see one of these space rocks in real life, so it’s pretty cool to be able to catch one on film.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 12 October 2008 at 4:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Weekly Roundup

1.38588913 Leagues Under The Sea

A joint team of UK and Japanese scientists have filmed a shoal of living fish at the record depth of 7.7 km. They found 17 Pseudoliparis amblystomopsis in the Japan Trench in the Pacific Ocean, smashing the previous record, though to be around 7 km. The deepest any fish has been record is more than 8 km down in the Puerto Rico Trench trench, where an Abyssobrotula galatheae specimen was dredged up, but died before reaching the surface.

The fish live in total darkness, using vibrations in the water to navigate and find food. Professor Monty Priede of the University of Aberdeen was surprised at their discovery:

“We certainly thought, deep down, fish would be relatively inactive, saving energy as much as possible, and so on,” said Priede “But when you see the video, the fish are rushing around, feeding accurately, snapping at prey coming past”

“Nobody has seen fish alive before at these depths – only pickled in museums – and by the time they come up from the depths they look in a pretty sorry state.

“But these fish are actually very cute.”

Deep-sea fish - "actually very cute"

The discovery was part of the HADEEP project, a collaboration between the University of Aberdeen’s Oceanlab and the University of Tokyo’s Ocean Research Institute. Funded by the Nippon Foundation and the Natural Environment Research Council, the research aims to discover more about life in the Hadal region of the ocean, which is anywhere from 6 km below the surface. The team even have their own blog.

Journey (0.0000004% of the way) to the Centre of the Earth

American scientists have found life 2.8 km beneath the Earth’s surface, in a gold mine near Johannesburg, South Africa. The bacterium Desulforudis audaxviator is the only living species at this level, making it the first known single-species ecosystem.

Capturing and analysing the bacterium was an extremely collaborative process, with scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), Joint Genome Institute (JGI), and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), working with colleagues from Princeton University, Indiana University, National Taiwan University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Florida State University, the Desert Research Institute, and the University of Western Ontario.

D. audaxviator lives deep within the Earth's surface

The bacterium lives so far down that it has no access to the sun’s life giving energy. Instead, it survives by using hydrogen and sulphate produced by the radioactive decay of uranium. This ability is reflected in the organisms name: Desulforudis comes from the Latin for “from sulfur” and “rod,” whilst Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth contains the Latin message “descende, Audax viator, et terrestre centrum attinges,” – “descend, Bold traveler, and attain the center of the Earth.” It looks like D. audaxviator is well on its way.

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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.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 September 2008 at 6:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

In “bad thing turns out to be good, but only in small amounts” news

Chocolate lovers rejoice; new research shows that eating 6.7 grams of dark (not milk, sorry Cadburys) chocolate a day could help protect against heart disease. A joint study by the Research Laboratories of the Catholic University in Campobasso and the National Cancer Institute of Milan investigated the link between the levels of C reactive protein in the blood and a persons chocolate intake. The amount of the protein in the body increases during inflammation, which is a risk factor for heart disease amongst other conditions. The researchers hypothesised that antioxidants in cocoa seeds could help fight inflammation:

“We started from the hypothesis,” says Romina di Giuseppe, lead author of the study “that high amounts of antioxidants contained in the cocoa seeds, in particular flavonoids and other kinds of polyphenols, might have beneficial effects on the inflammatory state. Our results have been absolutely encouraging: people having moderate amounts of dark chocolate regularly have significantly lower levels of C-reactive protein in their blood. In other words, their inflammatory state is considerably reduced.”

Unfortunately this isn’t an excuse to pig out just yet: 6.7 grams a day works out to a small square two or three times a week. Sorry!

Turns out, he couldn’t actually see the Great Wall

China conducted its first spacewalk over the weekend, in only the country’s third manned space mission. The honour fell to Zhai Zhigang, who’s words of welcome were broadcast live: “I am here greeting the Chinese people and the people of the world.”

Just three nations have demonstrated the ability to launch people in to space: the US, Russia (and the USSR before it) and China, who first sent a man into space five years ago. It seems that we have the beginning of another space race on our hands, with both China and the US aiming to send manned missions to the Moon by 2020. The last space race, although militaristic in origin, brought with it many technological marvels that still benefit us to this day such as frozen food and GPS tracking systems. Bring it on, I say!


An artist's impression of Dasornis, a gigantic bird which once flew over Britain.

Britain was once home to birds that were nearly the size of a small plane, a newly discovered fossil skull has shown. The species has been known for nearly 150 years, but the skull found on the Isle of Sheppey is one of the best preserved examples of Dasornis. This bird lived 50 million years ago and ith a 16 ft wingspan and a beak full of sharp teeth, it’s slightly more intimidating than its modern-day relatives of ducks and geese.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 21 September 2008 at 11:16 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Ants from Mars

No, it’s not evidence of extraterrestrial life, but another example of creatures that will come for you in the night.

Seriously, I can barely write about this thing, I find it so creepy.

The newly discovered species of ant, Martialis heureka – which translates as contestant for silliest name ever: “From Mars! Wow!” – is a bit of an evolutionary throwback. Blind (because it has no eyes) and pale, its DNA has changed the least compared to its other ant cousins, ever since they emerged 100 million years ago. It won’t be popping up in your back garden any time soon however, as they live completely underground, and in Brazil. Thankfully.

Gamers are fit, but depressed

The stereotypical gamer image of an overweight teen with one hand on a mouse and the other in a bag of crisps may not be the case, a study by researchers at the University of Southern California, Palo Alto Research Center, and the University of Delaware has found.

They analysed 7,000 players of the popular massively-multilayer online role-playing game (MMORPG, to those in the know) EverQuest II. In the game, players join together to fight monsters and find treasure. One such treasure is the Greatstaff of the Sun Serpent, offered to those who completed a survey on their physical and mental health.

It turns out that adult gamers are actually fitter than a typical American, with a body mass index of 25.2 compared to the national average of 28 – though both figures are in the “overweight” category of the scale. The survey also found that the average gamer exercises once or twice a week, more than the general American public. The researchers suggest this could be because those with the education and wealth to afford expensive gaming machines are more likely to be health concious.

They also found that players were more likely to be in their thirties than their twenties, and older players spent more time with the game. Additionally, whilst less women play the game than men, those who do typically spent longer in game.

Unfortunately gamers were also more likely to be suffering from depression, and to be substance abusers. Scott Caplan, of the University of Delaware, suggested players “may be drawn to use the game to help deal with emotional distress.” The MMORPGs that I have played tend to take up a lot of time, and can be extremely addictive, so I can understand the correlation with drinking or drugs. Still, I always like to see some positive press on games – they’re probably represented in the media even worse than science is!

John Cleese on genes

Finally, John Cleese (who my brain still can’t accept as looking so old) tells us all about genes:

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 14 September 2008 at 3:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Education, Evolution, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Brain drain?

A poll published by Shell claims that Britain could be “losing” 60,000 scientists a year. A sample of 4,000 children aged nine to 14 found that 10% are inspired by science but don’t intended to pursue their interest past the age of 16. Nationally, this could translate to 60,000 fewer scientists a year.

These figures seem pretty dodgy to me, in much the same way the music industry claims massively inflated figures of “lost revenue” due to piracy. More worrying is the finding that only 6% of children want to be a scientist when they grow up, compared to 20% footballers and 20% actors – no doubt a product of our celebrity obsessed society.

Suspect stripes

Research by Peter Thompson at the University of York has found that, contrary to popular belief, wearing horizontal stripes can make you look thinner, not vertical. He asked people to compare 200 pictures of women wearing dresses striped in both directions and identify which they thought was fatter. He found that to make the women appear the same size, the one wearing horizontal stripes had to be an extra six per cent wider.

Horizontal vs vertical - which makes you thinner?

There is one problem I have with this research – in the sample image, the stripes aren’t the same size, and the dresses are different colours. Without controlling for these factors, how does Thompson know it isn’t size or colours of stripes, rather than direction, that makes you appear fatter? Interestingly enough, none of the media reports I have read have mentioned this…

Aliens among us

Check out these beautiful pictures from Socotra Island. Isolated from the African mainland for the last 6 or 7 million years, some truly unique species have evolved. My favourite is the ominously named Dragon’s Blood Tree:

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

As promised, here is the roundup for the past week

Live like a Pharaoh in Dubai

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

Home of the future?

An evolving education

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

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

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

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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.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 17 August 2008 at 4:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Nanoscientist Chad A. Mirkin use a new technique called Polymer Pen Lithography to create the microscopic Olympic logos, shown below. The technology allows a single device to print at three different sizes and could be used in a range of industries, from computing to medicine. The Olympic logo perfectly demonstrates the use of these differing scales. The text is made up of around 20,000 dots that are 90 nanometres in diameter, whilst the Olympic rings and stylised athlete are made from approximately 4,000 dots that are 600 nanometres in diameter. The switch in scale is made possible by applying increasing pressure to the nano-pen, which causes the tip to deform and become wider. For finer work, it snaps back into place when the pressure is released.

Tiny Olympic logos, 70 micrometers long and 60 micrometers wide.

If you have a terrible singing voice, it might not be because you’re tone deaf – you could just be a bad singer! Neuroscientists at the State University of New York at Buffalo and at Simon Fraser University have suggested that poor perception of tone is just one possible explanation for awful singing. You could also have poor control of your vocal chords, the inability to imitate what it is you hear, or simply a bad memory. The research has shown that being unable to reproduce a note that you have heard is the most likely explanation – your ears, brain and vocal chords just can’t get coordinated. Something to bear in mind for your next solo in the shower!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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