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Procrastination and Present Bias

28 October 2010 Comments off

Here’s a brilliant article that explores and explains why there’s a difference between the things we want to do later and the things we actually do later:

The Misconception: You procrastinate because you are lazy and can’t manage your time well.

The Truth: Procrastination is fuelled by weakness in the face of impulse and a failure to think about thinking.

Netflix reveals something about your own behaviour you should have noticed by now, something which keeps getting between you and the things you want to accomplish.

If you have Netflix, especially if you stream it to your TV, you tend to gradually accumulate a cache of hundreds of films you think you’ll watch one day. This is a bigger deal than you think.

Read the rest of the article here: Procrastination by David McRaney

Now, not later…

You have to see Cosmos now, if not sooner

30 July 2010 Comments off

When I first visited the US in 2005, I couldn’t believe my luck when I saw the DVD box set of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage sitting on the shelf in Fry’s. It featured an introduction by Ann Druyan (Carl’s widow), where she discussed how much of the work was still accurate, an addendum after each episode to highlight changes in knowledge and understanding, and was going for US$100 (~£65). I grabbed it without a second thought.

I’d have happily paid twice that for this 13 hour masterpiece on DVD. I value it that much.

While idly paging through Amazon’s Recommendations to me at lunch time today, I saw a re-mastered version of this box set had been released to the UK market. And the price: under £16. That’s for a box set containing 5 DVDs and 780 minutes of one of the best scientific, philosophical, optimistic and future-thinking works of the 20th century.

If you don’t have it, do yourself a favour and buy it now: Cosmos DVD box set (Amazon UK).

And while you’re there, please give some thought to Wonders Of The Solar System on DVD format or Blu-ray format (Amazon UK; under £13 and under £16 respectively). In my opinion, Brian Cox is the worthy successor to Carl Sagan as a brilliant communicator of science, particularly astronomy. Even his sense of wonder and awe at the majesty of the universe is the same.

Watching either of them at work is inspiring.

One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue II

25 July 2010 Comments off

Following on from my previous quote from Cosmos, here is another quote. This one is talking about the paradox of the complexity and simplicity of a cell:

If we plunged through a pore into the nucleus of the cell, we would find something that resembles an explosion in a spaghetti factory — a disorderly multitude of coils and strands, which are the two kinds of nucleic acids: DNA, which knows what to do, and RNA, which conveys the instructions issued by DNA to the rest of the cell. These are the best that four billion years of evolution could produce, containing the full complement of information on how to make a cell, a tree or a human work. The amount of information in human DNA, if written out in ordinary language, would occupy a hundred thick volumes. What is more, the DNA molecules know how to make, with only very rare exceptions, identical copies of themselves. They know extraordinarily much.

Yet again, the final sentence strikes me as a wonderful turn of phrase, particularly as I read everything Carl wrote with the memory of his voice and its peculiar tempo playing in my head.

The Human Genome Project was only half-way through mapping the human DNA when Carl died in 1996. The Project ran from 1990-2003 and, just as we once did with hieroglyphics, we are still only just tapping the surface in deciphering what it means nearly ten years later (also see the extensive Wikipedia entry). Since this initial, mammoth breakthrough, many more donor genomes have been sequenced — it seems to be a growing industry.

And as for Carl’s estimate of the size it would take in print form, the original genome has subsequently been printed into 119 bound volumes, containing all of the three billion base pairs. Though I imagine it would make rubbish bedtime reading…

Categories: science Tags: ,

One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue

12 June 2010 Comments off

I’ve recently begun reading Cosmos by Carl Sagan (Amazon|UK), which is well overdue since the accompanying TV series has been my favourite piece of television since I was in primary school.

While reading Chapter 2, “One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue,” where he’s talking about evolution using his work with Nobel laureate H.J. Muller (discoverer of X-ray mutagenesis) and Drosophila melanogaster fruit flies as an example, a paragraph just jumps out at you:

The secrets of evolution are death and time — the deaths of enormous numbers of lifeforms that were imperfectly adapted to the environment; and time for a long succession of small mutations that were by accident adaptive, time for the slow accumulation of patterns of favorable mutations. Part of the resistance to Darwin and Wallace derives from our difficulty in imagining the passage of the millennia, much less the aeons. What does seventy million years mean to beings who live only one-millionth as long? We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.

What a magnificent turn of phrase. It sums up what we know of artificial and natural selection, underlines the breakthrough of its realisation, and wraps it into a beautiful philosophical illustration.

Knowing the TV series as I do, I’m looking forward to many more stand-out pieces such as this during my journey through the Cosmos, as it were. If you’re good, I may even share them with you…

Ben Goldacre on the Placebo Effect

14 February 2010 Comments off

One of my personal heroes, and author of the mind-blowingly brilliant and easily understandable Bad Science, explains what exactly is the placebo effect:

Ben Goldacre – The placebo effect

If you are not familiar with Ben Goldacre and/or are interested in finding out more about his work, here are some good places to start:

Ben is a magnificent communicator of science, health and logic-related concepts in a manner than can be understood by anyone, and he’s very active in the skeptical scene — including speaking at the inaugural TAM London last October and a recent appearance on Robert Llewellyn‘s often fascinating CarPool video podcast — though seems loathe to label himself as such. (Perhaps he’d prefer we consider that our realms of interest often coincide).

Hat tip to the always awesome PodBlack Cat.

Homeopathic overdoses are homeopathically dangerous

30 January 2010 Comments off

Today is the day of the worldwide homeopathic overdose that originally started with groups of skeptics throughout the UK — the 1023 Campaign — planning a protest (or a demonstration, in the literal sense of the word) in front of a high street pharmacy chain against their insistence on selling homeopathic products, despite repeated scientific analysis and practical demonstrations proving they are no better than the placebo effect.

I had arranged to attend the Oxford Skeptics in the Pub event due to take place near Radcliffe Camera, but — despite getting everything prepared last night, including programming my satnav for a carpark near the event — I forgot to set my alarm. I admit it: I am an idiot.

So I dropped an email apology to the organiser and prepared to ‘overdose’ at home… without the homeopathic protection of homeopathic medical services against this homeopathic act of homeopathic self harm. Homeopathically dangerous, I’m sure you’ll agree.

At precisely 10:23 this morning, I broke the seal and emptied the contents of my pre-purchased container of “30c Homeopathic potency of Sepia officinalis” — as it says in bold red lettering on the label — into my camera’s lens cap and then swallowed it all (minus the lens cap) in one sugary, children’s sweets-like gulp, washed down with a few mouthfuls of water. It’s now some time later and I’m feeling homeopathically ill, the world is homeopathically spinning around me, and I think I may homeopathically pass out anytime soon. Or put another way: I’m typing this blog post while drinking a nice cup of tea, and considering making myself a late breakfast. I am, by all accounts, homeopathically dead.

And while I couldn’t quite work out how to take photos while in the process of swallowing the sugar pills, I did take some. Behold! The mighty power of the sugar pill!

Pics 1 & 2: Note the therapeutic indications line in the second image.

 

Pic 3: Every pillule emptied into my camera’s lens cap.

 

Pic 4: Oh look, it’s 10:23! We know what that time means…

 

Pic 5: All gone! Sweet sugary goodness… and utter pseudoscientific bollocks.

 

You only have my word to go on that I committed homeopathic harakiri today (although my cat witnessed it, I’m not sure she’d be suitable to give testimony), but in this article alone I have provided orders of magnitude more evidence of me swallowing these pills than exists for the efficacy of homeopathy. I did indeed swallow them all in one gulp, and it’s over 90 minutes since I did so and the world (or my world, at least) has not ended. And I paid £4.99 for the privilege.

If you think that homeopathy has helped someone you know, then neither of you understand the importance of the placebo effect. Please learn about it — it’s a very real effect with measurable positive results. Ultimately there is no direct harm in taking homeopathic products (as all 1023 campaigners have proven today), but there is harm in taking these products instead of seeking medical advice. Particularly if they have an ailment where earlier diagnosis can make the difference, or affect long-term health or even life. They may feel better taking these pills for a little while, but eventually even they’ll stop working as the problem gets worse and by then it may well be too late.

But I’m not trying to convince you of anything that’s not provable or measurable. Do your own research and come to your own conclusions — even if a thousand or more skeptics around the world ‘overdosing’ on homeopathic products isn’t enough to convince you (for some Twilight Zone reason). Perhaps pick up a book by an actual scientist and medical doctor, and examine what research they’ve done to research their conclusions. I’d highly recommend Bad Science by Ben Goldacre (Amazon or Amazon UK), as it’s very readable, full of information (including this topic), and it’s all supportable by evidence.

 

Update: Thanks to Antony, we have some video footage of the the Oxford event:

1023 Homeopathic Overdose – Oxford

Update 2: Courtesy of Science, Reason and Critical Thinking, we have some video footage of the Southampton event:

1023 Southampton

Update 3: Richard Saunders, Skeptic Zone ringleader, and Sydney skeptics have some footage of the event in Sydney, Australia:

ten23 Homeopathy Protest – Sydney 2010

Update 4: Courtesy of Kylie Sturgess, footage from my home town’s skeptical group, Perth Skeptics:

The 1023 Event with the Perth Skeptics

Update 5: And now the walls begin to fall. The New Zealand Council of Homeopaths has just admitted that… Homeopathy: There’s Nothing In It! It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the homeopathy industry worldwide admit the same or begin circling the wagons. Either way, the truth is now public knowledge and we should see less of this:

Homeopathy: There’s nothing in it (Oxford)

25 January 2010 Comments off

Many news outlets of the less credulous persuasion are talking about the upcoming national (UK) protest against the household name of Boots the chemists who happily sell homeopathic products even though they are aware there’s no proof they work.

As the Director of Professional Standards for Boots himself said:

There is certainly a consumer demand for these products. I have no evidence to suggest they are efficacious. It is about consumer choice…

On one level I can understand the free market, capitalist ideal of “There’s a market for it and people are willing to buy, so what’s the problem?” The problem, of course, is that some people who are seriously ill will turn to expensive tap water instead of seeking actual medical advice or treatment.

‘Natural selection,’ you may cynically retort… but now imagine that person is your grandmother.

As the legendary Tim Minchin says in his excellent beat poem, Storm:

You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.

It’s as simple as that. Unless you’re some kind of conspiracy nut (“they are hiding the truth”), a deluded fool who thinks reading a few pseudo-scientific layman blogs qualifies you to know more than proven, peer-reviewed science (particularly meta-analyses of methodologically-reliable scientific studies), or think you have an open channel to some kind of supernatural force.

If you’re not familiar with the ‘theory’ of homeopathy, it consists of finding an agent that, when swallowed, generates symptoms that resemble the patient’s symptoms (e.g. food poisoning and Ipecac Syrup both induce nausea), dilute it to the point where there’s statistically no chance of a single molecule of the agent remaining, banging it a specified number of times to shake it up, and then believing that such super-dilution magnifies the healing properties, because it somehow remembers the life force (or something) of the original agent. Again, I refer to Storm:

Water has memory! And while its memory of a long lost drop of onion juice is infinite, it somehow forgets all the poo it’s had in it!

Homeopathy is magical thinking based on poor science, logical flaws and unsupported assumptions. It’s water. I suspect the two main reasons that homeopathy is so popular is because its methodology sounds similar to the principle behind vaccination (a small amount of an antigen is given, allowing the body to generate antibodies) and because major, trusted retailers sell it alongside actual medical treatments.

And this last point is what the 1023 Campaign in the UK is addressing:

At 10:23am on January 30th, more than 300 homeopathy sceptics nationwide will be taking part in a mass homeopathic ‘overdose’.

The closest protest to me is taking place in Oxford, and is being run by Skeptics in the Pub (Oxford). If you’re nearby and interested in attending, please visit the event’s page:

Skeptics In The Pub: Oxford ‘mass overdose’

More importantly, please contact Rosie (on the above page) to let her know you’ll be attending. You’ll also need to bring along your own Boots brand 30C homeopathic remedy pills.

Let me make this perfectly clear: this is a peaceful, harmless protest against a company that has a business practice that some of us consider unethical or harmful, it is not against government or other authority. Leave your politics and Guy Fawkes masks at home.

Why 1023? How’s your middle/lower school science memory? Avogadro’s Constant! A fitting use for it, I think.

Update: It appears this campaign has gained some momentum, with various skeptical groups worldwide planning their own ‘homeopathic mass overdoses’ this coming Saturday. Check with your local skeptics group, the 1023 Campaign website, the #ten23 hashtag on Twitter, Facebook or forums such as the JREF for more information.

 

Using Me!: Shall we all be green?

7 July 2009 Comments off

There’s a new post on a friend’s blog that I think you should read. Here’s an excerpt:

New Scientist published a special edition last month all about the environment but specifically about ‘Sustainability’. It’s all very well adopting things that are ‘Green’ but that is not the same thing as ‘Sustainable’. For example using (corn based) bio-diesel is very green but it is absolutely not sustainable because it takes away crops from other markets pushing up the prices of flour, bread, meat and so on.

The rest of the blog can be found here.

Categories: science Tags: ,

Equatorial delight

3 July 2009 Comments off

After looking again through the boxes that my new tripod/mount came in, I stupidly realised that I actually had all the parts. That tricky foam packing with its little nooks and crannies!

So naturally I put the whole thing together and stood back to admire it sturdy heftiness, before remembering that I had a Baader solar filter I still hadn’t tried and astronomical sunset doesn’t occur until almost 21:30 local. Seemed like a good opportunity for a twofer, so I attached my 5″ OTA for the first time and took the it outside onto the front porch, where the sun was still well above my local horizon.

Attaching the solar filter was easy. It slid over the end where the dust cap goes, preventing unfiltered sunlight from entering the OTA, and fastens with 3 grub screws to ensure it doesn’t come loose. After I had done this I looked into the eyepiece socket (without an eyepiece) and pointed the scope at the sun until the view became brilliant, then attached the 25mm wide angle eyepiece and was rewarded with a lovely off-white image of the entire sun in the field of view. I tried the other eyepieces, though didn’t bother with the 2X Barlow, and used the fine-adjustment RA/Dec knobs on the mount to scan the edge and surface of the sun. Never look at the sun directly.

Unfortunately, the surface of the sun wasn’t particularly interesting because:

  • We’re in the sun’s 11 year solar minima cycle — and this cycle is particularly deep and quiescent — so there aren’t many sunspots to be seen.
  • Correspondingly, there isn’t a great deal of solar flare activity to be seen. Which is good news for the astronauts in low earth orbit.
  • The wavelengths of light seen via a solar filter provide a white image with little contrast. This can be addressed with an appropriate filter… that I don’t currently have.

What I did see was the sun up close and safely (that in itself is noteworthy) and I did see its boiling surface, particularly at the edge. Some of it would have been due to earth’s atmosphere, but there was enough there to make it enjoyable.

So the next immediate challenges are to learn how to use the equatorial mount correctly (despite inheriting an inexpensive one when I was a teenager, I never learned how to set it up properly), including the formidable setting circles, and to make the most of the plentiful summer sunlight by getting a filter that will enable more detail to be seen.

This is fun!

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A new tripod for a world of difference

2 July 2009 Comments off

Celestron CG5 Mount

Posts have been few and far between lately due to being extremely busy with study (adult university distance courses take up a lot of time!), work and other things.

Over the weekend I managed to win an eBay auction for a telescope mount and tripod that I realised I’ve needed for some time: a Celestron CG5 equatorial mount on a “bomb-proof” tripod. It’s essentially what you see to the left, but without the computer and automatic tracking motor.

This became necessary because the motorised mount that came with my telescope is clearly not up to the task of reliably tracking objects — even after deciphering the instructions, carefully levelling the mount base and zeroing the unit, the drift is quite noticeable and requires regular, fiddly adjustment — and astrophotography requires either a fully-computerised AltAz mount that can track an object with pinpoint accuracy, or any level of equatorial mount. Trying to finely-adjust a motor-controlled AltAz mount to track an object is like using an Etch-A-Sketch: bearable for visual viewing, but astrophotography is out of the question. Even a cheap equatorial can track an object easily, providing the gears don’t have too much play in them and the unit is correctly configured.

A barn door mount for a camera would have done the trick, too, but I want to reap the benefits of an equatorial mount via the telescope’s eyepiece, too.

So today I have taken delivery of what appears to be 2/3 of the new mount and tripod assembly, with the joys of eBay meaning multiple packages. It’s definitely a solid, sturdy unit and I can see why the seller stated the need for something “lighter and more portable” — you wouldn’t want to carry this around to your local astronomy society’s evenings.

So once I’ve received all the parts and had a chance to test it out, I’ll post back with some pictures for your stargazing delight…

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