Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Oh for the wings of a dove

I do quite a lot of talks based on my book Inflight Science, and one thing that is guaranteed to raise a bit of an argument is when I cover how wings work.

If we were taught anything about the reason why wings lift a plane at school, it is likely to be down to the Bernoulli principle. This is great, because it's really easy to demonstrate. Just get yourself a bit of paper (say about 1/4 of a sheet of A4 or Letter), hold it at one end so it droops and blow over the top of it. The droopy bit rises up as it experiences lift. And that's how a wing works, we're told! Only, it isn't.

DIY Bernoulli
When you blow over the bit of paper you get the air moving over the top of it, thinning it out a little. So there's less pressure on the top than the bottom (where the air isn't moving), and you get lift. That's the Bernoulli effect.

A wing is different, of course. The air is moving over the top and the bottom. The explanation usually given is that the wing is specially shaped so the air has further to go over the top than it does under the bottom. So the top air has to speed up to catch up with the bottom air. Reduced pressure, lift, Bob's your uncle. But when you think about it, this is daft. Why should the air going over the top care about keeping up with the air going under the bottom. It's not like the molecules are best mates and desperately need to keep together.

Fluid flow is altogether more complex than this. As it happens the air does go faster over the top, and there is a Bernoulli effect, but it has nothing to do with trying to keep up with the air going under the bottom. And the lift from the Bernoulli effect is nowhere near enough to get a plane into the air. Instead, what does the trick is Newton's third law of motion. The wing is shaped so that as it cuts through the air, it pushes the air downwards. Push the air down and that pushes the wing up. Exactly the same principle as the jet engine uses to get the plane moving in the first place.

So by all means have fun blowing over bits of paper. It is strangely comforting. But it's not how planes get into the sky.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Is my book blaspheming?

One of my best selling books is The God Effect, which describes the truly remarkable phenomenon of quantum entanglement.

I do sometimes wonder if some of the sales of the book arise not from an interest in quantum physics, but rather because it sounds like a slightly wacky religious book. That was certainly never my intention, though obviously I wanted it to have an eye-catching title.

The name was inspired by Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman's nickname for the Higgs boson, 'the God particle.' It's possible to look at the mechanism this hypothetical particle is thought to give other particles mass as a kind of entanglement, so it seemed reasonable to call entanglement 'the God effect', especially as entanglement does produce such remarkable outcomes. I really don't think it was hyperbole to subtitle the book 'science's strangest phenomenon.'

I now learn from New Scientist that Lederman originally refered to the Higgs boson as 'the goddam particle' rather than 'the God particle' - but his publishers didn't like this apparently blasphemous term, so they changed the name and came up with 'the God particle' instead.

If this is true, I have to face up to the fact that my book really should have been called The Goddam Effect, which somehow doesn't quite give the feel I was aiming for. Though it would be quite amusing. And, to be honest, I feel it would have been better than just calling it Quantum Entanglement as the book nearly was.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Protecting the enhanced life

A pocket computer
Every now and then someone proudly produces a ten-year-old mobile phone and announces that they have no need for modern technology. ‘It makes phone calls and it texts,’ they say. ‘What more do I need?’ But they miss the point.

As the organizers of the Mobile World Congress are quick to highlight, mobile technology is far more than just phoning on the move. It’s for books, monitoring health, navigation, making payments and connecting with friends. It might involve a Kindle or an iPad, a GPS device or a widget to give keyless access to your car. For the moment, though, the smartphone is the most significant device – and this is where our smug old technology owner misses the point. A smartphone isn’t a mobile phone that does some other fancy stuff. It’s a genuine, accept no substitutes, pocket computer (as mentioned in the Blondie song – about 2’ 41’’ in the video) that happens to be a phone as well.

At one point most technology pundits would have told you the PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) was the way forward. I would have been one of them. It seemed impossible to cram everything you needed for a viable pocket computer into the form factor of a phone. Yet that’s exactly what a smartphone does. I reckon about 20 percent of the usage and about 5 percent of the value I get out of my iPhone is making phone calls and texts. The rest is much richer.

If I look at my mobile phone usage over a week, yes there will be calls and texts. But I will also have listened to music, found where I was (and how to get somewhere else) on maps, dropped into social networks, looked up information online, played a couple of games, read a few documents, located my nearest favourite coffee shop (and found out when it was open), paid for a coffee, looked up a friend’s address, repeatedly used my diary and made a few notes. Oh and used it to take some photographs too.  Not to mention deploying it as a torch.

I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that the phone in your pocket has the potential to enhance your life. It’s a small scale human upgrade, without the need for a Matrix-style socket in the back of your neck. That’s quite some power provided by that tiny pocketable box. But, as Spiderman so wisely observed, with great power comes great responsibility. What happens if I lose my smartphone? Or drop it? Or have to use it in the rain? There’s a whole lot of disaster waiting to happen if I put so much of my life in the hands of an all-too-frail device.

There are broadly two things I need to protect to ensure that my mobile life remains smooth – my data and my way of getting to it. Until recently, the data was the key. It’s a pain, but I can get another phone. If I lose my data, though – addresses, diary, photographs, music – it’s gone for ever. But now the reality has flipped. Increasingly the data isn’t on the phone, it’s in the Cloud. There isn’t a single bit of significant data on my phone now that isn’t either replicated or coming direct from the internet. But if my phone stops working when I’m using it to find my way across a city, I won’t be happy.

I would never use a phone without a case. The best smartphones look very pretty, but I’d rather cut down the visual wow factor in exchange for protection. So far so good. But when I use my phone outside I’m also challenged by the British weather. Electronics and water don’t go together particularly well (as my daughters have discovered when they respectively dropped a cup of tea and a glass of orange juice over their laptops). Standing in the rain trying to follow a map or send a tweet (both of which I’ve done) is a scary business.

You could put the whole thing in a waterproof casing, like an underwater camera – but that swings the balance too far the other way, rendering the device impractical. Instead I would dearly love my phone to have the ability to repel water, a super power that does apply to at least one smartphone, Motorola’s new Razr. If I’m honest, it’s not a phone I’d buy, but Apple please take note – I want that protection.

The Razr uses a technology called Splash-Guard developed by P2i. It’s an interesting application of nanotechnology, incorporating a coating applied using a plasma. Plasmas are fascinating – the fourth state of matter, next up the scale after a gas. It’s bizarre that we don’t meet them sooner at school, as plasmas account for around 99 percent of the universe’s detectable matter, and are much more obvious than gasses because they often glow. Where a gas is a collection of atoms or molecules, a plasma is a collection of ions – atoms that are energetic enough to have lost or gained electrons and become charged. Stars are mostly plasma, and flames usually contain plasma.

The technology bonds to the phone and its internal components at a molecular level, producing a coating that causes liquid to form into droplets and roll off. You can see how it's applied in their process video (a bit corporate, but bear with it).

I really want this stuff on my phone. This video shows just what it does very nicely:

Does this mean if I have a suitably protected device in the future I’m going to be happy standing in the pouring rain using it? Probably not. I will always be a little wary. But surely it makes sense, when so much of your everyday business depends on something as potentially fragile as a smartphone, to do what you can to protect it? Smartphone manufacturers take note.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Whiter than white

I saw a TV advert the other day that left me just short of jumping up and down, screaming and throwing things at the television. It took the 'dubious promise' technique to a whole new level.

The advert in question was for the quaintly named Arm and Hammer toothpaste. In it, ex-Blue Peter presenter Katy Hill was very enthuasiastic about their whitening toothpaste. She told us it would make your teeth 'up to 3 shades whiter or your money back.'

Let's examine that claim. 'Up to' is of course the magnificent marketing weasel words term. 'Up to' is totally meaningless in that it can be anything from zero to the amount specified. So 'Up to 50% off' could mean 'nothing off'. The '3 shades whiter' bit is sort of okay. No normal punter probably knows what three shades whiter looks like, but there is an official definition. But here's the killer. 'Or your money back.'

By combining 'Up to' and 'or your money back' Arm and Hammer has produced a magnificent paradox. We have to ask the makers, what do we have to do to get our money back? The ONLY circumstances in which you can get your money back is if it actually makes your teeth darker, or if it makes them more than three shades whiter. Anything else and there's no refund. Surely this wasn't the intention? Boggle.

Thanks to the wonder of the interwebz I can show you the ad, though interestingly it has been trimmed to avoid the offending claim:

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Culture clash

This is apparently Joshua Bell
- the Brian Cox of the classical music world?
I was interested to read on Jen Campbell's blog about a Washington Post experiment where Joshua Bell, who is apparently a world famous violinist (I'm afraid I'd never heard of him), playing a violin 'worth $3.5 million' busking in a subway (admittedly only for 45 minutes - come on Josh, where's your staying power?) raised a mere $32. Apparently 'only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money'. He was playing some Bach, apparently including 'one of the most intricate pieces ever written.'

Now the interesting thing about this experiment is that it was supposed to give insights into how we perceive beauty and recognize talent. But what I got out of it was quite different - it seems to me it shows how we over-value a form of entertainment that frankly isn't to most people's tastes. And that often there are more important things in life than art.

Before I explain that, I ought to stress that I love Bach myself - this argument isn't based on a dislike of the music played.

Here's the thing. I think this 'experiment' is hugely flawed on a number of points.
  • It demonstrated the lack of popularity of serious classical music, not the lack of attention. When I was at university, my mate Helmut (now Professor Jakubowicz), who was a great amateur violinist, used to go out busking. Back in the 1970s, he could raise several times as much as Mr Bell did (admittedly on a longer session). But he would play fun virtuso pieces (probably something like Monti's Czardas). He entertained, he didn't try to do 'art'. 
  • The experiment was back to front. I think what it demonstrates is that most of the money in high art (in this case classical music) is down to showing off and being seen. Only a relatively small amount is down to the desire to hear the music. (Have you ever watched an audience at a classical concert?) I'm not saying some people don't want to listen to this kind of music - they do. But they are a relatively small percentage of the population, and most of those who do, don't value it as highly as ticket prices suggest.
  • They missed the importance of the location. I love music. I hate buskers on the tube/metro. They really irritate me. I don't want to listen to music when I'm trying to negotiate a railway system. It gets in the way. It's not important to the task. Listening to music has its place, but it's not as important at that moment as getting to work or whatever else you are trying to do on the underground railway.
So there we have it. Same 'experiment', totally different results. They say we should appreciate Bell's busking performance more - I say we should value his stage performance less. For me this just demonstrates that the arts aren't as important as those who work in the arts think they are...

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

A bloody story

Roses are red, violets are blue... actually, when you think about it, it's a load of rubbish. Roses are any old colour, and violets are, well, violet. The clue's in the name. But one thing that is, without doubt, red is blood. Its colour is its most dramatic quality. And yet the reason it's red is often given wrongly.

'Ah yes,' someone will wisely observe. 'Blood is red because of the iron in it. Like rust.' Well, yes, red blood cells are mostly haemoglobin, and the key characteristic of that interesting compound is four iron atoms. But as far as the colour goes it's pure coincidence. Find out why - and much more about haemoglobin - in the latest Royal Society of Chemistry podcast on haemoglobin. Click here to listen...

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Be quite, Classic FM!

Serious music snobs will wince, but when I'm driving I quite often tune to Classic FM. Okay they sometimes play opera, in which case I have to switch to another station, and they play far too much Mozart, but their 'bitty excerpts' approach is actually more suited to filling in on a 15 minute drive than Radio 3.

There are three classes of music they play that I genuinely enjoy:
  • My kinda music - Tudorbethan  church music, Bach, Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams... an eclectic enough taste to hit on occasionally
  • Nostalgia music - My father had very different musical tastes to me. I was brought up on a diet of the standard piano concertos, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky Korsakov, Mendelssohn - the romantic greats that were so popular back then. This isn't music I have on my iPod, but it brings all kinds of memories back
  • Genuine discoveries - I admit it's not very often (okay it has been twice), but occasionally they play something I don't know and really want to know. So far it has been Grieg's Holberg suite and the modern composer Eric Whitacre.
I say all this primarily to establish that I'm not one of those whiny people who moan all the time about Classic FM. But one thing about it really irritates me. Their announcers are too loud. Here's the thing. Serious music has much more dynamics - louds and softs - than popular beat combos. You want the louds to be LOUD and to be able to hear the quiet bits. So there I am, steaming up the A419 with Bach's exquisite Toccata and Fugue in D minor blasting out. This, I think, is why I quite like drum and bass. The bass on a good organ playing something with welly like this is stunning. But to play it at a sensible volume, when the announcer came on, he blasted out like a foghorn and deafened me. I had to drastically turn down the volume.

So get with the plot, Classic FM. Real classical music is not all quiet, peaceful and chilled. Sometimes it has to be played BLOODY LOUD. Please adjust the volume of your announcers accordingly.

Want to hear a bit of organ with welly? Turn up your sound for by far the best organist I know personally, John Keys, at work (you can find some recordings of his playing here):

1803. Bach - Toccata in D minor by brianclegg

Monday, 20 February 2012

The 35 year lifespan myth

Why couldn't they just say '70'?
What is the human lifespan? We still tend to hold on to a magic number from the Bible – “three score years and ten” or seventy years as an idea of the natural length of life, but what has human life expectancy really been like through history?

Average life expectancy has grown phenomenally in the last hundred years. From the dawn of history through to the nineteenth century, average life expectancy has been between 25 and 35. Now it is in the high 60s, and higher still outside Third World countries.

How, then, did the writers of the Bible come up with the over-inflated but visionary figure of 70? This is because average figures can be very misleading. The historical figures are dragged down by a very high infant mortality rate. Before modern medicine, most children would not make it to adulthood. Similarly, many women died while giving birth, in their twenties or younger. If early deaths are excluded from the average, lifespans in the 50s, 60s and 70s were not uncommon.

Typical lifespans of those who survived into adulthood dropped as we moved from the pre-industrial to the early industrial age, though more children were surviving, so this isn’t clearly reflected in the averages. Then lifespans started to rise as modern medicine kicked in, up to the current impressive high. Now, childhood mortality is at an all time low. As Armand Leroi points out (in his book Mutants), 1994 was a remarkable year in this respect. In 1994, no eight-year-old girls died in Sweden – not a single one. While this was just one point in the statistics – the next year, no doubt a handful did – it is still a notable fact that would have been inconceivable to our medieval ancestors.

When there’s a funeral for a baby or a child it is always a very emotional and particularly sad occasion – it’s sobering to think that not many years ago, and throughout all of history before that, the majority of funerals were for babies and children.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Who are you calling a wave?

Ever wondered what light is? In 1905, Einstein boldly made the assumption that light came in the form of particles. This caught everyone by surprise, because if there was one thing everyone was certain about, it was that light was a wave.

To be fair, Isaac Newton had thought that light was a stream of particles, but by the start of the twentieth century this idea had been discarded. Thomas Young showed in a beautifully simple experiment in 1801 that light could produce interference patterns when it passed through a pair of narrow slits. Young was pretty versatile: he was a medical doctor, brought the concept of elasticity to engineering, produced mortality tables to help insurance companies to set their premiums and made the first partial translation of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The mingled beams from Young's slits threw shadings of light and dark onto a screen, corresponding to the addition and subtraction of the ripples in light waves, just as waves interacted on the surface of water.  No other explanation seemed possible.

Scientists of the time could not comprehend how these patterns could be developed by a stream of particles. A particle had to follow a single path from source to screen. Passing particles through a pair of slits should result in two bright areas (one behind each slit) and large swathes of darkness, not the repeating dark and light patterns that everyone could clearly see when they carried out the experiment. Similarly, light, like waves, can bend around corners, a phenomenon called diffraction, while particles are limited to bullet-like straight lines.

So how was science to cope with this new discovery that light behaved as if it were a particle when it interacted with matter? The answer was to say that light had both wave-like and particle-like properties, a solution that is given the label wave/particle duality.

What’s happening here is that scientists are building models. Not literal models like the ball-and-stick molecule models you might have played with at high school, but mental models. Simplified pictures of how something is. When we say light is a wave or it’s a particle, what we really mean is that we’re using the model of a wave or a particle to explain its behaviour. Light is like a wave or particle – but these are both big, human scale world things. In the quantum world, light is just light, but happens to have wave-like or particle-like properties.

Is if to underline the confusion, in 1924, the magnificently named Duke Louis de Broglie thought that if light particles could behave like waves, why not other quantum particles as well? He showed that electrons, normally considered particles, could also behave like waves, producing interference patterns like light through Young’s slits, and being diffracted.

For me, if I need a single model of light it's particles every time. With quantum theory it's possible to explain all the wave-like behaviour in a special kind of particle. More to the point, we have the word of Richard Feynman, something of a hero to me as he is to many physicists. Feynman said:
I want to emphasize that light comes in this form - particles. It is very important to know that light behaves like particles, especially for those of you who have gone to school, where you were probably told something about light behaving like waves. I'm telling you the way it does behave - like particles.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Starring Apple TV

For a while now I've toyed with getting some sort of TV-internet integrating kind of box. I wavered when technology guru Dave Howkins commented how brilliant the Western Digital WD TV Live box was, but in the end I plumped for an Apple TV - but was this a good move? We'll see.

The idea of these boxes is to integrate internet content with your TV to make the UltimateViewingExperienceTM. Sounds like the kind of thing that's good in principle, but somehow never quite works.

So I forked out the not unreasonable £90 to £99 (depending where you buy it) for an Apple TV. First observation it's tiny. Ridiculously small. I've had power supplies bigger than this box. Still, whap in the cables and let's go (note, btw, it doesn't come with an HDMI cable, you need to buy one).

The outcome - I am genuinely pleasantly surprised. I can control the thing with the supplied (also rather small, but beautifully formed) remote, or an app on my iPhone or iPad. The main screen gives a very crisp menu with choices of Movies, TV Shows, Music, Internet, Computers and Settings (see left). Movies and TV Shows provide material from iTunes, so mostly paid for.

This has already come in useful, both to watch a fairly recent film, and to catch up on the TV series Whitechapel, which we only discovered in Series 3, but is available from iTunes. The basic video level is as good as ordinary TV/DVD, and HD is somewhat better.

Next up on the menus is Music. This is only of interest if you've paid up to Apple to have iTunes Match, which puts all your music in the 'cloud' so you can play it from any device, including Apple TV - works fine if you have this. Next a very useful 'Internet' section. This includes Netflix, which admittedly involves a £5.99 monthly subscription, but gives a great choice of older films and TV series (I have every intention of watching Morse through from Episode 1). You also get YouTube for the yoof, and provided your computer is running iTunes you can access your computer's music and photo library from the 'Computers' section.

One thing Apple TV doesn't have yet (but the WD box does) is an iPlayer option. But one extra feature available to those with iPads and iPhones is that you can turn on mirroring where anything playing on the portable device's screen shows on the TV. This is fun when you are showing people photos on an iPad (by far the best way to share digital photos) as they are also on the TV screen for a wider audience. But it also means you can use any of the catchup services - iPlayer and ITVPlayer, for instance - and mirror it onto the TV screen.

All in all - everyone loves it. The only problem is everyone wants to use it!

Monday, 13 February 2012

Don't go to Bicester!

We're lucky, living in Swindon having a designer outlet centre on our doorstep, but we thought we'd give the Bicester equivalent a try. What a nightmare.

I have never been in such a badly laid out car park. No indication how to get to the upper level, no idea if the lanes were one way (some people clearly thought so from 5 near collisions).

The 'village' itself has no maps up, just paper ones. And catering was ludicrous - vastly under supplied. You either queued just to get in or sat outside in the rain.

Ok the shops were ok (though I hate the way the staff keep speaking to you - if I want help I'll ask for it), but mostly too small and crowded.

Won't be coming here again.

Friday, 10 February 2012

The Germans are coming

One of the most enjoyable sidelines of having books published is that sometimes you get foreign translations. These tend to disappear into the ether, as there is inevitably a long delay while they get translated and then, with any luck, out of the blue, a copy of the translation drops on my door mat.

I say 'with any luck' as I'm still waiting for copies of translations of some business books from around 7 years ago. Sometimes the foreign publisher doesn't bother to send the requisite copies... but usually they do.

I've just had two of my popular science books translated into German. The first is Inflight Science, which has appeared with the impressively long title 'Warum Tee im Flugzeug nicht schmeckt und Wolken nicht vom Himmel fallen', which according to my rusty schoolboy German translates as Why tea is tasteless on a plane and clouds don't fall from the sky. Try asking for that in a hurry in Vaterstones.

The second one (which I haven't received copies of yet, but should do any day) was written in English several years earlier, but by coincidence is just coming out now. It was Before the Big Bang, but is now Vor dem Urknall - apparently this is the same (we didn't do Urknalls at school). I have to say, I rather like the cover.

I hope these go down well in Germany...

Over here and very welcome

I frequently give talks in schools, which makes a great break from writing, and is an experience I really enjoy. (If you are a school and want to know more, see the talks page on my website for full details.) It's not just a matter of getting away from a computer, unlike many people I get a real buzz out of public speaking. Doing this has taken me all over the country. But I was a little surprise to get an email asking me to speak to an American school class.

Not a bad venue for a school talk (but it was snowier today)
My books sell pretty well in the US (one of my two main publishers is the excellent US publisher, St. Martin's Press), so I wasn't totally surprised to hear from someone over there, but I was all prepared to get back to them saying 'Sorry, but it's rather a long way to travel' when I read the email a little more closely. It seemed that the class from the Wakefield Country Day School of Huntly, VA was taking an educational visit to the UK. And their first night, en route to Bath, they were stopping over in Swindon. So I was delighted to be able to give my first US school talk, appropriate enough on Inflight Science.

The intention was originally to give the talk at the students' hotel, but it proved cheaper to hold the event at the nearby Lydiard Park conference centre, which is very near where I live - so not only did I get to talk to my most distant audience yet (for science - I've done Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong for creativity), I didn't even have to get out of bed early to do it. After a minor panic caused by a fairly heavy snowfall overnight (which made Lydiard Park look great) it all went well. They were a lovely audience, if a little soporific after flying over yesterday, and it was good to meet the group leader Welby Griffin and the other adults with the party. All in all, an excellent morning.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Good science, bad science

Something I try to get in books and talks that an awful lot of people presenting science skim over is that science isn't about absolute fact. All science can ever be is our best guess given the current data. Tomorrow new data may emerge that totally overthrows our current thinking.

This has happened repeatedly in the past. Something like Newton's laws of motion can seem set in stone (hence the 'laws' label, which I don't think is a good idea). And then along comes Einstein and shows they are wrong. Not wrong enough to throw them away - they still work well in many circumstances - but wrong nonetheless.

This is why I get a bit irritated when popular science presenters and writers make sweeping statements like 'the universe began 13.7 billion years ago in the big bang.' What they should be saying is 'according to our best supported current theory, which fits the data well (though it's not entirely surprising as bits of it have been changed to do so), the universe began 13.7 billion years ago in the big bang.' Now, I admit that's rather clumsy - but I think every popular science book should have a proviso that what is being described as if it were fact is the current best theory, and this may change.

Note that this isn't an argument in support of the 'evolution is just a theory, so we ought to teach intelligent design' brigade. I didn't say a 'current theory'. I said the current best theory - the one best supported by the evidence and that works well with our other current best theories. This is not a recipe for taking any old hypothesis with the same confidence as the best theory. But it is bad science to suggest that our favourite theories (especially those like the cosmological ones which are based on very indirect data) are fact.

That's one kind of bad science. Another is cheating. We tend to think of scientists as emotionless seekers after the truth, but if you ever meet a scientist (treat them nicely - buy them a drink!) most are normalish human beings. With human tendencies. And there is a well established psychology of the way we fool ourselves in order to get the results we want. This inevitably happens in science. Some of the best known experiments in science have not really produced the results the scientist wanted. So they just went ahead and ignored the results. Newton, for instance, didn't get what he really wanted in his experiments with light using prisms. No matter. He knew the desired result and that's what he wrote up. Whenever anyone writes about general relativity, they talk of Eddington's 1919 Principe expedition which proved the expect effect of the Sun bending light. Only it didn't - certainly not within acceptable margins of error. But Eddington announced the result he wanted.

It would be silly to think that this doesn't happen all the time, and I'm delighted to be able to show the graphic below (technically an 'infographic' but I hate the term) from Tony Shin and his team (I've seen it elsewhere, but it's worth repeating) on the subject. I ought to say that we shouldn't take this as all bad. Many experiments are't fiddled. Just because a result is tweaked doesn't mean it's wrong. And over time science's system of repeating results ensures that problems are ironed out. But we can't pretend it doesn't happen:

Bad Science
Created by:

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

So good they named him twice

I get plenty of unsolicited emails because my email address is publically available on a website. I don't mind too much because just occasionally amongst the dross I get an email that gives me so much pleasure that it's worth the drudgery of sweeping away the rubbish. And one came today.

The image to the right is the opening of the email. In it we learn that William O'Connor (I presume that is he in the photo):
boasts over 30 years in active mediumship and psychic consultations with a wide array of achievements including TV and Radio. William has been active in the spiritualist movement in Scotland for many years not to mention psychic floor shows in front of large audiences.
What's more:
William and his psychics will be at the Body & Soul Fair at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on 25th and 26th February. Our psychics will be available to provide private readings, 20 minutes for £30.
Demand is sure to be high so book your reading now, for a time which suits you!
Just in case you get too excited, though, I ought to point out that your psychic reading on the phone is not by the psychic psychic himself, but instead you will be connected 'to a psychic who is fully trained and mentored by William O'Connor.' A sort of homeopathic psychic.

I was going to every so slightly poke fun at this email, but really I don't need to. It does the job without help. Similarly I had considered putting in a proviso that by mentioning this, I in no way endorse it, because in my opinion some psychics are frauds, some are totally genuine in their belief but deluded - but to be honest I don't need to do that either. I trust too much in the intelligence of my readership. Instead, then, I intend to roll about the floor laughing at the concept of a psychic reading taking place on a meter at 80p a minute. Exuse me while I ROFL.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Ah, vanity

Every now and then, when I've nothing better to do, I examine the backs of cosmetic bottles and other gubbins that are found lying around the house. (Yes, this is the kind of exciting life a science writer has.)

What I see on the back of some of those bottles is a mystery to me. Actually, a number of mysteries.

Mystery #1 is why some products have a contents list and some don't. The fact that some don't seems to imply it isn't required. So why do it at all? (It could be it's specific products, or it's on the cardboard box instead. Dunno.)

Mystery #2 is who do they think they are fooling with 'aqua'? Pretty well all cosmetic bottle contents have water as their number one ingredient, but the manufacturer seems to think that they can make it sound more impressive by calling it 'aqua'. Only they also seem obliged to give the game away as it is, in fact, always called 'aqua (water)'. So why bother with the 'aqua'? It just makes you seem silly, guys.

Mystery #3 is how a particular company making the product seen above (and for all I know many others do this also) managed to make themselves look even more stupid. Because the next entry is wonderfully bizarre. It's 'Paraffinum liquidum (Mineral oil)'.

Okay, let's break this down. Firstly 'Paraffinum liquidum' sounds more like a rather bad Harry Potter spell than an ingredient. Secondly, it doesn't take a classical education to work out that 'Paraffinum liquidum' is liquid paraffin. You know, that stuff your granny used to put in her portable heater. Actually, a classical education is the last thing you want here. Admittedly 'liquidus' is the Latin for liquid, so they were quite close there, but 'paraffin' is not taken from a Latin word so this is pure pig Latin.

I can see they realize people wouldn't want to know that they are coating themselves in paraffin, but this hardly conceals it, does it guys? They would have been better off sticking to the much more natural and friendly sounding 'Mineral oil' (it must be good for you, it has minerals). Admittedly all this means is something extracted from crude oil - technically petrol and diesel are mineral oils - but it sounds so much better.

So there we have it. Is there a sillier contents label? Almost certainly. But I am yet to find it.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Loving Yasiv

Occasionally someone will come up with a web app that hasn't got any real benefit in life, the universe and everything, but that's great fun. And surely this is not a bad thing.

Thanks to @thecreativepenn for pointing out Put in a product listed on and you will see a diagram of related purchases.

The developer sees this as being a good way to think 'if other people bought this as well, then perhaps I should look at these too.'

But also if you happen to have produced a product that's sold on Amazon, then it is rather fun to take a look at these 'related' products and what other things people bought. It doesn't just apply to books - you can do it with anything on (though not at the moment - I emailed the developer to ask, and it's on his to-do list). Give it a try...

Quick update as of 8 February - I'm pleased to say you can now select the Amazon of your choice from the list at the bottom of the screen!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Antimatter apples

I had a lovely time on Wednesday evening giving a talk based on How to Build a Time Machine at Pewsey Library. I don't know what it is about Pewsey, but this is the second time I've spoken there, and again we had some brilliant questions, which tend to range over all of physics.

A couple were on gravity, which is rather nice as it's the subject of my next St Martin's Press book, due out later this year. And one was particularly timely. Someone asked, given that both electricity and magnetism have positive and negative aspects, was there anything that repelled gravitationally, rather than attracting.

It's timely because an experiment is underway to try to determine whether antimatter is gravitationally attracted by matter or repelled by it. I had always assumed antimatter was just like ordinary matter, behaving exactly the same way in everything except its electrical charge. So I was quite surprised when reading a book by George Gamow on gravity that he suggested it might be repelled gravitationally by ordinary matter. When a scientist of Dr Gamow's stature suggests something, you take it seriously.

You might think this is trivial to test, but it's not. Firstly we've only got tiny amounts of antimatter - and it doesn't usually stay around long before annihilating with normal matter. And also gravity is a very weak force. It might not seem it if you try to jump off the Earth, but just think about it. When I hold a fridge magnet near the fridge and let go, it has the whole Earth pulling it downwards and just a tiny magnet pulling it towards the fridge. The magnet wins. Gravity is vastly weaker than electromagnetism, making it very difficult to detect and distinguish gravitational effects in tiny particles of antimatter.

It will be fascinating to find out which way the antimatter goes. Apart from anything else, it has an implication for the principle of equivalence. This was what inspired Einstein towards general relativity, his theory of gravitation. The idea of equivalence is that if you were in an enclosed spaceship with no connection with the outside world, at any point in the spaceship you couldn't tell if you were feeling a gravitational pull or being accelerated by the ship's motors. The effect would be identical. They are equivalent. But if you had a piece of antimatter, and it is indeed repelled by ordinary matter, you would be able to distinguish. It doesn't really matter for general relativity, but it would mean a proviso had to be inserted into equivalence.

Let's wait and see. I rather hope the antimatter is repelled by matter. After all, it would make the universe even more exotic.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Left brain, scmeft brain

I'm in the editing process on a book at the moment, and had mentioned the idea of the left brain/right brain split in terms of creativity. There are two concepts involved here. One is that you effectively have two brains. The left and right halves are pretty well separate, joined only at the corpus collosum, the big bundle of nerves at the back. The second is that the we have two distinct modes of operation, one is 'left brain' thinking that deals with the logical, sequential, verbal, rational, analytic, linear style of thinking. The other, 'right brain' thinking deals with the overview, spatial thinking, colour, art, imagery and the like. The assertion is that for creativity it is good to have both sides of the brain active, but when we settle down in a meeting (say) we tend to plug solidly into left brain mode.

Now my editor pointed out that there as been some doubt cast on the left brain/right brain split in this regard. (And, to be fair, I had actually said this, just not clearly enough). With evidence from fMRI and the like it becomes clear that both sides of the brain are involved in both types of thinking. However, what I was saying in the book is that the 'left brain' and 'right brain' labels are still quite useful, because there certainly are two clear modes of operation corresponding to these types of attribute.

If you'd like to feel your brain switch modes, there is a simple exercise you can do to experience it. Run the video below. It will put up a series of words. Your task is to say out loud the colour each word is printed in. Ignore what the word says, just say the colour. It's important that you do it out loud. Try it now:

What you should feel is a grunge as your brain desperately tries to switch mode. It doesn't matter what I told you, it pretty soon accepts it's dealing with words and selects left brain mode. Then, panic, it has to engage right brain. After a few words it should settle down and be fine again.

So, yes, technically the labels are out of date. But then so is the direction of flow of current in electricity, which goes the opposite way to the electrons. But it's still quite handy to use the left/right brain tags.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The joy of coincidence

If you've been around here recently you would have heard that the UK edition of How to Build a Time Machine, which is confusingly called Build Your Own Time Machine over here, is out and about with a rather smart retro cover. I've recently discovered a wonderful coincidence concerning the cover.

One chapter of the book is dedicated to Ronald Mallett, an American physics professor who has spent his life working on the general relativity and its applications to time travel. He was inspired to do this because his father died when he was a boy, and when he came across the concept of a time machine he realised that he wanted to make one of these to go back and see his dad again.

The initial idea came to young Ron while reading a comic book version of the H. G. Wells classic, The Time Machine. And here's the wonderful coincidence (thanks to tbrosz on Litopia for pointing this out). The UK cover isn't just a pastiche of the old science fiction style, it is based on a specific comic book cover.

You guessed it. That same comic that inspired Ronald Mallett also inspired the designer of my book's cover. And, as far as I can tell, it is pure coincidence. Here's the cover from