Posts Tagged ‘Science’


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:

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, 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.

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