Archive for science

Dark Horizons for Blue Skies

Posted in physics, science with tags , , , , on September 11, 2008 by Philonous

I read and listened today to David King, Chief Scientific advisor to the British government from 2000-2007 saying that there is no space in scientific funding for so called ‘blue skies research’.

Blue skies research is essentially research for curiosity’s sake, trying to gain greater understanding of some part of the nature of reality. As such, it generally has no immediate applications at its conception, although it is responsible for the theories that lie as the bedrock supporting applied science, engineering and economics.

One example of blue skies research is into discovering the very nature of physical interaction in the universe, be it on the grand scale of cosmology or the minute scale of particle physics. The Large Hadron Collider which was switched on yesterday at CERN is a good example of the blue sky. David King bemoaned the spending of 500m pounds on the LHC, saying

“It’s all very well to demonstrate that we can land a craft on Mars, it’s all very well to discover whether or not there is a Higgs boson (a potential mass mechanism); but I would just suggest that we need to pull people towards perhaps the bigger challenges where the outcome for our civilisation is really crucial.”

Coming from a leading scientist, this comes across as patently ridiculous and rather confusing. Ok, so I might be a little biased being a pure mathematician (how much more blue sky can you get?) and feeling as if we’re getting very little funding already. This application driven point of view seems ridiculously closed minded and incredibly short sighted. Particle physics has so far produced such (presumably useless according to DK) devices as the transistor, the computer display, radiotherapy, x-rays… In fact, most of the major advances that characterise the 20th century are due in no small part to spin-offs of particle physics experiments.

Science in the UK seems hopelessly doomed when Chief scientific advisers can be so incredibly anti-science. Given this, it was incredibly gratifying to see David King (above right) berated by Brian Cox (above left), the poster boy of UK particle physics (and a Professor in the High Energy Physics department at Manchester) on Newsnight last night. He put forward the remark that on the one day in which fundamental scientific research is actually covered in the media, it was ridiculous for the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science to be pouring cold water on the achievement.

If you’re reading this Prof King (haha!), I suggest that you quit your job as chief scientific advisor to UBS and spend all of your time tackling climate change before suggesting that blue sky researchers should change their focus and jeopardise modern science in the process.

Check out:

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The Blue man of Beijing

Posted in China, environment, experiments, health, science with tags , on August 29, 2008 by Philonous

Le Fox and I, listening to BBC’s wonderful Radio 4 this morning were rather struck by the assertion by someone or other that China had used various technology to make sure that there woud be no rain during the Olympics. Slightly bemused, I decided to check up what this was all about.

It turns out that indeed, the authorities in charge made sure of good weather artificially using the technique known as ‘cloud seeding’. The basic idea seems to be to introduce various chemicals into clouds which contain supercooled water to form ice crystals which then cause rain. One such checmical is silver iodide (AgI) which apparently has a structure similar to ice crystals and thereby induces so called heterogeneous nucleation. For your viewing pleasure, here’s a demonstration of spontaneous freezing of supercooled (colder than freezing point) water:

It turns out that actually a great numer of countries use this technique to induce precipitation from clouds, either using aeroplanes fitted out with special tanks of silver iodide (or dry ice) or using anti-aircraft guns to fire canisters into the clouds. China spends $90 million per year on cloud seeding, citing an instance in which clouds in Tibet were seeded giving an inch of snow as a major success. Such techniques, as far as I understand are used merely to induce rain to fall from existing clouds rather than to form clouds themselves. In the week preceeding the olympics huge numbers of canons and rockets were used to fire large quantities of silver iodide into clouds abover Beijing. This had the dual consequences that heavy rainfall beforehand meant that the olympics would be rain free and that the ostensible pollution for visitors would be greatly reduced.

It’s a rather natural question to wonder about the environmental consequences of such meteorological manipulation. Looking around on the internet, it seems that high levels of silver are relatively harmless to humans. The only symptoms experienced by people with a high exposure to silver in factories is a series of respiratory problems, mostly caused by powdered form of the silver rather than any chemical reaction. One slightly bizarre symptom of long-term exposure to silver is so called argyria, a condition whereby silver is deposited in the skin of the sufferer, giving them a bluish-grey tint. This seems to mostly affect ingesters of so called colloidal silver, which was widely used as a cure-all around the world. Prolonged exposure leads to such cases as Paul Karason featured below. Indeed, although there is no particular danger to his health, his skin will remain blue for the rest of his life. Apologies for the slightly cheezy reporting style.

Rather more significantly, silver plays an important role in the potassium/sodium cycle in fish by inhibiting the action of a regulatory enzyme. Interference with this cycle causes fish to take large amounts of water into their tissues very quickly leading to cardiovascular collapse.

Though the idea of cloud seeding seems fairly cool in many respects, especially in countries where agriculture is heavily dependent on consistent and predictable rainfall, it seems that the environmental cost to aquatic life at least indicates that some tempering of the process ought to be necessary.

For some more info on the whole process check out these links:

Magnetic Movie

Posted in art, culture, film, physics, science with tags , , , on July 28, 2008 by Philonous

This video is a project from NASA’s artists in residence, Semiconductor. As you may imagine (although it took me a little while to realise) all of the magnetic fields drawn in the picture are computer generated rather than physical streams of particles. Having something of an interest in science myself, I wonder what the aim of this artwork is supposed to be, if indeed it has one. There can be no doubt that these magnetic phenomena are incredibly beautiful in many ways, as is most of physics, but is producing such a movie slightly underselling the real science behind these pretty images? Perhaps not. I must admit being a cynic of the first water, but in my mind, this reminded me very much of videos I’d been shown at school in physics lessons or perhaps on BBC2 as part of Open University programmes. There’s no doubt that this film is diverting, but in this light, it seems slightly odd for Semiconductor to have been elevated to the status of ‘artist’. But then I’m a cynic.

Roots (disambiguation)

Posted in culture, film, Food, history, literature, maths, music, science with tags , , , , , on July 23, 2008 by Philonous

In Euclidean Space:

Let V be a finite-dimensional Euclidean space, with the standard Euclidean inner product denoted by . A root system in V is a finite set Φ of non-zero vectors (called roots) that satisfy the following properties:

  1. The roots span V.
  2. The only scalar multiples of a root α ∈ Φ that belong to Φ are α itself and −α.
  3. For every root α ∈ Φ, the set Φ is closed under reflection through the hyperplane perpendicular to α. That is, for any two roots α and β, the set Φ contains the reflection of β in the plane perpendicular to α.
  4. (Integrality condition) If α and β are roots in Φ, then the projection of β onto the line through α is a half-integral multiple of α.

In view of property 3, the integrality condition is equivalent to stating that β and its reflection σα(β) differ by an integer multiple of α.

The rank of a root system is the dimension of the Euclidean space V in which it resides. Here are examples of rank 2 systems.


In the Plant Kingdom:

In vascular plants, the root is the organ of a plant body that typically lies below the surface of the soil. But, this is not always the case, since a root can also be aerial (that is, growing above the ground) or aerating (that is, growing up above the ground or especially above water). On the other hand, a stem normally occurring below ground is not exceptional either (see rhizome). So, it is better to define root as a part of a plant body that bears no leaves, and therefore also lacks nodes. There are also important internal structural differences between stems and roots. The two major functions of roots are 1.) absorption of water and inorganic nutrients and 2.) anchoring the plant body to the ground. Roots also function in cytokinin synthesis, which supplies some of the shoot’s needs. They often function in storage of food. The roots of most vascular plant species enter into symbiosis with certain fungi to form mycorrhizas, and a large range of other organisms including bacteria also closely associate with roots.

On TV:

Roots is a 1977 American television miniseries based on Alex Haley‘s work Roots: The Saga of an American Family, his critically acclaimed but factually disputed genealogical novel.

Roots was made into a hugely popular television miniseries that aired over eight consecutive nights in January 1977. Many people partially attribute the success of the miniseries to the original score by Quincy Jones. ABC network television executives chose to “dump” the series into a string of airings rather than space out the broadcasts, because they were uncertain how the public would respond to the controversial, racially-charged themes of the show. However, the series garnered enormous ratings and became an overnight sensation. Approximately 130 million Americans tuned in at some time during the eight broadcasts. The concluding episode was rated as the third most watched telecast of all time by the Nielsen corporation.
The cast of the miniseries included LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte, Leslie Uggams as Kizzy and Ben Vereen as Chicken George. A 14-hour sequel, Roots: The Next Generations, aired in 1979, featuring the leading African-American actors of the day. In 1988, a two-hour made-for-TV movie, Roots: The Gift, aired. Based on characters from the book, it starred LeVar Burton as Kunta Kinte, Avery Brooks as Cletus Moyer and Kate Mulgrew as Hattie, the female leader of a group of slave catchers.

In the Charts:

Roots is the sixth studio album by Brazilian thrash metal band Sepultura, released in 1996 through Roadrunner Records. It was the band’s last album to feature Max Cavalera. The majority of the themes presented on Roots are centered on Brazilian politics and culture.

The inspiration for Sepultura’s new musical directon was two-fold. One was the desire to further experiment with the music of Brazil, especially the percussive type played by Salvador, Bahia samba reggae group Olodum. A slight influence of Northeastern Brazil‘s native music is also present in the guitar riffs, especially baião and capoeira music. Another innovation Roots brought was the inspiration taken from the (then) cutting-edge nu metal sound of the Deftones and KoЯn – especially the latter’s debut, with it’s heavily down-tuned guitars.

Roots was released in February 1996 and received with unprecedented enthusiasm. Even the popular press, that usually doesn’t pay a lot of attention to metal records, halted the presses to appreciate the unusual rhythms mixture of Sepultura. American newspapers like The New Times, the Daily News[disambiguation needed] and the Los Angeles Times reserved some space for the Brazilian band: “The mixture of the dense metal of Sepultura and the Brazilian music has a intoxicating effect”, wrote a Los Angeles Times’ reviewer. The Daily News went even further: “Sepultura reinvented the wheel. By mixing metal with native instruments, the band resuscitates the tired genre, reminding of Led Zeppelin times. But while Zeppelin mixed English metal with African beats, it’s still more moving to hear a band that uses elements of its own country. By extracting the sounds of the past, Sepultura determines the future direction of metal”.

Acknowledgements: This post would not have been possible without the untiring effort of all of those kind folk at Wikipedia who are up at all hours of the day and night writing entries.

I’d also like to thank they keys Ctrl, C and V

Acquiring target…

Posted in culture, science, tech with tags , on June 15, 2008 by Philonous

Stalking friends through facebook (hurrah!) I stumbled upon the following bit of Tai Chi for the tech-generation:

my morning ritual
Date: 2004-05-10, 9:56AM EDT I have a morning ritual that I need to share. I
call it “the terminator”. First I crouch down in the shower in the classic
“naked terminator traveling through time” pose. With my eyes closed I crouch
there for a minute, visualizing either Arnold or the guy from the second movie
(not the chick in the third one because that one sucked) and I start to hum the
terminator theme. Then I slowly rise to a standing position and open my eyes. It
helps me to proceed through my day as an emotionless, cyborg badass. The only
problem is if the shower curtain sticks to my terminator leg. It ruins the
fantasy. I think maybe I read too many comic books when I was a kid…

Having returned to my chair from the floor (which I should probably hoover one of these days) I remembered something I’d read recently about research happening at the University of Washington. Forget massive virtual reality headsets from the nineties, forget cinema specs from the noughties, think Terminator style text superimposed on the world – the contact lens display is here.

Ok, it’s not totally here yet, at the moment it’s an array of minute LEDs in a contact lens, but the possibilities are intriguing. These circuts are so small that manufacturing them by hand is impossible. Instead, somehow the team harnesses capillary action to have the components assemble themselves. This to me is a marvel in itself – that a collection of parts can somehow be designed in such a way that it is their very nature to combine in an ordered way is completely mindblowing. This is apparently old hat. The main issue was to make the lens itself biologically inert. To do this, the circuit, which is itself only nanometers thick, is sandwiched between a couple of layers of an inert polymer. Nevertheless, the lens has only been tested on rabbits so far to check for adverse effects.
No doubt this will soon be snapped up by some corporation or other for further investment. In a few years we’ll all be able to play at being Arnie…

The Space Elevator

Posted in science, tech with tags on June 8, 2008 by Philonous

One of my friends many years ago asked me if I’d heard of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. I hadn’t. Being an ardent devotee of science fiction, she had not only heard of him but was a great admirer of his forward thinking work. Here’s a brief run-down:

  • Born 1857 in the Russian Empire, died 1935.
  • Theoretical engineer/physicist/futurist.
  • Substantially self taught, as a result of childhood deafness.
  • Having seen the Eiffel tower (which was the tallest building in the world at the time) dreamt up the idea of a Space Elevator.
  • Wrote the first academic treatise on rocketry.
  • Postulated that in order to acheive orbital velocity, a multistage rocket fuelled by liquid hydrogen and oxygen would be needed.
  • Just generally a man well before his time.

For those that don’t know (and want to), the space elevator is a theoretical device for transporting objects into orbit cheaply without the need for rockets etc. The basic setup is a huge cable stretching from the earth into space. As long as the centre of mass of the cord is at the right distance from the earth, it will stay in geostationary orbit and so remain taught on its own. Check out the picture (taken from here).

The great advantage of something like this is that once buit, it would eliminate the need for rockets when launching satellites into orbit thereby cutting down significantly on costs. The main barrier to the practicality of such a scheme as far as I am aware is one of materials. In order for this to be practical in any way, an incredibly strong and light material would be needed for the tether.

Fear not! Over the past couple of decades, interest in so called carbon nanotubes has exploded. These are allotropes of carbon (like graphite, diamond, buckyballs etc) which have a tublike structure posessing great tensile strength while at the same time being incredibly light. Unfortunately, as with most pipe-dreams, these are as yet impractical on a large scale, being quite tricky to manufacture even in small quantities… Oh well, we can dream (like Tsiolkovsky).

Some links:

Gunther von Hagens (Anatomist)

Posted in art, culture, Manchester, nature, science with tags , , on May 26, 2008 by Philonous

Dr Gunter von Hagens in front of his work (from www.bodyworlds.com )


Today, Le Fox and I were invited, through mere serendipitous fortune, to a question and answer session with the mysteriously eccentric Gunther von Hagens. For those not in the know, the Body Worlds exhibitions have been confronting taboos throughout the world with its sensationalist if not puritanical insistence on public knowledge of anatomical detail since its Japanese inception in 1995. Gunther von Hagens himself is the leading proponent of the concept of a modern renaissance man. He claims:

“The presentation of the pure physical reminds visitors to BODY WORLDS of the intangible and the unfathomable. The plastinated post-mortal body illuminates the soul by its very absence.
Plastination transforms the body, an object of individual mourning, into an object of reverence, learning, enlightenment, and appreciation.

“I hope for BODY WORLDS to be a place of enlightenment and contemplation, even of philosophical and religious self-recognition, and open to interpretation regardless of the background and philosophy of life of the viewer.”

On Saturday night, I found myself in the extraordinary position of inquisitor in a closed session with the progenitor of Body Worlds 4 himself. My question, rather flacidly put, was:

“In your exhibition, you quote Descartes’ Medations on First Philosophy and allude to Vesalius’ groundbreaking discoveries in the field of anatomy, in particular his direct opposition to Galen. Descartes work marked the transition from a scholastic age of philosophy to an age of rationalist foundationalism (and Cartesian dualism), while Vesalius revealed to us fundamental new discoveries relating to that most basic of questions: of what stuff are we made? Where in the history of knowledge do you place yourself, and how do you judge your legacy to future generations?”

Of course, this paraphrased piece of nonsense is a dressed up version of the question I would have asked had my inexperience not entirely paralysed me with a mix of awe and stereotypical British politeness. As it was, I asked a messy question along the same lines but put with much less force and sadly lacking in eloquence. He answered rather obliquely, insisting that personal vanity did not enter into Body Worlds.

A plastinated man


Let me put my opinion on Body Worlds in some context. Initially, spurred on by the widespread pubic fervour, I was convinced by a wily Le Fox that it would be an experience not to be missed to see the public airing of Dr von Hagen’s most controversial exhibition to date. With considerable misgivings and almost insurmountable cynicism, we made our way to the MoSI, as it has been rebranded, to see what there was to see. Once I’d entered the first of the four or five crowded halls, I was struck by an intense feeling of awe, my gaze settling on installations of carefully arranged muscle and connective tissue. There were certainly cringeworthy moments, not least reading Goethe quoted next to ‘Gunter von Hagens (Anatomist)’. (Incidentally, when i put this to him, Dr von Hagens himself seemed noticably to cringe, placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of his wife’s design of the exhibition.)

I must admit however that the my general experience was overwhelmingly one of wellbeing and a greater awareness of the viscera of which we are, as human beings, composed. Interspersed between the deliberately provocative poses were some truly fascinating invitations to medical science and disease. Comparative displays of normal lungs and livers with those of smokers and drinkers were a graphic health warning and seemed to fulfill one of Dr von Hagen’s stated aims of promoting greater body awareness among the general pubic.

The rather disappointing truth is that in order to maximise visitor numbers, Body Worlds must rely on sensationalism for its marketing which paints it as anything but serious science. The meeting showed more than anything that Gunther von Hagens is primarily an academic with a passion for anatomy and its public understanding. The success of Body Worlds has had the unfortunate consequence of his message being subsumed by the publicity machine that surrounds him and the rabid commercialism that inevitably followed.

Check out these links for more: