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The Beauty of Science

March 25, 2011 1 comment

Scientists don’t like pseudoscience because it diverts attention away from the awesomeness of the natural world. The natural world instills a sense of wonder in scientists because of its diversity and complexity.

Pseudosciences hate real science because it points out the how ridiculous their claims are. But many people are more familiar with pseudoscience (bigfoot, UFOs, psychics etc) and it is these pseudosciences which instill their source of wonder in the world. As a result, many people feel scientists “ruin their fun” or “take the wonder out of everything” when we try to explain why these phenomena really aren’t that incredible.

I believe it was Ned Flanders who once said:

Science is like a blabbermouth who ruins the movie by telling you how it ends. Well, I say there are some things we don’t want to know. Important things.

But in fact the opposite is true. Scientists see the beauty in all things. Whether it be a mathematical proof, a chemistry demonstration, or a physics equation. (I have often hear physicists refer to Maxwell’s Equations as “beautiful”).

Maxwell's Equations. You don't have to know what they mean to know that they look cool!

If you read the xkcd webcomic, you know that I was inspired to write this post because of the comic posted today

So just because scientists spend their day in a lab or in front of a computer screen, this doesn’t mean that we can’t appreciate the world around us. We probably appreciate it more than the average person.

It is sometimes said that scientists are unromantic, that their passion to figure out robs the world of beauty and mystery. But is it not stirring to understand how the world actually works — that white light is made of colors, that color is the way we perceive the wavelengths of light, that transparent air reflects light, that in so doing it discriminates among the waves, and that the sky is blue for the same reason that the sunset is red? It does no harm to the romance of the sunset to know a little bit about it.  – Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994)

The Journal of Cosmology Strikes Back

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

So the Journal of Cosmology (JoC) has written a response to the criticisms of Richard Hoover’s paper claiming to have found fossilized alien bacteria in a meteorite.

They begin by stating that they are, indeed, a prestigious scientific journal.

The Journal of Cosmology is a Prestigious Scientific Journal

I dunno, but if you have to say that you are prestigious, then you probably aren’t. It’s kind of like Milhouse Van Houten saying that his mom thinks he is cool, or Ron Burgandy arguing his importance by stating he has “many leather-bound books”.

The paper itself has been very heavily criticized. Scientists at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference this year in Texas, regard it as “a dubious controversy that will do science little good”.

Meteoriticist Edward Anders, retired from the University of Chicago in Illinois stated in Science that

Despite [Hoover’s] generous sprinkling of fancy names, these structures are in a morphological no man’s land,

The blogosphere is responding in a similar fashion (including yours truly), with the consensus being that these claims are at best premature, and at worst they are outright bogus.

So in light of the large number of scientists showing doubt over the quality of Hoover’s research, the JoC felt it was necessary to respond directly to its critics. The title of their response is “Have the Terrorists Won?”

Umm…WHAT!?

You are comparing legitimate scientific criticism to terrorist attacks!? I’m already starting to feel sick, but let’s go further.

Only a few crackpots and charlatans have denounced the Hoover study…Tremendous efforts have been made to shout down the truth, and the same crackpots, self-promoters, liars, and failures, are quoted repeatedly in the media. However, where is the evidence the Hoover study is not accurate?

To paraphrase, the JoC is saying “prove to us its NOT true!” It is becoming abundantly clear that the editors of the JoC are hell-bent on believing this paper and are not willing to listen to any one else’s opinions.

Following the publication of Richard Hoover’s paper, what ensued could be likened to a rein [sic] of terror, a witch hunt, an inquisition designed to crush all discussion of his findings. There were even calls to “hang” Richard Hoover. Three hundred years ago, they would have burned us all at the stake.

Can you say “melodramatic”? The discussions on the legitimacy of Hoover’s work are somehow similar to a reign of terror or the with trials of the 16th to 18th centuries?

The silence is deafening. What prominent scientist would dare to publicly support Hoover’s findings, when they know that raving lunatics will be unleashed to destroy their reputation?

How can science advance in this country if NASA and the media promotes frothing-at the-mouth-attacks on legitimate scientists and scientific periodicals who dare to publish new discoveries or new ideas?

The Journal of Cosmology sought to promote science and scientific debate, but the scientific community is too frightened and terrorized to speak up.

It took courage to publish the Hoover discoveries. The Journal of Cosmology will continue to publish great theories and new discoveries.

The terrorists and the lunatic fringe have lost.

These sound more like the ravings of a conspiracy theorist than the commentary of a “prestigious” journal editor.

Their use of the historical references  in which the scientific consensus was proved wrong is the kind of faulty logic that many proponents of pseudoscience fall victim to. How many times have you heard the anti-vaxxers say that “tobacco was once considered safe”? That doesn’t mean vaccines cause autism, and just because there have been times in the past when scientists were proved wrong, doesn’t mean that every article published in the JoC is right.

Calling those who oppose your views “raving lunatics” and “frothing-at-the-mouth attacks” does not improve the JoC’s credibility, and only shows that they are set to believe this paper, whether we like it or not.

If I may channel the great Ron Burgandy once again: “Stay classy JoC. Stay classy.”

 

World’s Smallest Periodic Table

January 14, 2011 Leave a comment

Engraved on the hair of what has to be the most stereotypical looking scientist ever!

A Remote that Shatters Glass

December 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Wish I got that for Christmas…

Invented by Giuseppe Longobardi, a researcher at IBM in Castellammare di Stabia, Italy, the device would allow a pane of glass to be destroyed with the touch of a button.

The device has recently been patented (“Method and apparatus for remotely activating destruction of a glass window” US Patent #7806310) and could be used instead of a hammer to break emergency glass, or by film studios for special effects.

Image: US Patent and Trademark Office

The device works by using a physical principle called “resonance“. Based on its shape and size, objects will store vibrational energy at a certain resonant frequency. In this way, even small driving forces can create large vibrational amplitudes in the material. In English that means that if you move the object at its resonant frequency, even just a little bit, it “likes” to move at that frequency and will keep doing it.

The remote would be tuned to the resonant frequency of the particular pane of glass in question. When activated, the remote would generate small acoustic signal at that frequency, causing the pane of glass to respond by also vibrating at that frequency. Eventually, enough energy is built up that the glass vibrates at such a large amplitude that it shatters, much like an opera singer shattering glass using their voice.

What Would Happen if You Ran 45 Miles Everyday for 2 Months?

December 1, 2010 1 comment

Route of one TransEurope Footrace. Click to enlarge.

And I get proud of myself when I run 3 or 4 miles. This sure is humbling…

But running 2,800 miles (4,500 km) in 2 months is exactly what a group of a few dozen “Ultramarathoners” do every few years in Europe. Its called the TransEurope Footrace, and I am in awe.

Last year, 44 of the 66 participants in this race allowed themselves to be medically examined through the course of the race, to find out exactly what happens to people who exert themselves this way.

The results were presented at the Radiological Society of North American meeting in Chicago this week. The study was entitled: Longitudinal Follow-up of Changes of Body Tissue Composition in Ultra-Endurance Runners during 4.500 km Trans Europe Foot Race 2009 Measured by Whole-Body MR Imaging on a Mobile MR Imaging Truck-trailer. (Yes, the same conference that had the acupuncture presentation I wrote about yesterday.)

So they followed these runners around with an MRI machine in their truck (!) and through the course of the race took 6 full body scans of the runners and measured their body fat content and muscle volume. The results?

We found muscle mass catabolism also in the exposed muscles of the leg. This occurs in every subject. Over all nearly 34% of nonvisceral body fat has been gone after the race. But there was nearly 20% of visceral fat loss, also.

So they found that 7% of muscle mass in the leg was lost through the course of the race as well.

I’m not sure whats more impressive about this study: that they ran 4,500 km, or that they followed them with a friggin’ MRI machine in a friggin’ truck!

Behold! The Non-Browning Apple!

November 29, 2010 Leave a comment

It’s lunch time. You take a bit of your delicious apple. A colleague asks for your opinion on something, and you forgot about your apple for a few minutes.

When you return to it, you find it has become brown and gross. You throw it away out of disgust.

But its possible this may not happen again, if a new breed of genetically modified apple which doesn’t brown gets approval for growing. A biotech company called Okanagan Specialty Fruits of Summerland (OSF), based in British Columbia, Canada, has developed the apple and believes it will be a hit. Neal Carter, president of the company said

They look like apple trees and grow like apple trees and produce apples that look like all other apples and when you cut them, they don’t turn brown. The benefit is something that can be identified just about by everybody.

He says that the new type of apple will encourage it to be packaged in salads and children’s lunches, helping lead to more healthy eating.

How does it work? Well my biology is a little rusty, but basically what happens is this:

When you pierce the skin of the apple you expose the innards to oxygen. This causes a chemical reaction to occur involving enzymes which create melanin, the same pigment in your hair and eyes, and leads to the apple turning brown.

OSF has licensed a technology from Australian researchers which stops the production of a certain enzyme, polyphenol oxidase, which causes the browning.

It will be interesting to see how this pans out, but it will be awhile. The approval process for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service can take years.

In the meantime, there are a couple of things you can do to prevent your fruit from browning. You could drizzle some lemon juice on it, as the acid helps prevent the enzymes from turning the fruit brown. Also, you could refrigerate the fruit before eating, as the cold temperature reduces the rate of the chemical reaction which produces that nasty brown colour.

We Got Asteroid Dust!

November 16, 2010 Leave a comment

Phew. Gotta clean the dust off my computer. Why does moving have to take up so much time?

Well while I was lugging heavy boxes, there was stuff still going on in the world of science.

Perhaps the thing that got me most excited was that the spacecraft Hayabusa, which I have written about before, has succeeded in its mission!

Hayabusa Spacecraft. Image Credit: JAXA

Japanese researchers announced that the craft has acquired fragments of asteroid dust and returned them safely to Earth.

The craft was launched seven years ago, and in 2005 it landed on asteroid Itokawa. Despite some engine trouble, and the fact that the ball bearing it was supposed to shoot into the asteroid’s surface failed to fire, the craft still managed to collect some fragments of space dust.

Asteroid Itokawa. Courtesy of JAXA

Hayabusa returned to Earth in June of 2010, and we have been waiting anxiously for months to find out if the craft had actually gotten some asteroid bits back for us to study.

How do we know these particles are definitely from the asteroid? The official announcement states:

The mineral phases among the collected 1500 particles, their relative abundance ratios and their elemental compositions agree with a class of primitive meteorite, and they do NOT correspond to any rock type on the surface of the Earth.

This absolutely blows my mind! These guys were able to launch a spacecraft, land it on an asteroid, take off from the asteroid and return to Earth with pieces of it!

I think we all need to take a moment and think what it would be like to be working on this project from the start. Seven long years it took, with obstacles almost every step of the way, and now they find out that it was totally worth it. Kudos these researchers, who are no doubt still out partying in celebration.

Google Celebrates X-Rays!

November 8, 2010 Leave a comment

It is the 115th anniversary of the discovery of x-rays by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen.

To celebrate, Google has put up a ‘Google Doodle’ featuring x-ray radiography.

This is awesome! It gives worldwide attention to one of the greatest medical discoveries in history. Hell, it’s one of the greatest scientific discoveries in history!

I’ve written posts about the history of x-rays, as well as their use in radiography and CAT Scans. Check’em out if you want to learn a little more about this awesome form of radiation.

Happy Carl Sagan Day!

November 6, 2010 Leave a comment

Yup, it’s the second annual Carl Sagan Day; honouring the life and work of the great Carl Sagan.

Not only did his books and TV shows get me interested in science, they did the same for a whole generation of people. In my own little way, I will honour his memory with a few awesome videos featuring Carl.

Mmmmm…apple pie.

The Universe, and every living thing, are made of star stuff.

Maybe we should all celebrate Carl Sagan Day like Sara Mayhew over at There Are Four Lights

Ontario Says “No” to Cell Phone Warning Labels

November 5, 2010 1 comment

And it’s the right call. For two reasons:

  1. There is no conclusive scientific data to support any adverse health risks associated with short, moderate, or long-term cell phone use.
  2. A warning label would serve no purpose, other than to instill fear into the users.

The bill proposed to put a sticker on all cell phones indicating that there could be an increased risk of cancer from using a cell phone. Not only is this unnecessary, but it’s also wrong.

The scientific data overwhelmingly shows that there is no increased risk of cancer associated with cell phone use.

And what purpose would a warning sticker on a cell phone serve anyway? Would any of us stop using our cell phones? Would we hold it further from our head while we talk on it?

Of course not. Eventually we would get over our initial shock and fear of the warning sticker, read all the buzz-word containing media-frenzy stories about the evils of technology, and then settle back into our normal routine. All in all, this was a bad idea to begin with.

But my oh my, look who turned up to give her opinion on this issue. Our old friend Prof. Magda Havas from Trent University. She turns up in just about every story that involves cell phones, wireless internet, power lines, dirty electricity, and many other stories trying to convince us that technology is bad.

So I want to get something straight about why she keeps showing up. Is it because she is an expert? I would argue not. Her Ph.D. is in botany (the study of plants) so I don’t see how this qualifies her to study electromagnetic fields and their interaction with the human body. The list of publications on her website has very few peer-reviewed articles. Instead, it’s littered with “Letters to the Editor” and other opinion based writing. Not a lot of scientific credibility there.

No, she shows up because media outlets try to get both “sides” of the story, even if one side is way off base. Enter Magda Havas, who is one of very few people in the world who believes in electrosensitivity and kids getting sick from wireless internet. There are so few people who think this way, that they keep going to one person on the fringe to get her opinion. It is sloppy reporting, and not indicative of the evidence.

On CSI, Grissom (who was the best character but left, and now I am sad) always tells us to “follow the evidence” because the evidence will lead us to the truth. If we follow the evidence about cell phones, we see overwhelming evidence that cell phones are safe. Why then, do we continue to read about how evil they are?

William Peterson as Gil Grissom. From Wikipedia