Friday, 28 September 2012

Looping the Looper

Since writing How to Build a Time Machine/Build Your Own Time Machine, time travel has been a particular interest for me, so I was delighted to be offered a chance to have a preview of the new movie Looper a few weeks ago. (No spoilers in the first part of this piece.)

The premise is an interesting one. In the future, criminals send people they want to get rid of back in time around 30 years. There a hired killer shoots them as they arrive. But part of the contract is knowing that eventually the person who gets sent back with you. At that point the killer gets enough money to retire on and has 30 years left. But, of course, things get complicated when our hero, Joe, faces the future version of himself. (I'm not sure how he knows it's him as there is no resemblance, but hey.)

I'll give you some general feelings here, safe, if you are going to see the movie, and then some detailed comments after the spoiler break. It's being promoted as this decade's Matrix. I think that's wrong - for me that accolade could only be applied to Inception. But I know why they've said it. Looper is good at combining exciting action with bits where you have to think a bit. And segments of it are downright clever. I think they could have made more of the possibilities for Inception like multi-layered action, but is still works well and I would highly recommend it if you like science fiction action movies with a little more thought that a typical Arnie movie. Certainly streets ahead of the recent remake of Total Recall.

The spoilers come after this trailer:


There are some lovely ideas in this movie. I like the concept of the killer finishing his contract by killing himself. There was some real poignancy in Bruce Willis losing his memories of his wife as young Joe's future changes as a result of old Joe's presence in the past. And the time travel comes close to making logical scientific sense. There's one big science fact error - it is loudly announced that time travel hasn't been invented, but it will be. The implication is people are travelling back to a point before time travel has been invented, which isn't possible. But I like to think this is the director/writer Rian Johnson setting us up for a Looper 2 where it turns out that time travel really had been invented earlier.

One weird thing was the telekinesis aspect. It has nothing to do with the rest of the plot - I just can't see the point of it. Should have been binned unless it too is primarily for future movies.

I had more trouble with a couple of basic logic issues. The whole point of the looper system is that it's not safe to kill people in the future as you will definitely get caught, so they send people back thirty years to kill them there. But we see them kill Bruce Willis's wife quite casually in the future. Why doesn't this present the same problem? If they can get away with this, they can find an easier way to get away with other killings than sending people into the past.

Small physical quibble. The blunderbuss used to kill the victims would not send the bodies flying back. Simple Newtonian physics, guys. I know a lot of movies get this wrong, but it's poor science.

The other big logic problem is over the use of resets. Fairly early on, young Joe is killed. Then the action just restarts a little earlier. The (sensible) implication is that if he was dead his future self couldn't come back, so the chain of events would never have started. That's fine, though it is presented in a rather confusing way. But the denouement involves young Joe killing himself to stop old Joe from killing others people. Why didn't this also cause a reset? It's inconsistent.

One lovely idea I've never seen before was that the young versions of loopers could communicate with the old version by carving a message on their arms to leave a scar. This is brilliant - the only slight problem with the execution is that the old loopers suddenly realize the message is there, where actually they would have known about it for 30 years.

I'm nitpicking here, but detail can make a lot of difference to a science-driven movie like this. I know it is fiction, and I'm quite happy for science to be distorted to fit the storyline - but it doesn't do any harm to point out where it went wrong. Overall, though, I really enjoyed the movie and it even occasionally made me think, which can't be bad.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Who's for a little Nookie?

All the ebooks I can eat on my iPad
There is little doubt - e-readers and ebooks are finally taking off. Whether pure e-readers like the original Kindle or tablets like the iPad, more and more people are reading books in this format. While I would scatter a little fairy dust of doubt over statistics that Amazon puts out comparing how many ebooks it sells with paper (bear in mind their ebook sales probably include all free downloads, which is a lot), there is no doubt that the market is finally becoming serious. Using the not-entirely-always-accurate service Novelrank, I can roughly compare sales on Amazon of my latest book that's both on Kindle and in paper format - The Universe Inside You. Roughly speaking it is selling twice as many ebook copies as paper.

So the market is ripe for lots of different ebook readers, hence presumably the launch of US bookstore giant Barnes & Noble's Nook tablets alongside its e-readers in the UK. Only I'm not totally convinced. iPad and Kindle dominate their respective markets. There are some up and coming Android tablets. But a lot of also ran makes like Kobo and even the mighty Sony have struggled to really get out there. And I suspect it may also be true of Barnes & Noble.

The thing is, B&N is a big name in the US, but it's an unknown here. If they had branded it Waterstones, it may just have got a bit more credibility, but as it stands I'm not sure why anyone will buy them, unless they are seriously cheap for what they offer. They will be selling through Sainsbury's, which should get them some sales, and Blackwell's. But I am just not sure they will catch on in a big way.

There are probably interesting parallels to draw with the MP3 player market. Apple was not first with the iPod, but they have dominated the market ever since they first got properly established. Sony could have got there first (remember how dominant the Walkman was on the cassette side), but messed up by making the PC software to go with their MP3s very clumsy and obtrusive (their ebook products have had the same problem). Now on the MP3 front you have Apple, then a couple of also rans like Sandisk, then the tat. I think the same is likely to be the case with ebook readers. The top slots are already filled. Barnes & Noble will fighting to make sure they're an also ran.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Midsomer Madness

A meteorite that went nowhere near a black hole
It can be highly entertaining when a drama series attempts to incorporate science into the plot, so last night I watched Midsomer Murders, and the entertainment came thick and fast.

In this particular case, the science in question was astronomy. We started with a dramatic scene. A total eclipse of the Sun. Many folk from kids to serious astronomers are gathering to a witness it. I was a little unhappy with the advice an expert gave a youngster (roughly 'don't look at it through binoculars or a telescope...' so far so good... 'unless you use one of these filters.' Not so good.) But we'll overlook that. What, though, about the eclipse itself? These don't happen randomly, after all.

From the car registrations this clearly wasn't the last eclipse visible in the UK in 1999. Anyway, while the location of Midsomer isn't specified (it's filmed in Buckinghamshire and Berkshire), it clearly isn't Cornwall. And the next... is not until 2090. Hmm.

This falls into the 'irritating but possibly allowable to keep the story going' class. But the next one was a doozie. In a conversation with Inspector Barnaby, an astronomy professor is musing over the meteorite that killed someone during the eclipse. (Don't ask.) I nearly literally rolled on the floor laughing. So wonderful was it that I have gone back on ITVPlayer to get an exact transcript of his words.
There's megatons of metal floating around out there. Carbon compressed to its deepest density, sucked into black holes. Which is probably where our own planet will end its days.
What?!? There are not words to describe the awe I feel at the magnificent incorrectness of that little speech. What black holes? If the carbon was sucked into them, how did it get out again? No, it's not 'probably where our own planet will end its days.' Lovely.

One other example that raised a snigger. One of the amateur astronomers who had supposedly discovered an extra-solar planet (yes, I know) is asked for an alibi during another murder. It was nighttime and, like most astronomers he was observing. Good alibi. But then he has to go and give some detail that spoils it. I haven't bothered finding the exact words but it was approximately 'I was watching the transit of Venus.' Marvellous. Leaving aside the fact that this is a much rarer event than a solar eclipse, there's one big problem. Like eclipses, transits of Venus are one of the few times when astronomers get to work during the day. It's Venus crossing the face of the Sun. It happens in daytime. So not exactly a great nighttime alibi. For one brief moment I thought this might be intentional, a subtle hint that this was the killer. But no. It was just a script error.

On one level, moaning about this kind of thing is nerdy silliness. It's a story, get over it. But on another level it is perfectly legitimate. Making a two hour drama is an expensive business. They could have afforded a few hundred pounds to have someone who knew their science look over the script. (I'm available, TV people!) The eclipse itself we'd let through, because it was fairly central to the plot, and so it's fine to bend the facts. But the dialogue that went horribly wrong could easily have been made accurate without any impact on the storyline. Surely they could have managed that?

Image from Wikipedia

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

The P word

There has been a lot of fuss lately over what the Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell did or didn't say to a policeman at Downing Street. Leaving aside that I have some sympathy with Mitchell, as he wasn't talking to a policeman as defender of liberty, but rather a policeman as jobsworth refusing to do his job and open a gate, I find the reaction to one word fascinating.

Mitchell is accused by the policeman (though he denies it) of calling him a pleb. This is being treated by parts of the media as if he had used the N word - but I would say there is a fundamental difference. I absolutely understand why those who take offence from the use of the N word get upset, because it links them to an unpleasant historical context. This isn't the case for pleb.

'Pleb' is short for 'plebeian' from the Roman distinction between a plebeius - one of the common people - and a patricius, a patrician, a member of the nobility or (post classically) a high ranking official. Practically everyone was a pleb. So basically what Mitchell (if he said it) was accusing the policeman of being was one of what our US cousins tend to call 'We the people'. Not a waste of space, toffy-nosed idiot, but the salt of the earth. And this is offensive because?...

Of course, you might argue that it's not offensive in itself, but rather in the way it is typically used by a certain class of people. They (we could class them as Bullingdon Club types) consider themselves a cut above the rest, and consider the plebs to be oiks, the ones who didn't go to Eton or have some minor title in the family. But to take offence is to suggest that these idiots are right. And they aren't. Given the choice between Bullingdon Club types ('hearties' we used to call them at university, and it wasn't intended as a compliment either) and being a pleb, I know which I'd choose. My grandparents were mill workers from Rochdale. What else could I be? Plebeian and proud of it.

Up the plebs!

Monday, 24 September 2012

Where's my Streetview?

Find me Bristol Airport and make
it snappy (the new Maps app)
There has been a lot of excitement in the Apple world in recent days with the launch of iPhone 5 and suchlike goodies. To accompany it, there has been an outbreak of new software - specifically iOs 6, the new version of the iPhone/iPad operating system.

As usual this has quite a few nice goodies, but also one hugely controversial feature. Apple has replaced the excellent Google Maps with their own software. The Apple Maps app has some very swish 'fly over' features, which are toys that will be used twice and discarded. But it isn't as good as the old master on some of the basics.

There has been much whingeing about the new app, as the occasional place gets mislaid etc, but I suspect that will be fixed fairly quickly. They are relying on TomTom for much of the UK mapping, and on the whole TomTom know their stuff. And they have added turn by turn directions, which is potentially useful.

However, there is one particularly painful aspect of the change. I always found Google Streetview really useful. You can take a look at your destination and be clear exactly how the end of your journey looks. But there is no Streetview in Apple Maps. No worries - you can still go into Google Maps in the web browser... only Streetview uses Flash, which isn't supported on iPhone or iPad. So still no opportunity to have a quick preview of your destination.

Oh, that's what it looks like (Live Street View)
Thankfully there is a little app called Live Street View which is dirt cheap (there is a free version, but I'd recommend paying the 69p both to reward the developer and to avoid the adverts, which take up valuable screen space) and which displays those essential views in native mode, so all is well.


Friday, 21 September 2012

What is it about BMWs?

A BMW, it seems
If I'm honest I am not a big fan of BMWs. I can't imagine every buying one: while I know at least two really nice people who drive them, I experience an awful lot more unpleasant people driving them. They seem to be more pushy, nasty drivers for some reason. And for that matter, there isn't a BMW model where there isn't another car I'd rather have.

However, even as a non-fan, I have to have admit that BMWs are superbly engineered - which is why I am so baffled about their attitude to security. Recently in the news there has been a lot of fuss about BMWs with those automatic key fob thingies being easy to break into. Despite being aware of this, apparently BMW don't feel it's their responsibility to sort things out. Which isn't good.

Of itself, this is a one-off concern. But the fact is it's not the first time BMWs have been identified as being easy to break into. A good number of years ago, my car was broken into in a car park in Windsor. (You may think Windsor is a nice place, but I've only had cars broken into twice, both times in Windsor.) The thieves smashed a window to get a few cassette tapes and the (rubbish) car radio. My car wasn't a BMW - but I learned something interesting that night.

A policewoman came out to examine the scene. In conversation she pointed out that, in a way, it was a pity that my car wasn't a BMW as they were so easy to break into. Apparently, she said, there was a fault in the automatic locking mechanism, and if you bashed a BMW just there (she indicated on a nearby example) the locks popped open. For her benefit I won't say whether or not she actually demonstrated it, but it was painfully easy. Of course that was back then - this doesn't work on today's cars. But even so, as Lady Bracknell might have said, to mess up one locking mechanism is unfortunate; to mess up two is careless.

Image from Wikipedia

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Tweetness and light

The media has a very mixed attitude to Twitter. Sometimes it is given totally over the top accolades for enabling something like the Arab Spring to take place (there is no doubt it made a contribution, but equally no doubt that things would have gone ahead much the same without it). At other times it is seen as a lowest common denominator means of spreading gossip and tittle tattle.

Why wouldn't you tweet it?
I personally think it's a great way for getting and giving instant reactions. It can be genuinely interesting to see live response to a TV show, for instance, as tweets come flying in. And although I personally am not particularly interested in what people had for breakfast, say, it is very valuable as a way of highlighting something interesting or amusing. So, for instance, when I spot a van with an entertaining spelling error on its artwork, or when I recently came across a slow worm on my walk to the Post Office, Twitter was a natural way to make a quick comment.

This ease can lead to problems. There was, of course, the court case for the poor guy who remarked that he was going to bomb Robin Hood airport (what a name), which should never have happened. Twitter is sounding off, worldwide light conversation, not a place to generate threats and litigation. There was also the poor Welsh councillor who was hauled up for a disciplinary hearing for tweeting I didn’t know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off - ludicrous over-reaction for a personal response you may or may not agree with (I do agree) but that he should have the freedom to make without harassment.

I also find that Twitter is a good, painless way for a reader to make a quick comment to an author. I would never think of emailing Stephen Fry, say, but I don't mind blasting something off to him on Twitter. He probably never sees them - but that doesn't really matter. And when I get a response from the author, as I did from a positive remark having just read one of S. J. Parris's novels featuring Giordano Bruno, it feels really good.

Canadian bookstore purchases
Photo courtesy of Claire McCartney
As an author myself I also receive quite a few tweets about my books - and that warm glow works both ways. I received one the other day saying Picked up your book on gravity in Chapters book store in Ottowa, Canada and 1 hour later I was still reading it! Nice - that really made my day. It's not just the nice comments, but the thought of a book I wrote making a connection in a different country - there's something heartwarming about it!

I couldn't help asking if, after reading it for an hour, the tweeter had actually bought the book - and was even more delighted to hear that not only did she do so, but she went back next day for another of my titles. And chocolate covered beaver droppings. The way you do. (Why don't our bookshops sell beaver droppings?) I've even got a photo to prove it.

So don't knock Twitter. I get really irritated with people who say 'Oh, no, I've never twitted, or whatever you call it,' wrinkling their nose as if it's something tasteless. Personally, I'm all in favour.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Nature's Nanotech #7 - Behold the Peacock

The last in the Nature's Nanotech series

There is something stunning about the colours of a peacock feather. It’s not just a simple matter of the sort of coloured pigments an artist mixes up on a palette. The colours in the feathers almost glow in their iridescence, changing subtly with angle to catch the eye. To produce this effect, the feather contains a natural nanotechnology that has the potential to transform optics when this remarkable approach is adapted for use in human technology.

Both the iridescence of that peacock’s tail and the swirly, glittering appearance of the semi-precious stone opal are caused by forms of photonic lattices. These are physical structures at the nano level that act on light in a way that is reminiscent of electronics, like the semiconductors that act to switch and control electrons, giving unparalleled manipulation of photons.

The colours of the peacock feather bear no resemblance to those of a pigment. In blue paint, for example, the pigment is a material that tends to absorb most of the spectrum of white light but re-emits primarily blue, so we see anything painted with the pigment as being blue. In the peacock feathers it’s the internal structure of the feather (or to be precise the tiny ‘barbules’ on the feather) that produce the hue.

The colouration is primarily due to internal reflections off the repeated structure of the barbule, similar to the way the lattice arrangement of a crystal can produce enhanced reflection. What happens is that photons reflected from a deeper layer are in phase with those from an outer layer, reinforcing the particular colours of light (or energies of photons) that fit best with the lattice spacing. This is a photonic lattice. These effects depend on the angle at which the light reflects, giving the typical ‘shimmer’ of iridescence.

The practical applications of artificially created photonic crystals can do much more than produce a pretty effect and striking colours. Because a photonic lattice acts on light as semiconductors do on electrons, they are essential components if we are ever to build optical computers.

These theoretical machines would use photons to represent bits, rather than the electrical impulses we currently employ in a conventional computer. This could vastly increase the computing power. Because photons don’t interact with each other, many more can be crammed into a tiny space. What’s more, one of the biggest restrictions in current computer architecture is the complex spaghetti of links joining together different parts of the structure. With photons, those links can flow through each other in a basket of light – unlike wires and circuits, photons can pass through each other without interacting, allowing more complex and faster architectures. Equally, optical switching – and in the end, a computer is just a huge array of switches – could be much faster than the electronic equivalent.

There are significant technical problems to be overcome, but the potential is great. Photonic crystals are already used in special paint and ink systems which change colour depending on the angle at which the paint is viewed, reflection reducing coatings on lenses and high transmission photonic fibre optics.

Another example of nanotechnology having a quantum effect on light is plasmonics. Something remarkable happens, for example, if light is shone on a gold foil peppered with millions of nanoholes. It seems reasonable that only a tiny fraction of the light hitting the foil would pass through these negligible punctures, but in fact in a process known as ‘extraordinary optical transmission’ they act like funnels, channelling all the light that hits the foil through the sub-microscopic apertures. This bizarre phenomenon results from the interaction between the light and plasmons, waves in the two dimensional ocean of electrons in the metal.

The potential applications of plasmonics are remarkable. Not only the more obvious optical ones – near perfect lenses and supplementing the photonic lattices in superfast computers that use light rather than electrons to function – but also in the medical sphere to support diagnostics, by detecting particular molecules, and for drug delivery. Naomi Halas of Rice University in Texas envisions implanting tiny cylinders containing billions of plasmonic spheres, each carrying a minuscule dose of insulin. Infra red light, shone from outside the body, could trigger an exact release of the required dose. ‘Basically, people could wear a pancreas on their arm,’ said Halas.

Over the last seven weeks since the first post, we have explored a wide range of the ways that nanotechnology, given a push in the right direction by nature, is starting to be important in our lives. At the moment we are most likely to come across relatively simple applications like the nanoparticles in sun block or technology making fabrics and electronics water repellent.

As our abilities to construct nanostructures improve we will see increased use of the likes of carbon nanotubes and the nano-optics described in this piece. And eventually? It is entirely possible that we will see Richard Feynman’s 1950s speculation about nanomachines come to fruition, though they are likely to be more like the ‘wet’ machines of nature than a traditional mechanical device.

When nanotechnology appears in the news it is often in a negative light. We might hear that Prince Charles is worrying about the threat of grey goo, or the Soil Association won’t allow artificial nanoparticles in organic products. But the reality is very different. Nanotechnology is both fascinating and immensely valuable in its applications. I, for one, can’t wait to see what comes next.

This series has been sponsored by P2i, a British company that specializes in producing nanoscale water repellent coatings. P2i was founded in 2004 to bring technologies developed at the UK Government’s Defence Science & Technology Laboratory to the commercial market. Applications range from the Aridion coating, applied to mobile technology inside and out after manufacture using a plasma, to protection for filtration media preventing clogging and coatings for trainers that reduce water absorption.

Image from Wikipedia

Monday, 17 September 2012

So long, farewell

Yes, well worth saving
There was a discussion on the radio the other day about endangered species. Specifically, that old chestnut of whether it really matters if a few species go extinct.

One protagonist was arguing fiercely that it was essential to preserve every single species, though as usual, the arguments in detail were very flimsy. They came down to:

  • It's our (moral) duty - Essentially, because it's our fault that they're dying out, we have a duty to prevent it. I really don't know if this is true or not. I can see a good argument for not going out of your way to destroy a species (take the passenger pigeon as an example), but this isn't something we do any more. 
  • The world would be a less rich place without them - certainly true of, say, pandas. Sort of true of the 57th variety of almost identical shrew-like creature. Hard to argue for a beetle. Even harder for a bacterium.
  • We don't know how we might benefit from them in the future - of course it's possible, but I suspect with most potential extinctions this 'okay, if altruism won't work, what's in it for me' approach is extremely low probability. We might benefit from staying in the house all day and never putting ourselves at risk from traffic. But hey.
  • We don't know what difference their absence would make to the ecosystem - that's true, and we know that the removal/addition of some species can have devastating effects on a local ecosystem (think rabbits in Australia). But arguably, for the species that are at risk, they can't be having a big impact on their ecosystem - there aren't enough of them.
Don't get me wrong, I am not suggesting we should do nothing about species we are interested in, but I really can't get behind the 'every single species should be preserved' argument. Species have always gone extinct. I know that because of our changes to the planet this is happening much faster at the moment than has been the case recently (though nowhere near as fast as in the great extinctions of the past), so I'm all in favour of putting on the brakes. But trying to save everything is crazy. We need an 80 percent solution, where I'd say that 80 percent should include the most potentially useful (to us an the environment) and the most appealing animals. 

Some argue we shouldn't treat giant pandas so specially because of the 'awww!' factor. Rubbish. Given the choice, I am afraid I would save pandas over beetles and bacteria every time. Orwell might not have intended the way that some animals are more equal than others to be a positive lesson, but here it is.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Thermodynamics? Who cares?

I was writing something yesterday for a book I'm currently working on about thermodynamics. It sounds, frankly, a bit of a dull subject. The name implies it's about the way heat moves around. And it is, sort of. It sounds like the sort of old fashioned science that dates from the age of the steam engine. And it is, sort of. Part of its origins certainly came from the need to understand steam engines better. But it is so much more.

One of the reasons for this is that surprisingly early on it was developed from thinking about engines to basics like atoms and molecules. How they interact and how we can look statistically at a whole bunch of them, because we certainly aren't going to be able to work on each one individually - there are just too many. I say 'surprisingly early' because when this theory was being developed a lot of scientists doubted that atoms existed at all, thinking they were just convenient mathematical models for working out the numbers. It was said for a long time that one of the reasons the remarkable Ludwig Boltzmann, one of the leading lights in the field, committed suicide was because there was so much opposition to his theories which were based on the reality of atoms. These days it's popular for historians of science to say his suicide was down to the depressive phase of bipolar disorder - which may be true, but it's hard to think such fervent opposition didn't make things worse.

I'm not going to drone through all four of the 'laws' of thermodynamics (terrible word to use in science, 'law' - it should be banned), but the one that is most exciting is the second law. This can be stated in a loose way as 'entropy (disorder) in a close system stays the same or increases', or 'you can't make a change in a closed system without increasing entropy' or for the steam engine enthusiasts, 'left to its own devices, heat will flow from a hotter to a cooler part of a system.' Or in the vernacular TANSTAAFL - there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

This may all sound highly esoteric (apart from TANSTAAFL), but the second law is at the fundamental heart of existence. Every time anything changes - which, let's face it, is the interesting bit of life - the second law comes into play. It even explains teenage bedrooms - without the input of energy, disorder increases - and the eventual fate of the universe. Because the second law is so fundamental, it was the example C. P. Snow gave in his famous 'Two Cultures' ponderings as the equivalent of reading Shakespeare. He pointed out that most scientists have probably encountered Shakespeare, but very few artists have a clue about the second law of thermodynamics. Arguably they should.

The second law also produced a famous quote from one of the early twentieth century’s greatest scientists, Arthur Eddington, which I will leave you with. He said:
 ‘If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations [the equations that describe how electromagnetism works] – then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation – well these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in the deepest humiliation.’

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Science soundbites

It is popular in the scientific community to be snarky about people who talk about science in the media. Particularly if it's a science journalist or correspondent, but even if it is a full blown practising scientist, there will be much tutting, muttering and general attacking of the idiocy of the way the science is presented. I saw it happening an awful lot, for example, over the Higgs boson results - not an easy thing to explain. One scientist was very sarcastic about the analogy someone (actually a politician) used on the radio, even though it was exactly the same analogy that Brian Cox (who, after all, works at CERN when he has a day off from posing) (sorry - snark attack) had used in print.

I had a personal example of this last week. In my role as totally unpaid science correspondent for BBC Wiltshire (you pay peanuts...) I was asked in on the breakfast show to talk about ENCODE, the next generation human genome project that goes beyond the genes to look at how the rest of human DNA does all the switching of genes, and the differences in the way this operates in a wide range of cells. And I committed every error that the science moaning minnies complain about. I oversimplified, at least one thing I said was effectively wrong, and I didn't use the best analogies I could.

But. This was around a four minute slot to explain a huge scientific endeavour. I'm not a biologist. And the discussion was driven by the presenter, who inevitably was more interested in potential applications than the science itself. So not a great performance. Do I regret it? Not at all. And this is where we've got to stop moaning. The fact is, the listeners got more idea about what was going on than they would otherwise. They got a feel for the excitement, the remarkable work that was being undertaken (something they need to remember when parliament is talking about cutting science funding) and the potential for future benefits.

I honestly believe that it is better to fire people up to find out more and be supportive of science, even if what you say isn't perfect, rather than say nothing and have it drop off the agenda. It's also important to bear in mind that such broadcasts are not carefully scripted - it's all top of the head. You have to give some leeway. But even if it is scripted (or a book) I'd rather it was out there in an approachable fashion with a few errors than presented in a totally incomprehensible way by someone who totally understands the science but can't communicate, or even worse is not out there at all.

It's the Inconvenient Truth effect. Al Gore's global warming movie contained a number of unfortunate errors. But it did a lot of good. I'm not saying errors don't matter - but it's more important to communicate the gist and the feeling than to have the kind of accuracy that scientists naturally aim for. Ideally we'd have both. But this isn't an ideal world.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Idiot tiger in the tank

Those of us with any sort of scientific bent have groaned for years over the misuse of sciencey words in  cosmetic adverts. Practically any cosmetic ad seems to try to do two things:

  1. To use emotional trigger words like 'natural' to make us think the product was practically squeezed out of a fruit or leaf, rather than blended in a vast industrial complex. Also words like 'nourish' however ridiculous this is when talking about something like (dead) hair.
  2. To use words that have real meaning in science, but removed from their context. So, for instance, putting 'DNA' into the description of your product, or some wonderfully obscure compound name like pro-boswellox-retinox-B.
Now an oil company has got on the bandwagon (not an entirely strange jump, since most cosmetics contain a fair amount of processed oil of one sort or another). When selling petrol, the oil companies have a real problem, because petrol is a commodity. We don't really care what brand it is, just how cheap it is. Esso's answer to this is to resort to the cosmetic world's plan B.

In recent ads, Esso makes a big thing of the fact that their new fuel (ok, petrol with a tiny bit of additive) works at a molecular level (specifically to help remove deposits). Now unlike many of the cosmetic adverts, this isn't just a use of magic words. The fuel does work at a molecular level... but then so does pretty well every chemical compound that isn't part of a larger structure. Okay there will be sub-molecular activity - hydrogen bonds, for example. And I suppose it's possible they could produce a fuel that undergoes nuclear decay and so works at the nuclear level. But otherwise how else is it going to work?

I am now going to drink my coffee. It works at the molecular level, you know. I might watch myself a classic Esso ad as I do so:

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Nature’s Nanotech #6 – Silk Elevators

Sixth in the Nature's Nanotech series.

Anyone who talks to young children about science knows that there are two things that really grab their attention – dinosaurs and space. While I’m not aware of any antediluvian nanotechnology, there is certainly an absolutely stunning potential space application that has some natural inspirations. (I’m aware, by the way, that the word ‘antedeluvian’ is both anachronistic and unscientific… but it’s a lovely word that we really shouldn’t lose from the language.)

Nature has some amazing, extremely fine fibres. Take, for example, that everyday wonder, a spider’s web. The spider silk that makes up the web is a spun fibre constructed from proteins. Though light, these filaments are extremely resistant to fracture – tougher than steel. Spider silk is typically 3,000 nanometers across, but its toughness is down to its structure at the nano level.

A team at MIT discovered that the unusual strength is down to a substructure of ‘beta sheet crystals’, which hold the silk together. The linking is done by hydrogen bonds, the same kind of bonding that stops water from boiling at room temperature. Such bonds are easy to break, but the MIT scientists discovered that if they are confined to spaces just a few nanometers in span – as they are in the beta sheet crystals – they become exceedingly strong. So spider silk depends on a kind of nano-glue for its strength.

In the nanotechnology world, the equivalent of spider silk is the carbon nanotube. We are all familiar with the way carbon comes in different physical structures or ‘allotropes’ that have remarkably different properties. Chemically there is no difference between diamond and the graphite in a pencil ‘lead’ but physically one is extremely hard and the other has multiple planes that slide easily over each other making it effectively soft (although those planes themselves are surprisingly tough).

Another way to fit together a structure of carbon atoms is to form a tube. Imagine taking a plane of graphite a single atom thick (technically graphene) and folding it around to make a tubular shape. Carbon nanotubes are amongst the most amazing artefacts ever made. Though simple in structure, they are remarkable both in their strength and their other physical properties.

Electrically they can behave as if they were a metal or a semiconductor, simply as a result of the shape of the tube. Although carbon nanotube electronics is in its infancy, there is considerable speculation about the capabilities of nanotube products. They could be used to make everything from transistors that are switched by a single electron to batteries built into a sheet of paper.  But their pièce de résistance is their strength. Carbon nanotubes make spider silk look like tissue. When you compare a nanotube’s strength per unit weight with steel it comes out around 300 times greater.

All kinds of applications are possible for such a remarkable material. Nanotubes are present in the much thicker carbon fibres used to reinforce everything from tennis rackets to bike frames, but only incidentally and in small quantities. At the moment they tend to be used in random bulk combinations of many small fragments – not as strong as a set of individual aligned nanotubes, but still enough to add strength and to change electrical properties. But one potential application could totally transform the space industry.

Getting things into space is expensive. Hugely expensive. To reach a geosynchronous orbit (of which more later) typically costs around $20,000 per kilogram. But there is a hypothetical nanotube technology that once developed could deliver satellites and even people into space for around 1/100th of this cost. What’s more, rocket technology is inherently risky. You will inevitably lose some of your space missions. Yet the nanotube technology could, once established, run day after day without problem.

Imagine you were sitting on top of a house and wanted to get something up there. You could have someone attach your payload to a rocket and shoot it in your direction. But like the space launch it’s a dangerous and expensive solution. Instead you are more likely to throw a piece of string off the roof, have a basket tied to it and then haul the object up.

Now extend this picture to the Empire State Building. Your piece of string would have to be very strong, which would make it quite heavy to haul up and down, increasing the cost of the process. What might be better is to keep the string (or more likely a piece of metal) in place and have the basket haul itself up and down along the supporting structure.

Time to take another jump into that geosynchronous orbit. An object in orbit is in a very strange state. It is in free fall, dropping towards the Earth – but at the same time it is moving sideways at just the right speed so it always misses. This, incidentally, is why people float around in the International Space Station. It’s not because there’s no gravity – the Earth’s gravitational pull at its height (350 kilometres above the Earth’s surface) is around 90% Earth normal. The astronauts float because they and the station are falling. But they stay in orbit because their sideways motion means they keep missing the planet.

Because of this balance, at any particular height there is one speed that keeps you in orbit. And if you go high enough – around 35,786 kilometres up – that speed is the same as the rotational speed of the Earth, making you geosynchronous. Point the orbit in the right direction and you will stay over the same point on the Earth’s surface (this is a geostationary orbit).

So, imagine you could drop a piece of string from a geostationary satellite down to the ground. You could then just send a lift (elevator) up the string and replace all that dangerous, expensive rocketry. What you’ve got is a space elevator – and to make it work, that string needs to be made from carbon nanotubes.

Of course this is a long way in the future, though a range of companies (including, bizarrely Google) are working on the technology required. There’s no doubt that Bradley Edwards of NASA’s Institute of Advanced Concepts was being over-optimistic when in 2002 he commented ‘[With nanotubes] I’m convinced that the space elevator is practical and doable. In 12 years, we could be launching tons of payload…’ However in a more reasonable timescale – perhaps another 30 or 40 years – it is entirely feasible. And you can’t fault the scope of imagination that allows the inspiration of spider silk to transport us into space.

Next week, in the final piece in the series, we will be learning the lesson of the peacock’s tail and the amazing optics it inspires.

Images from Wikipedia and

Monday, 10 September 2012

Gauss and Newton's Apple

One of the greatest mathematicians of all time, Carl Friedrich Gauss, was painfully dismissive of the good old story that Newton dreamed up his theory of gravitation when an apple fell on his head. Gauss remarked:

Silly! A stupid officious man asked Newton how he discovered the law of gravitation. Seeing that he had to deal with a child intellect, and wanting to get rid of the bore, Newton answered that an apple fell and hit him on the nose. The man went away fully satisfied and completely enlighted.
I'm sorry, Herr Gauss, but that picture really doesn't hold up. Look at the account of the man to whom Newton told the story of the falling apple (no mention of it hitting him), related by the historian William Stukeley:
After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, and drank thea [sic] under the shade of some apple trees; only he and myself. Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. 
I know I've quoted this before, but I find these words absolutely fascinating, particularly given Gauss's grumpy interpretation. Firstly Stukeley was no fool. Secondly, to dismiss the apple story out of hand is to totally miss the point of the importance of stories in our understanding of the world (a frequent failing among scientists and particularly mathematicians, though not Charles Dodgson).

And finally, this isn't the story of someone fobbing off an irritating passerby, it is an old man reminiscing after dinner with a friend. I am more inclined to Stukeley's picture of events and to give Herr Gauss a firm kick up the rear.

Thanks to the Royal Society you can view Stukeley's original hand-written words in his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton's Life.

Friday, 7 September 2012

Vive la France!

I was recently a little rude about the French habit of adding a new requirement for drivers every year. But I ought in all fairness say that practically every time I go to France I spot something and think 'That's brilliant! Why don't we do that?' And it almost always involves taking something simple and familiar and giving it a twist.

In the past it has been things like interspersing motorway service stations with cheap to build stopping places that just have loos and picnic facilities. Or making it possible to screw off crown corks on beer bottles - sheer genius.
Boring British RDS display

The latest was something simple but impressive. When we cross the channel we tend to press the button on the radio that finds a selection of stations, to get some authentic French sounds. And many of those French radio stations were doing something very clever.

With an RDS radio, as fitted in most cars, a typical British radio station will display something like BBC R4. To the point, useful... but not awe inspiringly informative. What the French stations were doing was changing the RDS tag with every track. So it would read something like:

RADIO X - Pink Floyd - Welcome to the Machine (1975)

Wonderful! Taking a very basic bit of technology and transforming it. Of course the RDS display can't show all this at once, but they are designed to scroll when the text is too long. My suspicion is the UK stations don't do this because it takes away one of the few advantages of DAB radio, which still has practically no penetration into the car market - rather worrying when they keep threatening to take the analogue signal away. But they should make more of RDS.

Nice one, France.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Infinity just got bigger

One of the books I enjoyed writing most was A Brief History of Infinity, so when I got a chance to write an illustrated Introducing Infinity I jumped at the chance. It's now sunning itself in the shops for your attention.

Part of the 'graphic guide' series it combines easy-to-absorb bite-sized chunks of text with superb illustration by Oliver Pugh (an all round nice guy). The pictures are very much part of the story, rather than being quick illustrations on the side - we worked closely together to ensure they got across the message.

As for infinity - it's one of the subjects that simply boggles the mind, but there are some great human stories from its history, whether you look back at the likes of the Ancient Greeks and Galileo, follow the calculus wars between Newton, Leibnitz and Bishop Barclay, or take on Georg Cantor and his amazing visual proofs that there is more than one type of infinity, with one bigger than another.

In the end, though, it's the mind-bending paradoxes you keep coming back to, and I've a number of them in there, from covering the number line with umbrellas, though Hilbert's infinite hotel, to the remarkable Gabriel's horn, which you could fill with just pi units of paint, but would take an infinite pot of paint if you wanted to cover its surface.

I have to admit a particular delight for me was that Oliver included both photos and line drawings of me as a kind of narrator when there isn't a historical character in the scene. I couldn't resist including one here - which I think illustrates the style well.

You can find out more - or buy the book from Amazon (please!) - at its web page, and it is also sharing a Facebook page with its big brother.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Get real, car manufacturers

Here's one I inflated earlier
Like, I suspect, most drivers I don't check my tyre pressures anywhere near frequently enough. (This is not helped by the assumption of everyone else in my family that it's my job to look after their tyres too.) But when I do, as I did this morning, I feel a strong urge to get hold of the car maker and shake them until they rattle.

Pretty well every car I've ever had has presented the driver with two different pressures, one for if you just have one or two people in the car, and one for when the car is full and so is the boot. As if anyone is going to modify the tyre pressure every time someone gets in the car. 'Sorry, Auntie Carol, you can't get in my car, I would need to increase the tyre pressure to cope with your weight.' It's just not realistic.

What I need is a sensible inflation level (in bars, please - get over this pounds per square inch nonsense) that will do in all circumstances. It might not be ideal, but that's life. Few things are ideal. Let's just be given a practical value and get on with things. Life is too short to have to guess an interpolated value between the two. I wouldn't mind, but at least one of the cars I deal with has identical pressures all round if you have 2 people in the car but widely differently pressures front and back for a full load.

Arggh! Send the motor manufacturers to the naughty step.

Next week - does it have to be so difficult to change a bulb?

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Boneland - Alan Garner

I loved Alan Garner's books as a teenager. And I'd still say that Elidor and The Owl Service are the best Young Adult fantasy books ever written for the younger and older ends of that spectrum respectively. I was also quite fond of his first two books, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and its sequel The Moon of Gomrath. They were also gripping fantasy adventures, and I loved the setting of Alderly Edge, which I knew quite well. Even at the time, though, I had slight reservations about them. So it was with some interest that I got a copy of Boneland, described as 'the concluding volume in the Weirdstone trilogy.'

My issues with the originals, which feature a circa 12 year old pair of twins hurled into a Cheshire setting with supernatural goings-on, were two-fold. I was already a huge Lord of the Rings fan and I couldn't help feeling that the svarts that the children discover down the copper mines are extremely derivative of the orcs in the Moria scene in LotR. I also felt that Garner flung in every tradition he could think of in a messy mix. So we had witches, King Arthur and his knights sleeping under the hill to rescue England at its peril, a wizard, the Wild Hunt and even a chunk of Norse mythology.

So what of the 'sequel'? First the good news. Boneland is an interesting book in its own right, I love the way Garner weaves in Jodrell Bank (visible from his house), and the character Meg is superb. Colin, one of the twins from the original books, now middle-aged, is less appealing (and, I'm sorry, but Garner got his surname wrong. It just sounds wrong.) But the claims on the cover are downright fibs.

Not only is there no way this is the concluding book of a trilogy - it has no similarity of feel to the first books - Philip Pullman's comments on the rear are highly misleading. He calls it a resolution of the stories of the first two books, and says those who were young when they came out (as he and I both were) 'won't be disappointed: this was worth waiting for.' Actually I was hugely disappointed. The first books didn't need a resolution: the apparent cliff-hanger that links them and Boneland isn't in the original books. And this is anything but a resolution. Let me try to explain why have problems with this book.

One is inconsistency. Having said that the original books were a real mish-mash of legends and traditions, at least there was some consistency of having a medieval English feel (with a touch of Scandanavian) to them. Apart from the use of crows, there is hardly any overlap with the mystical content of this book, which is all cod-Stone age. And there is so much of that. I really had to fight myself not to skip over the huge chunks of mystical waffle to get back to Colin and Meg, because it is deliberately obscure and unsatisfying.

It didn't help for me, and I know not everyone will agree, that it was cod-Stone age. I have real problems with this particular style. I found the same experience with Michelle Paver's Wolf Brother books. The thing is, if you use an existing legend - like the Wild Hunt - you are tying into a true tradition, and that gives a story real resonance. But we have no idea what Stone age religion was like (or even if they had any: it's all supposition). So people make guesses from cave paintings. But it always feels really false and strained to me. But most of all, as already mentioned, what we find here has nothing to do with the mythos of the Weirdstone books.

So, all in all, a disappointment. Not a bad book, by any means. But it doesn't do what it says on the tin.

You can see more on Boneland or buy a copy (if I haven't put you off - note I did say it was an interesting book in its own right) at and

Monday, 3 September 2012

Nature's Nanotech #5 - Catching a Cure

Fifth in our Nature's Nanotech series

Isaac Asimov was a great science fiction writer, but even the best has his off days, and Asimov’s low point was probably his involvement with the dire science fiction movie Fantastic Voyage. Asimov wasn’t responsible for the story, but provided the novelization – and he probably regretted it. The premise of the film was that miniaturization technology has made it possible shrink a submarine and its crew down to around 1,000 nanometres, sending it into a man’s bloodstream to find and destroy a blood clot on his brain.

Along the way the crew have various silly encounters with the body’s systems – but strip away the Hollywood shlock and underneath is an idea that has been developed in a lot more detail by IT pioneer and life extension enthusiast Ray Kurzweil. Based on the idea of miniature robotic devices – nanobots – Kurzweil believes that in the future we will not have a single manned Proteus submarine as featured in Fantastic Voyage in our bloodstreams but rather a whole host of nanobots that will undertake medical functions and keep humans of the future alive indefinitely.

As we have seen in The Importance of Being Wet, the chances are that any such devices would not be a simple miniaturization of existing mechanical robots with their flat metal surfaces and gears, but rather would be based on the wet technology of the natural nanoscale world.

Among the possibilities Kurzweil suggests are on the cards are self-propelling robotic replacements for blood cells (this eliminates the importance of the heart as a pump, and hence the risk of heart disease), built in monitors for any sign of the body drifting away from ideal operation, nanobots that can deliver drugs to control cancer or remove cancer cells, and even miniature robots that make direct repairs to genes.

Kurzweil also expects we might separate the pleasure of eating from getting the nutrients we need, leaving the latter to nanobots in the bloodstream that release the essentials when we need them, while other nano devices remove toxins from the blood and destroy unwanted food without it ever influencing our metabolism. You could pig out on anything you wanted, all day and every day, and never suffer the consequences. (Given Kurzweil is notorious for living on an unpleasant diet to attempt to extend his life until nanotechnology is available, perhaps this is wishful thinking.)

If we are to develop this kind of nanotechnology, there are two aspects of nature that we will need to use as guides. One is to listen to the bees. Bearing in mind just how small a medical nanobot would have to be, even with the best developments in electronics the chances are it would have to be relatively unintelligent – yet it would need to achieve quite complex tasks. Bees are an excellent natural model for a way to achieve this.

A colony of bees achieves remarkable things in the construction and maintenance of its hive – yet taken as individuals, bees have very little capacity for mental activity. The realization that transformed our understanding of bees is that they form a super-organism. In effect, a whole colony is a single organism, not a collection of individual bees. A bee is more like a cell in a typical animal than it is a whole creature. By having appropriate mechanisms for communicating between the component parts – in the case of bees, using everything from chemical scent markers to waggle dances – relatively incapable individuals can come together to make a greater whole.

It would be sensible to expect something similar from medical nanobots at work in a human body. Individually they could not be intelligent enough to carry out their functions properly – but collectively, if they can interact to form a super-organism, they could operate autonomously without an external control mechanism continuously providing them with orders.

A second model for these miniature medics is a piece of natural nanotechnology that we usually regard as a bad guy – the virus. Viruses are very small – typically between 20 and 400 nanometres in size – and they lack many of the essential components of a living entity. However they are able to reproduce and thrive by using a remarkably clever cheat. Lacking the physical space to carry all the components of a living cell, they take over an existing cell in their host and subvert its mechanism to do their reproduction for them.

The particular class of virus that may be particularly useful as a model for medical nanobots is the phage. These are amongst the weirdest looking natural structure – some have an uncanny resemblance of the Apollo Lunar module: they actually look as if they are the sort of nanotechnology we might construct.

The word ‘phage’ is short for bacteriophage – ‘bacteria eater’. These are viruses than instead of preying on human cells – or those of any other large scale animals – attack and destroy bacteria. Because there are so many bacteria out there (even the human body has ten times more bacteria than human cells on board), their predators are also immensely populous and diverse. Phages may not be common fare on David Attenborough’s nature programmes, but they play a major role in the overall biological life of the Earth.

Because phages attack bacteria, they can be beneficial to human life. Throughout human existence we have been plagued with bacterial infections. (Literally – bacteria, for example, cause bubonic plague.) It is only relatively recently that antibiotics have provided us with a miracle cure for bacterial attacks – but that miracle is weakening. Bacteria breed and evolve quickly. There are strains of bacteria that can resist most of the existing antibiotics. But phages have the potential to attack bacteria resistant to all antibiotics. For a long time phage therapy was restricted to the former Soviet Union, but interest is spreading in making use of phages in medical procedures.

The biggest problem with phages is getting them to the right place. But medical nanobots based on a phage’s ability to attack or modify particular cells, combined with a super-organism’s ability to act in a collective manner would have huge potential. Modified viruses are already used to insert genetic payloads into cells – but the nanotechnology of the future, inspired by the phage and the bee, could see something much closer to Kurzweil’s vision.

Moving away from the medical, and from individual nanoscale elements, in the next installment of Nature’s Nanotech we will see how natural nanotechnology plays a role in silk and how fibres based on a nanotechnology structure could make rockets obsolete for putting satellites into space.

Images from