Posts tagged "science"

Making An Impact

science geek
Those of you who follow my ramblings on Twitter as well as on this blog will have witnessed me get very over-excited by an online comic called 2D Goggles, or The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. This elicited high levels of geek squee from me because it combines: a) Ada Lovelace, one of my scientific heroines; b) Charles Babbage (see a), substituting hero for heroine); c) Victorian steampunkery; d) Brunel (swoon); and best of all, e) copious interesting historical notes by the author of the comics, Sydney Padua, following each part, with some fascinating information about Lovelace, Babbage and the whole scientific and engineering ‘scene’ of the 19th Century. Continue reading →

The Kate Bush Conjecture

science
People may complain about the BBC (I certainly do from time to time), but one of the joys of a public service broadcaster is that they can produce shows which would never survive the hurly-burly, lowest-common-denominator world of commercial broadcasting. The Radio 4 programme More or Less is one such programme. It's about numbers, mathematics and statistics, and — while mathematics is certainly not my strong point, and I view statistics as a necessary professional evil — I love the show. Continue reading →

iPhone version of Papers

science
I'm a very keen user of Papers, the Mac software for collecting and organising a collection of journal articles and their associated PDF files. It never fails to impress colleagues when I pull it up and do a quick search to find some paper we've just been discussing. Now I won't even need to be in front of my computer to impress them, because Mekentosj have just released a version of Papers for the iPhone. Continue reading →

Aurora photography

science
I came across some spectacular photographs of the Aurora borealis on Astronomy North. I've been fascinated by the Aurora since I was a child, and it's a long-held ambition of mine to actually see it in person at some point (borealis or australis, I'm not fussy about my Auroras). I've been in Scotland a couple of times when there has been a brief display, but I missed it both times, which really annoyed me. Continue reading →

Royal Institution Christmas Lectures 2008

science
I've really enjoyed this year's Royal Institution Christmas Lecture series -- 'Hi-tech Trek: The Quest for the Ultimate Computer', given by Prof. Chris Bishop. For readers outside the UK, this is an annual lecture series on some aspect of science, primarily intended for children. I've watched some of the lectures in other years, and they are sometimes a bit patchy. However, I thought that Chris Bishop did a fantastic job of explaining quite difficult concepts, accompanied by the requisite number of explosions, feats of dare-devilry and maths problems disguised as magic tricks, and yet he avoided the trap of patronising the audience. Continue reading →

LHC

science
Like many other people, I was following the events surrounding the switching-on of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN yesterday with great interest. The BBC has had some quite good coverage, particularly The Big Bang Machine, however I felt a bit frustrated with some of the explanations. On all of the coverage of the LHC we learned that: It is 27 km in circumference It is cooled close to absolute zero (about -271°C) Twin proton beams will be accelerated to speeds very near to the speed of light The protons will then be collided, resulting in them being "smashed apart" This will recreate conditions as they were very shortly after the start of the Big Bang Detectors will record incredibly short-lived products of the collisions, looking (among other things) for the theoretically postulated but never observed Higgs boson. Continue reading →

Barefoot walking

science
This is something I meant to post about ages ago, but forgot about. Via Denyerec, I read an article which suggested that going barefoot is healthier for your feet. It's a long article, but an interesting one, and confirms a suspicion I've had for a long time that shoes -- even sensible ones -- constrain your feet and make you walk in an unnatural way. The conclusion seemed to be that heavily padded shoes make people plant their heels down much harder than they would with bare feet, thus placing more stress on all the joints of the leg. Continue reading →

Thinking with Tinderbox

science
I've been trying to write another grant proposal recently (a seemingly Sisyphean task for academics), but I ended up a bit stuck. It was a collaborative idea that a colleague and I sketched out last year, but which -- for one reason or another -- ended up on the back-burner for a while. I was really struggling to pull it together. We had plenty of ideas, but I was having trouble rearranging and grouping them into a sensible structure and seeing gaps that needed to be filled. Continue reading →

Twitching

science
I took part in the RSPB Garden Birdwatch today, and spent an hour noting down the maximum number of each species of bird visiting the garden within the selected hour. As well as being quite fun, and a good way of encouraging people to notice the bird life going about its business in their gardens or local parks, it's also a scientific exercise, gathering important data about the temporal and geographic changes in species numbers. Continue reading →

Quantum mechanics

science
Quantum mechanics blows my mind. No matter how many times someone patiently explains (usually with the help of ping-pong balls) that it is possible for atom-sized objects to exist in two places at the same time, or to be both a particle and wave at the same time, I end up saying, "Wha... Bu...?" and looking gormless. Inside my head, my inner Scotty^1^ yells into an intercom "The engines cannae take it, Cap'n! Continue reading →

Lecturing

science
Lecturing is a strange thing. I've been doing it for a while now, but I'm still learning a lot. I gave my last undergraduate lecture for the academic year today, so I've been reflecting on the process. Despite the fact that you are -- ostensibly -- just standing at the front and talking (with the occasional bit of laser pointer waving), it involves a surprising degree of parallel processing. I don't use notes during lectures, but I do make sure that the text on the slides is detailed enough to prompt me with points that I might not remember on the spur of the moment (this also helps students on the handouts, or course). Continue reading →

Reading and writing tools: Papers and Scrivener

science
I've been playing with a couple of new software tools recently which are designed to help with either the reading (Papers) or writing (Scrivener) process. Papers is available as a 'public preview' and so has a number of rough edges, while Scrivener has reached a highly polished version 1.0, and has been rightly lauded by many people including Merlin Mann. Papers (which Saltation put me on to -- thanks!) is designed to be an iTunes-like interface to your reading material, and is slanted towards academics. Continue reading →

Birds of Paradise

science
I sometimes amuse myself in idle moments by trying to compile a list of my 'Desert Island Animals' -- those animals I would most like to watch (not eat!) if stranded on a desert island devoid of other life. It's always very hard to choose, but collectively, Birds of Paradise often rank highly (choosing among the Birds of Paradise, however, is nearly impossible). So I was delighted to see some excellent footage of several species on the 'Jungles' episode of Planet Earth. Continue reading →

Hairy crab

science
This is all over the place at the moment, but this newly discovered hairy crustacean is so cute that I had to link to it. Even its name is adorable: Kiwa hirsuta. Appropriate too. But am I the only one who thinks that it looks like a distant albino cousin of the Hug-in-a-Mug blue Hug Monster?

What do points mean?

science
Prizes, obviously^1^. But aside from that, I wrote nearly a month ago about David Seah’s Printable CEO; it's a system for tracking your progress by assigning more points for completing things that progress your career the most. I've been using the sheets to keep track of the things I've done for about a month now, and I decided that it was about time to draw some graphs and have a look at the pattern. Continue reading →

BSAG revisited: Look out! It’s the flesh-eating beetle larvae!

science
[First published 09/01/2003] This week's bravery award goes to the camera people involved in the "Omnivores" episode of The Life of Mammals. First there were the grizzly bears. Big, hungry grizzly bears. I feared for the cameraman on that one, not to mention David Attenborough. I was on the edge of the sofa shouting, "Look behind you - there's a big hungry bear!" David's such a pro that he carried on with his effortless, unruffled delivery while, barely 50m behind him, half-starved bears galloped about after salmon. Continue reading →

Open science

science
I've nearly finished the book The Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin by Francis Spufford^1^. It's a very involving book, and beautifully written. Francis Spufford manages to explain some rather complex concepts in a simple and engaging way, without 'dumbing down', and he captures the characters of the people involved very well. The chapter on the British Rocket programme ('Flying Spitfires to Other Planets') was very interesting, and I won't quickly get rid of the image of Ray Dommett — one of the main people involved in Britain's nuclear defence programme — taking part in Morris dancing in his spare time: Continue reading →

Suckered

science
Several weeks ago, the Plecostomus fish in our tank at work died (it seems to be a difficult time for fish), and the tank has been getting progressively more obscured by algae growing on the glass. Plecostomuses (or perhaps Plecostomi?) feed on algae by scraping it off with their sucker-like mouths, and are ruthlessly efficient at keeping the tank clean. David has a nice picture of his pleco, George, doing just that here. Continue reading →

Because you're an idiot

science
There's a great article in Thursday's Guardian in Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column about the kind of pseudo-scientific jargon you see on beauty products. I quote: Our noble bad science spotter Carl Brancher sends important news of PO2 Contour Cream from Laboratoires Herzog: it's a "patented stabilisation of oxygen within a cream" that "puts oxygen back into the skin, reoxygenates skin cells, encourages natural rejuvenation". It sounds like bollocks; but it smells like peroxide. Continue reading →

Buddy, can you spare a pipette?

science
I read a somewhat depressing article in the Independent yesterday about the upcoming strike action by AUT members over pay. It reported that 2,000 teaching and research staff are leaving UK Universities every year because of the poor salary levels compared to those in other countries (particularly the US, where salaries are about 50% higher). Most people don't go in to academia for the money (fools!); they love the job and accept job satisfaction and slightly more freedom to do what they find most interesting, in exchange for lower pay. Continue reading →

Galileo’s Daughter

science
I watched a very good documentary yesterday, based on the book "Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel. It was a very interesting glimpse at Galileo's character (the word 'arrogant' springs to mind), and the rather touching relationship he shared with his illegitimate daughter, Maria Celeste who had been cloistered in a convent since the age of 13. It's slightly frustrating, because while her letters to Galileo have been preserved, his to her haven't survived — probably because the convent was a bit wary of keeping letters from a convicted heretic. Continue reading →

Field trip - Part 2

science
You might want to read Part 1 before you start this entry. Or perhaps you don't like linear narratives, in which case, read them in any order you like. The other main activity on our field trip was small mammal trapping and radio-tracking. One of the best ways of estimating the population of animals that spend much of their time hiding, or being otherwise rather inaccessible, is a 'mark-recapture' scheme. The theory goes something like this: Continue reading →

Field trip - Part 1

science
At the weekend, I heard an interview with a family who make and use bat detectors and rescue injured bats, on John Peel's Home Truths. It reminded me of a field trip I went on when I was an undergraduate. At Bristol, there were Botanists, Zoologists and Biologists (like me) all in the same department, but the Botanists went on different field trips to the rest of us. Their course T-shirts read "Botanists have all the best trips" superimposed on a picture of a marijuana leaf. Continue reading →

Ee’s ‘amstair!

science
Mr. Bsag was trying to remember the proper term for baby hamsters this evening (I forget why), and--embarrassingly given my profession--I couldn't remember either. We hit Google for an answer, and in the course of our search, found the World's Cutest Hamster Picture here. This little smasher is a Djungarian hamster (Phodopus campbelli, also erroneously known as a Siberian hamster--"Ee's no rat! Ee's 'amstair!"). The males of this species show extremely unusual behaviour for mammals; they act as midwives to the females, pulling the babies gently out of the birth canal, and cleaning off the placenta to clear their airways. Continue reading →

Go-go-go cart

science
My Sunday early evening treat is watching Scrapheap Challenge (and Andromeda, but that's a guilty pleasure). This week's challenge was a particular treat — the teams had to build a jet-propelled racer. If you've never seen a jet-powered go-cart zooming down a dragster track, then — by crikey — it's about time you did! The cognitive dissonance involved in seeing something that looks like a shopping trolley making a sound like a 747 on take off nearly killed me. Continue reading →

Beware of the duck

science
While watching the Stephen Fry comedy quiz "QI" last night, a rather striking question came up: "Which has been responsible for the most human deaths--the nuclear bomb, or ducks?" Of course, phrased like that, it was fairly obvious what answer they were looking for, and it was not going to be the obvious one. But I was still rather surprised; ducks, it seems were the primary vectors of the Spanish 'flu pandemic in 1918-1919, which is thought to have killed around 30 million people worldwide. Continue reading →

Kingdom of the Lizards

science
Drawn by the promise of footage of keas^1^ in the trailer, I watched a programme about the natural history of the islands around Australia. In the course of describing the arc of islands from the north of Australia to the south-east, they passed over New Caledonia, which perked up my attention while I was waiting for the keas. I always knew that it was a very small island, but it isn't until you see it on a satellite photo relative to the huge bulk of Australia, and even the smaller swathe of New Zealand, that you realize what a tiny speck of land it is. Continue reading →

Party trick

science
{width="190” height="80”}In the pub on Friday night, someone in our group came up with a great party trick. He's a bona fide Egyptologist, and was getting lots of requests to write people's names out in hieroglyphics. You can see the translation of my name to the left. If there are any other Egyptologists in the house, I've just blown my anonymity. Or you might be thinking that 'get bent' is a funny name for a woman. Continue reading →

Channel 5 in interesting documentary shock!

science
Channel 5 seems to be determined to disguise its informative documentaries cunningly with copious amounts of schlock. Exhibit A: earlier in the week I watched a documentary called "Killer Squid Attack". That title could only be made closer to the Channel 5 archetype by inserting the word 'Nazi'. I suppose that I could try to claim that I knew all along it would be interesting, but the truth is that I just thought it might be funny. Continue reading →

Kagu

science
Let me tell you about the time I met a kagu. In case you've never seen a picture of one before, the kagu, Rhynochetos jubatus, is the national bird of New Caledonia, and was extremely endangered in the early 1980's, getting down to about 60 or 70 individuals in the world. The kagu is the only surviving representative of an entire family of birds which was once endemic in New Caledonia. Continue reading →

Freediving

science
There was a little piece in the Life section of The Guardian on Thursday about Tanya Streeter, who broke the world freediving record this week. I've had a passing interest in freediving since watching the Luc Besson film, 'The Big Blue', so I was curious to read more about Tanya. It seems that she has a slightly freaky physiology, which makes her ideally suited to freediving. Simon Donoghue — a physiologist at Oxford University — measured her blood oxygen level while she held her breath for five and a half minutes (five and a half minutes! Continue reading →

Sex and the Scientist

science
There's a report in The Times covering a study done by Satoshi Kanazawa studying the age of peak achievements for high-flying (male) scientists: In the study, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, Satoshi Kanazawa, of the University of Canterbury, examined the biographies of 280 great scientists. He found that 65 per cent of the mostly male researchers had made their biggest discovery before their mid-thirties. Their "productivity curve" follows almost exactly that of male common criminals, whose illegal activities peak in late adolescence and early adulthood. Continue reading →

Time travel

science
I've just watched a fun documentary on Channel 4: 'The World's First Time Machine'. It was rather dumbed down, but this — as it turned out — was just as well, because this branch of physics can explode the brains of the unwary (it nearly did with mine, anyway). They had some of the clearest explanations (no doubt very simplified) of the 'great-grandfather paradox', parallel universes, and how Superman could save Lois Lane that I've ever heard. Continue reading →

Excitement for tortoise lovers

science
Just when I thought that nothing exciting ever happens in our neighbourhood, I saw an interesting sign outside our local community centre: "British Association of Tortoise Keepers Open Day". Woo-hoo! Pretty soon, hordes of happy tortoise owners were turning up with cardboard boxes — with holes cut in them, of course — containing their treasured pets. One particularly large tortoise was given a run around on the playing field, which it evidently found utterly thrilling. Continue reading →

Rapid evolution of human genes

science
There's a very interesting article in Nature this week by Jared Diamond about type 2 diabetes and the evolution of 'thrifty genes'. The idea is that the genes predisposing people to this form of diabetes persist in the population because they have some selective advantage. One hypothesis is that these genes have an advantage in 'feast-famine' conditions, allowing people to gain weight rapidly and lay down a lot of fat in infrequent periods of plenty so that they are then more likely to survive the subsequent famine. Continue reading →

Orange-scented birds

science
According to the Life section of the Guardian this week, crested auklets (Aethia cristatella) use scent to signal attractiveness. Apparently they smell strongly of tangerines. Interesting. I've never encountered a bird smelling of oranges before, but it's a little known fact that barn owls (specifically the back of barn owls' necks*) smell lovely. I can't really describe the scent, but it's subtle, powdery, musky and quite addictive; tricky when you don't have ready access to a barn owl supply. Continue reading →

Graphs and graphic design

science
I bought Edward Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information last week. I'd never heard of the author before, but saw this book referred to in several places and got curious. Apparently the book got into Amazon's top 100 non-fiction books of the last century. Since a lot of my work involves presenting quantitative information in papers, seminars or lectures, I thought it might be interesting. The book is a wonderful exploration of what makes an attractive, accurate and efficient visual presentation. Continue reading →

Flippin’ magnets

science
I was watching a program on Channel 4 yesterday called "Magnetic Flip"* yesterday, when Mr. Bsag wandered in some time after it had started. Him: "Oh, so what's the looming disaster that will destroy the Earth this week?" Me: "We're going to lose the Earth's magnetic field, and then all our atmosphere and water will get blown away into space by the solar winds, and we'll all be very dry toast. Continue reading →

Life in the Guardian

science
I'm starting to like the new 'Life' section in Thursday's Guardian. There are some interesting articles, like a piece entitled, "What does it take to cut off your own arm" about the climber who did a DIY amputation with a penknife. The answer was — not surprisingly — a lot of guts. The whole story made me feel sick just thinking about it. The 'Bad Science' column is also a lot of fun. Continue reading →

“So what is it you do, Professor?”

science
Sometimes you can't make this kind of stuff up: Prof. John M. Gottman has been using non-linear mathematical modelling of spousal conversations to predict divorce. (The title of the Chronicle piece is absolutely inspired!) This comment particularly caught my eye: Biologists, who by definition don't like math — they're people who like science but didn't want to study math, right? — have been resistant to mathematical biology, and often wonder whether the equations give you anything more than a redescription of what you already knew from common sense. Continue reading →

Exceedingly big birds

science
Moas. Big birds — very big birds. I've just watched a BBC program with the dreadful title Monsters We Met. This seems to be the latest programme of a genre I call "We-spent-thousands-on-that-CGI-how-can-we-reuse-the-footage?". The programme itself was mostly not particularly good, unless you wanted to play the 'spot the re-used clip' game, but the moas caught my attention. To be honest, they couldn't really help but catch my attention, though — as we'll see later — they would have been better off if they were a little less conspicuous. Continue reading →

Friday science links

science
I'm a bit late with this one (what the hell — the human genome has been around a few million years I'm sure it can wait a bit longer), but the final sequence of the human genome project has been produced. I read one of the most lucid and well-argued accounts of what this all means (or rather doesn't) at Idlewords: and he's not even a biologist! It's well worth a read. Continue reading →

Physics

science
[Tuesday 18th March] Even though I understand how it works, flight always amazes me. When you're sitting in a 747, thundering down the runway, it's always something of a surprise when the thing gets off the ground. Like a magic trick, knowing how it works just impresses you more. Mind you, taking off is the easy bit -- all you have to do is balance a few tonnes of aeroplane on the rear wheels to get a bit of a draft under the wings, get up to 330 mph, and hey presto, you're airborne. Continue reading →

Lovely beetles

science
When I was looking for a picture of a particular species of beetle yesterday, I came across this wonderful site, full of exquisite photographs of beetles. My favourite is this fantastic, metallic number. A little tip: any beetle with a species name which includes gloriosa, sumptuosa, pulchra or resplendens is likely to be a bit of a stunner. Any mention of beetles always reminds me of JBS Haldane's famous quote: Continue reading →

Eewww

science
This is amazing and horrifying at the same time: a young lad has had his partially-severed head sewn back on. Successfully. [via ext|circ]

I’m H A P P Y…

science
Apparently, I'm 78% happy. I reckon that more than ¾ happy isn't too shabby: happy enough, but still with things to strive for. Or something.

<span class=&#8220;caps&#8221;>CGI</span> anatomy wonders

science
"The Life of Mammals" has been a consistently great series: wonderful photography, innovative discoveries of animal behaviour, and sparing — but highly effective — use of [CGI]{.caps}. I thought the sequence in yesterday's program where David Attenborough stood inside the skeleton of a blue whale, while the internal organs were built around him, was superb. There are some things that you just couldn't do any other way, and it seems to me that getting an idea of the sheer titanic scale of the blue whale (heart the size of a small family car, 10 tonnes of blood) is one of those things. Continue reading →

Look out! It&#8217;s the flesh-eating beetle larvae!

science
This week's bravery award goes to the camera people involved in the "Omnivores" episode of The Life of Mammals. First there were the grizzly bears. Big, hungry grizzly bears. I feared for the cameraman on that one, not to mention David Attenborough. I was on the edge of the sofa shouting, "Look behind you - there's a big hungry bear!" David's such a pro that he carried on with his effortless, unruffled delivery while, barely 50m behind him, half-starved bears galloped about after salmon. Continue reading →

The Science of Discworld

science
I've just finished reading "The Science of Discworld" by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. The book alternates chapters based in Discworld, where Ponder Stibbons has created a miniature cosmos called "Roundworld", and chapters in which the science of our own world (from the Big Bang to the present day) is explained. I have a confession to make. I'm a biologist, but I don't really like reading popular science books for fun, or indeed any non-fiction. Continue reading →

Tiny fluffy kittens

science
Ever since I saw the link on Plasticbag.org, I've been hoplessly addicted to watching Kitten Cam . I've spoken before about my weakness for cute fluffy things. This, added to the fact that I really like cats, but can't keep any because I live in a rented flat where pet ownership isn't allowed, makes the Kitten Cam as addictive as crack for me. I keep telling Mr. Butshesagirl that I'm "just going to have a quick look at what the kittens are doing". Continue reading →

Shrew train

science
I've just watched this week's "The Life of Mammals". It's just not fair. I can lecture about animal behaviour until I'm blue in the face, and the students won't remember it. But I'll bet you a million pounds that they'll all remember the shrew train for the rest of their lives. To be fair, the quality of the filming is superb, and there's nothing like David emerging from the undergrowth somewhere to catch your attention (note to Mr. Continue reading →

Open ocean

science
I'm currently reading "The Science of Discworld" by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen. It's a really fun and surprisingly thought-provoking book, using Discworld as a model to discuss important issues in science in our world ("Roundworld"). I might write a longer post on it later when I finish it, but one quote in particular (about Unseen University on Discworld) struck a chord: "A university is very much like a coral reef. Continue reading →

Tetris is hard

science
According to a report in Scientific American, researchers have found that Tetris is actually a very hard problem to solve. One of the authors of the original report, Erik D. Demaine, said: "While you're playing Tetris, you're really solving hard problems" This totally validates all that time I spent bashing away at a monochrome version of Tetris on my old PowerBook 100 when I should have been writing my thesis. Hey, I was training my mind! Continue reading →

Blondes have more fun, red heads suffer more pain

science
Apparently it's true: red-haired women needed 20% more anaesthetic than brunettes. Mr. Butshesagirl is a ginger-nut, so now he knows why he hates going to the dentist. He was also very proud when it was reported last year that the gene from red hair is at least 10,000 years old, and may possibly have originated in Neanderthals.