Archive for January, 2010

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?

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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

The Quirk: Meat and Two Veg

January 16, 2010

Sometimes something strange happens in science, and i want nothing to do with it.  Thats why we have The Quirk.

Chimpanzees enter into “deals” whereby they exchange meat for sex, according to researchers. This should come as no surprise to any male readers, and though “meat” plays a large part in sex the gift given is usually alcoholic.  This type of subtle prostitution is endemic within the animal kingdom; consider the intricate nest displays of the Satin Bower Bird (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus), perfectly constructed twig hollows are decorated with an array of blue and shiny objects.  We humans are some of the worst culprits, how else do you explain the 12 carat emerald-cut diamond ring sitting on the finger of Melania Trump, wife of Donald Trump, twenty-four years her senior.  Just this week I spent £100 on presents for my girlfriend, this may not sound a lot but I buy economy bread from Asda.  I might be able to have sex without the shoes, rings and bottles of Corona, but it’s not a risk I am willing to take.

The female of the species always has the upper hand when it comes to sexual relations; let us consider the fate of male Black Widow spider (Latrodectus mactans).  To get his many legs over he must first spin a web for a potential mate. As if this wasn’t enough, Mrs. Black earns the second half of her name by occasionally partaking in some sexual cannibalism.  That may sound appealing now but it results in death.  My hat goes off to all male Black Widows, prepared to pay the ultimate price for sex.

So if this is hardly unusual male behaviour why was the research done in the first place?  It should come as no surprise that the findings are those of a woman.  Christina Gomes and her team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany studied chimpanzees in the jungles of the Ivory Coast.    Men are well aware of the lengths they must go to in order to mate but Christina seems oblivious to the truth, planning on extending her research to encompass the behaviour of humans.  The work could be done with hunter-gatherer communities in South America, though Walkabout in Croydon would yield much the same results.  The study focused on the how the donation of meat to a lady chimp would effect a male’s future chances of copulation with her.  The team found that sharing meat with a female doubled the likelihood of having sex with that female at a later date.  The evolutionary advantage to sharing meat is obvious; meat equals sex (WAHEY!) equals offspring.  Prostitution is engrained in the DNA of animals.

The conclusion I take from this all must be that Christina and her team, of unspecified sex, are either naïve or chimp sex perverts.  When postulating the theory “men have to do stuff they don’t really want to in order to get some” did they really have to watch monkeys have sex?  I think not, but I don’t think the scientific journal PLoS One would print a paper entitled “Monkey Whores Prefer Meat to Bananas”.

The Quirk

3-D films

January 16, 2010

The recent release of James Cameron’s blockbuster Avatar has dawned a new era in the cinematic experience.  3-D films are all the rage, and in the case of Avatar look spectacular, but how does it work?

3-D cinema relies on tricking the brain into thinking the flat 2-D image being viewed actually has depth.  To do this each eye must be shown slightly different images.  Some of you may be familiar with the old style red and blue 3-D glasses.  One lens blocks out blue light, whereas the other block out red light, therefore, depending on the image the two eyes with see two slightly different images.  The brain reconciles this difference as viewing a 3-D image.  However this method severely reduces the quality of the image as some colour is filtered out.  The new style of glasses rely on polarised light.

As you may or may not know, light is a wave.  A typical beam of light will have waves co-ordinated at many different angles.  However pass this light through a polarising film and all but one orientation of the light waves are blocked.  This is used to reduce the glare from car headlights.  In the new style 3-d glasses each lens contains a polarising film at different angles.  The screen projects the image at two separate light orientations coordinating to the lenses of the glasses.

All of this means that if you have one eye, 3-D films are not ready for you, you’ll have to wait for holographic technology.

Professor Simon

Why is it so cold?

January 12, 2010

Anyone who has been in Britain in the last few weeks would have experienced the biting cold, ice and snow.  Some parts of Britain experiencing temperatures below that recommended for the refrigeration of food.  In fact it was so cold my toilet froze over.  In the midst of a world where global warming is on the lips of everybody this extend cold period could be confusing. Why is it cold?

First things first, this period of cold weather says nothing about climate change.  I’m sure scientist could be found to argue that this cold snap disproves or proves the world is warming.  The weather in the British Isles is largely affected by the atlantic ocean.  The wind and rain that are strongly associated with Britain are caused by areas of warm low pressure blowing over from the west.  Though we may usually associated wind and rain with the cold during truly cold periods the sky is often clear.  A high pressure system of cold air is sitting over Britain blocking any warm atlantic air.  The strange thing about weather is if this system of high pressure occurs in the summer, we have beautiful clear skies and scorching hot weather.

Weather is notoriously hard to predict, this cold period could abate in a few days or in a matter of weeks.  The behaviour of high pressure systems and when they dissipate are not set in stone, remember a forecast is just an estimation, not a promise

Professor Simon

Welcome to Simple Sciman

January 11, 2010

Science put simply.

Science and technology are forming an increasingly important role in the Human experience, from geopolitical issues like climate change to ethical issues sure as cloning.  Unfortunately the science isn’t always so easy to understand, hopefully Simple Sciman can help.  Each week I hope to dissect the pertinent issues in science and put them in layman terms.  What’s really happening and why is it important?

I look forward to hearing from readers about issues they feel need discussing.

Oh the name, simple simon simple sci-man, geddit

Professor Simon