Tuesday, 15 December 2009

I have moved to Sciblogs

Hello everyone :)

As you may or may not be aware, I'm also part of the stable of bloggers to be found on Sciblogs. For the moment, I've decided to be lazy and rather than syndicating/double posting (which always requires a little extra work), I'm simply going to blog on Sciblogs for now. I can be found under the same blog name: misc.ience.

Hope to see you there!

Note: we reckon Sciblogs is actually Australasia's largest science blogging network (possible even the Southern Hemisphere's!)

Nano ho-ho

In the spirit of Christmas, I'd like to share with you all the world's smallest snowman.

(Click on image for link to site)

Credit: NPL site

The snowman was developed by the UK's National Physical Laboratory, and is a marvel of festivity-inspired nano-jollity.

According to the website, it's 10 ┬Ám across, which equates to roughly 1/5th the width of a human hair.

It wasn't made out of snowballs, of course, as these on average measure about half an inch, and we have yet to develop the ability to do the whole 'Honey, I shrunk the snowflake' thing.

Instead, it was made out of two tiny little tin balls. hilariously, they're normally used to correct microscope astigmatism, which brings to mind wonderful images of a microscope with glasses, peering at the objects/tissues it needs to focus on.

I'm looking forward to tiny Christmas trees with even tinier tinsel. Of course, a treetop angel on this scale might also bring whole new answers to the classic question involving angels and the heads of a pin...

Friday, 11 December 2009

Introducing Shady, or, how to get a robot to do what a blind can

The last couple of days have felt particularly roboty.

Why, you ask? Well, I shall be posting one some of the things that came across my tech-strewn desk, and I'll introduce the mini-topic with this one. Shady.

Cast your mind back to a hot, sunny day. For those of you living in Wellington, I might suggest a quick video search on teh intertubes, just to refresh your memory.

Right, now add to that image an image of you, sitting in a chair somewhere indoors (where exactly I shall leave up to you), with the sun blazing in through the window. Does the glare bounce irritatingly off your screen? Can you feel asymmetric bits of yourself burning?

Ok, now, what would your solution be? A blind, or possible a curtain? Moving said chair/screen? Leaving the indoors to go frolick in the outdoors (particularly given that vitamin d is apparently good for mood, and might also fight diabetes and food allergies)? To scream 'aarg, I'm melting'?

Well, some very clever lads at MIT (of course) have come up with an alternate solution. One that probably makes sense if you're robot mad, but otherwise tends to hike the eyebrow somewhat heavenward. Yes, they have built a robot, called Shady.

Basiacally, if someone is feeling a little over-exposed sunwise, they simply tell the little robot where to go, and it potters to that point and then unfurls a very solar wind sail-looking fan. Which shades said controller.

Credit: Shady's website

What makes it interesting, though, is the way that it does this. It really is actually quite clever, all comments aside. Basically, it pulls itself along trusses (reminding me in the process of some strange toy from my childhood, of which I have only the dimmest of memories, except this is obviously much more clever). It's very clever robotics, in fact. Now, why would we car about something that can haul itself around trusses? Well, because they form the skeleton of large proportions of the built environment, is why, and so there are applications for construction sites, inspections of sites, and perhaps even building or forming a truss itself.

Interestingly, I just started having flashbacks of a graphic novel read many years ago (Tom Strong Issue 2, by genius and hairy-guy Alan Moore, in fact) where small, modular machines gained sentience, got their act together (literally), and had to be defeated by superheroes because they were eating the city in their quest to make more of themselves.

For those of you interested in more details, have a look here. And see here for a vid of it being cute and useful and stuff.

To anyone who builds one: I shall be most impressed, and might send you a virtual beer or something :)

PittConnect and online scientists

Ah, social networking for scientists. Hooray!

PittCon, which describes itself self-effacingly as the "world’s annual premier Conference and Exposition on laboratory science", has gone one step further than simply bringing together some 20,000 people together in the name of laboratory-inspired joy.

After all, a few days simply isn't enough if one really wants to build connections, make other geeky science friends, and indulge (no doubt) in many impenetrable conversations. And so PittCon is proud to announce that it has set up a social networking site as well (well, online scientific community).

And, in one of those joyous occasions when naming new stuff is an evolutionary process, the new site is going to be called...can you guess it?...PitConnect.

Which makes me wonder whether all major (or minor) conferences should spin something like this off, just because it's so perfect. Or perhaps an uber-'Connect' might work.

Anyway, I digress. The press release says the following: was created to provide an online resource for scientists from all over the world to connect with each other to discuss problems, techniques, research, etc. In addition to listing the 1,936 technical sessions that will be presented at Pittcon 2010, Pittconnect provides contact information to enable users to communicate with colleagues, Pittcon 2010 speakers and exhibitors prior to and after the event. Once a participant has completed a short profile, he or she can begin to network by viewing the map displaying the sessions, exhibitors, and other users related to one's specific interests.
Also, the site intends to add functionality to allow profile links to LinkedIn and Twitter, and expanding the number of available groups.

Happy conferencing, everyone!

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Absolutely stunning: 100 days in Glacier National Park

I came across this stunning set of photos while trawling teh intertubes earlier today.
(Click on picture to go to website)

Western Tanager (Day 50)
Credit: Chris Peterson 2009

It's a series of photos taken over 100 consecutive days in Glacier National Park (in the US). The photos were taken by Glacier Park Magazine editor Chris Peterson, and are quite something.

Says the blurb:
"When the project is complete, it will be a traveling show in 2010 to commemorate Glacier's Centennial. I'm using a mix of film and digital cameras, including an 8 by 10 field camera, a Kodak Pocket Vest camera, circa 1909, and a Speed Graphic, among others. The idea is to use the cameras that would have been used over the course of the Park's 100 years. Day-to-day work is done primarily with a Nikon digital camera, since I only process film about once a week due to time constraints (I have a regular job on top of this project)."

I guess I'm posting them up having been inspired by fellow Sciblogger (and ardent wildlife photographer) Brendan Moyle.

P.s. I reckon your photos are just as awesome, Brendan...

Monday, 7 December 2009

World leaders, 20 years on and sorry

This is really quite interesting.

(Click on link to go to website: once there, click on picture for slideshow)

Greenpeace is running an ad campaign in Copenhagen airport, featuring world leaders who are 20 years older ('though many look much more) and apologising for not having done enough...


Monday, 30 November 2009

The best of Royal Society publishing - 350 years' worth!

So, this is seriously, seriously cool. 350 years' worth of the Royal Society of London's best published papers.

(click on the picture to visit the site)

To expand, (teehee), it's actually an interactive, explorable timeline. And it's been launched to commemorate the Society's 350th birthday next year. The RS is definitely wearing the age quite well, all in all :)

The timeline's also got a bunch of fantastic images for those of you interested in imagery/design and is, generally, an awesome website.

The first papers are a bit grim, involving bellows and dogs' lungs. The last (most recent) paper was the RS's fascinating paper on geoengineering, and many of the 60 papers available coincide with major historical events, although they aren't necessarily connected. For example, in 2008, the term 'Cubism' was adopted; the same year, a paper was published entitled 'Reflection of alpha particles from thin foil'.

And, of course, people with an interest in language, or at the very least the English bits thereof, will find the changing expression fascinating. Not only in and of itself, but for what it can tell us about attitudes and beliefs at the time (for a great example, have a look at Fabiana's hilarious post on cockroaches).

And, without further ado, I shall leave you all here, as I want to go frolick in all this sciency goodness. I'm sure you do too.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Wherefore the hammerhead?

Fantastic stuff, this. Well, for those of us who, when little and naturally curious about everything*, wondered why, exactly, it was that hammerheads had hammerheads. As it were.

Scalloped hammerhead shark, Sphyrna lewini, Hawaii, USA (Pacific ocean)
UW118-2, (c) Andrew Seale

There are many possible reasons for this. It could be that a (or the, depending on your preference) creator thought it looked kinda cool, and was going through a flat-headed creature phase. Or because it makes said sharks look, you know, really really menacing. Or, alternatively, really, really ridiculous.

And learned people, of course, being learned, have posited their own theory: that it gives hammerhead sharks great stereovision and depth perception. Or not. The thing, up until this paper released last week, no one had actually bothered to test this assumption.

It has been suggested that, in fact, since their eyes are on the sides of their heads (I'm talking about the sharks here), rather than facing forward, that they couldn't have binocular vision. However, other clever people and television shows have claimed eyesight benefits. Who is right?

It turns out, the guys who posited better vision. The paper's authors looked at a range of different shark species, bother hammerhead and pointy-nosed. Included were bonnetheads (narrow) and scalloped hammerheads (wide).

Bonnethead hammerhead (Sphyrna tiburo)

Scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini)
© Doug Perrine

So they got a whole lotta sharks and then tested their eyesight with a version of the whole 'moving the torch in front of your eyes' thing. They weren't testing for concussion, but were instead measuring the electrical activities of the sharks' eyes.

First, they looked at monocular vision, and found that hammerheads kick ass. As it were. The fields were wider than pointy-nosed blacknose and lemon sharks (for example), with the scalloped hammerhead having a 182 degree range, and the bonnethead a very respectable 176 deg.

They then took these measurements, and plotted them to see whether the monocular fields overlapped. Which they did. Apparently, the scalloped hammerhead had an overlap of some 32 degrees, and the bonnethead had 13 degrees. The most hammerheady of all, the winghead shark, had 48 degrees!

Then, they factored in some other stuff such as head and eye movements, and watched those overlaps grow.

In short, the television series (and clever people) were right. That weird head shape does indeed improve depth perception and binocular vision.

Mostly awesomely, it also gives some hammerheads a 360 degree rear view (or very close) - one of the few occasions where the television people have underrepresented the situation. Gosh.

* Note: I saw a paper recently (for the life of me can't remember where) that said that the whole 'why' phase small kids go through isn't actually an attempt to make mommy/daddy's brain drip out their nose, but is, instead, because kids actually do want the answer to their questions. Go figure.
(Postnote: Calvin's dad's answer to this situation is quite tempting, though. And here's some more inspiration.)

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The LHC's first collisions

Woohoo! I couldn't, personally, be more thrilled.

No doubt, people who actually understand properly the physics and true awesomeness behind the LHC couldn't be more thrilled either. Even more so than I.

Because, * fanfare *, the first collisions in the new, better-than-broken, up-and-running, ghost-in-the-machine lacking LHC have been observed!

A brief history lesson - the LHC, or Large Hadron Collider, is a truly gobsmacking feat of engineering which has taken a decade to build, billions of euros, and, no doubt, the sanity (or at least youth) of a number of engineers who've had to fight various problems, including errant baguette-bearing birds, to finally get it up and running. Properly.

And why has this wonderfully photogenic machine been built? Why, to find new particles! Amongst other things, of course. Of particular interest is the possibility that our scientists may be able to spot the elusive Higgs boson. (I have a fantastic image in my head of scientists in khaki, with binoculars, and a David Attenborough voice-over). The Higgs boson, or 'god particle', has thus far only been theorised, but it's thought that it could be what gives everything in the universe mass.

Basically, it works like this (there's a better explanation here):

The Higgs boson (or particle) carries the Higgs field, which imparts mass to objects as they move through the field, kinda like this...

People evenly distributed in a room, akin to the Higgs field (CERN)

Then Thatcher (yes, yes, I know!) enters the room, people gather, mass increases (CERN)

Of course, the LHC has also lead to howls and terrors from various quarters about its potentially causing the end of the world, or a huge black hole, or something. Amusingly, some physicists even suggested that it (well, the universe) could be sabotaging itself from the future.

But I digress. The news here is that the first collisions have been observed, and they look like this!

The green lines denote changed particles (following the collision), which are, apparently, generally pions (not peons, although those can also be unstable during changing circumstances).

[Pions] are unstable particles consisting of an up quark and an anti-down (or an anti-up and a down). Though they are unstable, they live long enough to nearly always leave tracks in the detector.
Then, the yellow bits denote the silicon strip detectors responsible for recording our particles

After that, it all gets quite technical. A far more knowledgeable account of it, and the source of the quote above, can be found here (which, by the way, is a great blog).

Mostly, I'm just happy she's started up, and I'd like to raise a toast to her: we're happy to have you back with us, dear gal, and we look forward to the show!

There's also a lovely Nat Geog article on it. I love the subheading 'happy physicists' - it's a warm and fluffy thought.
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Sunday, 22 November 2009

Climate centre hacked

This subject has already been covered on the web, but I haven't seen it discussed yet on Sciblogs, so thought I would bring it to the fore.

Being quite aware that I don't do the climate change thing (as it were), for no reason other than that there are other people far more qualified than me to do so.

But still, this is quite something...

To fill everyone in: the University of East Anglia, which is apparently one of Britain's leading climate change research centres, has been hacked. The emails, covering 1991-2009, first appeared online on Nov 19th, and have since gained widespread attention.

And yes, this was a crime - the centre was hacked, and personal emails stolen and disseminated publicly. Not allowed. Not even slightly. No matter how one might justify it.

Further, lines from the emails are being used by climate change skeptics (deniers?) as proof of collusion between scientists. You know, as part of this huge conspiracy, involving thousands of scientists all over the world, in which anthropogenic climate change is all a big fib. Yes. That one.

The fact that the emails have been split up and discreet sentences used (for example, taking the phrase' trick' to mean deliberate obfuscation, or even outright lying, instead of a just-as-common phrase, to mean 'clever technique') alone is, basically, the same thing as cherry-picking and quote mining...a 'trick' used fairly often by...certain groups. And while not technically a crime, it is certainly dishonest. Taken out of context, even the most innocuous sentence can sound dastardly.

Not much more to say (there's been plenty already written), and a little more serious than most of my posts, but it's something I think important...

More info:

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The teapot effect, end of

So apparently, there's something called the teapot effect. Or, rather, there was.

No, it's not what you might first imagine it is. At least, it's not what I first imaged it was. Instead, it's apparently the name used for the phenomenon whereby the spouts of teapots dribble, and even English women who've been pouring tea for posh friends for decades are unable to pour that perfect, immaculate cup of tea.

"Previous studies have shown that dribbling is the result of flow separation where the layer of fluid closest to the boundary becomes detached from it. When that happens, the fluid flows smoothly over the lip. But as the flow rate decreases, the boundary layer re-attaches to the surface causing dribbling."
And here's where fluid dynamicists have stepped up, donned their superhero cloaks, and sorted the problem. Huzzah!

The factors involved?

"Previous studies have shown that a number of factors effect this process such as the radius of curvature of the teapot lip, the speed of the flow and the "wettability" of the teapot material. But a full understanding of what's going on has so far eluded scientists.

"Now Cyril Duez at the University of Lyon in France and a few amis, have identified the single factor at the heart of the problem and shown how to tackle it. They say that the culprit is a "hydro-capillary" effect that keeps the liquid in contact with the material as it leaves the lip. The previously identified factors all determine the strength of this hydro-cappillary effect."

The solution is two-fold: make the lip of the teapot as thin as possible, and and coat it with superhydrophobic materials (materials, in other words, that really, really, really, really don't like water).

Even more fun, apparently there are materials in which the superhydrophobicity can be turned on and off electronically. Meaning that to dribble or not to dribble would no longer be hypothetical...

And, because there's no better way to end things than with wry, physics-based sarcasm, there was this comment, as well:
"(Of course, there are one or two other potential applications in shaping the fluid flow in microfluidic machines but these pale into insignificance compared with the teapot revolution in hand.)"

On another teapot-related note, I had not idea, but apparently teapot-blowing (again, not what you think) is something of an artform!

p.s. Yes, I know the original arXiv post isn't that new - sadly, life has perforce distracted me somewhat of recent.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Moving disembodied voice aids attention

In driving, that is.
(Also, an oops here: I wrote this last week, and forgot to publish it)

Two of the prettiest headsets out the there: the Jawbone and the Ripple (click on pics to be taken to websites)

Eyal Ophir and his colleagues in Stanford University’s CHIMe Lab - the same people who so inflamed interest earlier this year when they revealed that people who mutitask more, are worse at the tasks they do - have been playing with the problem of mobile phone conversations (MPCs) in cars.

I thought their new research was particularly timely, given the fact that NZ has now banned the use of mobile phones in cars unless using a headset/hands-free kit (and some interesting debates can be had on the subject of whether even these should be allowed).

The thing is, even if one is not actually holding a mobile phone, a conversation can be distracting. Very. And Ophir and his colleagues have been trying to find ways to make these conversations less dangerous - after all, we all know that people are not, en masse, suddenly going to pull over for mobile conversations.

They looked, basically, at making the cell phone-originating voice move around the car. Not, as I first thought, in a sort of left-right pan, necessarily, but more having the voice speaking from head level, or from floor level. Reasoning etc below:
"Ophir designed a system that puts the voice up at the driver’s level when road conditions are relatively safe, then drops it down to the driver’s feet when conditions are more hazardous. He says he could have done it the opposite way and it appears that it would have worked equally well, but that research has shown that voices coming from lower than the speaker are less dominant, hence his choice of high and low. He tested the system with drivers in a simulator, and found that drivers quickly learned that a change in position of the voice meant, “Pay attention to the road!” They later rated the cell phone conversation as less distracting when the sound was coming from their feet.

In the real world, Ophir sees this system linked to the driver’s GPS and a database of accidents, to identify potentially treacherous areas of road."

Critically, they were wanting to find a technique that would work for both high and low multitaskers (a small note of glee for us high multitaskers: while we may not be as good at a single task, apparently we might be slightly safer drivers when having a mobile phone conversation).

Apparently, the research is, hopefully, going to be published soon.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The broadband sitrep

I found this awesome infographic on Gizmodo today (click on the picture to make it larger).

The data's been taken from various sources (which are named on the picture), and shows the costs, and speeds, of broadband internet around the world.

Of course, as we already know, New Zealand is somewhat behind the curve in a few respects: price/month for 1mbps is in the $5-10 range and its average broadband speed (mbps) is below 4 mbps. Its broadband penetration, however, is just under 80% (although, having had a look at the Internet World Stats data, this may actually be internet, not broadband, penetration).

Some discussion:

First, the positive. Penetration is really high here - would anyone like to comment on why that might be so? I imagine that it is, at least, in part due to our small population, and the very small (relatively) number of people who're unable to afford internet at all. Possibly it's also a communication thing - many of us know people elsewhere in the world, and the internet's the best way of communicating with them. Any other ideas?

Secondly, the less positive. The internet here is expensive, particularly if one looks at the speeds we get. Yes, I could fork out a great deal of money each month for the fastest possible line, but I don't want to. I'm probably spoilt, having recently spent time in the UK and having access there to fast, cheap internet.

I understand that there are reasons for the price and speed of the internet here, certainly. We have are a small, isolated country. Absolutely. Market forces and whatnot. Of course. But we also used to be known for being on the forefront of at least some technologies - 'nuff said there, as there are many, far more knowledgeable, people who can speak to that.

And, of course, we have something of monopoly in terms of copper ownership. South Africa (my homeland) has an interestingly analogous situation: there, a giant telecoms company called Telkom (I kid you not) has had something of a stranglehold as well, owing to its ownership of all the copper. Unsurprisingly, telecomms and particularly internet prices there are very high, and speeds rather low.

Hopefully it'll change, and there have been mutterings of late in that direction from various sectors etc: indeed, fellow blogger John Nixon has in fact written a little on the subject. And Abhiskeh Tiwari has pointed out that Finland has just made internet access a legal right...

I'm just jealous of Japan, I guess - look at those speeds! And the ridiculously low cost of them! Yes, that is what happens with a densely populated, tech-obsessed (in many respects) nation, but you won't find me complaining, and my resolve to visit just strengthened that little bit.

Note: check out this great video explaining Australia's National Broadband Network plans. If nothing else, it's a great example of really good design in terms of the graphics etc.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Learning to use your new prehensile tail...

The obscure title is aimed at a friend who's always sworn that, when it comes time to choose body modifications, he wants that prehensile tail.

And now, according to some new research published in PNAS last week, he can learn to use it before he even has it!

(Note: the article I read about this can be found here - unfortunately, I don't seem to be able to find the paper itself anywhere on the PNAS site...)

Researchers have been looking into the idea of phantoms: no, not pale forms inhabiting dark corners, but instead limbs that we can feel attached to us, even when they aren't. The most common form of this is after an amputation, when many amputees continue to feel the limb after the surgery and not in a good way, either - apparently, it is often quite painful.

Previous research has looked into how best to treat phantom pain, but now, scientists have gone one better: they successfully managed to get people who have lost a limb - in this case, an arm above the elbow - were able to learn to manipulate the lost limb in entirely impossible ways. Apparently, those who were successful described that their wrist had developed a new joint, and the researchers were able to corroborate that, at least as fair as the patients' brains were concerned, the new neural pathways had in fact been produced (rather than being faked).

"Seven people who had an arm that had been amputated above the elbow were encouraged to learn a particular arm movement that defies biomechanics — turning a hand that’s bent 90 degrees at the wrist the last quarter of a full turn that the hand won’t do. The study participants practiced by imagining that they were moving the phantom limb for five minutes per hour every day until they had achieved the impossible movement or had given up (this took one to four weeks depending on the individual). Four of the participants were successful in feeling the sensation of the impossible movement, the researchers report."

"Each of the participants who achieved the impossible move also described developing a new wrist joint that allowed the impossible movement. And three of the four reported that moves that were previously possible for the phantom limb were now difficult with their new wrist."

So yes - it has implications for a number of things, from people learning to use new body parts before they can access them physically, or even to readjust self-image (very useful for people with conditions such as anorexia).

And for learning to use that prehensile tail :)

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

New Zealand nature documentaries

Something for all those of you who enjoy nature docos.

NZ On Screen has published, today, a collection of 15 full-length nature documentaries, complemented by a background piece written by Peter Hayden. The docos span some 30 years of film-making, with the intention being to celebrate Aotearoa, its magnificence, and, frankly, its eccentricities as well.

The films are as follows:

So yes, have a look, and enjoy. I haven't watched any of them yet, so I'm afraid I can't comment, although that comments from anyone who has are most welcome.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The Open Laboratory - the best science blogging around

Now this is a fantastic project. Even better, it's been going since 2006!

Called Open Lab (or The Open Laboratory, in book form), it's a collection of the best science blogging on the net. Each year, some 50-53 posts are selected from the hundreds sent in, and amalgamated into a book.

Not only is this extremely cool, but it actually gets better. The books are available through Lulu - why, you ask? Well, it's simple. Lulu is a print-on-demand service. It's a brilliant idea - no wastage, no huge print runs, customised printing and it means that people who might ordinarily not be able to get a publisher interested, can still get their work out there. Hurrah!

For anyone who's interested, the nominations for Open Lab 2009 can be found here - over 370 so far, and counting.

If you're interesting in purchasing copies of the previous three years' worth of goodness (which we did yesterday in digital format), they can be found simply by clicking on the pictures.

It comes to about US$94/95 for all three, plus normal P&P. Alternatively, buy all three for less than $30 us digitally, and simply print them out.

Enjoy! I'm looking forward to getting stuck into 2008 tonight...

For anyone who's interested in print-on-demand technology, have a look at this: the awe-inspiring Espresso Book Machine®, which is being trialled in a few places in the states. What I would give to have access to one of these in Wellington...

Also, an admission: you can get the 2007 Open Lab book on Fishpond...for$65. And they're available on Amazon but again, you've got to pay postage and packaging, and they're no less expensive.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

New ways of farming?

The discussion of how to increase our agricultural/horticultural output is hardly a new one. In fact, it's been a mainstay of human development - ever-larger populations of people has brought with it the challenge of how to ramp up ways of feeding them, particularly given the vagaries of weather/climate, disease and, frankly, basic resource constraints such as land and water.

Malthus is probably the most well-known person to have written about the problem. He posited, quite some time ago, that any population of animals (including humans) would eventually find its expansion limited by it access to resources, with, at the extremes, significant strife. For a modern example, simply look at the riots that occurred in 2007/2008 (and often during our history).

As the problems have gained in complexity, so too have the means of overcoming them. More efficient forms of agriculture - fertilisers, irrigation, etc - have been accompanied by breeding and also genetic modification. And now, an even more complex solution: sky farming.

In essence, the idea is to build huge skyscrapers which are enormous vertical farming systems. They address a number of issues: because they are grown vertically, they reduce land use, which could be used for forestry and hence carbon sequestration. They would also mean that the outputs would be produced near to where they are needed, cutting down the need for storage and transportation, with a concomittant reduction in fossil fuels. And they provide a brilliant means of dealing with human sewage, which could be used to generate electricity, fertiliser and water. And most of the technology to do this already exists, and the technology is already being considered in countrues such as Abu Dhabi and South Korea.

Quoting from the article:

"Environmental scientist Dickson Despommier of Columbia University and other scientists propose a radical solution: Transplant farms into city skyscrapers. These towers would use soil-free hydroponic farming to slash demand for energy (they’ll be powered by a process that converts sewage into electricity) while producing more food. Farming skyward would also free up farmland for trees, which would help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even better, vertical farms would grow food near where it would be eaten, thus cutting not only the cost but the emissions of transportation. If you include emissions from the oil burned to cultivate and ship crops and livestock in addition to, yes, methane from farm-animal flatulence, agriculture churns out nearly 14 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions.

"You can’t buy vertically grown groceries just yet. Most urban farming efforts have been small-scale experiments run in neighborhood parks. Despommier’s vision is bigger: a $200-million, 30-story tower covering an entire city block, stuffed with enough fruit, vegetables and chickens to feed 50,000 people. “With waste in and food out, a vertical farm would be like a perpetual-motion machine that feeds a lot of people,” he says. Most of the technology already exists, he adds, and with some refining, the project could be up and running quickly if granted 0.25 percent of the subsidies paid to American farmers in the past decade—a piddling $500 million.

"The vertical farm is more than just a produce factory. It’s also a plan to rewire a city’s infrastructure to mimic natural-resource cycles."

Of course, they lend also themselves to brilliant graphics.

NZ's increasing academic shortage

I was most interested to read this article in the ODT today.

It talks about the University of Otago's plans to futureproof (what a catchphrase) itself against what, apparently, is a steadily increasing shortage of tertiary academics in New Zealand as we head towards 2020.

The University says it's already seen shortages in areas including medical research/teaching and accountancy.

This to some extent makes sense based on what I've heard anecdotally about academics finding NZ a tough country in which to work. However, speaking with other scientists I've also heard that many other countries are hardly easy, either. The article also says:
"The collaborative planning initiative, which involves all eight New Zealand universities, aimed to prevent a future staffing shortage throughout the country's universities as traditional overseas sources for academic staff dried up at the same time as a large proportion of New Zealand's current academic staff was retiring.
"The universities were all concerned that as New Zealand moved towards 2020, they would face significant difficulties in maintaining an effective and efficient academic workforce."
So I guess my question is: is this something that people are seeing and if so, in which areas have you experienced it?

And what can be done?

And, indeed, is anyone involved in the Academic Workforce Planning - Towards 2020 (8 universities looking into how to combat the problem) project?

Monday, 28 September 2009


A quick note...

The reason I've been absent the last little while is because of this marvellous thing, on which we've been working (real) hard the last few weeks. Yes, the SMC presents Sciblogs.

* fanfare *

Note: it launches officially on Wed, which means you're welcome to go have a look, but we're still fixing final bugs and details...

A NZ version, if you will, of Scienceblogs, the aim is to gather people who blog about various aspects of science, put them all in one place, and watch the magic happen.

We're doing it for a number of reasons, not least that we hope that it will encourage informed discussion, and that it will filter through into the mainstream media, providing story ideas, contacts and knowledge for NZ journalists.

And we think it will be cool :)

Of course, the bloggers won't only be focusing on NZ science - they have free rein to talk about anything they choose, although we have asked that it's more about science and less about new baby animals in the house (unless there's an ecological/zoological tilt). Nonetheless, there will still be, we're sure, posts about people's music tastes, etc.

There's a twitter feed, sciblogsnz, as well, which will show all the latest posts going up.

So yes, enjoy!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Links I've enjoyed this last week...

...but didn't have the time to post. For a number of reasons, including:
  • madness at work (in a good way) , which is only set to increase due to the upcoming launch (yay!!) of Sciblogs. We've gotten some good coverage for it over the last few weeks, starting with Ken Perrott of Open Parachute breaking the news, and since then Media7 and Mediawatch have been giving us some good airplay too :)
  • Today, I spent 4 hours rationalising my Gmail contacts because, well, I had synced my iPhone to them, which promptly uploaded 1000+ contacts onto my phone, many of which were ancient (i.e. any email address I've ever used in the last 6+ years), or duplicates, etc. So the only way ever to use my phone's contacts feature, was to sort it.

I am, happily, now done.

So yes, the links (bear in mind that many of them end up making their way into our weekly newsletter as well, and so don't appear here)...

Sneak test shows positive-paper bias
Published in Nature, this confirms what, yes, we already know. But still interesting, and good to see it testably confirmed. And I can understand where the bias comes from although it's hardly something I'm in favour of (particularly as the originator of some genuinely negative results myself).

The Secrets Inside Your Dog's Head
An awesome article by Carl Zimmer about dog behaviour and evolution and research and things. As the owner of a dog myself, I found it particulaly interesting, but I imagine that anyone who's encountered our four-legged friends might find it interesting.

The Briefly Series
Ep. 1: The Big Bang. An awesome science communication idea, the point is to take major concepts in science and explain them not only clearly and briefly, but really well visually as well. Kudos to all the people who given freely (literally) of their time to do this.

A completely different type of outreach, Futurity takes the research releases of a number (some 35) top American universities and publishes them in one awesome website. It's great reading, but I have two small concerns: it is, in essence, a collection of press releases (not a bad thing, just something to be aware of when reading the articles) and it does not necessarily give an accurate idea of when the research was published etc. I've notcied a couple of things on the site that seem to be really new/recent, but which I know came out some weeks ago. Nonetheless, good site.

Interphone and the US
Or not, as it turns out. I don't know how I missed this, but it would seem that the US has not taken part in the Interphone survey. * significant pause * I know. Which means they're now considering, I dunno, replicating the work? Or something? It's a big pity, firstly because the data from the US would no doubt have been really good (a very large market who were early adopters of the tech), and it also seems a waste of money to even consider doing it in an American context. Of course, one also has to ask: if Interphone's results are good enough for everyone else, why wouldn't they be good enough for the States?

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Shrodinger's tobacco mosaic virus

I'm sure everyone is familiar with Shrodinger's Cat, the infamous quantum-mechanical thought experiment (apparently, it was first posited as a sort of laughing attempt to put in real terms some of quantum mechanics' more...interesting...theories).

Well, now scientists are attempting to do something...similar. With viruses. Only certain types of virus, including that mentioned in the title of this post, are suitable to the purpose, but they are hopeful it can be managed.

Of course, the interesting thing here is the definition of a virus as a living thing. When I was at university (admittedly, some years ago), I remember being told that the jury was out regarding that. It all depends, apparently, on how many features you feel something needs to display if is to to be considered 'living'.

Viruses are considered to be hovering on the edge, as while they display many of the characteristics associated with life - making more of themselves, having genes, evolving - they also lack some other father fundamental functions, such as metabolism. Or growth. Etc.

On the other hand, whether or not the experiment turns out to be useful, particularly for "the role of consciousness in quantum mechanics", but it will provide the material, no doubt, a number of humorous tshirts and webcomics.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Nature's data-sharing issue

Nature has published their special data-sharing issue, which can be found here. An extremely timely issue, I might add, give how topical the subject is (see here and here).

There's a lot of interesting stuff in here, including articles about what seems to be a growing (or at least increasingly loud) movement to open up the acecssibility of data, particularly in the Life Sciences. There's even been talk of scientists sharing prepublication data to try speed things along a little...

Of course, there's also analysis of what happened to the ideal of data sharing , and the problems range from difficulties with the technology of it, particularly in areas where good, strong databases (and sharing habits) are not common, to problems with formats, preconceptions, and, frankly, habits.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Peer Review Survey 2009 - the system's worth keeping, but could use some work

Sense about Science, a UK not-for profit organisation dedicated to improving the understanding of science issues, has released the prelim findings of its Peer Review Survey (full details out in November). The results were released early this morning, NZ time, and are, all things told, quite interesting.
Rather than simply reprinting the results (which can be downloaded by clicking on the hyperlink in this page), I thought I'd also have a look at the results themselves, and see what comment, if any, I could furnish.

Right, then.

(Awesome image found here)

The questionnaire, which was conducted for 2 weeks, was sent out to some 40,000 researchers, all of whom were published authors. Of this 40,000, 4,037 (10%) completed the survey. Of that 10%, 89% classed themselves as 'reviewers'.

Of course, my first question at this point is whether this is representative of researchers as a whole...Do 89% of all (published) researchers review? Or was there some intrinisc bias towards the subject that meant that people who review were more likely to complete the questionnaire (and hence skew the findings...)

Moving on.



In general, respondents (not reviewers) were fairly happy with peer review as a system - 61% were satisfied (although only 8% were very satisfied) with the process, and only 9% were dissatisfied. I would dearly loved to have been able to organise a discussion or two around that latter 9% or so, to figure out why (which is qualitative research is so important).

Reviewers generally felt that, although they enjoyed reviewing and would continue to do it, that there was a lack of guidance on how to review papers, and that some formal training would improve the quality of reviews. There was also the strong feeling that technology had made it easier to review than 5 years ago.


Of those who agreed that the review process had improved their last paper (83% of respondents), 91% felt that the biggest area of improvement had been in the discussion, while only half felt that their paper's statistics had benefited. Of course, and as the survey rightly points out, this may because this includes those whose papers contained no such fiddlies...

Why review?

Happily, most reviewers (as opposed to respondents, which includes reviewers and the leftover authors) reviewed because they enjoyed playing theire part in the scientific community (90%) and because they enjoyed being able to improve a paper (85%). Very few (16%) did it as a result of hoping to increase future chances of their paper being accepted.
[On that point - is that last thought/stratagem valid? Does reviewing improve one's chances of paper acceptance in any way?]

Amongst reviewers, just over half (51%) felt that payment in kind by the journal would make them more likely to review for a journal - 41% wanted actual money. (then again, 43% didn't care). 40% also thought that acknowledgment by the journal would be nice, which is odd considering that the majority of reviewers favour the double blind system (see below), or even more strangely, the fact that 58% thought their report being published with the paper would disincentivise them, and 45% felt the same way about their names being published with the paper, as a reviewer. [Note:in the latter point, for example, that 45% does not mean that 55% would be incentivised - a large proportion of the remaining 55% is in fact taken up by ambivalence towards the matter]

Amongst those who wanted payment, the vast majority wanted it either from the funding body (65%) or from the publisher (94%). In a lovely case of either solidarity or self-interest, very few (16%) thought that the author should pay the fee. Looking at that 94% of authors who would want to be paid by the journals to review - where would this leave the open access movement? One of the major, and possibly most valid, criticisms currently being leveled against paid subscription journals is that their reviewing is done free of charge. Indeed, it might even lead to a rise in subscription prices, meaning even more researchers are unable to access paid content. Hmmmm.

To review, or not to review

The most-cited reasons for not reviewing were that the paper was outside their area of expertise (58%) or that they were too busy with their own work (30%). Of course, the first point does suggest that journals could, and should, do a better job of identifying which papers should go to whom...Certainly, this would be a brilliant place for a peer-review agency to start!

The mean number of invitation to review rejections over the last year was 2, but a little a third of respondents would be happy to review 3-5 a year, and a further third 6-10! Which suggests a great deal of underutilisation of the resources, especially considering that the primary reason for not accepting an invitation to review is that the reviewer and subject weren't properly matched.


For this, I'd suggest the best thing to do is have a look at the graph below (which is from the report, again to be found here).

(c) Sense about Science, Peer Review Survey 2009: Preliminary Findings, September 2009, UK. Click on image to enlarge and make more legible.

What is interesting is that peer review is underperforming significantly on some of the functions felt to be most important, namely the identification of the best manuscripts for the journal and originality (assuming that by this they mean something along the lines of 'completely novel and ground breaking', then there's a very interesting discussion to be had around that, considering that PLoS specifically doesn't look to that, something I talk about in this post).

It's also performing poorly at the detection of plagiarism and fraud detection, although one wonders whether that is a realistic expectation (and, certainly, something that technology could perhaps be better harnessed to do).

Types of review

Most (76%) of reviewers felt that the double-blind system currently used is the most effective system - usage stats were thought effective by the fewest reviewers (15%).

Length of process

Gosh. This was interesting. So, despite the fact that some 75% or reviewers had spent no more than 10 hours on their last review, and 86% had returned it within a month of acceptance of invitation, 44% got first decision on the last paper they had submitted within the last 1-2 months, and a further 35% waited between 2 and 6+ months.

Of course, the waiting time for final acceptance scales up appropriately, as revision stages took 71% of respondents between 2 weeks and 2 months. So final acceptance for took 3-6 months for a third of respondents, and for a further third, could take anything between that and 6+ months.

Now, I can understand that the process is lengthy, but it does seem like there's a fair amount of slack built into the system, and it must have something of an impact on the pace of science, particularly in fast-moving fields. I don't have an answer, but Nature is just about to release some interesting papers discussing whether scientists should release their data before publication, in order to try prevent blockages...(UPDATE: Nature's special issue can be found here).

It's worth mentioning, despite whatever I may say, that slightly more respondents thought peer review lengths were acceptable (or better) than not. Comment, anyone?


The vast majority of reviewers (89%) had done the review by themselves, without the involvement of junior member of their research group, etc. While I can understand this, to some extent, I wonder whether it doesn't inform the feeling that some sort of training would be useful. Could a lot of that not be provided by involving younger scientists in the process?

Final details

Just over half (55%) of respondents have published more than 21 articles in their career, with 11% having published over 100. Not much comment there from me, other than O_o!!

89% of respondents had reviewed at least one article in the last year (already commented on this, above).

For those interested, most respondents were male,over 36 years old, and worked at universities or colleges.

While half worked in Europe or the US, 26% worked in Asia (to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised that the skew towards the western world wasn't larger), and the most well-represented fields were the biological sciences and medicine/health.


So yes! there you have it - a writeup that's a little longer than the exec summary, but a little shorter than the prelim findings themselves.

It does raise a number of interesting questions, particularly around the role of journals in the process, but it also confirms what I think we've all heard - that while science publishing is going through some interesting times, very few would dispute that peer review itself is anything other than very important to the process. Although it might need to do a little bit of changing if it's to remain as important as it is currently...

Monday, 7 September 2009

Reflexology quickie

I don't have access to the full article, sadly (aaarg), so this tiny tidbit from the Medical Journal of Australia will have to do.

In essence, it says that the evidence for reflexology working is, well, not there. Yes, the foot rub is quite cool (apart from the excruciating pain and the need to spend some time thereafter limping), but really, one could just get a normal foot rub instead.

In fact, thinking about it: perhaps normal foot rubs are actually better, as they don't force one to tense every muscle of the body in agony, something which I battle to see as being conducive to one's health and wellbeing.

Name-dropping makes you obnoxious

"But", I hear you murmer, "we knew this already!"

And yes, intuitively, I guess many of us do. Despite this, it still doesn't stop many people doing it, on a regular basis. Some might even say that networking somewhat encourages it. Well, networking as seen in a very narrow, and unlikeable, light (happy to write more on that subject, should anyone wish).

So yes, some German researchers have finally looked into the phenomenon, and found the following:

If you meet someone, and find out that they share a birthday with someone likeable, or that they know someone interesting, then you may perhaps feel sunshinier towards them, but only if they didn't tell you directly. And context is also pivotal.

If, on the other hand, you drop into conversation that you are good mates (or whatever) with someone famous, particularly if you volunteer the information fairly directly, then people are less likely to like you. So not a good strategy. Boasting does not make you friends. Hear me on this.

Actually, thinking about it, perhaps that's some of the appeal of things like Linkedin (apart from the obvious) - people can see how very cool and amazing your connections are, without you ever having to vouchsafe the fact. Now, who has some amazing contacts me to link to?

The article about the research can be found on Scientific American's website, here.

The travelling salesman problem and bacterial computers

This post was generated by the marvellous webcomic, below, from David Malki's Wondermark (a fascinating project in and of itself).

As usual, click on the image to make it legible. Weblink here.

Witticisms aside, the first thing that came to mind was the travelling salesman problem, a lovely little piece of computational maths. To give you the gist: it's all about a travelling salesman, who has to figure out how to optimise his sales route so that he only visits each place once, and completes the route in the shortest possible distance. It's been the focus (well, sort of) of such things as genetic algorithms (which can be used for all sorts of fascinating things, and I'd strongly advise that you explore the area further), and now a new field called bacterial computing.

Bacterial computing fuses mathematics and biology to compute problems - sort of like genetic algorithms on 'roids. And recently, it was used to solve something called the Hamiltonian Path Problem, which is similar to that issue faced by our anonymous, but hopefully ubiquitous, salesman. The Burnt Pancake problem also features, which name I am endlessly amused by. Also, there's an unrelated, but darkly amusing, xkcd strip about pancakes.

The whole field is called, enticingly, 'synthetic biology', and the brains behind it reckon that it has uses not only for solving fun maths puzzles, but also for more concrete uses such as medicine, energy and even the environment.

Anyway, the paper can be found here (it was published in the Journal of Biological Engineering, which, given its name, I expect to be presenting me with a means of having gills as well as lungs sometime very soon).

Magnetic monopoles?

Oh, this is too, too good.

Only 2 days after a New Scientist article discussing some 13 phenomena that science is still unable to understand - including the fact that magnets don't seem to come in a fashionable, slinkier 'monopole' - it's been announced that, in fact, they do.

A magnetic dipole (yes, you can see it with iron filings, but I thought this was prettier)


To paraphrase, for those too busy (or uninterested, in which case stop reading), I shall make the attempt:

Magnetism and electricity are very strongly interwoven, as everyone who's done highschool physics knows. However, while we are able to see component parts of electricity - electric charges themselves, such as electrons - the same doesn't hold for magentism. Magnets always come in 'North and South' flavour.

Now, clever people who theorise about these things are sure they must exist, but we just hadn't seen any of them yet. And we can't make (apparently) them either. But we had hope.

And now, vindication! Wahay! Well, sort of. We have, in fact, observed the next best thing to them, says a paper to be published in Science (which means it's probably not a hoax). In essence, two different groups of researchers have dug up differing evidence of these analogues.

Also, the scientists got excited about things like fractioning in 3D and so forth, but this went somewhat over my head...Actually, most of it did, but nonetheless, still very cool.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Cows and...seaweed?

The discussion of how to deal with ruminant emissions is now as pervasive as the emissions themselves, it seems.

Here in NZ, we have the PGgRC, which has been set up to deal specifically with the issue. After all, something like a half of NZ's emissions are due to these gases! Gosh! And stories dealing with how to offset the emissions are all over the place.

In no particular order, some of the more recent ones:
The NZ Herald: Hungry bugs could slash animal-gas danger
The register: Bubbly-belly-bugging boffins battle bovine belch peril (possibly the best headline I've yet seen, and it sort of fits with the country responsible for more video tracking of its citizens than any other)
Sciencealert: Diet may cut cow fart emissions (perhaps the most direct headline)

The interesting thing is that this last strategy, if it works, could be perfect for New Zealand. We have access to lots and lots of seaweed, and lots and lots of cows. And while I'm fine with GM, I think Occam's Razor is a great guideline, and something like this is less likely to come with the usual hysterical press-release battles, and potentially unseen side-effects, possible with messing the bugs themselves (for example).

If anyone's really interested in the issue, I can happily supply more resources (and even a podcast)...

The geoengineering debate

Geoengineering. Yes. Likely to spark heated (haha) debate, because if people are uncomfortable with the idea of tweaking living organisms (GM), then people are definitely going to be uncomfortable with slinging giant mirrors into space, and injecting dust into the atmosphere to deflect sunlight (which reminds me a little bit of the 'we burned the sky' line in The Matrix).

The Royal Society of London has released the results of a year-long study into various geoengineering options, and have looked at them in terms of cost, risk, and so forth. More on the report can be found here (also, the 2020Science blog has some good posts on it as well).

Click on image to enlarge. Preliminary overall evaluation of geoengineering techniques (Royal Society of London, Geoengineering the Climate, Sept 1 2009)

The reason it's sparked comment is that people are concerned that the techniques, even the safest of them, might cause downstream problems we can't predict. The report was, however, pretty clear on the fact that emissions reduction should absolutely be seen as the primary goal, and that geoengineering efforts should be a 'last ditch' strategy.

Some comment on the matter can be found here and here.

I must say, I agree with the need to further consider these options. Yes, we need to look at mitigating emissions, of course, but if Kyoto is any indication, we stand the real possibility of failing to reach the various global and country-specific targets to be set in the upcoming year or so. And it is highly likely that new technologies are yet to be invented which will help in these efforts. But a plan B is generally a good idea - even if we never implement such measures, better to plan for them now than, in 10+ years' time, to realise that such measures are necessary, but cannot be implemented in a timely fashion.

Also, there's the pure geek joy of simply contemplating huge mirrors on the sky (having said that, Futurama has already warned us of the potential pitfalls of such a technology).

Jellyfish, continued

The BBC's posted this beautiful set of photographs of deep-sea jellyfish (honestly, I'm beginning to think I have a thing about these creatures).

(I couldn't use one of the beeb's pictures, so have put in another cool jellyfish photo.)

I think I like the small blue jelly best, just because it really does look like a graphic generated for a show such as Fringe (yes, this last link really does point to Fringepedia's page on the graphics used in the show). Of course, the rest of them look like something cooked up in the fevered imagination of a sci-fi/fantasy artist at the point just before the absinthe abuse of the night causes them to pass out...

Pretty produce

So, our urge to mess with our food continues unabated, it seems, and as usual, aesthetics are a fundamental part of this (as with many of our endeavours, I think).

So yes, a few new instances of pleasantly pretty produce. In first place (because I live in NZ, if nothing else), are some very special red apples.

A local scientist, Dr Richard Espley, has been working on understanding the genetic mechanisms behind the red colour in apples, with the idea being that apples can be grown which have novel colour characteristics, as well as oodles of anti-oxidants. And when I say red apples and novel colour characteristics, I mean it: not only will the skins be red, but the flesh of the apples as well. Apparently, apples with red flesh do exist, but while they have ligher levels of good things (liek antioxidants), they don't taste nearly as good as their white-fleshed counterparts.

Richard won awards at the recent MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year awards, and works at Plant and Food, one of New Zealand's Crown Research Institutes.

Next on the list, and perhaps slightly more flippantly, are heart-shaped cucumbers.

Yes, you heard me correctly: from the people invented bento box art (links abound), comes the next element in making the everyday necessity of nutrient ingestion a more pleasant affair. Other shapes include stars, and who-knows-what next.

And, hilariously, baby-shaped pears.

The Chinese farmer involved has been perfecting his technique for some 6 years by now (well, that's what I read), and they're selling for £5 a pop. I think they're very reminiscent of the Buddha, don't you?

Of course, if these had been made in the shape of other deities, I can imagine there may have been more of a fuss (although, if you've ever thought of making truly iconic toast, have a look here, and I've also seen various kits and DIY vids on google as well).

But yes - hooray for those tirelessly endeavouring to beautify our meals.