Thursday 29 January 2009

Ep 98: Santa Claus - a fat, diabetic substance abuser?

Santa Claus is a ticking time-bomb. Not only does he eat copious amounts of sugar and drink gallons of beer, he is also at risk of altitude sickness, deep-vein thrombosis, jet-lag, zoonotic diseases from exposure to wild reindeer and countless other problems associated with lack of sleep and poor diet. Not to mention all the concerns associated with smoking.

Australian science writer Bianca Nogrady assembled a crack team of health experts to look into the state of the big man, and the prognosis wasn't good.

However, there were some up-shots, despite the likelihood of a cirrhotic liver. Due to the fact that he compiles the naughty/nice list each year, at least his mind is active and healthy. And he gets out of the house and travels - another plus for the elderly.

Our conclusion in the end is that Santa Claus probably has some kind of substance abuse problem to keep him going all Christmas Eve and to keep him jolly.

You can read more about the findings of the Santa-team in Bianca's original article for Australian Doctor, Health alert for Christmas visitor.

Listen to his podcast here:

Friday 23 January 2009

New Scientist Relaunch

Last night I attended a function for the 2009 relaunch of science magazine giant New Scientist. These types of events are always nice - free food and drink, a chance to mingle with interesting people and the opportunity to play 10-pin bowling on their Wii. A few big names in Australian science communication were there - for example Karl Kruszelnicki, Wilson da Silva, Leigh Dayton and Bianca Nogrady - and in general I thought it was a good night. The things I learnt were:
  1. The new New Scientist looks quite a lot like the old New Scientist. In fact, with regard to the print edition, I probably wouldn't have known it was any different if I hadn't been told. However, their new website looks very nice and seems to be much easier to navigate - I found their old website quite difficult to get around and would often not be able to find articles that I knew were there;
  2. Much of the content in the Australian version of New Scientist is written in the UK. The employees of New Scientist who I met were generally in advertising or marketing. This meant I couldn't really smooze them into publishing any articles by me;
  3. The Australian Museum, where the event was held, has a magnificent view out to St. Mary's Cathedral and down to Woolloomooloo. Looks like a good venue for my 30th, if only I could afford it... I didn't bring my camera, but I had my phone for low-res photos;
  4. Not all science communicators wear loud flowery shirts - although a distinct fraction do. The wearing of such a shirt does not correlate with your ability as a science communicator, nor your ability to play Wii.

Saturday 17 January 2009

Ep 97: My Top 5 Mathematics Stories from 2008

Having worked in maths communication throughout 2008, I thought it about time to reflect on the 2008 year in maths, so here are the maths stories from 2008 that caught my eye. I'm sure I have left out many mathematical stories from the year, so please let me know of anything you think I should have included.

1) Solving Tough Modern Problems

Global Financial Crisis: Toxic loans? Greedy bankers? Or mathematics? What is to blame? Whilst the GFC is a very complex system that I won't get into too deeply, the backbone of the crisis lies in a few key points:
  1. In the US (and in Australia), there is a very strong pressure to buy your own home. It's fuelled by the idea that housing prices never fall, low interest rates, ideas regarding how you must get into the housing market, and it's probably helped along by a current generation that doesn't mind a bit of debt, not to mention the ease at which you could get credit in the early 2000s. The problem with all this is that people who could barely afford loans tried to get them, and....
  2. .... the banks happily gave them loans. Once housing prices started to fall, people had mortgages bigger than the value of their homes. These sub-prime loans failed to take into account that plenty of people could not afford to pay them back (they were sub-prime mortgage candidates). In the meantime....
  3. .... banks and other financial organisations were getting clever with their financial instruments and this is where some blame may lie with maths. Securities, backed by mortgage repayments, were repackaged as bonds and sold on to other banks, insurance companies, superannuation funds, governments, everyone. The credit derivatives market was huge! Once housing prices started to fall (housing bubble), people couldn't pay back their debts, the banks didn't get their repayments and this affected not only everyone who owned mortgage-backed securities, but everyone who traded with people who owned mortgage-backed securities. Given credit was so easy to get, this was nearly everyone. Companies such as Lehmann Brothers started to fail and governments had to jump in to bail them out.
Generally I think that if you play the financial game, you need to be cognisant of the risks and if you lose money, it's your bad-luck. But the problem here is that not only have rich bankers failed, everyday people who have been encouraged to put their money into superannuation have lost money. The system did not take into account the very risky business of lending huge amounts of money to people who may not be able to pay it back. Should the mathematical models have predicted this? Some people say that the models were fine, it's just that they were misused by greedy bankers blinded by their million dollar bonuses and not at all focused on the risks. On the other hand, perhaps the models should have taken into account the fact that although the risk of one person defaulting on their loan may be small and therefore lots of people defaulting all at once may be incredibly small, there may be underlying causes that cause lots of people to default at once (as was the case here) and so therefore the risk of a crisis like we have now was not actually negligible. This misunderstanding of risk meant that the mortgage-backed derivatives were mispriced.

I was astonished to hear a finance graduate friend of mine reflect on her time studying finance at University:

"The lecturer put up an equation, the theatre moaned, but the lecturer said 'Don't worry, this is the only equation in the course and you don't even need to know it'."

I seriously hope that's not typical! There is a very interesting podcast on this topic produced by the BBC program Discovery. One of the interesting things they talk about is that it is very hard to mathematically model the human elements of the system - we aren't atomic particles that can be modelled. Read more here on Plus and here on More or Less, and see Flowing Data for a visualisation of the crisis.

Climate Change and Terrorists: 2008 saw the first meeting of the Cambridge Complex Systems Consortium. "This multi-disciplinary team of Cambridge-based academic and industry leaders aims to study complexity across multi-dimensional domains," says Michelle Tuveson of Lockheed Martin UK, who is an associate of Clare Hall College and organised the meeting. "We aim to develop a science around complex systems by determining good frameworks, optimisation strategies, and prioritisation schemes." Issues involving complexity include climate change, terrorists and modelling of the Internet. Read more.

2) The end of a mathematical era

Edward Lorenz, American mathematician and meteorologist, died in his Cambridge Massachusetts home in April 2008 aged 90. Lorenz was known as the father of chaos theory and discovered the Lorenz attractor that often occurs in chaotic systems. Lorenz is perhaps best known for coining the term butterfly effect. Whilst a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lorenz developed the concept that tiny effects in one part of a system can lead to big changes in another part. The term butterfly effect first appeared in his 1972 paper Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? Read more.

Walter Warwick Sawyer
was a mathematician and author who made a major contribution to mathematical education. He recently passed away in Canada, aged 97. Sawyer was born in 1911 and was interested in the applications of mathematics to industry. He developed a scheme in which apprentices learnt mathematics by handling physical objects and in 1943 published his first and most successful book Mathematician's Delight, which has been in continuous publication since and has sold about 500,000 copies. Sawyer was a loud voice criticising many aspects of mathematics education and considered that students taught mathematics without an appreciation of its application would have no more understanding of what they were learning than a machine. His love of mathematics is seen in the title of his first book, Mathematician's Delight, whose aim was to "dispel the fear of mathematics":

"Many people regard mathematicians as a race apart, possessed of almost supernatural powers. While this is very flattering for successful mathematicians, it is very bad for those who, for one reason or another, are attempting to learn the subject."

He considered that teachers should work with students' minds and talents, rather than force foreign concepts on them.

"Education consists in co-operating with what is already inside a child's mind... The best way to learn geometry is to follow the road which the human race originally followed: Do things, make things, notice things, arrange things, and only then reason about things." Read more.

3) Solving Tough Old Problems

Road Colouring Problem: Sixty-three year-old Avraham Trakhtman has solved one of the current generation's toughest mathematical problems — the 38 year-old road colouring problem. The road colouring problem, which was first raised by Israeli mathematician Binyamin Weiss in 1970, is a problem concerning synchronised instructions and is expressed simply:

A man reaches a town he has never visited and drives around trying to find his friend's house. Despite the fact that there are no street names, his friend says not to worry and that he will provide instructions (turn left, then right, then left ...) on how to get there. The road colouring problem postulates that no matter where the man starts his journey (that is, no matter which part of the town he encounters first — he could have approached from perhaps the North or the South) there is a set of instructions that will lead him to his friend's house.

Another version of the problem considers a lost e-mail somewhere on the Internet. The sender wants to make sure it is delivered to the right place, no matter where it already is. Read more.

L-Functions: A new mathematical object, an elusive cousin of the Riemann zeta-function, was revealed to great acclaim recently at the American Institute of Mathematics. Ce Bian and Andrew Booker from the University of Bristol showed the first example of a third degree transcendental L-function.

L-functions underpin much of twentieth century number theory. They feature in the proof of Fermat's last theorem, as well as playing a part in the recent classification of congruent numbers, a problem first posed one thousand years ago. Read more.

4) Prizes

One of the most important international prizes for mathematics was awarded jointly in 2008 to two outstanding mathematicians — even though one of them was originally unable to find a publisher for his groundbreaking work. Professor John Griggs Thompson, of Cambridge and Florida Universities, and Professor Jacques Tits, of the Collège de France, have been awarded the 2008 Abel Prize, worth £580,000, by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters "for their profound achievements in algebra and in particular for shaping modern group theory". Read more.

5) Silly Maths
  • If we are to believe the latest signs from outer space, the local aliens are keen mathematicians and work in decimal. A new crop circle appeared on the 1st of June 2008 in a barley field near Barbury Castle in Wiltshire, England, measuring 150 feet in diameter and correctly representing the first 10 digits of the irrational constant pi. Read more.
  • No matter how many friends you have on Facebook and MySpace, you won't have more real-life friends than the average person. Using mathematics to model online social networks is an evolving field, with techniques that have been used to model human interaction, such as network modelling, moving into the online world. Users of online social networks tend to build up long lists of "friends" with whom they only occasionally interact, if at all. The existing techniques have now been used to model these weaker relationships. Read more.
Well, that's it. Please let me know if I have left anything off you think I should have included. Have a happy mathematical 2009!

Listen to his podcast here:

And remember to tell us your science highlights from 2008 to go into the running for some sciencey prizes. Answers will also contribute to our year-in-review podcast early in 2009. The comp will be open till 26 January. Let us know here.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

Favourite Fictional Scientist - End of Poll

A little while back we ran a poll to find your favourite fictional scientist. I've decided to close this poll, and the winner is ...

Doc Emmett Brown from Back to the Future. Doc Brown came in with 23% of the vote, ahead of Beaker and Honeydew from The Muppets with 13%.

If you'd like to see the full results, get over to the original poll post (simply click View Results on the poll). There you can also hear the podcast I put together with "The Ordinary Guy" from the Brains Matter podcast about fictional scientists.

Thanks for voting!

Friday 9 January 2009

Science, Psychology and Cricket

To listen to the experts consulted for this story - Dr Rob Duffield from the School of Human Movement at Charles Sturt University, and Dr Alistair McRobert from Liverpool John Moores University - check out the story and podcast I put out in 2007.

Every cricket season, the TV coverage of cricket becomes more spectacular and technological, with the introduction of microphones to detect the finest of edges through to the keeper, improved abilities to determine the trajectory of a ball once it has left the bowler’s hand, and now even heat sensors to see how the batsman sweats.

But the scientific aspects of cricket are not limited to TV companies, with science playing an increasing role in shaping the performance of players, from their general fitness to specific training techniques for both their physical, and possibly more importantly mental, well-being.

It is with science that countries are aiming to find the competitive edge.

Are cricketers fit?

If you’ve watched the likes of Ian Botham, David Boon and Darren Lehmann strut the international cricket stage, you might believe that you really do not need to be that fit to play cricket.

Studies conducted by Dr Rob Duffield at the School of Human Movement at Charles Sturt University, and Dr Marc Portus, the Sports Science Manager of Cricket Australia, 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.

However, you do need to be psychologically strong, have a level of endurance and recovery, and plenty of natural talent.

During a test century, which takes on average three and a half hours, 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 a half sprinting.

“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. The fitter you are, the less likely you are to succumb to injury, and the quicker you recover from fatigue.

Dr Portus said that this work would feed into the coaching regime for Cricket Australia,

“We need to understand the requirements of elite international cricket a whole lot better, particularly with our fitness training program.”

It seems the key to being a good cricketer is lots of net practice to keep the skill base high, natural talent – something perhaps with which you are born – and the ability to tackle the psychological aspects of the game.

How do world-class cricket batsmen anticipate a bowler's intention?

According to folklore, cricket is 90% a mental game.

Independent studies by Alistair McRobert from Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, and Dr Sean Müller from RMIT University in Australia, have both concluded that the very best batsmen can predict the sort of ball they will receive even before the ball leaves the bowler’s hand.

The research programs were conducted in parallel without feeding into each other, suggesting that it is with such scientific studies that countries are looking to find the edge.

The programs, conducted for the ECB by McRobert and published in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology by Müller, state that mediocre batsmen do not pick up on the subtle clues given off by a bowler, showing that perhaps the importance of psychology in cricket is even deeper than we might have first thought.

Whilst a lesser batsman will only make his decision about where the ball will land once it is in flight, or will perhaps make an early faulty call, an experienced player can start this decision-making process earlier, giving him more time for shot selection – very important if you’re facing Steve Harmison or Brett Lee.

McRobert’s study found that skilled batsmen pick up information from the bowlers “central body features (head-shoulders, trunk-hip)” and less skilled batsmen rely on clues in the bowler’s hand and ball position. The Australian study found that “highly skilled players demonstrated the …unique capability to pick up advance information from some specific early cues to which the less skilled players were not attuned.”

Both experiments were conducted on elite players – in Müller’s case, the Australian cricket team – and then repeated on intermediate and novice cricketers.

One test involved showing the participants a video of a bowler running in from the batsman’s perspective, and stopped the video at various points so that the batsman could make a prediction about what might happen next. McRobert’s tests also focused on the eye-movements of the batsmen using head mounted optics and high speed cameras to try and understand the subconscious decision making of the batsman.

The research has the potential to allow coaches to understand how body language is communicated. McRobert’s study suggests that experience against all types of bowlers is also important.

“Our research revealed that a batsman uses different search strategies when facing fast and spin bowlers… It is important that information relating to potential visual cues is specific to the type of bowler.”

The work also suggests that match context determines how a batsman makes his decisions, and so coaching sessions could be designed to focus on the aspects of the game that play with the mind, rather than aspects of a batsman’s technique.

Psychology on the field

According to Justin Langer’s blog, sports psychology is “the least studied of all cricket skills, even if it is widely accepted as being the most important ingredient of success.”

But this is starting to change, with most teams having associated psychologists. The ECB is currently in the process of appointing a National Lead Psychologist, and have used psychologists Dr Wil James and Dr Steve Bull on a part time basis.

Dr James, who provides psychological services for the ECB up to the Academy and England-A levels, as well as for overseas touring age sides, says that his role is to help players develop their mental game so to deal with setbacks, and also to help players raise their mental games.

The aim is to work with coaches to “foster development of a strong mental game by consulting upon, rather than taking over, player development.”

“The aim is to develop the coaching environment.”

This developing coaching environment is gradually starting to take effect, not just at the elite level, but also at lower levels, with each county academy having an associated part-time sports psychologist. Dr James says that eventually the aim is to have sports psychologists associated with teams on a more full-time basis with a strategic outlook on player development.

“Psychology is not a quick fix.”

Dr James thinks psychology has a strong role to play in allowing the coach to “coach in a way that asks questions of players, not just answers them. We want to challenge players, and take them out of their comfort zones.”

This is important when viewing the way that many junior players find their way to the top, with many unprepared for the mental game.

“Sports psychology helps coaches select players, not just on technical ability, but also mental characteristics. It helps the coach nurture natural talent. Some players may have tonnes of natural talent but never have been challenged, whilst others might have shown that they can bounce back from a setback.”

Research is being conducted within the ECB to develop an assessment tool to categorise different types of “mental toughness”. This research looks at factors such as emotional intelligence, and again helps coaches identify players that have the mental edge. Some players have the ability to maintain their confidence throughout a period of misfortune, and being able to identify this helps coaches work with those that may not have this ability.

“The aim is to make players focus on what they can do, not what is affecting them.”

Warren Frost, Sports Science and Medical Coordinator for New Zealand Cricket (NZC) said that NZC has psychological programs in place, although he admits that “there has not been a lot of publication on the psychological demands of cricket.” New players go through psychological “programmes of development in the same way that skills or fitness are developed.”

“(Psychological coaching) is individualised and run by our sport psychologist in one on one situations as required”

When asked if New Zealand had come up with a way tackling performance momentum – for instance, getting a team “up” for a dead rubber in a series – he commented:

“One of the eternal questions of any sport!”

It may take some time before science answers that one.

Psychology off the field

Promoting the visualisation of positive scenes, such as run-scoring or wicket-taking moments, has become part of the coaching manual thanks in part to scientific research. Notably, Langer’s long-time batting partner Matthew Hayden sits on the pitch before each innings visualising how he will bat.

The understanding of positive visualisation has arisen from scientific work into depression, and apart from on the field, wear and tear on the mind can have an effect off the field. English opening batsman Marcus Trescothick is the most recent example of a high profile cricketer struck down with a stress-related illness. The frenetic and grinding itinerary and lifestyle of an international cricketer is often incompatible with their personal make-up or home life.

There is a growing realisation within society that depression and mental illness are serious problems that cannot be glossed over. It poses the question then, how do coaching staff and team management best nurture players who may be vulnerable to this type of illness?

One promising acknowledgement of the problem is from the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA), which offers free counselling sessions to all current cricketing professionals from any phone in the world. The hotline is manned 24-hours by experienced, professional counsellors. They have also set up the Benevolent Fund, to help cricketers adjust to life beyond cricket.

This is a positive development by the ECB, as it is often difficult for players to adjust to life after cricket having had their identity tied to it for many years. Silence of the Heart, by David Frith, details over 150 professional cricketers who committed suicide, mostly after their retirement.

The ECB has also set up the “Performance Lifestyle Service” to help players throughout their careers, and prepares them for life after cricket. A network of clinical psychologists is maintained for cricketers who face problems such as addiction or depression.

Science and Medicine in Cricket Conferences

The psychological aspects of the game are now making up part of various sports science conferences. The increasing role of science in cricket has been highlighted in the last decade through the four-yearly World Congress of Science and Medicine in Cricket, held in conjunction with each World Cup. The first congress in 1999 had 50 attendees, with representatives from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe, the West Indies and the UK. In 2003, the congress reflected the growing stature of science in the game with 119 attendees, including representatives from Canada, India and Pakistan. Barbados played host to the 2007 version, with the majority of presentations coming from Australia, the UK and South Africa.

Craig Ranson, England Cricket Board Lead Physiotherapist at the National Cricket Academy, said that the programme was wide ranging, including fields such as Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation, Injury Surveillance and Prevention, Sports Biomechanics, Exercise Physiology, Nutrition and Hydration, Thermoregulation and Motor Learning.

“It was clear that although there was some good science presented the overall goal was to produce research that resulted in a performance advantage.”

Recently, the 2007 Cricket Australia Sport Medicine Conference was held, with presentations from the then Australian coach and noted cricket analyser John Buchanan, and papers ranging from the effects of alcohol, heat and humidity on athletic performance, to evidence from baseball that umpiring decisions are influenced by game context, kinematic analysis of the doosra and off-break, and why fast bowlers bowl no-balls.
National Programs

A number of countries now have dedicated centres for scientific input into cricket. The ECB has set up the Science and Medicine Management Group to “continually review the best strategic approach for the delivery of all science and medicine support for cricket,” whilst Cricket Australia has set up the Sports Science Program to leverage off the expertise of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS).

Carl Petersen works with the AIS to track the workload of cricketers using GPS technology, and says that Cricket Australia has recently offered two PhD scholarships in Physiology and Performance Analysis:

“The first scholarship focuses on utilising in-house developed GPS devices combined with micro-sensors to accurately define workload in cricketers. With a better understanding of cricket workload and demands, our strength and conditioning coaches will be able to design more effective training programmes, and monitor recovery more precisely to have the cricket athletes peaking on game day(s),” said Petersen

“The second PhD is focusing on the developmental training pathways of fast bowlers.”

Additionally, Cricket Australia has a research programme investigating the biomechanics of cricketing skills. Wayne Spratford runs a number of tests for Cricket Australia:

“Over the last two years we have developed skill based tests for batsmen, bowlers and fielders which we have implemented on all levels of cricketers in Australia from the Test team to State Under 17 level.”

Both commented that much of their work is kept in-house to maintain a “competitive advantage”.

The competitive edge comes not from what is done on the field, but what research is done off it.


So where to now for science and cricket? Whilst some countries are embracing the concept, developing cricketing countries do not have the resources for scientific cricket analysis.

One recent development has been the Nike Air Zoom Yorker shoe, developed for New Zealand cricketers by the University of Auckland alongside clothing company Nike.

And it has been suggested by Shri. V. Srivata, former Chief Sports Editor for The Times of India, that courses in the science of cricket become mandatory for all cricket coaches.

Whoever said cricket was a simple game?

Wednesday 7 January 2009

Ep 96: Reflecting on the science year 2008

This week I sat down with a kebab and Darren Osborne, editor of ABC Science Online, to reflect on the science year that was 2008. Darren was immersed in science in 2008 and is across nearly all the science topics that hit the headlines - as well as breaking the science news himself. Topics we discussed include:
I also get Old Man and Woman Science, my Dad and Mum, on the phone to get their opinions on the year that was.

Listen to his podcast here:

And remember to tell us your science highlights from 2008 to go into the running for some sciencey prizes. Answers will also contribute to our year-in-review podcast coming out in a few weeks. Let us know here before the competition closes.