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Showing posts from September, 2014

Who is in the running for the Nobels?

For the outside world, exactly who wins Nobel Prizes in the science is fairly academic (geddit?) - and even for those with a professional interest it may sometimes seem that the reason for the awards can be sliced pretty thin these days. The early prizes do seem often to have been for more 'big' work than the more subtle modern ones. But having said that, we also always get some goodies. I didn't realize it until they sent me a press release, but Thomson Reuters do an annual prediction of the likely runners and riders - useful in case you fancy a flutter. So here are this years' favourites according to TR. On the physics side, I rather fancy the Quantum Spin Hall effect, but that's just me... P.S. I don't know why Economics is treated as a science either. PHYSIOLOGY or MEDICINE James E. Darnell, Jr. Vincent Astor Professor Emeritus, Laboratory of Molecular Cell Biology, Rockefeller University New York, NY USA -and- Robert G. Roeder Arnold

Google walks

Start of the journey - BBC Wiltshire reception Yesterday I made my regular appearance on BBC Wiltshire, but I was without a car, so experienced the joys of a bus in, and decided to walk back, a distance of just over four miles. What made it different, and really rather fun, was I did it with a walking sat nav. It's not the first time I've used GPS on a phone for guidance while walking - in fact I've done it when finding my way across cities on foot for years - but what I've always done before is kept my phone in my hands, glancing at the map to see where I should go. This time, I plugged in a pair of earbuds, stuck the phone in my pocket and let the software do the talking. And it worked brilliantly. Ms Google starts me off One essential before getting started on this was to use Google Maps. More often than not I use Apple's mapping app - after its initial teething problems it works fine for most uses, including my strolls around cities. But for the kind

What's the best science-related quote?

I enjoy wheeling out the odd science-related quote, and would be interested to collect more. To be really great, I think a quote like this needs to be pithy, funny... and make you think. Do you have a favourite? (Please ensure they are from a reliable source.) It's hard to go wrong with Rutherford's famous: All science is either physics or stamp collecting. Which is particularly useful to wind up biologists. I am also rather fond of Konrad Lorenz's advice, which rather a lot of scientists could do to consider: It is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a pet hypothesis every day before breakfast. But the one I'll leave you with this morning, which I shall dedicate to cosmologists and string theorists, is: There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.

Science facts and black holes

Chandra image of the black hole (or not) at the centre of spiral galaxy M81 As any regular readers will know, I have a habit of banging on about the nature of science - that it isn't about establishing the 'truth' about reality, but rather about developing models that produce as close as possible results to what is observed, and that these models are inevitably provisional and could always be thrown out as new data becomes available. This not saying 'anything goes' or 'all theories have equal value.' We will typically have a best theory of the moment, and the only sensible thing is to use that until something is established to have better credibility. But it does mean we shouldn't treat our models as certainties. Sometimes when the model suffers a defeat it is patched up - as in the introduction of inflation to the big bang model. This isn't always a good thing as it can lead to epicycles - effectively taking a bad model and making it more an

What to do with a fish kettle

I am always interested in books about autism, in part because like most people with a scientific background,  I share some traits with those on the spectrum. I've previously reviewed, for instance Simon Baron-Cohen's book The Essential Difference , and most fascinatingly, if rather hard work, Richard Maguire's I Dream in Autism . So it was with real interest I agreed to take a look at a copy of Michael Barton's A Different Kettle of Fish , in which he, a physics student with high functioning autism, describes what it's like to take a trip into London. My first opinion was that it is a very slim book at just 80 pages of large, well-spaced print, which for £10 seems a little skimpy. Nonetheless I would recommend it to get some insights into a different way of looking at the world. Our biggest difficulty in sharing the world with people on the autistic spectrum is understanding why and how they see and feel things differently. It is partly about the way we so often

The New Tyson Fight

Neil deGrasse Tyson One of the interesting aftermaths of the Scottish Referendum debate was that I have seen a number of people saying 'A lesson to learn is don't trust the traditional media, get your information from social media.' I know where they were coming from, but there are two dangers here - one is that (even more than watching, say, Fox News) you won't get information you will get propaganda, and the other is that even when you aren't being told what you want to hear by your friends and political allies, a lot of internet sources are unreliable. The Tyson story I want to tell you illustrates this doubly. The Tyson in question is not Mike, but science populariser and astronomer, Neil deGrasse Tyson. I was surprised the other day to hear that Tyson was being pilloried for making up quotes to support an argument. The argument in question is that a lot of people (including many in the media and our elected representatives) are extremely ignorant about sc

What to name your new university town

Once again, the UK has done brilliantly in the worldwide university league tables , with four universities out of the top six. But I was interested in another phenomenon, which I haven't seen reported in the press. Let's imagine you are an up and coming country, building a new university, and you want to rename the town it is in to give the university instant prestige. What should you call it? Look again at that top six and something fascinating pops out. Look at where the universities are located: Cambridge (Mass) Cambridge (UK) London (2=) Cambridge (Mass) Oxford London (5=) Spot anything? So I look forward to a lot of new towns called Cambridge springing up around the world. Image from Hollywood Sign Generator

Sticky fun

I get sent a lot of press releases, most of which go in the electronic bin within 2 seconds. (In some ways I really miss the old days when I used to get paper press releases through the mail, some of which were really creative. Though there was a lot of fuss, as I recall, about one computing company that sent out a release with lots of tiny pieces of paper that flew all over the floor when you opened the envelope. But I digress.) Occasionally, however, I get one worthy of note. This one was about cover stickers for Apple MacBooks (other laptops exist, but apparently they aren't worthy of stickers). Now, I ought to come out straight away in 'Ba, humbug!' mode, because I think stickers look absolutely terrible on laptops. It's fine if you're six, but if you are 16 or older, it's time you grew out of it. It just looks a mess. I don't mind a tasteful shell, but no stickers, okay? However, if you insist on tarting up your beautiful and expensive hardware wit

Come on England, have some pride!

As the Scots go to the polls, I'd like to direct attention back home for a moment. The fact is, there have been some pretty unedifying scenes down here. We've seen political leaders and celebrities begging Scotland not to leave the union. I really don't understand why these people are so worked up. Perhaps they should put some effort into having pride in being English. After all, in the grand scheme of things, England has a lot to be proud of - whether it's in cities and countryside, culture and heritage, literary fields, science or whatever. Take universities. It's interesting that the Guardian reported on Tuesday that 'Four British institutions ranked in top six of world's universities.' This is true - but it's also true that four English institutions ranked in top six of world's universities - because those four were Cambridge, Imperial College London, Oxford and University College London. The fact is that England has around 90% of the

What's in a cereal?

The other morning I was staring at the back of a cereal packet on the breakfast table, as you do, and read the contents list. Nothing extraordinary, until I started to look at the numbers involved and discovered the Nestlé seems to have something in common with the X-Factor. They believe that it's possible to give 110%. In fact there are two significant oddities in that ingredients list. One is the matter of nuts. Because it says that the product (Honey Nut Shredded Wheat, if you must know) contains 10.5% nuts when in fact its only 0.3% - that's quite an error bar. This is because neither peanuts nor coconut are actually nuts. But we'll let them off, because there is probably some sort of convention that allows them to come under this heading. (It can't just because they have 'nut' in their name, as 'Honey Nut Shredded Wheat' has 'nut' in its name. So if that were the rule, the contents should read '100% nuts'.) But the more intere

Central heating and the change in watching position for Dr Who

In a Facebook discussion of the most recent episode of Dr Who (yes, that's the kind of exciting social life I have), Matt Brown expressed (mock?) surprise that people didn't push the sofas against walls in the old days - and suddenly one of the greatest mysteries of the universe clicked into place. It's all about hiding behind the sofa. (If you aren't from the UK, you may need assistance from the Wikipedia page on the subject .) When I was little, I did, genuinely, watch Dr Who from behind the couch (we weren't posh enough to call it a sofa), so that it was possible to hide when it got really scary. And I was not alone. Most of the young nation used to do this. Yet it is a practice that has pretty much entirely died out. Why? I had assumed it was because the yoof of today is far more cynical and exposed to horrors that make Dr Who look wimpish in the extreme. But there was no doubt that this Saturday's episode, Listen , was suitable behind-the-sofa mater

The Room - review

Sorry, games again! But this is the last of the series. After my recent dip into the nostalgia of game playing while reading the book on the makers of Doom , I just had to have a go at a game. There was a temptation to revisit the past and fire up a copy of the Seventh Guest or Doom itself (both available on Mac, though sadly my old favourite, the X-Wing series isn't so I would have make to do with Wing Commander III). And I may still do so, though as I pointed out in the piece on Netflix and games , I'm not sure I could make the time for serious playing time any more. However, while perusing 'best of' lists to see what's recommended on the Mac at the moment, I noticed some 'best on iPad' games and was tempted to spend the enormous sum of 69p on a game called The Room - and I am so glad I did. If you ever played something like Seventh Guest, this is a bit like the puzzles without all the wandering around. The Room limits you to a single table - but on

The Toffler scorecard part 2 - weathering heavy seas

A little while ago I took a step into Alvin Toffler's bestselling 1970 book Future Shoc k to see how its vision of the future has held up. Here's the second instalment. Perhaps the biggest danger was always where science is involved, and in a chapter titled 'the scientific trajectory' we start off with a pair of unlikely projections. The first concerns the oceans. As has often been observed, there are huge opportunities in the sea, particularly as we use up more and more land-based resources - and there is far more space than on the land - so it was common back then, and Toffler falls for it hook, line and sinker, to assume that we would see far more sea-based industry, and even underwater cities. Toffler quotes Dr F. N. Spiess, heard of the Marine Physical Laboratory of the Scripps Institute as saying 'Within fifty years man will move onto and into the sea - occupying it and exploiting it as an integral part of his use of the planet for recreation, mineral

Netflix killed the video (game) star

Thanks to reading Masters of Doom , I've been in a contemplative, and probably rather nostalgic mood about games over the last few days. I've stocked up on a couple of games as a direct result, but my suspicion is that I won't be playing them much. Certainly not as much as I once would have done. Why? There's a simple, one word answer. Netflix. Here's the thing. There are broadly two types of gamer. The teen gamer who builds his/her life around game playing and the adult gamer who plays games when they've nothing better to do. I've primarily been the latter. Apart from anything else, computer games didn't exist when I was a teen. The first time I ever played one was running Adventure on the George III ICL system at Lancaster, but by then I was already 21. Although at my gaming peak I could spend a a good few hours at a time playing (X-Wing and its offspring were particularly time-eating), as an adult, life has always had other attractions and games t

Boldly going

It's a nice coincidence that I recently wrote about Battlestar Galactica , because the whole business of being out there in space is the topic of my latest book which I'm pleased to say is now available. In Final Frontier we discover the massive challenges that face explorers, both human and robotic, to uncover the current and future technologies that could take us out into the galaxy and take a voyage of discovery where no one has gone before...but one day someone will. In 2003, General Wesley Clark set the US nation a challenge to produce the technology that would enable new pioneers to explore the galaxy. That challenge is tough - the greatest humanity has ever faced. But taking on the final frontier does not have to be a fantasy. In a time of recession, escapism is always popular - and what greater escape from the everyday can there be than the chance of leaving Earth's bounds and exploring the universe? With a rich popular culture heritage in science fiction movie

On the road to Doom - review

I was delighted when someone pointed out the book Masters of Doom . It's not a new title, dating back to 2003, but it covers a period that anyone of a certain age with an interest in computer games will regard with interest. Describing the rise and fall of the two creators of id software, John Carmack and John Romero, it is a classic silicon valley business/bio - with some particularly extreme characters. I knew nothing of these people at the time, but reading the book brought on waves of nostalgia as they were responsible for three of the key milestones in gaming history. I was still programming PCs when Wolfenstein 3D came out and I remember being amazed by the effects and responsiveness they coaxed out of the early PC's terrible graphics. By the time Doom and Quake came along, I was reviewing games for a living. Though my personal tastes ran more to the X-Wing series and Seventh Guest, I was stunned by the capabilities of the id games. They were the only first person sho

Is £10 an hour a sensible target for the minimum wage?

I was interested to read that the Green Party of England and Wales is proposing that we should immediately raise the minimum wage from the current £6.50 to a living wage (currently £7.65 an hour outside London) and that by 2020 they say that the minimum wage should be £10 an hour. I am generally in favour of allowing markets to set prices, and at first glance, if someone is prepared to do a job for a certain amount, then it might seem unreasonable to pay them more. But there are good reasons to have a minimum wage at what is, frankly, the very reasonable level suggested as a living wage. Apart from anything else, if someone is paid less than a living wage, then they end up being supported by the benefit system - so that just means more taxes for the rest of us. If someone is doing a job then they ought to be able to live on the proceeds of a reasonable working week. Anything less is close to concealed slavery.  Let's have that living wage  now,  please, government - and why d

The Toffler Scorecard Part 1 - Disposability

My rather battered version of Future Shock Way back in 1970, when the world was very different 'futurologist' (I hate that word) Alvin Toffler produced an immensely popular book called Future Shock that predicted what he believed life would be like in the twenty-first century. In a series of posts I'm looking back at some of Toffler's predictions to see how they've turned out and what that can tell us about then and now. Reflecting the change, particularly in America, that had brought in more and more of a throw-away society, Toffler envisaged a future where this approach was taken to the extreme. Apparently, in 1970 paper dresses were all the rage (I can't say I remember this), and wear-once-then-throw-away clothes were something Toffler assumed would become the norm. I don't know if he lived in Florida or California, but realistically paper clothes were always a non-starter as anything more than a gimmick - certainly in Manchester or Scotland, say.

Scrubs up well

Your great grandma might not have known about phenol - but she certainly would be familiar with carbolic, the harsh soap that included carbolic acid, now properly known as phenol. This simple aromatic compound might have dropped out of our morning cleansing routine (thankfully) but it has more recent roles from the production of aspirin to Agent Orange. Discover more in my latest Royal Society of Chemistry podcast about phenol. Take a listen by clicking play on the bar at the top of the page - or if that doesn't work for you, pop over to its page on the RSC site .


An eyelash mite I had the pleasure of appearing on Radio Scotland yesterday. No, not to discuss the Independence vote, but the matter of eyelash mites. When I wrote The Universe Inside You , which uses the human body as a starting point for exploring all kinds of science from the nature of light to evolution, I just had to include (with a title like that) the veritable zoo of creatures that call our bodies home. Of course I explored the bacteria, which, with ten times as many bacterial cells in the body than human, are pretty impressive. But I also included Demodex, the eyelash mite. These tiny little arachnids - typically 1/4 to 1/3 of a millimetre in length - feed on sloughed skin and sebaceous oil, in effect clean-up scavengers. They are transparent and pretty well impossible to see, mostly living at the base of eyelashes and eyebrow hair. What I said in UiY is that it was thought that around half of adults have them, but the reason they had become news, featured in national