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Showing posts from January, 2015

Want a good artificial hip or to pimp your ride? Get titanium nitride

Titanium nitride has a striking gold colouration and is sometimes used as a plating in costume jewellery (and the extravagantly decorated vehicles of Pimp my Ride), where it has all the lustre of gold but is much more hardwearing. It is also frequently found as a coating on drill bits – the chances are if your drill appears golden, it is sporting a titanium nitride finish. Find out more about this simple but impressive compound in my latest Royal Society of Chemistry podcast about the compound that likes to pretend it's an element (TiN).  Take a listen by clicking to   pop over to its page on the RSC site .

What's wrong with 'me'?

The title of this piece isn't a bit of self-centred angst, but rather simple confusion over the way the word 'me' seems to be in the decline. When I was young, if anything the tendency was to over-use me. Teachers would pull up a child for saying 'Sally and me went to the cinema last night.' And that was well and good. Because they also taught the simple rule to try the sentence with just the word referring to the speaker and see if it still worked. 'Would you say "Me went to the cinema," they asked?' Well, obviously not. So we knew it should be Sally and I. Now, though, it seems that a lot of people, particularly the under-40s (which makes me wonder if teachers have stopped using that rule) just take the 'It's not good to use "me" here,' message and chop out the poor little word at every possible opportunity. Sometimes it's the reverse of the problem above. So, the speaker might say 'This is really good news f

Inaccurate information can be worse than none

We live in an information-rich world. With the internet at our fingertips, we can access what we need in moments. And companies are getting better at providing us with useful information and facilities. I heave a sigh of relief when I go to a restaurant's website, for instance, and discover I can book online, rather than go through that exercise of ringing up where you either a) get no answer, b) get an answerphone that doesn't take a message, c) get an answerphone that does take a message, but then are never sure if they took your booking, or d) speak to someone who makes it clear that you have to be an idiot to be making a booking so close to the date, as they are always very busy. This information bounty has even stretched to that bane of life, the home delivery. Time was when you sat in all day on the off chance the delivery driver deigned to call. As it happens, working from home, so I have it easy compared to many people. But even I have problems as most days I pop o

Is biodiversity good for human wellbeing?

I was interested to see on the BBC News site that a link has been shown between biodiversity and human wellbeing. It seems widely accepted that exposure to the countryside is good for most people's wellbeing (though some can't stand it, and I wouldn't want to perpetrate a lazy stereotype), but biodiversity is a whole different kettle of fish. Nonetheless here's a direct quote of the subtitle of the piece on the BBC site: Scientists need to capitalise on a growing body of evidence showing a link between biodiversity and human wellbeing, a US review has suggested. Now, there are several issues here. Luckily (and sadly rarely), the original review paper 'Exploring connections among nature, biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human health and well-being: Opportunities to enhance health and biodiversity conservation' (snappy title) is open source and you can read it here for free . I have three issues: What is wellbeing? I am currently reading for review

The green dilemma

I'm interested in, and care for, the environment - so why do I have so much trouble with the Green Party? After all, I grew up in a good, Manchester Guardian reading household (though admittedly my parents gave the newspaper up when it weaselled off to London). I certainly have issues with some of the party's policies. I objected previously , for instance, to their £10 minimum wage by 2020 target. And their politics is generally too left of centre for me as a default liberal. But there is no party that exactly represents my views, so I had a suspicion there was something deeper - and I have realised what it is. When writing about green issues online, in Ecologic , and also in my latest book Science for Life , I point out a common failing which is letting the emotion behind certain trigger words overcome logic. So words like 'natural' and 'organic' with all their warm fuzzy connotations become equated with 'good' - even though there's a lot tha

Mea culpa on the naming of black holes

Anyone writing a popular science book is likely to make occasional errors. In my experience they happen most often when the writer assumes that a 'fact' is correct based on memory and doesn't bother to check it. Things go downhill from then on. I think it's fair to say that pretty well every book I've written has had at least one mistake in it, and some of them I've perpetuated several times, as once I've made the error, it's in a book... so it must be true. Since I'm now occasionally followed by that scourge of science history inaccuracy Thony Christie , I thought it was best to come clean on an error I've just discovered that I have been repeating for some time - and that's over the origin of the term 'black hole'. I have several times said that the name was first used by the American physicist John Wheeler. To compound the matter, in my otherwise excellent (ahem) Gravity , said that it was in 1969, rather than 1967, but tha

Home Fires - review

Gene Wolfe is possibly my favourite fiction author, full stop. So coming across a book by him I haven't read, in this case Home Fires from 2010, is something of a red letter day. I think it's fair to say that this novel is a minor addition to his works, but welcome nonetheless, with many of the trademark Wolfe characteristics. Arguably there are three different types of Wolfe books. There are his collections of short stories, which can be beautiful and frustrating in equal measure. There are his best-known books, the New Sun series, which to be honest I've never particularly enjoyed, though I know many people love them. And there are his real world (i.e. set in ordinary America) fantasy books, which are the ones I can't get enough of. Books like There Are Doors, Castleview and  The Sorcerer's House . This title, Home Fires is a bit of an oddity as it fits into the final category, but it's not fantasy. (There is another book, Pandora by Holly Hollander tha

One thousand years ago

In case you prefer to read it in the original (actually the first page of the Peterborough version) I feel that the typical 'on this day' or 'what happened a century ago' is far too shortsighted, so armed with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle I thought I'd give you a quick tour of the highlights of 1015. (For more, see  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - Whitlock, Douglas and Tucker) In this year the great assembly at Oxford took place, and there Ealdorman Eadric betrayed Sigeferth and Morcar, the chief thegns belonging to the Seven Boroughs*: he enticed them into his chamber, and they were basely killed inside it. And the king the seized their property and ordered Sigeferth's widow  to be seized and brought to Malmesbury... (Come on, forget Game of Thrones , this is the real deal) At that same time, King Cnut came to Sandwich, and then turned at once round Kent into Wessex, until he reached the mouth of the Frome, and ravaged then in Dorset, in Wiltshire, and in So

Caution - deduction from infinity can lead to madness

I'm currently reading for review Max Tegmark's intriguing newish (well, new in paperback) book, Our Mathematical Universe . It's generally rather good, though it's a bit infuriating that they clearly haven't updated the text to reflect this edition, as Tegmark keeps referring to the image on the front of the book as showing the Cosmic Microwave Background - if the CMB really looks like that, cosmology truly has got exciting again. However, that wasn't my point. Having set the stage with an explanation of the hot big bang with inflation theory, Tegmark begins launching off into the possibilities for multiverses, and there's a lot of deduction from infinity. (If this doesn't mean anything to you, I'll get there in a moment.) Georg Cantor, the great mathematician of infinity, ended up in a mental hospital - you play with this stuff at your peril. What I mean by deduction from infinity is arguing along these lines. If eternal inflation holds, ther

Conspiracy History - review

There are two aspects of this book that might raise a suspicious eyebrow in a potential reader. One is the cover, which is a trifle garish and reminiscent of those local history books you get on holiday in Devon. The other is the idea that, as a book about conspiracy theories, it is going to be all about topics like the Moon landings being faked and Princess Diana being murdered at the behest of the British royal family. I can immediately allay those fears. This slim book is a solidly written collection of historical stories, many dating back several hundred years or more. The lunatic fringe conspiracy theories are mentioned in the introduction, where Andrew May does exhibit possibly excessive open-mindedness by saying that David Icke's theory that the world is run by shape changing lizards is 'probably too far fetched to be true'. But in his historical explorations, which range from ancient Egypt, through a whole raft of British and European kings and queens, to twenti

Have we lost the 15-25 effect?

For decades it has seemed to be the rule that the music we listen to between the ages of 15 and 25 (give or take a few years either way) defines our musical tastes for life. It's certainly true for me - assorted prog rock groups, the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, plus the same basic taste in classical music, serve me still many years later, and if I buy an album these days, it is far more likely to be filling a gap in that oeuvre than anything more trendy. However, it struck me the other day as I listened to one of my 20-year-old daughter's Spotify playlists in the car, that this phenomenon may now be doomed. In the olden days we bought albums, and once we got into an artist, we bought more of their albums. And this continued indefinitely. (Witness the fact that my Christmas stocking contained Al Stewart albums and a Curved Air album.) Now, though, a playlist is an ever-shifting collection of individual tracks. Certainly the download-and-stream generation will have favourit

A different world

It looks a bit like 1955, but the date is actually 1933 I suspect most of us have little family items that we treasure. One that is particularly close to my heart is this - a little, leather-bound booklet that is primarily a list of subscribers to a particular cause - and the opening pages show just what that cause was - my grandad. He played cricket in the Lancashire leagues, and was the professional for a couple of teams, most notably this Penrith side. The position sounds quite glamorous (though the professional was very much the second class citizen among the amateurs), but was actually an act of desperation. The job didn't pay much, but it was better than nothing, and as a mill worker, laid off because of the depression, the alternatives were dire. Even though he'd rather not have done it, my grandfather did look back on his sporting achievement with pride. And even though I have zero interest in sport, I can't help but feel a lump in my throat when I se

So-called embarrassment quotes

There is a usage that is becoming more and more common, verbally and in writing, which I hate. The most frequently used verbal form is 'so-called', and though it can also appear this way in writing, the usual written approach is what I call embarrassment quotes - misused quotation marks. The reference that set me off on this bijou rantette was a comment on the Today programme on Radio 4, when they referred to 'so-called exoplanets'. Exoplanets exist. There is no doubt about this. Yet according to the OED, 'so-called' means 'called or designated by this name or term, but not properly entitled to it or correctly described by it'. In other words, by saying 'so-called' the speaker implies that there's no such thing. Now, admittedly, the OED does qualify this definition by saying 'More recently, and now quite commonly (esp. in technical contexts), used merely to call attention to the description, without implication of incorrectness'

Don't be weedy - hit the chemistry set

Is your garden a touch messy? Chances are you'll be reaching for the weedkiller. Generally speaking we know these more by the brandname than the active chemical, but there is at least one compound that has taken on a life of its own - and that's paraquat. Find out the pros and cons of this controversial chemical in my latest Royal Society of Chemistry podcast about 1,1'-Dimethyl-4,4'-bipyridinium dichloride, as I like to call it.  Take a listen by clicking to   pop over to its page on the RSC site .

No need to panic, Jezza, you don't need to read the instruction book

This is how you do it - with big friendly picture to help I know it's popular for people with more than three brain cells to despise Jeremy Clarkson, but he is genuinely an entertaining writer, and Father Christmas sometimes includes one of his books in my stocking. In the latest, ( reviewed here ) there are a couple of times when he makes a reference to Macs being worse than Windows PCs 'because you can't right click.' Well, I'm here to tell you not to panic Jezza, because you can.  It's true that the very first Macs had a dinky little mouse with a single, big, friendly button and no other option, but that went out with the dark ages. Both the mouse on my iMac and the clicky pad thing on a MacBook are capable of doing right clicks.  'But,' the baffled Jezza would no doubt reply in his trademark 'I don't understand' small boy voice, 'when I do a right click it doesn't work, and being a man, I can't look in the help

Science for Life

I'm unusually excited that my new book Science for Life is now on sale. It's quite different from anything that I've ever done before. The idea is to take on all those science issues we constantly get pumped at us in the media (especially from the Daily Mail and Daily Express ), telling us about a new discovery in science and how it influences in our lives. It could be that red wine is good for you... or bad for you. It could be that there's a new sunscreen you just drink, or that listening to Mozart will make your baby cleverer. What I try to do in the book is both explain the  difference between real science and the media representation of science, and to cover as many different topics that have an influence on our lives as I can. It's divided into Diet, Exercise, Brain, Psychology, Health, Evironment and Fun sections, each containing a host of little articles on all these many topics. And because it's never really going to be finished, there's an

Does 'Arts Funding Bring in £4 for Every £1 Spent'?

I was interested to see, in a moan about the Labour party's lack of intention to reverse Conservative cuts to arts funding, this punchy statement: But does   arts funding 'bring in £4 for every £1 spent'? And just what does 'brings in' mean? The website had picked the statement up from a Local Government Association Press release, which itself referred to a report called 'Driving growth through local government investment in the arts' which referred (keep up) to a 2013 Arts Development UK Report. (Phew.) And here we find that magic number - but it certainly wasn't about what I expected. Saying arts spending 'brings in £4 for every £1 spent' and I suspect most people would think that if you spent £1 of public money on the arts, £4 would flow in either directly from ticket sales, merchandising etc. or indirectly from extra tourism to your town/city etc. That's certainly what I assumed it meant, as did a straw poll I did on Facebook - an

Ten Pieces - opening the world of classical music?

If you have children in primary school in the UK you may find them exposed to something called Ten Pieces at the moment. It's a BBC initiative to promote ten pieces of music to 'open up the world of classical music to primary age children.' What's good about this is that any school (or parent) can download the pieces free of charge (or stream them) here . I've got really mixed feelings about this. Is it a good idea to introduce primary children to serious music (perhaps a better label than classical, as most of these aren't strictly classical)? Absolutely. Can you specify ten pieces that will do the trick? I'm not sure. I think there's a danger of the same sort of problems they have in English when everyone reads the same set texts. What definitely is not good is the way I heard one of these pieces played on the radio (for some reason on Radio 2). The piece they happened to be playing is Zadok the Priest , and the presenter seemed to assumed that

What Could Possibly Go Wrong review

At risk of alienating half my readership, I rather enjoy Top Gear . In fact there was one moment in the infamous 2014 Christmas special that was arguably the funniest moment on TV over the festive viewing (certainly funnier than certain prime time 'comedies'). What's more, if it's possible to take a dispassionate view, Jeremy Clarkson is a good newsprint writer, so I look forward to his books that are made up of collections of his columns. If I'm honest, the pure comment columns are better than the car reviews collected here. Clarkson is at his most excellent when allowed to flow unconstrained, without the limits of talking about a car. Admittedly even in a review he does manage usually to spend about half the word count talking about something else, but when we get to the actual vehicle, it all gets a bit samey, especially as the reader is faced with two years of reviews at a time. Having said that, some of the non-car bits are definitely entertaining, and

A Tale of Two Covers

One lights up the room... the other doesn't Book covers are emotional things to an author. However much we might be encouraged not to judge a book by its cover, the fact is that everyone does. And while some publishers are enlightened enough to give their authors a say in the covers (my UK publisher Icon is particularly good at this), in the end an author is generally at the mercy of the designer and what the publisher is happy with. Generally speaking I've been pretty lucky with my covers, but one has always struck me as a bit of disaster, which was the cover of the Macmillan version of my first popular science book, Light Years . It's dull and murky, and if it were ever face forward on a shelf it would appear pretty much blank if your nose wasn't pressed hard against it. You can see what they were trying to do by spelling out the title with star fields... it just doesn't work. Now I'm delighted to say that that Light Years is being republished by Ico