Monday, October 31, 2005

Pseudoscience - The Wine Clip

I was going to do a little piece on this piece of crap. Then i googled for 'the wine clip review' and found this little gem at Dan's Data. I don't know what Dan does during his off hours, but he obviously knows the rudiments of a good double-blind.
When something that sounds too good to be true and sell for USD40 odd bucks, you'd think you'd invest at least hmmm, 3 seconds seeing if it's worth shelling out any of your precious food tokens. The downloadable video of the taste test should be compulsory viewing for anyone who hasn't heard of a double blind experiment (where neither the tester nor the testee have any idea what the answer is). I've seen plenty of gimmick shows where people can influence your actions just by a phrase or some subtle body language. Even well meaning people have influence tests purely because on some level, they just want it to be true (and give them the result they need for their paper/thesis etc). I especially love the way they turn over only one page during the tasting, you don't need to be paranoid to wonder what's under page number 2.
Yet another example of 'bad' business: when the end result of scamming people out of their cash is exactly the same as doing something real (and possibly hard), it's no wonder there's so much crap out there (but strangely, a never ending supply of people willing to be fleeced...). NZ'ers - don't feel so smug, we can stand proud as having some of the most gullible people on earth being fleeced for their cash right here.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Why you probably shouldn't become a scientist...

Here's a good diatribe about Why You Shouldn't Become a Scientist. It's written by an American professor of Physics and i got to it by way of Information Processing. Sadly, everything he says is true. If i had to give some advice to someone 16 or 17 years of age who was interested in doing science at university it would consist of the following two points:
  1. Spend 4 years getting your 3 yr BSc (it's not a race) and make sure you get good advice on what order to do your papers i.e. if possible do first year physics in your second year after doing a couple of maths papers in your first year - this will allow you to think about the subject matter rather than the squiggly S's all over the board, similarly with physical chemistry
  2. If you want to study a classic science like chemistry or physics, make sure you have a marketable skill by the time you graduate (again, the 4 years should give you plenty of time) - at the very least, be able to competently program in a couple of generic languages, this will put food on the table when nothing else will. Science is a great discipline for analytical thinking but that tends to get you sweet FA job interviews.
  3. If you want to work in the technical field as oposed to the research side of things, engineering is a far better bet and will pay significantly more over your career (at the very least, you get a job by your early-20's rather than you late-20's/early 30's if you do research science)
  4. Regularly look for jobs in your discipline throught your undergrad. This will pretty quickly let you size up the number of grads/year vs the number of jobs they're going for.
Back to the essay, I especially like one sentence right at the end:
The funding agencies are bemoaning the scarcity of young people interested in science when they themselves caused this scarcity by destroying science as a career.
This is directly applicable to the NZ scene. I feel like lobbing a brick at the tv every time i hear yet another politician saying that NZ needs scientists and engineers to help the economy. If you want more scientists and engineers then employ more of them and if they're thin on the ground, start paying more for the ones you have, this is called... what is it?.... oh yeah, A PRICE SIGNAL which you're so fond of using as a panacea for debate in every other issue you sound-bite mercillessly. If you graduate too many sci/eng's, all you get is underemployed and pissed off call centre/office workers/sales reps - read my lips THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A LABOUR SUPPLY SIDE SOLUTION TO BUILDING A TECHNOLOGICAL ECONOMY the government (/industry hahahaha) has to invest in these sorts of skill sets. If there is no reasonable chance of a middle-class lifestyle with a sci/eng degree, over time people will not choose this as a career choice - it's not rocket science, i know because i used to be a rocket scientist.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Google Videos - the good and the bad

Just found out about Google's Video beta. It doesn't seem to have much on it yet but i suspect that will change extremely quickly. The quality is fine for desktop viewing and it streams really well. Once again, these guys do things very very well! Well done Google.
Goggle being google, i of course Googled up 'science' and what did i find but a lovely little piece of creationist dogma from the Harunyahya group. I suppose that Google is crawling for freely available movies on the web and automatically assigning tag codes.
It is actually a very slick production with really cool graphics showing protein synthesis and using the metaphor of a cell as a spaceship granting/denying access to molecules. In fact, if it wasn't for the dogmatic diatribe that goes with it, i would reccomend some parts of it as informative. This is what really bugs me about IDers, they use all the fruits of science and scietists labours and then just cop out at the end by saying "it's really complicated, only God could do that..."
Anyway, if you want to see what the IDers are peddling these days, check it out. While you're watching just try and imagine what it would feel like if you had limited education, a core religious belief and desperately wanted someone to tell you that you are special and aren't descended from a monkey, it would sound extremely compelling. It is the one big downside in studying science that the wonderment you see around you every day (which dwarfs a god of the gaps worship any day) comes only after a long period of dedicated study.

In case you want to skip most of the vid (highly reccomended) here's some highlights:
  1. 1:39 min - science had superstitions 150 years ago, Darwin proposed evolution 150 years ago, ergo evolution is a superstition
  2. 4:23 - the cell is more complex than originally thought and is unimaginably complex
  3. Michael Denton sound bite (author of Evo: A theory in crisis)
  4. 7:00 to 20:00 - A really cool graphics rendition of how a cell works. Delete the sound and use it in an intro biology class. This would have captivated me as a 12 year old (i wonder if that is exactly what they're trying to do...). Trying to show how 'designed' a cell is.
  5. 21:00 - a bunch of scientists who don't agree with evolution
  6. 21:30 - Michael Behe talking head shot for about a minute. Cool, i've never seen MB in action before. Now i know what priests looked/sounded like during the dark ages.
  7. 23:10 - Who could the creator possibly be??
  8. 24:50 - The Human Eye. Once again, delete the sound and look at the cool graphics.
  9. 26:40 - We suck compared to the eye
  10. 34:50 - "Things Evolution Can't Explain"
  11. 35:12 - Creation is done by a creator. God is the creator yada yada yada
  12. >35:15 - Fade out with Koran quotes and lots of cute furry animals doing CFA things.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Fuel Cells in the News

There's a brief article on the herald website today about fuel cells (how come it's on the website but in the paper? is web grammer dictated or does it evolve?). Fuel cells are my area of expertise so i guess i should be excited to see that they're mentioned in the news but alas, the Herald fails to meet my incredibly low standards for NZ MSM science reporting. What does a good science article include? At a first glance:
  1. Outline why this sci/tech thing is being researched at all
  2. Give a reasonable guide as to how it works, liberal use of analogies at this point is not just helpful but probably mandatory
  3. Feel free to point to other sources of information i.e. that webby thing that everyone keeps harping on about
Sad to say, i think the herald failed on all 3 points. Here's a near paragraph by paragraph list of their miserable failings:
  1. Why is Cannon developing an alternative to batteries? Don't know, the story didn't point this out.
  2. Fuel cells are like batteries but they are not batteries and a phrase such as "fuel-cell batteries" is just stupid.
  3. "Fuel-cell technology mixes hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity". No they don't. Not even close. Mixing hydrogen and oxygen is always, ALWAYS a very bad idea. Fuel cells work by a far more subtle, and dare i use the word, elegant method that does not burn the fuel but still ends up with the combustion products (this has prompted me to write a post on fuel cells so i'll address how that happens soon)
  4. Skip the next two paragraphs, neither of these explain why fuel cells might be an attractive product for Cannon to develop, this must be the adver-tainment section.
  5. "While most of the development of tiny fuel cells is currently focused on devices that derive hydrogen from methanol, Canon is working on a system that supplies hydrogen directly from a refillable cartridge. ". This paragraph is actually coherant and not immediately false.
  6. "Canon's system would be more environmentally friendly because fuel cells that extract hydrogen from methanol emit some carbon dioxide as a byproduct. Fuel cells that use only hydrogen do not". False or at best misleading. You don't go out and pick up hydrogen off the beach, you have to make it, it is an energy carrier not an energy source. Using hydrogen at the point-of-use is merely displacing the emmissions of CO2 to the place where it was made/extracted from other molecules like natural gas or coal. Jeez, if i could just change one thing about reporting fuel cells, it would be this...
  7. "The Tokyo-based company has developed three prototypes. One is relatively large and would likely be used in a compact printer, another is the right size for a digital camera, and the smallest is about 3 cm by 4 cm for tinier mobile devices." I nearly gave this paragraph a tick until i realised they only give 2 dimensions for their smallest one. is it 3x4x300 cm?
  8. "Fuel cells promise longer battery life than existing lithium-ion batteries but there are several hurdles on the road to commercialization.". Fuel cells aren't batteries. This statement is analogous to 'cars with petrol can go further than electric cars', true but only if the car has more petrol than the electric car. fuel cells need fuel continuously on demand and don't store it in advance like a battery hence, depending on how much fuel you have it may last longer, the same or less than a battery. Oh yeah, WHAT HURDLES?? Don't you think this might be interesting? Would you get away with saying 'The NIH thinks curing cancer is a good idea but many hurdles remain'? Good grief, science loves problems, that's all it does on a daily basis, surely anyone reading this far into the article would appreciate an idea of what the big problems are? (hint: they run at about 100 degrees Celcius and emit hot steam, how does that work for consumer electronics??)
  9. "Canon has not yet decided on how to sell the product, but would likely refill the hydrogen cartridges at Canon outlets.". I'd say that's the least of its problems.
So on a score out of 10, this article gets 1/10 and thats only because 3 (non-essential) paragraphs were spell checked and not demonstrably false. Good grief, memo to Herald editors:
Dear NZ Herald,
Please stop publishing press releases as science articles or at the very least tag them as such. While you're at it, please hire a reporter that has a science degree and can at least look up technical issues in Wiki.
Oh yeah, don't assume all you're readers have a reading level equivalency of 12, feel free to sprinkle in something informative, well researched and shock/horror, that may require a little effort on their behalf.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Spam spam spam

I didn't think when i started this that i would end up spending as much time as i do on deleting spam comments... i'm getting a couple a day now, whodathought the greatest communications medium ever invented (being invented) would be used to hawk cheap crap to countless strangers?

Friday, October 21, 2005

Literal Thinking Skills

or: Why Scientists are either Amusing or Annoying Depending on your Tastes
I just read a post over at Learning Curves and i thought her rejoinder to the question:
"have you lost weight?"
"i've had a hair cut"
was pretty funny until i wondered whether she was just being polite and wasn't implying that the only weight she had lost was the mass of her hair. I was wondering, what are other piss-take replies could a scientist use? A couple of oldies and a couple that i came up with...
  1. No, i gained some height
  2. No, the rest of the universe has it somewhere
  3. No, i'm just practicing moving slower than normal
  4. No, i'm sure i'll find it again when i eat more than i excercise
  5. No, the moon and planets are specially aligned today
Unfortunately, if you're really unlucky, they'll deliver a small lecture on the procedure including, but not limited to, dragging you over to a computer screen so you can see the results laid out in all their digital glory while they rail against all manner of quack therapies and the media in general and scientific illiteracy is why there aren't enough jobs in science so what's the point anyway...

Thursday, October 20, 2005


I just found this via Reddit. It is very, very cool. Stephen Wolfram is a classical math-sci prodigy writing his first quantum physics paper at about 15, even Richard Feynman described him as amazing. For the last 25 years or so, he's been building the, and i mean 'the', mathematical tool of choice for scientists and engineers - Mathematica. I don't know a matrix from an operator but everyone i've ever met that uses maths heavily loves this program (with MatLab being the other that i know of...).
For the last 10 years or so, Wolfram has been investigating the emergence of complexity from completely known 'rules', he was so excited about this that he wrote a book to collate his findings called 'A New Kind of Science'. He's obviously not confused about how significant he thinks this stuff is. When i read it, i couldn't make head nor tail out of it and i didn't understand how you could use it to calculate anything (and to be fair, that might have been in the second half of the book but at 1000 odd pages, that takes real dedication). As i understand it now, one way to investigate things is to just 'mine' the universe of rules that exist and find one that does what you want, a sort of computational qubit experiment.
Anyway, WolframTunes is a simple looking little website that generates music ringtones based on these computations. You'd think it'd be pretty dull but i found myself getting hooked on the blues section. It's hard not to push save when you hear something you like since the chances of finding it again by chance are, literally, zero....

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Thoughts on Computers

Found this image on the web a while ago and drafted up a blog entry and then promptly forgot about it. i'm trying to at least get my drafts published rather than hidden.
This guy had some interesting thoughts on how a user actually experiences a computer app, but to be honest, i just really like the above image ;-)

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Bird Flu

Well it seems as though this is the new media scare story of the month. New Scientist has a pretty good review of what is going on but even they can't resist speculating on billions of deaths. How scared should we be? A few things to throw around:
  1. These things are deadly, no two ways about it. The 1918 flu alone killed more people than 2 world wars put together.
  2. The flu virus is constantly mutating, there is nothing overly special about this year relative to 20 years ago.
  3. Lately, those mutations have led to a very deadly human flu that luckily doesn't have a human-to-human transmission route.
So my brain asks the question "how many mutations have to happen in a row for a harmless bird flu to turn into a pandemic human flu?". I have no idea and i suspect that most experts have very little either, after all, this question can only be answered with a complete understanding of genetics, proteomics and all sorts of other stuff i've never heard of.
Let's say it happens in two parts; first a deadly-to-humans part and secondly an easy human transmission part. It would seem that half the problem is now done but what are the chances that the next bunch of mutations are going to add transmission and not cripple the deadly aspects? Remember, mutations are random, there is no conscious direction to evolution; the only selection that occurs is whether the random mutation gives rise to a benefit that creates more of that gene - normally by reproduction but in a virus it would mean better infection and production.
So where does that leave us? Almost back at the beginning - A really deadly flu virus that has a small chance of occurring.
Should i worry about it? Personally, i can't see anything that we can do at this point, we are where we are because we didn't do things differently for the last 25 years, hence don't worry, its a waste of time. If it's going to happen, it's going to happen.
All the hype about anti-virals sounds like window dressing to try and make us all feel as though we have some control.
Should we accept this going forward? Now that's an interesting question all on it's own and i think the answer is as bleak as it is simple - Governments focus on problems that are easy to see. Large death counts from remote chances are not things that get a lot of long-term govt funding. We do need to understand what mutations are needed to turn a normal bird flu into a pandemic killer and create a vaccine against all flu virus's (viruses?) and that will be a worthy objective for 25 years but the cynic in me suspects that when this crisis passes, there will be another one, real or imagined, that will seem just as urgent and bird flu will fade into the background.
A last thought to help you sleep at night - even if the chances of rolling a 6 on a die 25 times in a row is 3x10^-20, if you have 3x10^20 people rolling dice, it'll pop up very, very quickly.... evolution is a glacial, constant, and irresistable force of biology, NEVER bet against it over the long term.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Chemistry and Maths

I was just having a look at Ruminating Dude who is trying to understand why senior high school kids can't rearrange a 3 variable equation with 2 knowns to find the answer. There are loads of these in chemistry:
  • finding the density of something (or more commonly, if you know the density and know how many grams you want, what volume do you need)
  • calculating the number of mols of something
  • calc the concentration
  • energy of a photon of light
to name just a few. In fact, it is a little surprising just how many 3 variable equations there are in science given that there could be any number, i am thinking of a half dozen more as i type this...
Anyway, teaching grad students (and a visiting academic from a country/institute that shall remain nameless) the intracacies of the perfect gas law is something that always does my head in. This is one of the most useful equations in chem and physics and relates pressure, temperature, number of gas molecules, temperature and a constant of proportionality in a simple little equation: PV = nRT.
This equation is so important, it is derived for you in any elementary physics class and was a key player in the 'all stuff is made up of other really small stuff called atoms' debate in the 19th century (18th?). So this equation has been bouncing around in their head for 4-5 years of tertiary education yet they are unable to re-arrange the equations to see the pressure change given a rise in temperature or the volume expansion needed to reduce the pressure by xyz etc. I am not going to try and convince you i am a maths genius, plenty of teachers and professors would eagerly convince you it's not my strong suit, but it is strange this education thing, that two students can go through the same system yet one of them, for all intents and purposes, is functionally illiterate. And i can assure you, once you hit post-grad, no-one is going to hold your hand, tell you how wonderful you are and give you an A+ cause, well, you tried just so darn hard.
What's the point of this rant? I see these sorts of things as a symptom of 'future eating' to coin a term from Michael King (?) in his history of NZ. Rather than eating your food source, not telling students that they aren't keeping up is burning up a) your intellectual capital and b) destroying your credibility and c) being brutally unkind to the students themselves. It can take decades to build a reputation of quality but it can be destroyed in a fraction of the time if you take the student fees, pass everyone and to hell with the long term costs.
This is part of the problem with bums-on-seats funding for uni's. I have seen departments 'getting rid of the maths' for over a decade now so that undergrads wouldn't be frightened away. My physics class at Auckland Uni even renamed the thermodynamics section Thermal Physics, not cause it was different, they just thought the T-word might scare away the students.
What is really annoying as a chemist is that after years of ignoring maths because i could, finding out that it wasn't such a good idea and re-doing it after hours is that: the maths isn't that hard. Its hard mainly because it's taught by professional mathematicians who are trying to build little mathematicians. Once i was old enought to write in an exam 'don't know, don't care' and just do the bits i thought were interesting and useful, maths became a lot more fun and, most importantly, far less intimidating.
So i guess the point of this rant is: just because something is hard, doesn't mean you should ignore it (that goes for the student and the teachers/lecturers!) and conversely, if it is hard but it is important enough, you just have to do it anyway (and teachers/lecturers, fight for this a lot harder than you seem to be doing).

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Opportunity Cost of Science

It is extremely difficult if you've got wads of cash to decide who you should give it to. Economists have concepts like 'opportunity costs' to try and estimate how much doing something will cost you or converesly what not doing might cost you. I think its easier to just think about it in terms of a bet/insurance policy. What are my odds of payback? Does the payback justify the cost of the bet? Is this the best thing i should be spending my money on?
Science funding is particularly tricky because most of the time the big breakthroughs come from the places you least expect - this is often used by mediocre researchers to justify their research i.e. "nobody thought messing around with soot would lead to buckyballs, hence you should give me a million dollars to build my perambulator 3000".
Into this cesspool of biased opinion and vested interest i am going to throw 'manned space research'. Note the use of the first word: i think building robots that land on mars and outperform their life expectancy by 3-5 times is exciting and worthy of the deepest kudos, peering into the furtherest expanses of space hunting for clues on the origins of the universe is a defining pinacle of humankind but lobbing a couple of glorified chimps a half-dozen miles off the surface of the earth so that we can then read media reports of their lunch and observe the effects of microgravity on crystals/ants/seeds (hint: sweet FA) is cheap theatrics at best, a marketing exercise designed to bleed more money from the gummint at its worst. Why oh why is China following in the footsteps of the whitest of white elephant projects even NASA can't jettison?? Is this a global pissing contest? I mean let's get serious people, China is growing at a fantastic rate and it is highly likely that a lot of the best research this century is going to come from China/India, why is China wasting its precious research funding on manned space flight? Surely they have mouths to feed, environments to care for, diseases to cure and energy to provide???
Every billion you spend in one place is a billion less somewhere else...
For some truely awe inspiring reporting check out New Scientist where you can learn such fascinating trivia as:
In the Shenzhou VI mission, the two crew members can shed their bulky space suits in the orbital module, take turns resting in sleeping bags, and have use of a toilet.

They can also warm their meals, which include 50 menu items including beef with orange peel, rice and strawberries. But the reduced gravity means they will have to forego the use of chopsticks in favour of forks and spoons.

I mean good grief, the only thing left is a survivor/big brother website where we get to vote one of the taikonauts into an airlock. Marketing hype 1, real science 0

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

'Premium' Content - A Flawed Cost/Benefit Analysis?

I have mentioned here before that i think charging people to see the op-ed pieces in the NZ Herald is a dumb idea and has been mentioned at plenty of other places as well (i'd do one of those trackback thingys but i haven't figured out how to do it yet...). I found a chart on Reddit that shows the readership of the NY Times op-ed'ers such as Paul Krugman and Thomas Friedman. I used to skim read these guys on a fairly regular basis - not because i agreed with them all the time, i just like to challenge my own assumptions regularly. Obviously, as soon as i had to pay to read them, i found other, free, op-eds or blogs to read that i rated highly ('highly' normally means well-written and at least superficially rational arguments). Is this good for the NY Times? i don't think so, whereas a good op-ed piece might help me to believe that maybe a company isn't completely staffed by idiots and hence catches my eyeball regularly for the all important ad revenue, now i completely ignore it: there's plenty of other information out there.
That's what really annoys me about 'premium' content, you're killing your one, valuable internet resource - dependable viewer repetition. Smart sites should be able to use this to tempt you into other (revenue generating) parts of the site or unobtrusively advertise useful things/info to you (and i don't mean annoying pop-ups that cover the damn story...). Heck, even the demographic info i provide to view content has value (a bit like a bar of gold has value...) to a company that they should be able to use.
For this reason, i believe that op-eds and corporate blogs should be analysed/promoted in the same way as traditional advertising budgets (and no, i'm not saying corporate propaganda, those blogs won't fare well in the short term anyway). The single reason marketing depts exist in companies is to boost market share/revenue. The normal (crap) way of doing this is to assault you with TV ads and boring billboards or worst of all, direct snail-mail spam in the misguided hope that 'mind share' will magically translate into revenue.
Why don't they use op-eds/blogs? The metrics are easier to measure, actually mean something and may shock/horror, allow you to start seeing your customers as potential 'partners engaging in a fair transaction to mutual benefit' rather than suckers that need to be seperated from their cash ASAP before someone else does it. To analyse op-eds as 'only' a potential revenue stream is a flawed assumption. It is not reasonable and is downright foolish. I would hazard a fairly predictable downturn in reader numbers for the Herald's op-ed section with time and so they should - the Herald is competing with every other news website on the planet for my time, YOU HAVE TO EARN IT!!

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Science is a process...

Grr, my reactor sprung a leak today during my experiment. So much of experimental work is wrapped up in trying to get the routine things to be, well... routine. You'd expect science to be a matter of reading the literature, poking some holes in other people's papers, designing the expts to prove your point and hey presto, a couple of weeks/months later, the results you need to craft a good solid publication. Alas, it seems as though most of my time is spent making sure my gas chromatograph is working, my system is repeatable and if neccesary, make the decision to pull it all apart and double check everything. I'm not sure where i read it but someone said 'i love the sound milestones make as a whizz past them', its a fair description of most scientific work, its impossible to plan sometimes because you keep getting blindsided by stuff that shouldn't be a problem! You also get nailed by stuff you didn't even know was an issue, but thats kinda fun... The trick is to work out a system/process that lets you see mistakes happening and if a mistake can happen again, figure out a test to catch it before you waste a couple months of your time chasing a red herring. Every scientist should have a toolkit of these sorts of tricks for their discipline, building your toolkit is part of what the studying is for.
Hence the title of this post, you have to enjoy doing science, not just the end result. I think it's a little like playing an instrument, the good players are usually the ones who enjoy practicing or playing the instrument with their friends for their own pleasure, the outcome is kinda incidental to the act.
I also found out i am supervising a group of second years in their phys chem lectures in a week or so. It's kinda depressing to read the questions, know that you knew how to do these once but have now forgotten and then realising that at the age of 32, it's been 14 years since you did stage II phys chem... i see a few hours revision in the near future.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Debating Science

There's a saying "you can't reason someone out of something they didn't reason themselves into". I think it was attributed to Francis Bacon, but i can't be sure. Believe it or not, this saying explains more about media science 'debates' than just about anything else.
When i started this blog, there were 3 things that i knew i'd end up talking about, not because i wanted to but because they are the media darlings of controversy (real or imagined) and hence are bound to get a lot of column inches. As you might guess, these 3 topics are:
  • Genetic Engineering
  • Global Warming
  • Intelligent Design vs Evolution
The reason i don't want to spend much time on these:
  1. The rule of thumb mentioned at the beginning of the post pretty much destroys the 'controversy' of intelligent design, evolution is the best explanation science has for explaining the natural world, as such, it is what gets taught in science classes - deal with it. If you want to believe in God, do it in a church. There are ad nauseum websites with tireless workers explaining why science does not have a problem with evolution, i recommend Pharangula and the usenet talkorigins archive. According the rule of thumb mentioned, there is no way scientists can win this 'argument' with creationists since they aren't part of the process that arrived at this conclusion. The main objective of scientists, i believe, is to quarantine these beliefs so that they reside where they belong - sunday school, church and personal beliefs.
  2. Science isn't a democracy. Einstein blew every other physicist out of the water with his 4 papers published in 1905 (i hope you've at least heard of the centenary somewhere!?), not because he was more famous (he was an unknown at the time) or because he had the biggest research budget (none of the papers had an experimental result in them, they were purely theoretical) but because he followed a standard procedure: publish in journals that other scientists read, clearly state what you think is going on, propose experiments that can disprove your hypothesis, repeat. However, for every Einstein, there are 10,000 wannabees. You may disagree with the consensus (the 2005 Nobel in medicine was given for just such a heretical opinion becoming orthodoxy) but the chances are massively against you being right, and when you're betting everything you own (and what you don't own!), odds are the consensus is closer to the truth than the fringe. This is where i slot Global Warming. It may be wrong, but i don't think ignoring it and hoping it will go away is a credible response. Having said that, there are opportunity cost considerations on how to spend research funding which i think are valid but when you can do so much with so little effort (low power light bulbs, smaller electricity generation closer to demand, increase fuel efficiency of cars, let price signals actually get to the consumers), it would seem recklessly irresponsible to not do anything at all. Yes, i'm talking to you Dubbya and Deputy Johnny, history will judge your administration harshly. You didn't reason your way into this position and we can't reason you out of it. Our only hope is to reason your voting public to accept that 4% of the world consuming 25% of its resources is a tad unfair and may actually be a very, very bad thing...
  3. Genetic Engineering. There is no 'life force' that makes DNA special. It's just fiendishly complex chemistry. I don't think 4 cells with potential to become human are human. Hence splice and dice till your hearts content, i want cures to debilitating diseases NOW. The precautionary principle is nice but fiendishly tricky to narrow down unless you start thinking in terms of risk/reward. Until anti-GE protesters start demanding 'the chances of xyz must be less than 1/million' or some such, we aren't going to get anywhere. Most opposition to GE, at its core, isn't due to reason, its due to a belief of some sort. I can't reason you out of that position.
Anyway, thats where it stands at the moment and it will be the prism that any further postings on these 3 subjects will be viewed through. If you don't agree with me, feel free to take me to court, demand that your view (and only your view among thousands) is taught alongside mine to any of my students in order to 'show the controversy' and thus let the students decide.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

The 2005 Nobel prize in chemistry has just been announced for work on metathesis reactions (to sound extremely knowlegable, pronounce it me-THAA-thiss-iss with the last two syllables pronounced like you would say 'thistle'). Wiki has a good intro to the subject, assuming you have had about 5 years of uni chemistry.
Basically, molecules are built using the basic building blocks of the universe, atoms, by sticking them together in various ways. There are lots of rules about which atoms stick to which others and how many connections each atom can have, but at a basic level you can imagine atoms as being like lego blocks with molecules being a bunch of them stuck together (in a very precise way!). Breaking molecules apart and having the same atoms rejoin in another, controlled, fashion is extremely difficult, especially for organic compounds which can have a mindbogglingly high number of possible permutations. The whole of biology at the DNA and cellular level hinges on controlling which bonds are broken and remade, so coming up with a new way of doing these sorts of reactions is a big deal. The Nobel was given to acknowledge the invention/development of a way of breaking and re-making carbon-carbon double bonds, a very useful and important type of chemical bond.
The Nobel was given to 3 people, the first was the guy that came up with a way of doing it at all, the second was a guy that took the results of the first guy and made enough modifications to make it practical i.e. you could expose it to air without blowing yourself up, and the 3rd guy took it from the lab to the production scale. All up, a very nice spread between the pure and the applied. Conratulations to the recipients.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Nobel Prize in Physics

The nobel for physics has just been anounced for contributions to quantum optics. I'm not going to describe quantum physics here ('cause i barely understand it myself) so i'll just link to the Nobel Prize website that describes their work. Tomorrow is the chemistry prize, can't wait...

Monday, October 03, 2005

2005 Nobel in Medicine - Congrats to the Aussies!

I had planned on writing spending some time researching and adding to the excellent piece on MRL mice that Pharangula mentioned a few days ago. These mice were bred for larger size and then someone noticed that the holes that get punched in their ears for identification were gone. Somehow their ears had regenerated. They tested this in an extreme way, by simulating a heart attack and then watched as the mice's (is this the possessive of mice?) hearts regenerate with almost no scar tissue. Pretty cool huh?
But no! i just read at the New Scientist website that a couple of Aussies in Perth have just got the Nobel Prize for their pioneering work in proving the link between bacteria and stomach ulcers. Apparantly these guys were laughed at miserably for many years while they tried to prove their case, one of them even going so far as to infect himself and then cure himself using antibiotics. The article has a pretty clear hint that some big players in the Big Pharma industry that made drugs to treat the symptoms of stomach ulcers, weren't too happy about a possible cure coming along. Anyway, hard to believe after a couple of hundred years the medical profession is still having a hard time with 'germs as the cause of disease' and a big Well Done to Barry Marshall and Robin Warren for their brilliant work in the face of extreme prejudice.