Smell something fishy?

Two recent TV programmes have got me thinking about who is responsible for the public’s opinions of science and the important science policies that affect their lives.

On Monday night I watched with joy as Sir Paul Nurse charged on his Nobel steed (see what I did there?) at science’s harshest critics; targeting those who cherry pick facts, don’t give a balanced debate and favour shock and awe to entertain their readers – yes, he was talking about journalists and bloggers; those funny creatures who link the supercilious scientists and the fickle general public. But of course he also said that scientists have a responsibility to stand up for science and engage the public directly, perhaps missing out the middle man, as I have also argued in these very pages.

I have also been watching Hugh’s Fish Fight, in which the organic warrior picks a fight with the European Union’s fishing policies. Hugh is incensed by the blatant waste of fish that results from the strict fishing quotas imposed by the EU, which he illustrated for the audience by filling the programme with sad fishermen who were equally incensed at having to land cheap Whiting whilst throwing overboard all their expensive Cod catch. The waste was indeed upsetting and there was a lot of Cod being thrown overboard, but then I got annoyed for a different reason.  These clips were used to argue that there is in fact an abundance of Cod in the North Sea: queue a Fisherman’s rant about the scientists not knowing what they were talking about and that their observations were clearly more valid than those of the scientific establishment. Hugh then went to visit a scientist who studies fish populations. In the two minute interview did we hear about how the scientists measure fish populations or see any graphs for current data on stock levels? No. Maybe the scientist didn’t offer up said information to Hugh, but if Hugh and his production team had wanted to give a balanced and informative view to the programme’s audience would these things not have made sense to be included?

And so I wonder, what can scientists do in the face of campaigners with an agenda? Campaigners who have control of the media: the gateway to the public’s mind and soul. Is it fair to expect everyone to be balanced? Do scientists themselves give balanced thought to everything they do? Paul Nurse thinks so but I’m not so convinced. I certainly fall foul of being biased in these pages, keeping an audience entertained whilst being completely fair is very difficult to achieve in the few hundred words that most journalists have at their disposal.

A solution is beyond me. In an age of not only free and globally accessible media but of media that can be written by anyone, it’s no good for scientists to throw their rattle out of the pram and scream foul play; if someone wants to write something then they can and will. So more than ever, the responsibility lies with the reader to make up their own mind, the best we can do is give people as much information as we can. Some people are more willing than others to search for the information that they require so it’s the job of scientists and those in the know to get the information out there to the masses in ways that are accessible.

The week in Physics (week beginning 17/01/2011)

Wave generated ‘white hole’ boosts Hawking radiation theory

Hawking radiation is a concept that sees photons escaping the event horizon of a black hole, where the gravitational effects start to draw all particles and light into its centre. A team from the University of British Columbia have designed an experiment with a trough of flowing water that contains an airplane wing shaped obstacle, to model the Hawking radiation effect.

The obstacle creates a region of high velocity flow which blocks surface waves generated downstream from flowing back upstream. Shallow surface waves split to form pairs of deep water waves similar to photons in Hawking’s theory, seeing one flow upstream and the other down and like a black holes they show a thermal spectrum.

Answers to black hole evolution on the horizon?

Analysing the region outside of the event horizon of a black hole may provide ways of determining its evolutionary state. Researchers at Queen Mary’s college, University of London have developed a method based on the Kerr solution of black holes, that which is time independent in general relativity and rotating. This new analysis looking outside the event horizon shows how much a dynamical black hole differs from the Kerr solution and at what final evolutionary state the black hole is in.

Better turbine spacing for wind turbines

Wind farms are cropping up on larger and larger scales across the orld, however operators are still looking for the most efficient way to space them.

Charles Meneveau a fluid dynamics and turbulence expert has found the optimal spacings for wind turbines, which require greater spacing between individual turbines. Currently the average spacing required between turbines is 7 turbine diameters, however the optimal spacing predicted to improve the efficiencies by up to 10% require spacings of 15 turbine diameters. This new model accounts for why current arrays appear to produce less energy than predicted. Taking into account local atmosphere wind flow and turbulence drawing stronger air from the upper atmosphere, the power drawn from the wind can be increased.

Insect eyes inspiring solar cells

Japanese researchers have been inspired by the eyes of moths to create anti reflective coatings for solar cells that will reduce the amount of light that is reflected thus ensuring the maximum amount of light is absorbed by the cell. Moth eyes were the best anti reflective coatings found by the team studying the eyes of numerous insects. The difficulty ahead for the team is to produce a seamless high throughput that will roll out into a film for the coating.

How to tame hammer droplets

In old buildings people tend to hear pounding noises in the plumbing systems, this is a well known effect called a water hammer. A water hammer occurs when a valve suddenly opens or closes in a pipe carrying water or steam causing a pressure wave to travel down a pipe with enough force to cause a burst pipe. New research has shown a similar effect happening when a droplet hits a surface. The effect can be applied to steam based power stations to explain turbine degredation and can be used to increase durability in the future. This should increase the longevity of turbines and overall efficiences, reducing downtime and increasing output thus curbing emissions.

Smaller effects are used in the research of hydrophobic (water repelling) surfacess. When a droplet hits the surface it undergoes rapid deceleration and high pressures exerted account for pitting and erosion occurring on turbines. Studies will look at small scale texturing to reduce pressure exersion and wetting on the surface of turbine blades.

Darwin’s Cathedral


Reviewed: ‘Darwin’s Cathedral’ by Dr. David Sloan Wilson

So, when I decided that I would write a book review blog for Science Brainwaves I was a mere three pages through the introduction of ‘Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion and the Nature of Society’. With such a grandiose title I should have been more prepared for the gruelling task I had undertaken by opening the front cover. This book is no light summer read to be enjoyed over a glass of something cold and alcoholic; it demands the attention of your finest neurons.  Nonetheless, if you stick to your guns, it is more than worth the effort.

The idea Dr. David Sloan Wilson is selling to the reader is that a successful religion functions to make its followers work better as a group. In turn, this helps a religious group outcompete a non-religious group and allows the group to dominate and reproduce in just the same way as with the natural selection we know and love. But surely religions can’t ‘evolve’ like trees, or dinosaurs or humans? Well the idea is that religions culturally evolve – the beliefs and practices that constitute a religion change and grow over time. Those beliefs and practices that lead a group to be successful will naturally stick around, while those that put their group at a disadvantage will be lost to the mists of time.

This seemingly simple idea is examined from every which way, from the point of view of evolutionary biology and from the point of view of the social sciences, while a convincing array of examples are presented, from the smallest tribal faiths to the biggest religious behemoths. The length that Wilson goes to in order to defend his thesis may be enough to put off a reader with only a mild interest. However, if like me you find the phenomenon of religion fascinating, then you will find ‘Darwin’s Cathedral’ engaging and thought provoking. I found myself coming out of the book with a new found respect for the incredible complex constructs that religions are, though even more amazed by the power of evolutionary processes.

Wilson is an evolutionary biologist, and you might be forgiven for thinking his book on religion would constitute a full frontal attack of the Richard Dawkins variety. However, Wilson is quietly respectful of religious believers, and spends more time chastising militant atheists than pointing out any foibles of religious belief. This is a refreshing change from the tirades of the atheist brigade, although ultimately Wilson’s thesis is pretty damning for the truth of beliefs in gods and supernatural stuff – religious beliefs don’t need to be true in order to motivate any group-beneficial behaviours.  Whether or not you think Wilson’s got it right, there’s certainly a lot here to make you think.

Wilson does warn the unwary reader that he hasn’t dumbed down. Yet despite some thorny content, his style remains very readable throughout and he resists using more technical terminology than is necessary, leaving only the concepts for you to get your mental teeth into. The result is that by the end you feel a little exhausted, and ready for a Dan Brown or two, but also satisfied that nothing was out of your league. If you have a penchant for talking about religions over a pint, and fancy a challenging new year read to forget the fact that it’s January, I would heartily recommend ‘Darwin’s Cathedral’.

Next to be reviewed: ‘Life Ascending’ by Nick Lane (much easier I’m hoping…)

VIDEO: Christmas Lecture 2010 – Weird Physics


On the 17th of Dec 2010 we held our second Christmas Lecture on the topic of “Weird Physics” – all those mind-bending things that physicists talk about when describing how our universe works, like parallel universes, black holes, cats that were dead and alive at the same time and time travel. Dr Paul Stevenson lead the lecture that covered some of physics most confusing topics, including relativity and quantum mechanics, in an accessible manner enjoyed by kids and adults alike.

After the lecture there was a festive reception with refreshments, mince pies and some exhibitions of some of the ideas covered in the lecture – as well as a quiz, with the winner walking away with a pretty nifty science kit to take home. Like last year, there was also a bookstall provided by the local children’s bookshop Rhyme and Reason, also featuring some science books for adults, too. To watch the highlights from the Christmas lecture check out this video:

We had a great time organizing it and the feedback from those who attended mirror this as well. We thank the Institute of Physics Yorkshire and North East branch, the university of Sheffield outreach department and alumni foundation for their support, and are very grateful to those individuals who made the lecture possible. We look forward to seeing you this Christmas!

The economics of science

Britain was once called the factory of the World. Back in the mid 19th Century she was the first country to go through an industrial revolution; technology of course drove this rapid change in the way things were produced, making everyday consumables cheaper and Britain the most economically competitive country on the planet. Mechanical looms, the steam engine and cast iron production are just three of the British inventions that were a result of the emphasis on science and technology in the Victorian age.

The world bought our products bringing huge wealth into the country, wealth that is more than evident in the surviving architecture of our large cities. However, they not only bought the products that we made with our new more-efficient machines, they also bought the machines themselves, to improve their own industries. So before long America and the rest of Europe had caught up technologically, thus reducing Britain’s competitive edge and by the end of the 19th Century Britain was having to rely on her colonies to buy goods and support home industry (as they were under British rule colonies had no choice where to import from). So even though the greatest and most significant technological innovations of the industrial age came from this little island, we ourselves failed to keep up with them and utilise them to their full advantage. By the First World War Britain’s industry was lagging behind.

We may have lost much of our industry and we are certainly no longer the factory of the World, but we haven’t lost innovation, we are still world leaders in many hi-tech industries such as satellite manufacturing and our research institutions are some of the most respected globally.  A report a few days ago by PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) said that Britain must break into the new emerging markets of Asia and South America if it doesn’t want to slip further and further down the economic league tables in the next 50 years. We can’t use China’s model of economic growth – by once again being the factory of the world – so we must look to our strengths.

Education and technology are, in my view, our strongest assets. Investment is key to maintaining our competitive edge and not making the same mistake we made over a hundred years ago by letting the world beat us at our own game.

Grabbing attention



There are certain things in the environment that grab our attention – loud noises, flashes of light and rapidly moving objects.

These are all reasons why we are likely to spot ambulances dashing towards us and mean that we can act in time to get out of the way.

However, there are also more subtle things that attract attention when we are surrounded by a more mundane environment.

Certain properties of the world are more SALIENT to our visual system than others.

These are: changes in colour (e.g. red to green); changes in contrast (e.g. sharp to blurred ); changes in intensity (e.g. bright to dim); changes in orientation (e.g. vertical to horizontal).

These are some of the reasons why human EYES are so effective in capturing attention – the iris is coloured, there is a sharp contrast between the pupil, iris and sclera and there is a change in orientation of the contrast boundaries around the eye.

In our environment there are often many other things that share these features that compete for our attention e.g. traffic signs, advertisements, bright clothing. As we look around some of the things we look at are influenced by this change in VISUAL SALIENCY.

When we look at pictures, we can break them down into their constituent properties. Below are two photograph and their associated VISUAL SALIENCY maps.

These maps can predict where you will look in a scene on the basis of visual saliency. The little “1” on the maps above show the most salient point. The following 9 most salient points can be found by following the red line around the photos.

The model doesn’t get it exactly right as we are able to over-power these properties and CHOOSE to look where we want but when we first see pictures we are more likely to look at the salient regions, before we’ve got the gist of what is going on.

At Sheffield, we’ve recently published a paper which investigates whether people with autism and Aspergers look at scenes in the same way.

In the journal Neuropsychologia, we have shown that people with autism also show this bias for looking at salient regions when they first see scenes (Freeth, Foulsham & Chapman, 2011).

However, we also showed that both typically developing viewers and viewers with autism and Aspergers are more strongly drawn to looking at social aspects of scenes – the people – even when they are not “visually salient”.

This finding is very surprising as it was previously thought that people with autism wouldn’t be drawn to look at people.

However, there was also an important difference: participants with autism/Aspergers were significantly slower to look at people’s head and faces when they were looking at scenes than the typically developing participants.

It seems that the fast-track mechanism to attend to other people is absent in people who have autism/Aspergers.

New campaign launched to save coral reefs

Jamie Kendrick

The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has announced a plan to protect some of the world’s most important and precious coral reef species. The society has selected ten of the most evolutionary distinct and genetically endangered (EDGE) corals which face a high risk of immediate extinction.

The corals chosen include a range of rarities; from functionally important reef-builders – the elkhorn coral Acropora palmata, architecturally elaborate forms – the elliptical star coral Dichocoenia stokesii, and ocean oddities such as the ctenella coral Ctenella chagius – which resembles a human brain and is found only around a small island chain in the Indian ocean called the Chagos Archipelago.

Rachel Jones, senior aquarium keeper at London Zoo explained that, “having a top ten focuses attention on individual species and holds them up as flagships for the habitats they represent”.

According to the ZSL’s project co-ordinator Catherine Head, corals could be subject to “functional extinction in twenty to fifty years due predominantly to climate change”.

The project will adopt a regional approach and help fund, train and support conservationists with the aim of improving the resilience of the world’s most diverse coral species so that they flourish in the future.

Coral reefs – dubbed ‘marine rainforests’ – cover less than 1% of the Earth’s surface yet support an astounding one third of all marine biodiversity and provide invaluable ecosystem services to a variety of life.

However as is well documented, human mismanagement and over-exploitation are driving reefs and their constituent species towards extinction. Pollution, ocean acidification and overfishing all pose severe threats to the future of the world’s reefs. The projected 1∙5-4.5 degree rise in temperature expected by the end of the century could account for ninety five per-cent of all reefs, say the World Wildlife Federation (WWF).

Projects and collaborations such as the ZSL’s action plan and the recent Coral Triangle Initiative represent contrasting but valiant attempts to safeguard the future of the iconic reefs. Currently the prospects look bleak, but with further international co-operation and implemented protection measures put into place, these wondrously rich keystone ecosystems could yet be cherished in years to come and rescued from the brink.

Social media: students go cold turkey

Michaela Livingstone

200 students from the University of Maryland have kicked off a global study looking at young adult’s use of media, finding that the students actually experience symptoms akin to drug withdrawal.

The study, called Unplugged, which has also taken place at Bournemouth University, asked its students to go 24 hours without using any form of media: newspapers, televisions, iPods, phones, laptops, Facebook, Twitter or radio, and then blog about it afterwards.

As reported on the Unplugged website, many students reported feelings of loneliness, isolation and even physical symptoms like feeling fidgety.

“I noticed physically, that I began to fidget”, said one student, another reporting that instant messaging and texting their friends was comforting.

Students in the British contingent noted that making any plans was almost impossible without phones and Facebook, as things change within minutes, so making plans the day before was pointless.

The conclusion of the American study states that today’s youths’ use of media has not just changed the way they find and use information, but has also, “…caused them to make different and distinctive social, and arguably moral, decisions”. The study’s conclusions also draw light to the fact that the youth of today are “fickle” and do not care where their information comes from, rather it is the information itself that is coveted the most.

Although only a small and qualitative study that maybe cannot be considered to be truly representative of the teenage and young adult population of the US or the UK, it may well be seen as a worrying sign that our youth are just too dependent on media, and the potential harm this may be having.

The study did however find that the young were capable of developing coping skills during their media abstinence. So maybe it’s not all bad news.

Weird Physics – a quiz

First of all, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

It’s been a great year for Science Brainwaves, we’ve come a long way, and this year we’ll only be bigger and better, so watch this space on news of events coming your way in 2011.

Just before Christmas we held our annual Christmas Lecture, this year on ‘weird physics’ – the mind-bending ideas that physicists use to explain our reality, that include baffling things such as particles being in two places at once, black holes and a cat that was both dead and alive at the same time.

I’ll write more about the Christmas Lecture in my next post, but for now we thought it would be a good idea to publish the quiz that our head of volunteers, Ben Dornan, wrote as the Quiz Master. We had some prizes for kids to do, which were:

1st: Chemistry set plus a voucher for rhyme&reason and a copy of the Horrible Science Seriously Squishy Science Book,

2nd voucher for rhyme&reason and a copy of the Horrible Science Seriously Squishy Science Book,

and the runners up all got a copy of the book.

Below are the questions and answers, a bit of quizzery to pass some time. Of course if you didn’t attend the lecture the answers mightn’t be obvious, but we’ll cover information from the lecture later on, in the mean time Google is your friend!

Question 1: Before Einstein published the theories that eventually made him famous, he had another job. What was it?
Office Clerk
International Man of Mystery

Question 2: Which of these is one of the important insights of Einstein?
There is No Such Thing as Time
The Earth Orbits the Sun
Speed is Distance Divided by Time
The Speed of Light in a Vacuum is Constant

Question 3: In Einstein’s famous equation E=mc^2, what does E stand for?

Question 4: Moving fast changes the way we experience time. If one twin left Earth to go on a fast trip in space, while the other stayed, who would be older when they got back?
They Would Both Be the Same
The One Who Left
(The One Who Stayed)
They Would Both Be Younger

Question 5: The Large Hadron Collider in Geneva is looking for the Higgs Boson. What is this particle meant to explain?

Question 6: What was demonstrated by the double slit experiment?
(Wave-Particle Duality)
The Speed of Light
Quantum Tunnelling
The Existence of Black Holes

Question 7: In Schrodinger’s thought experiment, what is the strange and interesting property of the cat involved?
It Has Two Tails
(It Is Both Dead and Alive at the Same Time)
It Doesn’t Age
It Can Travel Faster Than Light

Question 8: Which of the following is NOT a real interpretation of quantum physics?
(The Berlin Interpretation)
The Copenhagen Interpretation
The Bohmian Interpretation
The Many-Worlds Interpretation


If you’ve got any suggestions of events you’d like to see next year, get in touch, or let us know on our forums!

May 2011 be a good one for all!