Saturday 22 December 2007

Counting Chimps

It has been known for a while that chimps are more evolved than humans - well, their genome has changed more than ours since our common ancestor - but recent studies have shown that chimps have outstanding numeracy abilities that outstrip our own in some cases.

Sponsor for this week's show - GotoMeeting: Try GotoMeeting free for 30 days! For this special offer, visit

This week in the last Mr Science Show for 2007, we take a look at these special chimp abilities. Listen to the show here.

You can find more info on Plus and if you are not convinced, take a look at these videos:

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Let's have a ramble about quantum physics

Sponsor for this week's show - GotoMeeting: Try GotoMeeting free for 30 days! For this special offer, visit

Quantum Physics is a confusing topic for many. One person who makes a living out of understanding and explaining it is Professor Tony Sudbery.

I spoke to Professor Sudbery at the York Science Festival about all things quantum and his talk at the Festival entitled Alice and Bob in the Quantum Wonderland. Frankly, I was baffled by much of this conversation, although it was a thoroughly enjoyable chat!

You can listen to this show here

Friday 23 November 2007

Science, Cricket, Fitness and Psychology

Do you need to be fit to play cricket? Do the best batsmen in the world really have the ability to predict the type of ball they will receive before it even arrives? And is cricket really more of a mental game than a physical one?

These are the questions that we are tackling this week on Mr Science. We have discussed them in previous issues, but this week we are talking to the experts.

In this rather longer episode, we talk to Dr Rob Duffield from the School of Human Movement at Charles Sturt University who has found that indeed you really do not need to be as physically fit to play cricket as you do other sports such as football. We also have a chat about the direction of research with regards to sport and cricket in particular, and how scientific endeavour is reforming the way cricketers train and prepare for games.

We chat to
Dr Allistair McRobert from Liverpool John Moores University who's work has shown that the best batsmen can predict to some extent where a bowler will bowl. This work also encompasses a look into the subconscious mental game of cricket and how the most successful players are more mentally prepared for the top level than lesser players.

Finally, I discuss the role of psychology in cricket and the various measures that are being put in place to look after the cricketer's brain.

I also wrote this up and some of it appeared in the Canberra Times - click here for a pdf of the article. I also wrote something for All Out Cricket but that article is not online, so you'll just have to go to the UK and buy it!

Listen to this show here

Friday 9 November 2007

The evolution of language in Europe

This week we talk to Dr Quentin Atkinson, an evolutionary psychologist from the University of Reading in the UK, about the evolution of language in Europe.

Languages, like genes, provide vital clues about human prehistory. The Indo-European languages, now spoken across Europe and the near East, show strikingly similar words for some meanings, indicating that they have come from a common source, now long forgotten. Atkinson and his team used statistical models of language evolution derived from evolutionary biology to date the age of the Indo-European language family and so test between the two main competing theories of Indo-European origins - the 'Kurgan horsemen' and 'Anatolian farming' hypotheses.

This podcast also comes from the York Science Festival. Listen to this show here.

Tuesday 6 November 2007

Sponsor Marc in Movember!

It's that time again, Movember (the month formerly known as November). I'll be growin a Mo (slang for Moustache) to raise funds for The Prostate Cancer Charity.
  • Prostate cancer is now the most common cancer diagnosed in men in the U.K. with at least one man dying every hour from the disease.
  • Every year about 35,000 men in the U.K. are diagnosed with prostate cancer and about 10,000 men die from the disease.
  • One man in 11 will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime in the U.K.
To sponsor my Mo (moustache) and fight against prostate cancer please go here.

To bring some science to this, you may remember last year's mo-tastic Mr Science take on it all. Following these links for all you will ever need to know about moustaches and science
More info is available at

Movember is proudly grown by Bulldog Natural Grooming and Playboy.
Movember is proud partners with The Prostate Cancer Charity.

Tuesday 16 October 2007

How maths can save your life, Euler and Plus Magazine

I have recently become an editor of Plus Magazine, a free, award winning online mathematics magazine that has articles written by the world's great mathematicians and science communicators, including Stephen Hawking and Marcus du Sautoy. This is why I have been a bit slack on Mr Science...

This week's podcast is again from the York Science Festival, and the interview is featured on an upcoming episode of the new Plus podcast. I talk to Professor Chris Budd about all sorts of interesting maths from Euler, Maths Communication, modelling Santa getting around the world, how maths can save your life, climate modelling and how mathematicians can pick up at parties. Professor Budd loves his maths! If you like the maths podcast, get over to Plus and subscribe!

The mp3 can be found here.

We have recently launched a writing competition. The Plus new writers award is trying to find people who can bring mathematics to life. The competition is open to new writers of any age and from any background who can explain a mathematical topic or application they think the world needs to know about. The winning entries will be read by an international audience of over two hundred thousand in the June 2008 issue of Plus, and the winners will receive an iPod and signed copies of popular maths books by some of the best science writers today, and a subscription to the journal Nature, kindly donated by its publisher. The closing date is March 31st 2008.

The competition is kindly supported by the Maths, Stats and Operational Research Network, a Subject Centre of the Higher Education Academy, and the London Mathematical Society. More info can be found on the website

Thursday 27 September 2007

York Science Festival Episode 1

This week's podcast comes from the BA Festival of Science, the UK's foremost celebration of science, engineering and technology and its impact on our society. This is the first of a series of podcasts.

We talk to Sue Hordienko from the organising committee to find out what it's all about, and have a chat to the following researchers presenting their work at the Festival:
  1. Clare Chandler - Factors affecting clinical decision making in northeast Tanzania
  2. Marco Columbo - University of Edinburgh - Mathematical Optimisation
  3. Simon Blamey - University of South Hampton - Modelling railway station usage
  4. Alice Courvoisier - University of Leeds - Solar Physics and Sun Spots
  5. Fiona Jordan - University College London - Cultural Evolution in the Pacific
This show can be found here

Friday 7 September 2007

Spoofing Biometric Security Systems

This week on the podcast, I talk to Associate Professor Stephanie Schuckers from Clarkson University about her research into biometric security systems - security systems based upon your physical traits such as fingerprint analysis, voice and face recognition and iris and retina scans. Stephanie's research aims to find vulnerable areas in such systems and so she has fooled fingerprinting systems with simple tools such as play doh.

I am publishing a complete article on biometric systems later this year with The Helix magazine.

Grab the mp3 here.

Wednesday 22 August 2007

Sex before Sport?

It is the virile sports-person's eternal question - should one abstain from a little bit of nookie before a big sporting event?

The question has again been raised, this time with regard to the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Favourites New Zealand have vowed to go without special cuddles for however long they remain in the tournament. The All Blacks have conspired methods to lose each World Cup since 1987, despite being indisputably the best team in the world throughout most of this period. It pains me to admit this being an Australian, but despite brief periods of dominance by the Wallabies and the Springboks, and a very timely peak by England in 2003, the All Blacks are always the team to beat.

So, the latest Kiwi strategy to grab hold of the Cup is to lay off the loving. But is there any scientific basis to this? Does sex really have an effect on your physical sporting performance, or is this a psychological tactic to have the players' minds ready on game day?

It is certainly not a new theory. Before the Olympics in Athens 2004, hundreds of athletes pledged not to indulge, however even more took the opportunity to do the exact opposite. 130,000 condoms and 30,000 packets of lubricant were made available to the athletes, and in Sydney, athletes had a quota of three condoms a day - and this did not meet demand! This is no real surprise if you think about the Olympic village atmosphere - thousands of very fit, attractive, young and confident males and females from all over the world, probably up for anything without a care in the world once their events were over. Perhaps this was something like a massive backpacker hostel where everyone was rich and attractive without the dodgy old local trying to pick up the Contiki tourists.

Do those who do abstain have a performance advantage? Love him or hate him (I think he's great), WBA Super-Middleweight champion Anthony Mundine is one of Australia's best athletes. However, Mundine abstained for 10 weeks before his first world title fight against Sven Ottke, and we know what happened (Mundine was knocked out in the 10th round). I can not find any reports of Ottke abstaining.

One of the more amusing sex/sport anecdotes is the banning of former US 100 m champion and 1992 Olympic Bronze Medallist, Dennis Mitchell for showing high levels of testosterone. He had originally escaped ban within the US after claiming that his high levels were a result of having sex at least four times the night before and drinking five bottles of beer. The IAAF overturned this decision and banned him for 2 years.

There is no conclusive evidence that sex the night before an event can have an effect either way on your physical sporting performance, despite what Rocky Balboa's trainer Mickey said, "Women weaken legs."

"There are two possible ways sex before competition could affect performance," said Ian Shrier, a sports medicine specialist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada to National Geographic.

"First, it could make you tired and weak the next day. This has been disproved. The second way is that it could affect your psychological state of mind. This has not been tested."

There is a common perception that ejaculation draws testosterone from the body. Actually, it seems the reverse may be true, as testosterone levels rise in men during sex. Higher testosterone levels are good for explosive sports such as boxing or 100 m sprinting - perhaps Mitchell was telling the truth, and perhaps Mundine should rethink his strategy.

Most scientists also now think that the actual act of sex does not really tire you out physically - it only burns around 50 calories, depending on how you do it of course. What might be bad for you is if you stay up all night and deprive yourself of sleep, or if it was getting drunk that got you into bed in the first place.

Sex can also be relaxing, but the actual physical relaxation post-sex does not last into the next day. Indeed, perhaps sex with the wrong person could make you more agitated the next day. And whether or not being relaxed is a good thing for sport is another question. Certainly, some elite athletes take caffeine pills before a match, and this caused quite a stir in Australia when the then Wallabies captain George Gregan admitted as much. The effects of "legal drugs" such as caffeine would far outweigh the much milder effects of sex the night before.

I suspect the effect, if there is any, is physiological and differs greatly from athlete to athlete. By locking out partners from their hotel rooms, the All Blacks are creating a very tight team environment which may raise their performance. It is not so much the banning of sex, more the banning of non-team members, from their lives. That said, the partners are permitted to stay in the same hotel, if not the same room, and so there may be much sneaking through hallways at midnight. The strategies concerning partners on team trips varies from team to team, with the Australian cricket team now allowing partners to stay with the players. Different levels of personal autonomy work better for different teams.

There may be some difference here between the sexes. Israeli scientist Alexander Olshanietzky has said that women compete better after orgasm, especially high jumpers and runners. So if you are a female competitor, you can always use the argument on an unwilling partner, "it's for good of the country!"

For what it's worth, I'm no international sportsman, but I found that my cricket performance was always best after having enough coffee to make Alex Watson's effort look tiny (I somehow didn't realise my peculator was making my coffee 6 times the normal strength...). I was a fair shire batsman with a hundred and a couple of fifties under my belt in my late teens before sex - and more to the point, late nights and beer - played any part in my life. Nowadays, I struggle! But sport is a mind game, and as you get older, different factors weigh more heavily in your life, and standing around all day in the Australian sun doesn't quite hold the excitement that it used to! I suspect that all sport is like this. If you think that sex before a game is going to help you, then it will. The physical effects are most likely negligible, but if you are happy and confident, or feel loved by a partner, then you will perform better. This is how much of alternative medicine works. And if you are ensconced in your team environment before the game, as all professional teams are, and going through the physical preparations, then the physical effects of sex the night before are non-existant.

If, however, it made you happy and confident, or cranky and disappointed, that's when the effects might kick in.

The podcast can be found here - included are some very candid opinions from sports-people.

And now you can vote in the poll - let me know what you think.

Edit: Here are the results

Should you have sex the night before a big sporting event? (see map)

Yes - Good for your performance:
No - Bad for your performance:
I'll take it when I can get it:
Only if you're married:
Makes absolutely no difference to your performance:
Total Votes: 199
Powered by Blog Flux Polls

Listen to this show here.

Monday 20 August 2007

Why I never took sides

Growing up in 1980's Australia meant watching some absolutely fantastic television.

When you have ads and public television announcements like the following two clips, you can hardly blame any Australian for loving either religion or science! (The science one is not strictly an ad, but still cool.)

If you can not see the embedded clips, check out religion and science.

Monday 13 August 2007

A Terrible Tragedy

One of the great tragedies in modern memory is the extinction of the Yangtze Dolphin.

Indeed, it is something about which mankind should be ashamed.

The Yangtze Dolphin is the first large animal in 50 years to be driven from the planet, and only the fourth entire mammal family in 500 years to be destroyed. What makes it even more devastating is that it is entirely our fault.

Having lived on the planet for 20 million years, time of death was called on Wednesday 8th August with the dolphin officially declared extinct by a report in the journal of the Royal Society, Biology Letters. It is the first species of cetacean (whale, dolphin or porpoise) to be killed off by human activity.

The Yangtze Dolphin was no ordinary dolphin, and the extinction was not of the kind that occurs throughout the natural course of evolution. The Yangtze Dolphin is a freshwater dolphin that separated from other species millions of years ago, and had evolved so distinctly that it qualified as a mammal family in its own right.

The extinction is a dangerous warning. An astounding 10 percent of the world’s population – 600 million people – live in the Yangtze basin. Human activity in the region, including shipping and fishing, is to blame for the dolphin's demise. Container ships and the nets of fishermen have killed off the dolphin, otherwise known as baiji or white-fin. The dangerous fact is that the Yangtze has lost its top predator and the ecosystem is in a state of collapse. The collapse of the Yangtze ecosystem could effect the welfare and livelihoods of these 600 million people.

The Yangtze is a fast flowing river with many unique species. The Chinese alligator, the finless porpoise and the Chinese paddlefish – not seen since 2003 – are also on the brink of extinction.

The extinction notice has come after an intensive six-week search by an international team of marine biologists in December 2006. The last dolphin in a zoo, Qi Qi, lived in the Yangtze port of Wuhan but died of old age in 2002 at 22 years old. Unfortunately, the dolphins never bred in captivity. During the expedition, the scientists counted one large freight vessel every 800m. These container ships destroyed any chance the Dolphin had of navigating by sonar and it ran the risk of being hit by propellers.

The biggest threat came from nets and hooks used by fishermen. The dolphins became entangled or lacerated. Additionally, pollution from the construction of the Three Gorges Dam killed off much of their food source.

Is it the first large animal to become extinct in 50 years. The Caribbean monk seal was last seen in 1952. The three previous mammal families to be killed off are the giant lemurs of Madagascar, the island shrews of the West Indies, and the Thylacine (Tasmanian tiger). Perhaps more famously, the Dodo – a bird – has also recently been wiped from the Earth.

Humans have not of recent times had a great impact on Dolphins. Recently, a crew of Brazilian fishermen was captured on video killing 83 dolphins.

The complete destruction of this unique and high-order animal is more than a complete and utter tragedy, it is a disgrace and something in which we should be ashamed. As an Australian, I am certainly not jumping on my high horse, as Australia does not have a great record in this regard - the Thylacine and indigenous megafauna were killed off mainly by human activity. However, whilst the West has made many many mistakes and sounds hypocritical denouncing mistakes by the developing world, China is no longer a poor country. The development and destruction of the Yangtze represents the massive growth of the Chinese economy, and its terrible after-effects in the same way as deforested America or massively mined Western Australia. One can only hope that the sad loss of the baiji is a reminder to everyone of the destructive environmental events that have occurred in the past, and are very apparently still happening.

A very nice and poignant take on the matter is at Null Hypothesis

The mp3 for this podcast can be found here

Tuesday 7 August 2007

A very cold war

Russia has claimed one of the most inaccessible areas on Earth with a feat of magnificent science and engineering that tests international law, explores hitherto unexplored geography and territory, and asserts the Kremlin’s power in an old-fashioned land grab.

Two minisubmarines planted a titanium alloy Russian flag on the ocean surface, 4261 m under the Arctic Ocean surface at the North Pole. It is the first time the technical feat of reaching the North Pole sea floor in a manned craft has been achieved and is not only a sign of Russian strength, but a clear indication of the fact that Russia wants to claim the possibly resource rich area. The submersibles were named Mir-1 and Mir-2 – clearly Russia has a penchant for calling their scientific explorer craft Mir.

Although politically charged, the trip had a number of scientific aims. Soil and water samples of the seabed were taken during the mission. The mission could also help sort out whether or not the Lomonosov Ridge, which runs between Russia and Greenland and on which the disputed region lies, is actually part of, or connected to, the Russian continental shelf.

Under international law, out to 12 nautical miles, a coastal state is free to set laws, regulate any use, and use any resource. Out to 200 nautical miles, a coastal state has an Exclusive Economy Zone and has sole exploitation rights over all natural resources. If there exists a continent shelf beyond this, then the coastal state can claim exploitation rights out to that point.

This is where the debate lies – the North Pole sits nicely between, and off the continental shelves of, Greenland (Denmark), Russia, Alaska (USA), Canada and Norway. Russia wants to establish that the Lomonosov Ridge is an extension of its continental shelf. Indeed, the wording of the United Nationals Law of the Sea is not too clear and allows a country to claim jurisdiction if the geology of the seabed is similar to the nearby continental shelf.

Russia had a claim denied by the UN in 2001, as it appears the ridge is separated from Siberia by a trough. Denmark had their claim rejected for similar reasons. However, the Russian claim looks slightly stronger as the geology on each side of the trough is similar, and it appears that the trough was created by the seafloor moving apart – perhaps the Lomonosov Ridge was once part of Siberia. The 2001 decision did not so much reject the proposition, more that more research needs to be done. Norway also submitted a claim in 2006.

So why bother with the treacherous journey? This was a trip in which the submersibles could easily have missed on return the opening in the ice created by the team’s nuclear powered icebreaker.

The reason, as it so often is these days, is oil and energy. According to the US Geological Survey, around a quarter of the world’s oil reserves are locked up below the icecaps of the Arctic Ocean. In a world where oil could run out sometime in the not too distant future, and alternative energies are not yet solving the world’s energy demands, access to traditional energy sources is vital.

The Arctic floor is also home to massive unexploited gas fields. The Russian Shtokman field has an estimated reserve of 3,200 billion cubic meters of natural gas. Global warming is shrinking the ice that previously covered the surface, and the shrinking pool of global energy resources makes the extremely costly mission of salvaging these resources more profitable. The less ice there is, the easier it is to get at.

Added to the increased energy portfolio is the prospect of controlling a new Northwest Passage across the Arctic year-round.

Norway, Denmark and Canada are also attempting to establish their own sovereignty over the region, whilst the British Navy has increased Arctic patrols. Canadian and Danish scientists are currently mapping the north polar sea on two icebreakers, and Canada recently announced it would spend $7.4 billion Canadian to build up to eight armed ice-breaking naval ships to patrol its Arctic claim.

The Russian voyage is part of the ostensibly science research based Arktika 2007. The crew of MIR-1 comprised the pilot Anatoly Sagalevich, Soviet and Russian polar explorer Arthur Chilingarov, and Vladimir Gruzdev. The crew of MIR-2 comprised pilot Yevgeny Chernyaev of Russia, Mike McDowell of Australia and Frederik Paulsen of Sweden.

The MIR submersibles can dive to a maximum depth of 6000 meters. This makes them two of only five manned submersibles in the world that can dive deeper than 3000 m.

“Our mission is to remind the whole world that Russia is a great polar and research power,” said expedition leader Artur Chilingarov.

Anti-climatically, Gruzdev said:

“There is yellowish gravel down here. No creatures of the deep are visible.”

The mp3 for this podcast is here

Tuesday 24 July 2007

Book Review - The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Having time on my hands has given me the opportunity to do something that in the past I have had little time to do, and that's read.

The most recent book that I have finished is the much debated The God Delusion by well-known evolutionary biologist and Chair for the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, Richard Dawkins. The reason that I am writing about it on a science-based blog is that Dawkins sets up his book as one side of the Science vs. Religion battle.

This intrigued me from the outset, being someone who did not, and still does not, believe there necessarily has to be a divide between the two areas. It could be argued that Dawkins is the world's most celebrated atheist, and I was keen to see what all the fuss was about. Perhaps having sabbatical time has also allowed me to ponder the big questions of life. My scientific background that has placed me either in scientific organisations or studying scientific courses over the last 11 years has led to me to marvel at the wonder of science, whilst my schooling at an Anglican school allowed me to see some of the best and worst of religion - for instance, on the good side, our Reverend was open-minded and gave out the Christian studies prize on occasion to atheists who presented reasoned arguments for their positions. On the bad side, it was announced to the school assembly of over 1000 boys that God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve, which I'm sure further confused and possibly depressed a percentage of the angsty teenagers already struggling with their identity.

The opening salvo in the new release version that I read was Dawkins' response to criticism of previous releases. Immediately, the book was defensive and dogmatic. You can hardly blame someone for defending themselves against criticism, but this position immediately set the staunch stance against which there is no alternative for Dawkins. The language is strong and the message stronger. Dawkins considers religion, whether moderate or extremist, nonsense.

I have to admit that it took me around 200 pages to get into the book. The early part of the book deals with his arguments as to why God almost certainly does not exist. His definition of God for his arguments refers to a personal God, one that deliberately created the Universe and us, and listens to our prayers. His central argument is that, if there is a God that designed and fine-tuned us into the complex beings that we are, then He himself must indeed be more complex, and so who designed Him? Dawkins uses this argument to turn on its head the Creationist argument that we are so complex that we must be designed by a designer - if this is true, then God must be even more complex, and so who designed him?

For me, simply asking the question "who designed the designer" is not an answer in itself - it is entirely question begging. I personally do not believe that a God hand-crafted us each step along the way - I'm pretty happy with evolution. What, however, I do not believe is that Dawkins' little bit of nifty philosophical footwork answers our questions. It asks more. A question is not an answer. The assumption that the laws of nature are a given is completely question begging and not addressed. And can you really define what is complex outside of what we know in the Universe?

Perhaps this is not the point. At this stage of the book, it is the personal God that Dawkins is attacking, and not the God who started the Universe and then took a step-back, or the God that simply is the universe and the laws of nature - deism and pantheism respectively. Deism for him is "watered down theism" and pantheism is "sexed-up atheism". Throughout the book he credits scientists who could be defined as pantheists or deists as atheists unwilling to say as much or after the Templeton Prize. Perhaps these scientists simply disagree with him as opposed to not being as brave to "come out of the closet".

On a side note, and it is briefly mentioned in the book, there are people out there who do think that we are the results of more complex beings, and indeed that we are living in a computer simulation. Nick Bostrom uses probability theory to state that there are 3 propositions that could be true:

1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero;
2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero;
3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.

The conclusion is that "unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor-simulation."

Interesting... Perhaps there is a "God" out there running our lives, and perhaps he is a posthuman creature of super-intelligence. Dawkins allows this argument with an off-hand remark, but not the God argument.

As I write, I realise that I am being critical - this is probably only fair given the strength of Dawkins' language. However, there are many good parts to the book. His arguments against fundamentalism are striking, and even though for me these sections were preaching to the converted, they are still powerful. Examples from the Bible and Koran regarding literal interpretations have particular impact.

But these examples are somewhat undermined by his anecdotal evidence and unbalanced arguments. He states the religion is at the heart of much evil in the world and can quote many examples of where religion has caused much suffering. This is undoubtedly true. However, to then say that Stalin's evil actions had little to do with his atheism - and Stalin did kill priests simply because of their religion - was going too far.

The other major factor of the book that did not sit well with me is his idea that religion deserves far less respect than it gets. He quotes examples where people have been able to do things normally illegal because of freedom of religion, and these are striking. However what struck me was that the world in which Dawkins grew up, the world in which I grew up and the world in which every reader grew up is one shaped by religion. Dawkins' own 10 commandments would look far different if he had grown up in a society not founded on Christianity, but say Buddhism (even though he argues this is an ethical system and not a religion) or in the Muslim world. It was having lived in a world with its roots in Christian mores that Dawkins was able to arrive at his atheist position. Not that he would not have arrived there had he be born somewhere else or raised in Muslim tradition. Not that he would have arrived there if he had grown up in a society where there is no religion. We simply do not know. And we do not know what a world would look like without religion, and even what we think of as "better off" is founded in our religious traditions. What Dawkins wants is a world in which you can express your thoughts and be yourself without impacting others. However, as Orr said, this "better off" world is not better off to "say, a traditional Confucian culture".

Something a friend pointed out to me is that in many ways, today's science is doing what religion used to do (and still does for many) - explain the world around us. Perhaps before we figured out evolution it was all we had to go on. Dawkins may find it untenable that people these days turn to religion, but I think respect is due for the past.

Something that I thought I would read about, but did not, was that perhaps religion is evolutionarily advantageous for us. Dawkins more deals with the idea that religion exploits human characteristics that are selected for - like the common cold exploiting the nasal cavity. However, rather than exploiting us, perhaps religion truly had an evolutionary advantage. I find this an interesting topic. Perhaps religion also evolved rather than exploited.

On the whole, its a book worth reading and there is a lot good about it, even if it is not incredibly well balanced and is more opinionated than scientific. I'm not sure it "raised my consciousness" and I did cringe though when it said Christians have a mental disorder. I am as agnostic as ever.

Listen to this show here.

Thursday 12 July 2007

We've gone Gold

The Mr Science Show Podcast has clicked over 35000 downloads, which according to the Australian Record Industry, makes for a Gold Record. Now, this is clearly not the same as selling music singles and albums, as I spend money more on web hosting and equipment than I get back from Google ads and my family buying the merchandise, but its not a bad achievement for a part-time hobby.

I fully expect Molly Meldrum (or for international readers, an Australian cross between Simon Cowell, Michael Parkinson and Elton John) to present me with the award soon.

The most downloaded episode is either the story on Stephan Hawking or the Farewell to Movember video depending on which statistics you believe. Downloads increased fairly quickly when we were featured on itunes and The Pod Lounge, and have been pretty steady since.

Less self-promotional posts to come...

Friday 6 July 2007

UK Wi-Fi Scandal

Wi-Fi in the UK is prominent, offered by cafes, bars, book stores and very often found in schools.

Commonly used to wirelessly connect to the Internet, Wi-Fi hit the headlines when the BBC programme Panorama found that radiation levels from Wi-Fi in one school was up to three times the level of mobile phone radiation, and implied that this was very dangerous to your health, without any evidence to support it.

Panorama’s classroom experiment was hardly scientific, and indeed provided the students a great lesson in how not to do a science experiment. The school even banned the TV crew when it found out about the bad science being conducted.

So what was wrong with this experiment? Well, in order to make sure that they could obtain the very highest Wi-Fi signal possible, the Panorama team started downloading the biggest file they could, despite the fact that the students are never allowed to download such files, and only use their laptops a couple of times a week.

As the readings were being taken, the teacher googled the name of the man who designed the equipment being used. Turns out that the equipment was built by Alasdair Philips, a man who campaigns against Wi-Fi and sells protective equipment against it. Not surprisingly, the readings were “well into the red”, but never explained!

One of the experts presented was Associate Professor Olle Johansson, awarded Misleader Of The Year 2004 in Sweden for his scaremongering regarding electromagnetic fields!

The peak readings were 600 times below the government’s safety limits, and UK experts in the field have spent much of their time recently denouncing the show and distancing themselves from the findings.

Form your own opinions by watching the show below, and the BBC News Watch (like Media Watch in Australia) take on the program.

There is a nice take on it all at Bad Science

Listen to this show here

Saturday 23 June 2007

Short little video about Iceland

Here is the promised video from Iceland - a spectacular place that the video in my still camera, or the quick time in which I edited this together, does not do justice to.

You can watch the youtube video here:

If you can not see this, it is at this link:

The mp4 for downloading in itunes is here

Tuesday 19 June 2007

Iceland - The coolest place on Earth

There is a sure fire-way to cure yourself of boredom, joblessness and that nagging feeling that you should possibly be doing more with yourself and engaging with reality, and that's by doing the exact opposite of that and escaping reality.

And for an Australian, there really isn't anywhere further away you could go than Iceland - actually, from this cool little page, the exact opposite side of the Earth to Sydney is in the middle of the Atlantic - the opposite to Iceland is down near Antarctica below New Zealand - but my point remains... It has been a dream of mine to go to Iceland for many years - partially because of this escapism, but also because everything I had heard of this place suggested that I may like it - forward thinking, a little bit socialist, very clean (although ironically, because it only has around 300 000 people and a large aluminium industry, it has one of the largest carbon foot-prints per capita in the world), attractive and reserved Nordic people, stunningly beautiful and interesting scenery, as well as a bit of a science novelty. For me, I find it fascinating that of the 103 000 square kilometres of land that makes up Iceland, 11% is covered in glaciers, 64% in wasteland (cooled lava flows mainly, giving it a desolate "moon-like" appearance) and 2% by lakes, leaving only around 23% for vegetation. This fact, and its isolation, mean that there are relatively few people living in Iceland.

Perhaps it is a virtue of the amazing geothermal activity in the country, mainly due to its position straddling the Eurasian and American plates which are slowly moving apart, but Iceland has very progressive policies regarding energy usage. Perhaps it is also because if our worst fears of global warming come true, then it wont be long before the massive Icelandic glaciers melt (within 200 years our tour guide mentioned), which would not only be an environmental catastrophe in itself but could cause unknown flooding, avalanches and displacement for Icelanders.

The country is setting itself up to be "Carbon Neutral". Renewable energy makes up 72% of Iceland's energy portfolio, well ahead of the next best in the world, New Zealand, on 57%. The importation of coal stopped more than 50 years ago after the 2nd World War. The energy economy is based around hydroelectricity and geothermal power plants, and whilst it is fortunate that Iceland is in a position to take advantage of its geography for this purpose (perhaps things would be different if they were on top of oil like Norway or the Middle East, or Coal and Uranium like Australia - although Australia does also have a lot of sun for solar power...), at least it is aiming to be a world leader in other renewable sources. In a world where oil security is becoming more and more important, firms such as Icelandic New Energy Ltd are aiming to create the world's first hydrogen economy, with a number of buses in the country's capital Reykjavik already powered by the renewable source. The aim is eventually to power the country's large fishing fleet with Hydrogen, and this is quite difficult as many of the ships are quite old. As the technology is new, it is also quite expensive, and being a small, isolated country, it may be difficult for the Icelandic Hydrogen industry to compete internationally, and so therefore it will take a while before the costs reduce enough for Hydrogen power to be common place.

The government even offsets each of its overseas trips by planting trees to soak up the CO2 through the Iceland Carbon Fund. Can you imagine how many trees the Howard Government would have to plant to offset all the Prime Minister's trips to the UK to see the cricket at Lords? Imagine how many trees Tony Blair would have to plant to offset his recent farewell tour to Africa?

Iceland are aiming to minimise their carbon footprint through renewable energy developments, and through programs such as the "Green Flag Program" in which schools are awarded prizes for meeting their own environmental goals. One primary school on the Snaefellness peninsula - a day trip from the capital Reykjavik - built a dam to generate electricity to provide renewable power for local greenhouses. They also built windmills and captured solar energy. I think the most environmentally conscious thing that my primary school did was plant a couple of trees in a new garden - but this was after it lost half of its area for a new motorway.

87% of Iceland's heating comes from geothermal energy, and the exportation of geothermal know-how is one of the largest ways that Iceland contributes to foreign aid. The slight smell of sulphur in the bathrooms is the only downside.

One of the really fascinating developments in Iceland in recent times has been the interest Internet giants such as Yahoo! and Google have shown in moving server farms to the country, due to the fact that the energy is cheap and renewable. Server farms use up enormous amounts of energy, mostly because the computers consume ridiculously large quantities for cooling. This is a real problem, as if the servers go down, this has the potential to produce catastrophic results for world business and commerce. With the world linked up through the Internet, there would be no problem locating server farms in Iceland, although a new submarine cable will need to be laid. The fact that much of the land is not occupied also helps. This is being seen by locals as a much more environmentally friendly way of making money and creating jobs compared to the aluminium industry which currently generates much of Iceland's wealth and creates the surprising effect that per capita, Iceland is one of the world's largest carbon emitters.

Iceland was not always so forward thinking. Studies have shown that at the time of settlement, around 1000 years ago, the country was 30% covered in forest. These days, due to erosion, farming, grazing and other human uses, the figure it closer to 1%. However, around 1 million trees are being planted each year through the Icelandic Forestry Commission.

Another really interesting feature of the landscape is the presence of geysers - the English word actually comes from Geysir - an erupting spring in Iceland. A geyser is a hot spring that erupts periodically, shooting a column of hot water and steam into the air. About 1,000 exist worldwide, and they are formed by surface water gradually seeping down through the ground until it meets rock heated by magma. The heated water then rises back toward the surface. As the geyser fills, the water at the top of where the water is reaching the surface cools down and presses down on the hotter water beneath. This superheats the water at the bottom due to the pressure from the top, and eventually temperatures near the bottom of the geyser rise to a point where boiling begins and the steam rises explosively to the top, giving us the geyser show.

It is not quite as cold as you might expect for somewhere very high up in the North. The North Atlantic Current keeps temperatures high. When I was there, the sun was going down at around 2 am and rising again at 4 am, and I had the very strange experience of buying ice-cream at midnight with the sun still out! I have some Iceland video that I will put up the site once it has all been edited.

OK, that's about it for now on Iceland, but I am hoping to do some more stories on this fascinating country and will post some video soon. Something for a future story is the absolutely fascinating island of Surtsey, an island that was formed when a volcano off the coast of Iceland and 130 metres below sea-level started to erupt. We might also tackle the hot springs, Gulfoss waterfall, I'm sure we'll think of something!

Many of my photos of Iceland can be found here

The podcast can be found here and the individual episode here

Thursday 7 June 2007

Time for a Bath

One of the next stops along the way was the ancient and beautiful Roman town of Bath, in the south-west of England. It is famous for its geothermally heated hot-springs - the only naturally occurring hot springs in the UK, and is a world heritage site.

Andrews et al. report that the Bath springs originate from the Mendip Hills, which are limestone hills south of in Somerset. A maximum subsurface temperature of 80plusminus16 °C is found between 2.7 and 4.3 km underground within the limestone, and the water spends less than 10,000 years in the limestone. Atkinson and Davison report that the average surface temperature is between 44 and 47 °C.

Colours in hot springs are often caused by thermophilic microorganisms. These are organisms that, as the name suggest, love heat. They have provided such intrigue that there have been conferences devoted to the topic. Cyanobacteria, a common thermophile, grow in large colonies called bacterial mats that form the slime on the edges of the springs. Different coloured organisms prefer different temperatures, and so the colour of the bath can tell you its temperature - yellow is 70 °C, brown is 60 °C and green is 50 °C or lower.

The Bath springs were known to early settlers from about 7000 BP, and the legend of their discovery is attributed to the Celt Bladud who, having seen his pigs cured of leprosy in the mud that surrounds the springs, thought that the waters must have healing properties. The springs came to be associated with the Celtic goddess Sul, and when the Romans came, they were dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva.

The great Roman engineers were the first to harness the springs for their heat, with Bath becoming the first example of the use of geothermal energy for heat in Britain. It is only very recently that the locals and tourists have been able to do any more than touch the venerable waters with the opening of a brand new complex allowing you to bathe, as the Roman’s did, in the spring waters. At something like 50 pounds for 20 minutes and with my train due very soon after, unfortunately I missed out.

Listen to this show

Tuesday 29 May 2007

Greenwich - The home of longitude

We have finally made it to the UK, and although jobless and homeless, have managed to have a great time so far, although today's wet and freezing London weather is testing our patience. The UK being a very old country (in the western sense in any case) means that there is an abundance of "culture" and ye olde science that appeals to me - although I must say I haven't found good coffee yet - the Anglos clearly didn't put much effort into coffee science...

I will start a series of stories on the sciencey places I have been, starting with Greenwich.


Greenwich, to the east of the city of London, is home to the Royal Observatory, whose mission is to illustrate for everyone the importance of the sea, ships, time and the stars and their relationship with people.

Greenwich is also home to Greenwich Mean Time and the prime meridian, which is the meridian at which longitude is defined to have zero degrees. Longitude is an important way of defining where on the globe you are - and was of particular importance during the 1600-1800s for seafarers, for whom knowing where they were in the ocean was paramount. Longitude defines the location of a place in a number of degrees east or west of the prime meridian that runs through Greenwich - this is a north-south line that encircles the Earth. Longitude ranges from 0 degrees at the Prime Meridian to +180 degrees eastward and −180 degrees westward on the direct opposite side of the Earth. The photo on the right is me with my bright red scarf straddling the prime meridian.

Latitude, which runs east-west around the Earth, has a natural zero-point - the equator. Longitude does not have this, which is where Greenwich's claim to fame comes in. Whilst meridians through Copenhagen, El Hierro, Jerusalem, Saint Petersburg, Paris, Philadelphia, Pisa, Rome and Washington were used in various parts of the world, Greenwich won the Meridian Idol competition in 1884, when the International Meridian Conference, which must have been the high point in the A-list social calendar of 1884, adopted the Greenwich meridian as the universal zero point of longitude.

Measuring longitude whilst at sea has historically been a very difficult business. Whereas latitude is easy to determine by looking at the positions of the stars or the sun, longitude was often measured using dead-reckoning - that is, knowing how fast you are going and knowing the time at which you started your journey gives you your final position and longitude. This is fraught with inaccuracies, especially in rough conditions.

Giovanni Domenico Cassini developed a method in 1681 that measured longitude by noting the relative positions of Jupiter's natural satellites, which have known orbits. This was difficult, however, for the average sailor. The wrecking of Sir Cloudesley Shovell's British fleet gave rise to the British Longitude Act, which created the Longitude Prize (£10,000 for any method capable of determining a ship's longitude within one degree; £15,000, within 40 minutes, and £20,000 within one half a degree) for anyone who could develop a practical method of determining longitude at sea. The winner of the prize was John Harrison with his H-4 device.

Harrison demonstrated a method of determining longitude on his voyage between Portsmouth in England's south, and Bridgetown in Barbados, by knowing the exact time of day in England using a clock (a new technology at the time), while using astronomical observations to find the exact local time on the ship as it sailed. Knowing the time in England relative to the time on the ship gives you your longitude. For instance, if its midday in Greenwich on the clock you are carrying with you, and midnight where you are, you must be on the exact opposite side of the Earth - that is, at 180 degrees longitude. Daylight saving makes this a little more difficult to work out, but the principle is the same.

Listen to this show here

Wednesday 16 May 2007

Smoggy Pic

Just a quick extra to the last Hong Kong post. The attached picture shows the smoggy gunk I cleansed from my face at the end of just one day in the town. The pad on the left came off before my shower - the one on the right is afterwards. Clearly, there was plenty on my face!

Wednesday 9 May 2007

Travelling thru the smog....

I've just done the very Australian thing of relocating to London for 9 months, so as I sit here in a pub that's over 200 years old, yet which has a wireless hotspot, and as I try not to convert pounds into dollars, I would like to reflect on my stop-over in Hong Kong. I have been to Hong Kong before, and I love it. The food, the people, the food, did I mention the food?

But this time I was confronted by one of the more misfortunate aspects of developed cities, that of smog. The smog was so bad that visibility was down to 8 kilometres.

The words "Hong Kong" translate to "Fragrant Harbour", and this is possibly an apt description, even if the fragrance one smells is not necessarily a nice one. Most of blame falls with Hong Kong's neighbouring Guangdong Province in China, and its coal-burning factories and power plants. This region pumps out about 690,000 tons of sulphur dioxide into the air each year, compared with Hong Kong's 80,000. According to the World Health Organisation, China has 7 of the worlds 10 most polluted cities. Prevailing winds in the region carry pollution and particulate matter south to Hong Kong, and this has been exacerbated in recent years due to typhoons.

In 1993, Hong Kong had 50 days when visibility was below 8 kilometers. In 2004, it was 160. A recent survey found nearly 40 percent of Hong Kong's children suffered from a respiratory disease which linked to smog.

Hong Kong officials have recently started to take action, and this is timely as, although most of the pollution floats south from China, much of the street level pollution is locally made by Hong Kong's fleet of aging diesel powered cars. The city's 17,000 diesel taxis and minibuses are being upgraded with catalytic converters or replaced by LPG powered cars.

Sulphur Dioxide, Nitrogen Oxides, Volatile Organic Compounds, Ozone and particulate matter are all to blame. SO2 is colourless but creates acid rain. Nitrogen Oxides make breathing difficult and turn the air brown. Volatile Organic Compounds are nasty, carcinogenic things and ozone, whilst rather beneficial very high up in the atmosphere, is deadly at ground level. Particulate matter is very fine and so can penetrate the lungs and then blood making breathing very difficult.

There are a couple of excellent websites on the problem, developed locally by the Hong Kong government or concerned residents. They are:

China has ratified the Kyoto protocol, which could help alleviate this problem, however the loop-hole is that, as a developing nation, it is not bound by any targets for restraining carbon dioxide emissions. There are also few environmental laws in Guangdong. Problems have also arisen because reserves in the South China Sea gas field were overestimated, which meant that more coal was burnt to meet Hong Kong's, and China's rapidly increasing energy demand. Hong Kong and the Guangdong provincial government have set a target to reduce emissions of sulphur dioxide in the Pearl River Delta by 40 percent by 2010.

OK, I think I had better leave this pub. It might just be a little classy for me. I'm off to see Fame the Musical!

Listen to this show here

Friday 27 April 2007

The Science of Cricket

With the Cricket World Cup coming to its conclusion, I thought it was time to do a story on some interesting scientific aspects of cricket that have arisen recently.

Are cricketers fit?

Having watched the likes of David Boon, Darren Lehmann and Ian Botham strut the international cricket stage with distinction, you might believe that you really do not need to be fit to play cricket. Don’t you just stand around in the outfield avoiding the ball for most of the day?

Studies conducted by Dr Rob Duffield at the School of Human Movement at Charles Sturt University have found that indeed you really do not need to be as physically fit to play cricket as you do other sports such as football.

Dr Duffield and Dr Marc Portus, the Sports Science Manager of Cricket Australia, have studied the effects of international cricket on the body.

During a test century, which takes on average three and a half hours of batting, a batsman will stand still for two hours, walk for an hour, jog for ten minutes, spend only five minutes running hard, and about a minute and half sprinting.

It seems that the key to being a good cricketer is lots of net practice to keep the skill base high, the ability to tackle the psychological aspects of the game, and plenty of natural talent.

“Physical conditioning and muscle training is not going to necessarily improve your performance in cricket,” Dr Duffield said. “Having a high oxygen consumption or a faster twenty metre sprint time doesn’t mean you are going to be able to bowl better, or get more wickets, or score a century.”

This does not mean, however, that you can be completely unfit and compete at the highest level. It seems the fitter you are, the less likely you are to succumb to injury, and the quicker you recover from fatigue. This helps maintain performance throughout a long day’s play, or over a five day test match.

For more info, check out the CSU report.

Third World Congress of Science and Medicine in Cricket

Barbados recently hosted Third World Congress of Science and Medicine in Cricket.
The aims of the Congress are to:

  1. To provide a state of the art review of the basic, applied and clinical sciences as they relate to cricket and the impact of cricket on society.
  2. To provide a forum for integrating knowledge from the contributing sciences which address key areas in the prevention and management of cricket injuries and the enhancement of performance.
  3. To identify those areas where our scientific understanding is incomplete and to encourage discussions of the challenges that face all involved in the advancement of the game of cricket.
  4. To provide a forum for the dissemination of scientific information relating to cricket.
The congress attracted doctors, coaches, therapists, psychologists and sports trainers who all shared information regarding the fitness and abilities of cricketers.

Dr Llewellyn Harper, one of three doctors on the medical board panel of the West Indies Cricket Board, stated that the West Indies team had become very fit over the last decade, however had suffered because, in general, fitness was not given the recognition it deserved.

"The West Indies are definitely a better team in terms of physical fitness," he said. "What the players need to do now, is take ownership of the regimes that we have put in place, so that level of preparation can be maintained. They are interested in making their careers longer, so they are aware of what they have to do, and how often they have to do it."

For more info, check out the congress website

Stupid Stats

And to finish up, here is a statistical oddity for all you science and cricket nerds out there – and I mean that as a complement, as clearly I am one. This comes from an article by Andrew Miller on the very comprehensive and well-regarded cricket website, Cricinfo.

Prior to the start of the Australia vs Sri Lanka game on April 16, the One-Day International statistics for Australian fast-bowler Shaun Tait had a rather unusual bent to them – they were a computer geek’s dream - everything was in binary.

Matches played 11, Innings 1, Not Outs 0, Runs 11, Highest Score 11, Average 11.00, Balls faced 10, Strike Rate 110.00, Hundreds 0, Fifties 0, Fours 1, Sixes 1, Catches 1, Stumpings 0.

So there you go, the guys over at Cricinfo have too much time on their hands...If you are indeed interested, this binary number 1110111111001011000001110 is equal to 31430158 in normal old decimal.

Listen to this show here

Monday 23 April 2007

Apple stole my image...

Just check out their ad for the iPhone - bares a striking resemblance to the Mr Science logo, albeit a little bit cuter...


If someone makes a movie of my life, I hope they can track down that little kid - I think he would be much better than Haley Joel Osment or other such child actors. Is he some long lost 7 year old brother? If so, Dad and Mum, you have some explaining to do....


A few years back, the Discovery Science Radio Show received a cease and desist notice from the Discovery Channel regarding its name, despite the fact that it had probably been in existence for longer, was non-profit and clearly not a threat - now its called the Diffusion Science Radio Show.

So, in the spirit of the little guy hitting back at the big guy, but with my tongue in my cheek, here is what my lawyer friend has provided me with - thanks Ben. Apple, looking forward to hearing from you...


I am Mr Science (aka Marc West)

I am a leading promulgator of lite science video and audio content worldwide.

I own and control the worldwide copyright in the Mr Science logo (attached).

I write to you in relation to files that infringe my copyright which are being made available and distributed via the website (the Website), which you are identified as controlling or operating.

I hereby formally notify you of the following circumstances and require the removal of certain infringing files:
  • The Website hosts files that make available and distribute infringing copies of the Mr Science logo. I have captured evidence of pages on the Website from which the files can be obtained.
  • These files are an infringement of the copyright owned by me.
  • The copies of the infringing files described above, and their distribution through, is not authorised by the copyright owner (me), my agent, or the law. Please immediately remove or disable all access to the infringing files.
Please confirm by return that you have complied with the above.
Should you require any further information regarding this matter, please contact me at the email address indicated above.

Wednesday 18 April 2007

Cloning, the Beer Drinking Scientists way

I have spent this week both packing up my apartment for moving, and recording and editing this month's Beer Drinking Scientists episode - so sorry for the delay on The Mr Science Show Podcast.

This week, Darren and I tackle the massive issue of cloning. We cover the issues involved with adult and embryonic stem cells, therapeutic cloning, where you draw the line with creating a life-form for harvesting its stem cells, Dolly the sheep, South Korean cloning fraud, Alien-secular philosophies, business models for scientific investment and environmental triage - all in half an hour!

You can find the full 30 minute episode of the Beer Drinking Scientists take on cloning here, and as a special treat for Mr Science Show Podcast listeners, here is the 7 minute preview episode which contains the interviews we did with patrons in the pub about cloning - you will have to tune into The Beer Drinking Scientists for the rest!

Monday 16 April 2007

Brainiac Chemistry

Brainiac is a great TV show, which unfortunately only lasted one season over here in Australia. Richard Hammond is also very cool, even though my girlfriend has a crush on him, and he almost died in a car accident.

Here is their take on chemistry - I did my honours in chemistry, so this appealed to me. I liked the torching of the "Boring Science Video" using a Bunsen burner, and the quote, "These next two alkaline metals are the dog's nuts of the periodic table." Not to mention the fact that, like my own abilities in chemistry experiments, they tend to blow things up, and the Kenny Loggins "Danger Zone" music in the background is also rather special....

(PS Sorry for the reduced activity on the podcast - I'm moving house, country actually, and its a little stressful!)

Thursday 29 March 2007

The stats of elections - and a GIVE AWAY

Over here in NSW Australia, we have just had the NSW election. I love elections, the free sausages down at the local school, the garage sale and most of all, the statistics. Elections are full of statistics, whether its the preferential voting system, the voting swings, or the TV coverage that claims to know the winner when 0.001% of the vote has been counted.

The week on The Mr Science Show Podcast, we cross to my excited recordings on the way to vote, have a discussion about the preferential voting system used in Australia, and take a look at the closest election victories ever, and the largest ever victory in a democratic election in Jaipur India.

We also have a give away of some tickets to see The Man in the Lab Coat at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, some copies of Cosmos Magazine and a gift of Mr Science merchandise to the first person to write in from each continent in the world. Tune in and listen for your chance to win!

Grab the podcast feed here and the mp3 here

Saturday 17 March 2007

Questacon Outreach and Pluto's new friend

This week on the Mr Science Show Podcast, we talk to Jenny Lynch, coordinator of the Questacon outreach centre in Sydney about communicating science around Australia to 1-2 year olds, in shopping centres and in indigenous communities. Questacon is Australia's premiere interactive science centre, and has a number of outreach programs that travel Australia communicating science.

We also find that Pluto has a friend in New Mexico, who refuse to recognise it as a planetoid or dwarf planet, but maintain it to be a planet.

The other voice you hear on this episode is that of Celine Steinfeld.

Grab the podcast here or the mp3 for this edition here

Monday 5 March 2007

The Beer Drinking Scientists Podcast is now Official!

Originally uploaded by westius.
The Beer Drinking Scientists is now a stand-alone podcast, with a new format from our earlier short pilots (episodes 1, 2 and 3) and its own new website (

Join Darren Osborne and myself for a drink and a chat as we take a look at the science issues affecting us all. In each episode, we will have a chat to the locals and see how science influences them, their opinions on the scientific topics of the day and how these topics influence us culturally, politically, and any other relevant way of which you can think.

In the first episode, we tackle the biggest scientific topic at the moment - Climate Change. What it is, who’s responsible and why we should care.

You can subscribe to the podcast here (or add to itunes or your feed reader). The first episode can be directly downloaded here.

You can subscribe directly through itunes here.

Each podcast episode will come out roughly every 4-6 weeks, be about 30 minutes long and contain interviews, news and views, beer glass chinking, informed and not-so informed opinion and plenty of good fun. You can contact us at

Thursday 1 March 2007

The science and costs of diesel cars

Sorry for the delay in this post - but I have a very good reason....

For the second time in the last month, I was stranded in different city, this time Australia's capital, Canberra.

But it wasn't turbulence or aircraft delays that kept me there. It was car repairs, and these car repairs not only taught me a little about the science of diesel engines, but about how expensive diesel cars can be.

So this week's post is about the science and costs behind diesel cars.

The story begins with a lovely weekend away with the girl, staying at a great hotel, eating nice food and generally having my one decadent weekend for 2007. Having taken in Little Britain Live, I headed out of the gravel car park, not knowing at the time of the troubles that lay ahead.

To put this in context, I drive a VW Golf, and its a diesel car. Its a good car, and two reasons I quite like it are:
  • I do a lot of driving, long and short distance, and diesel cars are more fuel efficient than petrol cars,
  • Even though when you burn diesel it produces more greenhouse gases per litre than petrol, the fact that diesel engines are so efficient means that per kilometre you produce less greenhouse gas output than petrol.
Diesel itself is heavier than petrol as it is less refined. It weighs about 850 grams per litre, compared to around 720 grams per litre for petrol as it contains longer chained organic molecules (typically C14 vs C9). Essentially, these longer chained molecules release more energy when burned in the presence of oxygen, and this means that for the same volume of fuel, you get more energy and more carbon dioxide output (15% more in each case). Combined with the fact that diesel engines are intrinsically more efficient than petrol engines (~20-40%), you get lots of kilometres per litre (miles per gallon for our US readers) and less greenhouse gas output per litre.

Diesel is less refined that petrol. This means it is easier to isolate the heavier diesel from the crude oil that comes out of the ground than the lighter, more volatile petrol. One would think therefore that diesel should be cheaper, and it is in many parts of the world. Strangely, in Australia at the moment, diesel is more expensive than petrol. It seems to be because much less diesel is sold in Australia than petrol and so there are less competitive demands, and because it is not subject to the discount cycles that affect petrol - for a good explanation, see here.

Anyway, enough science and commerce and back to my story.

Driving through the gravel car park, a rock has flicked up, smashed the guard on the bottom of the car (see the gaping whole in the above picture), punctured something called the fuel cooler, which in turn bent the connection to the return fuel line, meaning that the plastic undercarriage of the car, the fuel cooler and the fuel line needed to be completely replaced, to the tune of $860 including labour costs.

Now this had me a little confused. What is this fuel cooler? What is a return line?

The first thing I discovered is that diesel coursing through the lines in a diesel car is under extremely high pressure, and so special plastic tubing must be used. This means that you can not simply cut out the part of the hose with the hole in it and clamp the two ends back together - you need to replace the whole thing. This is essentially why it cost so much - every damaged part needed to be replaced in its entirety (and imported from Germany I guess....)

There are a few differences between diesel and petrol cars. A petrol engine compresses the fuel at a ratio of 8:1 to 12:1 - this ratio is the ratio between the volume of a combustion chamber when the piston is at the bottom of its stroke and the volume when the piston is at the top of its stroke. The higher the compression ratio, the more energy that can be obtained, as there is more fuel and oxygen crammed into the same space on ignition. Diesel engines use a compression ratio of 14:1 to 25:1. This higher compression ratio leads to increased efficiency.

Unlike a petrol engine, a spark plug is not needed to ignite the fuel, as this compression raises the temperature above the flash point of the mixture - when a gas is compressed, its temperature rises. Diesel is directly injected into the combustion chamber, where compressed air is injected and the highly compressed mixture ignites. This is unlike a petrol engine where fuel and air are mixed before entering the chamber, and then the mixture is ignited by a spark plug. Petrol can not be compressed to the same extent as diesel as the compression would raise the temperature above the flash point well before this ratio was reached. This is why diesel engines are intrinsically more efficient than petrol engines.

I believe the return line returns diesel that is not used in the combustion back to the fuel tank. It would seem that this diesel is at extremely high temperature and pressure, and so needs to be cooled. This is where the fuel cooler tube comes in. A punctured fuel cooler and broken return line meant that about 20 litres of diesel leaked into car park, but luckily there was enough diesel floating around in the lines to get me to the nearest service station.

A couple of days later, after many phone calls to the service people and to VW, I got my car back. Unfortunately, this does not fall under warranty as it was an "accident" - fair enough in theory as no parts failed (one could argue the plastic on the bottom of the car really should be able to sustain the impact of rocks in a car park when travelling at low speed however...), but very annoying in practise as it was completely accidental with no one at fault. It also meant I didn't qualify for free towing - so I'm avoiding paying that remarkably large bill too! ($200 for towing across 2 suburbs??)

Anyway, enough whining, its a good story and I must be zen about it - I am lucky to have a car at all, and just recently have heard some horror stories about car damage. It taught me some nice science and gave me another opportunity to chat to my insurance company! I am sure I have got some of the science of diesel cars wrong, so if you can correct anything I have said in this post, please do. I would like to know more myself! Let me know if anything similar has happened to you.

This will be out on the podcast - mp3 here.
For some more info on diesel engines, check out How Stuff Works.