June 26, 2010

I have hayfever.  It is mostly manifesting itself in the form of a constantly blocked nasal passage.  Suffice to say, it is highly unpleasant.  During the two weeks I have been a victim of hayfever I have made some interesting scientific observations.

  • Hayfever tablets work wonder for 4-7 days before actually making the symptoms worse
  • Nasal spray works slightly better to reduce congestion however it can cause nose bleeds
  • Avoiding pollen is really hard, even if you stay indoors all day.

All in the name of science eh…

The Science of the World Cup

June 16, 2010

I’m back! Thankfully exams are over, and the 19th FIFA World Cup has begun in South Africa.  This competition comes around every four years commentators and spectators alike marvel at the skills of the players and the exuberance of the fans and this year is no different. What does change is the science of the World Cup, which (at the time of writing) is more interesting than a lot of the games.

New Balls Please

No World Cup would be complete without complaints about the new ball.  Is it too round?  Does it fly too quickly?  Is it inherently evil? This year it is the turn of the Adidas Jabulani.  As with previous tournament balls the Jabulani has be meticulously designed to be even and consistent.  The ball is a new breed of seamless design, Polyethurane panels are heat sealed together, ensuring durability. There have been complaints, especially from goalkeepers, that the flight of the ball is unpredictable and erratic.  Adidas claim the grooves etched into the Jabulani have been designed with aerodynamics in mind, citing intensive testing in wind-tunnels and experiments using mechanical kicking machines.  Complaints about the new ball could be down to another scientific quirk effecting the tournament in South Africa.

Bad Altitude

Due the to varied and interesting topography of South Africa some of the games will be played at high altitude.  Playing at high altitude means the air is thinner, this has two major effects:

1) There is less air resistance, increasing the speed at which the ball can travel, while also reducing the effects of applied curve. (see video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRqS-dKXHEM)

2) The is less oxygen available, putting a strain on the physical exertions of the players.

The change in drag due to altered altitude could explain some of the players complaints about the new ball.  To read more about the effects of high altitude on the beautiful game read this excellent article from The New Scientist (Feeling the Pressure: The World Cup Altitude Factor)


The vuvuzela is one of the defining features of the 2010 World Cup. These loud plastic horns are a part of South African football culture. They produce a loud drone noise, and when amplified by tens of thousand of spectators can give the impression the stadium is overrun by a horde of angry bees.  Broadcasters have tried to combat the vuvuzelas by employing sound canceling technology. However the note produced by the vuvuzelas is remarkable common in human speech patterns, therefore sound cancelation technology would effect the audibility of the commentators.

The Trophy

And finally, please watch this interesting video on the chemistry of the World Cup Trophy.

Busy Bee, Sorry Simon

March 6, 2010

Sorry about the lack of posts, like all good scientists i’ve been inundated with work of late.  Poor excuse I know but still I apologise. To make up for my lack of post here are some current science stories that have interested me:

New Scientist – Theory of everything!

BBC – Dino Deaths

Guardian – Bad Boys

Ta ra!

The Quirk: How Will The World End?

February 18, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I ran a competition on WordPress Forum to give me suggestions for blog topics.  The winner was Liana Merlo. Check out her blog here, http://lianamerlo.wordpress.com/. Well done liana, you’ve won some minor exposure on a science blog! Liana wanted to know the most likely ways the world will end.  I thought I’d let The Quirk answer this one.

How the world will end is actually pretty mundane.  The Sun will eventually turn much of its hydrogen and helium supply into heavier elements. Once this has happened the sun will expand into a Red Giant, eventually growing large enough to burn the earth to cinders and eventually cause it to disintegrate and fall into the sun. YAWN! I think what Liana really wants to know is how the world as we know it will end. Here are a few of the possible theories:


Soon the rising sea will engulf us all, leaving us in a horrible Waterworld-esqe existence.  I haven’t seen that film, but its got Kevin Costner in it, so I can only imagine it is terrible. Global warming is caused by greenhouse gas emissions, and our only chance of survival is to stop driving/making stuff/buying stuff/thinking and hope it just goes away.

Destroy-ability: 9/10; start building your arks people


If its good enough to kill the dinosaurs, its good enough to kill us.  Step one a massive asteroid hits earth. Step two a huge mass of dust is sent into the atmosphere, blocking the sun. Step three the world is plunged into coldness, and we all freeze to death.  Actually, come to think of it, if this happens soon it will balance out all that pesky global warming.

Destroy-ability: 3/10; I‘ve seen that film Armageddon, everything worked out, except for Bruce Willis


Jesus comes back to earth and saves all the good souls, while the rest of us experience Hell on Earth.

Destroy-ability: 10/10 or 0/10; depends on your faith, you pick

So the smart money is on climate change to piss on our parade, but don’t discount other possibilities. Simon Cowell could use his increasing media influence to hypnotise us all Demon Headmaster style.  Obama’s health care reform could be passed, causing chaos by saving too many american’s lives. Immigrants (see The Daily Mail). Alien Invasion. Who knows?

Wasted Energy: Alternative Fuel Solutions? Rubbish

February 8, 2010

I’ve written an article over at Our Green Earth, go check it out:


Fusion: Hotter Than the Sun

February 3, 2010

Incidentally light (and heat) leaving the sun travels for 8 minutes, exactly the same time it takes to turn an apple pie into a lethal weapon.  Fusion power is what powers the sun and there is hopes that it could be harnessed here on earth.  At the centre of the sun hydrogen atoms (specifically the isotopes deuterium and tritium) fuse together to produce helium, this process releases an enormous amount of energy.  Scientists hope to one day reproduce this process on earth, and a new finding has brought us one step closer.

Experiments at the National Ignition Facility in the US have shown that ignition of fusion fuel could be achieved using a laser.  By firing 192 lasers at a tiny pellet of deuterium and tritium, plasma was successfully produced without obscuring the lasers themselves.  Handling plasma has always presented a hurdle to progressing with fusion power.  At temperatures of 109 K very little can survive, so creating vessels to contain the plasma requires more than just reinforced steel.

The ITER is the vessel that scientist hope can contain the plasma of a fusion reaction so that heat can be extracted from it.  A collaborative effort between 7 national and supranational bodies, the ITER is due to begin construction of its tokamak in 2011.  A tokamak uses magnetic fields to confine the plasma rather than physical methods, this allows the plasma to be created without damaging any structures.  If all goes to plan construction should be complete by 2018.  Bringing us ever so closer to creating our own mini-sun here on earth.

Why Would You Go Into Space?

January 27, 2010

Later this year NASA plans to retire its remaining Space Shuttles signaling an end to another era of manned space flights.  The replacement for the space shuttle is lauded to be the Ares 1 rocket but developmental issues have left many people wondering whether the USA have a future in human space exploration.  With the International Space Station possibly set to crash into the Pacific Ocean in 2015 is the whole future of mankind in space in jeopardy?

The original manned space missions were little more than exhibitions of power between the USSR and USA.  During the “Cold War” grand gestures such as sending a man to the moon meant something to both the governments and people of each country.  Now 50% of american people believe the money spent on NASA should be cut. After the break up of the Soviet Union the USA emerged as the singular global superpower.  The USA have nothing to prove or gain from sending people into space.  NASA’s focus in recent years has been looking for life in space rather than sending it into orbit.  Missions to explore mars, looking for water on the moon and searching Jupiter’s moons for signs of life can all be done effectively with robots.

If sending people into the depths of space no longer appeals to the american people or government, who is interested?  Recent years have seen a few odd eccentrics pay to be sent into orbit. Space flight is being looking into by a number of commercial ventures, including Virgin Galactic, but its likely that commercial missions will focus of sending satellites into space.  There are two emerging powers that are making strides to fill the human shaped void in space left by the USA. India and China have both signaled their intentions to send people into space, once again prestige is the reason. Recently industrialised  China (taikonauts) and India (the newly named vyomanauts) feel they need to prove to the world both there ambitions and financial clout. Billions will be spent, but will it really be worth it?  China already exudes a massive influence on the world’s economy, it has nothing to prove.  Would we be impressed anyway?

The Quirk: Promiscuous Bird

January 24, 2010

Scientists have found the world’s most promiscuous bird according to the BBC.  Now I love a good story about a slutty bird or two, so I was intrigued.  The saltmarsh sparrow, found in the marshes of Connecticut, developed its loose morals as an evolutionary reaction to flooding.  Just in case a mother loses her eggs in a flood she needs to shack up quickly with any bird she can find.  There is a chance his genetic material will be pants.  To avoid poor offspring they hedge their bets with several mates, so scientists don’t doubt that knobbing multiply partners isn’t a good tactic.  Supposedly “The researchers found that 95% of females mated with more than one male during each nesting period.”, the dirty little whores.  On average chicks in the same nest had a 23% chance of having the same father, not too dissimilar to family statistics in Croydon.

The best thing about this story was the BBC’s choice of headline “Sexy sparrow exposed as world’s most promiscuous bird”.  Just because they have a lot of sex doesn’t make them sexy.  I know plenty of munters that have sex all the time.  Though alcohol has a large part to play.  I can only assume that the author Jody Bourton is some kind of avian pervert.  Saying that though, I’ve written about the sexual habits of sparrows and chimps in the past week, so it could be a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Finally enjoy the soulful sound of Timberland and Nelly Furtado:

The Quirk

Peer Review

January 21, 2010

Anyone that has read Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science will know the importance of the peer review system to science.  Scientists will write papers on any discoveries and submit these papers to journals for publication.  This way their work can be scrutinised and critically assessed by other experts in the field.  These journals are rarely read by the general public though.  Publications such as New Scientist and Nature provide a link from scientists to the public, but much of the science news we digest is reported by the media without verification of facts and figures.  We wouldn’t expect important decisions to be based on hearsay?

In 1998 Syed Hasnain, an indian glaciologist, stated he thought all the glaciers in the eastern and central portions of the himalayas would disappear by 2035.  These claims were never repeated in a peer-reviewed journal and Syed now says his claims were speculative.  However these claims were reported as “very likely” in a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  The IPCC have now apologised for the mistake, however the question of how and why the claim was included in the first place still remains.

At times the world of science can seem murky and underhand.  Occurrences like the Climategate scandal show that information isn’t always freely available to those that want to or need to see it.  The peer-review system can lead to some scientists being frozen out if they want to publish unpopular views.  A balance must be struck, we want reliable data that has been critical assessed by experts, but we want that information widely available too.  It is important though that any science news story is supplied with appropriate published sources of the original study, so look out for mentions of papers and where they are published, so you don’t get caught out like the IPCC.

Professor Simon

What ever happened to Swine Flu?

January 19, 2010

In the summer of 2009 swine flu was on everyone’s lips, quite literally in the minds of the World Health Organisation.  Warnings of a new pandemic led to hilarious sightings of surgical masks being worn by some members of the public.  Summer came and went, the massacre never came, but we were promised swine flu by the bucket load this winter.  It never came.  So why all the fuss?  Members of the Council of Europe are asking the same question.

The contraction numbers of swine flu in the UK may never be known as many ‘sufferers’ were prescribed the antiviral Tamiflu without even seeing a doctor.  We do know that deaths were far lower than some projections suggested.  Should the WHO be made to answer to suggestions that swine flu was blown out of proportion?  The role of the media in the coverage of swine flu must be also acknowledged.  The summer is often a slow news period and fear sells newspapers, or in the 21st century increases web traffic.

The most significant feature of swine flu was the speed at which it spread around the globe.  We now live in the age of international travel, and the H1N1 virus seemed to spread like wild fire.  The slow rate in which vaccines were produced exposed some of the problems we may have if a more virulent virus spreads as easily as swine flu.

On a final note, rather than fuss about wasted money buying vaccines for a flu we couldn’t predict, shouldn’t we be happy we didn’t die?

Professor Simon