Friday 27 March 2009

Ep 102: Earth Hour

Earth Hour is a WWF initiative where individuals, businesses and governments turn off their lights for one hour to show their support for action on climate change. It is a symbolic event designed to engage people in the climate change discussion in order to send a strong message to political leaders that we want them to take meaningful action on climate change. It claims to be the largest climate event in history and it is hoped that one billion people around the world will participate - not bad for an event that started quite small in Sydney a few years back!

Sign up for Earth Hour

The focus of Earth Hour 2009 is the United Nations Climate Change Conference to be held in December in Copenhagen. This conference will create a post-Kyoto Protocol international agreement to tackle climate change. This year, Earth Hour takes place on Saturday, March 28, 2009 at 8:30 pm-local time. Just like New Years Eve, Earth Hour will travel from time zone to time zone starting at 8:30pm in New Zealand.

This week on the podcast I chat to the Mayor of Willoughby City Council in Sydney, Councillor Pat Reilly, about the Earth Hour activities his council is putting on and how Willoughby is combating climate change. Interesting points include:
  • The Council is launching its ClimateClever campaign at the festival;
  • Willoughby is committed to assisting its community to reduce its carbon footprint by at least 15% from 2006 levels by the end of 2015 - far better than the Australian federal government targets of a reduction of 5% by 2020;
  • The Council itself is aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50% from 1999 levels by the end of 2010.
In the second half of the podcast, I talk to Dr Ben McNeil, a Senior Fellow at the Climate Change Research Centre in the University of New South Wales. This interview is a cut-down version of a longer one I will put out in the coming weeks. Ben is a highly impressive young scientist who, after completing his PhD in 2001, worked as a research fellow at Princeton University before taking up his post at UNSW. In 2007, he was chosen as an expert reviewer for the United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change and briefed his work to the Prime Minister. Ben and I chatted climate change science, policy and energy.

Listen to his podcast here:

I'd also like to make a comment about an opinion piece that came out today in The Australian newspaper Hour of no power increases emissions by Bjørn Lomborg, who is the director of the think tank Copenhagen Consensus Centre. Lomborg is a controversial bloke - check out his wikipedia page - who opposes the Kyoto Protocol and other measures to cut carbon emissions in the short-term, and argues that we should adapt to short-term temperature rises and spend money on research and development for longer-term environmental solutions.

He said in the article:

"Unfortunately, this event - as with many public proposals on climate change - is an entirely symbolic gesture that creates the mistaken impression that there are easy, quick fixes to climate change.... Even if a billion people turn off their lights this Saturday, the entire event will be equivalent to switching off China's emissions for six short seconds.... The campaign doesn't ask anybody to do anything difficult, such as coping without heating, airconditioning, telephones, the internet, hot food or cold drinks."

Well, he is correct in a practical sense, but for me he misses the point of the whole exercise. Of course Earth Hour in itself doesn't much reduce emissions. But by the same token, the 40-Hour Famine doesn't in itself save people living in poverty and starving. Both these exercises are mainly about raising awareness and showing politicians we care about the topic (and to raise some money too). There may be no quick-fix to climate change, but unless we pressure them, politicians and industry representatives won't take the steps needed to develop any solutions at all. In case you haven't noticed, many governments around the world are using the current financial crisis as an excuse not to do anything about climate change. The problem is however, that even if we go into a economic depression for 10 years, climate change is going to be around for hundreds. Governments are so short-sighted and various parts of the community so scared of change that no one is willing to take the plunge to do anything real about climate change. I agree with Lomborg that there are no easy solutions and we must look at longer-term fixes, but unless we get the entire community on-board, then governments have shown that they won't do much - just look at our own Australian government's weak emission targets. Market forces will not solve our climate change problems in time, which is why we need to pressure governments to implement measures such as a carbon-tax and to fund renewable energy projects so that we can make the market work for us, not against us. And we need to convince industry it's nothing to be scared of - various industries were worried that the introduction of OH&S laws in the 1980s would be bad for productivity without seeing that a safe work-place is better for growth as well as staff. Anyway, Earth Hour is about raising awareness and making it impossible for governments and industry to do nothing. End rant.

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Correlation of the Week: Intelligence and Music Preference

The other day I heard loud distorted music approaching from a hotted-up 1986 Holden Calais with mag-wheels and a ridiculously loud sub-woofer and thought:
  1. I wonder what this guy is compensating for, and;
  2. His music taste probably says a lot about his intelligence.
Well, the study has been done. Before we jump into it, it's worth saying that the author of this study, Virgil Griffith from California Tech, makes no claims about correlation equalling causation. He just presents his results and allows us draw our own conclusions. His method of correlating music with intelligence involved:
  1. Find the ten most frequent "favourite music" descriptions at every US college via that college's Network Statistics page on Facebook;
  2. Download the average SAT/ACT score from CollegeBoard for students attending those colleges;
  3. Correlate the Facebook music results with SAT/ACT results and draw your own conclusions on music taste and intelligence.
The artist associated with the highest intelligence, by a clear margin, is Beethoven, whilst some rapper by the name of Lil Wayne seems to be loved by those less blessed in their mental faculties. The study also showed that Counting Crows, Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead and Ben Folds Five appealed to big brains whilst very disappointingly, for me anyway, Beyonce is at the other end of the scale. According to the data, people who listen to "indie" music are the smartest, and the genres come out:

Soca < Gospel < Jazz < Hip Hop < Pop < Oldies < Reggae < Alternative < Classical < R&B < Rap < Rock < Country < Classic Rock < Techno < Indie

It's tempting to think that intelligence has a direct impact on music choice, but this is probably not true - I know plenty of research scientists into Britney Spears. And the reverse - that music-choice influences your intelligence - doesn't make sense either, even though you may be occasionally tempted to think that listening to mindless dance-music makes you stupid. Could there be some drivers that influence both intelligence and music choice? Possibly. You can imagine that socio-economic factors and what you are exposed to whilst growing-up would influence the music you like and how well you do at school. Your parents would be a big influence too - I just can't shake Wet Wet Wet... There are countless possibilities that are best mulled over at the pub.

Whatever the case, I'm heartened by the results! We've already done a story on visualising music tastes using, and most of my favourite artists are in the top half of the table with indie my favourite genre. For more on science and music taste, check out the podcast we put out in 2006 - one of the very first Mr Science Show episodes down the phone to China Radio International - called Can Scientists Predict Your Music Taste which looks at how web applications such as and Pandora recommend songs to you based on your listening habits.

Griffith's study on music and intelligence comes on the heels of his "books and intelligence" study, in which he correlated book tastes with intelligence again using Facebook data. Harry Potter is the most popular book with The Bible second (for some reason, The Bible and The Holy Bible are different books). Some of the results include:
For more on the book study, check out booksthatmakeyoudumb. And for more on the music study, see musicthatmakesyoudumb. The following picture is one of the ways Griffith visualised his results. See where your favourite artists lie.

So congratulations to Virgil Griffith and your study on music tastes and intelligence, you have won Correlation of the Week - the Flying Spaghetti Monster would be proud!

Friday 13 March 2009

Ep 101: Molecular Design

Dr. Luke Hunter is an organic chemist whose chemistry career has been based around molecular design - that is, designing organic molecules through experiment.

I grabbed Luke over a few cocktails and chatted organic chemistry, molecular synthesis and design, and the Hollywood lifestyle that organic chemists lead. This podcast also has our first Correlation of the Week. Listen to his podcast here.

Organic chemistry is a part of chemistry looking at compounds that contain carbon. The original definition of organic chemistry was "the chemistry of life" as it was thought all organic compounds had something to do with life - these days we know that there are many organic processes that have nothing to do with life, as well as many inorganic compounds that are essential for life.

One of Luke's research areas in the School of Chemistry at the University of NSW is to design molecules that can bind with DNA. By designing molecules in this way, it is hoped that drugs which can target particular genetic sequences in DNA can be developed. This could lead to advances in genetics research which could allow us to turn certain genes off and on, and could eventually lead to cures for genetic disorders such as infertility. To do this, Luke goes fishing! Luke dangles a strand of DNA into a soup of organic compounds to see which ones stick. Those that stick have the right shape to bind to DNA and so can then be further investigated. Different strands of DNA can be dangled into the soup - that is, different fishing lines can be used - and in this way, molecules that selectively bind to only one section of DNA can be found.

Luke's other area of interest is Fluorine Chemistry - he worked in this area whilst studying at the University of St Andrews. Again his work was in designing molecules with particular shapes. Knowing the shape of a molecule and how it behaves is very important for designing drugs to fit receptors in the body - when a receptor is bound by a molecule (for example, a drug), biological activity is generated (for example, nerve impulses send a message to your brain). Luke often works with Hydrofluroric acid, a strongly corrosive acid that is so dangerous you need to carry an antidote for it at all times when working with it - this antidote is calcium gluconate. HF burns may not initially be painful but as HF penetrates the skin, it can etch and weaken bones without damaging the skin. It can also be absorbed into blood and react with blood calcium, causing cardiac arrest. This is why calcium gluconate is used - it is a source of Ca2+ that sequesters the fluoride ions. If left untreated, amputation may be required.

Luke's PhD was in the total synthesis of a fungus that could be used to kill cancer cells. Total synthesis is the complete chemical synthesis of complex organic molecules from simpler pieces. Synthesising the molecule to selectively target cancerous cells is very difficult and one of the reasons why chemotherapy drugs have such terrible side-effects - they affect not only the cancer cells but other healthy cells.

Whilst it may seem that Luke leads the Hollywood lifestyle, carrying around antidotes to dangerous chemicals and all, Luke is perfectly happy with the relaxed lifestyle of an organic chemist in a white lab-coat:

"Day-to-day I'm wearing a white coat and safety glasses and I'm mixing together different compounds in round bottom flasks - it's not especially glamorous but I enjoy it anyway."

Luke is about to commence a post-doc at the University of Sydney.

The second part of this podcast is our new segment Correlation of the Week - dedicated to bad and funny correlations that make the news. You can read more about this week's correlation in our article from a few days back Correlation of the Week - Shark Attacks and the Global Financial Crisis

Listen to his podcast here:

Friday 6 March 2009

The Open Laboratory 2008

The 2008 anthology of the best 50 science blog-posts from the year, The Open Laboratory 2008, is now available.

It is the 3rd annual anthology of science blogs with this year's considerably better as it includes one by me! This was quite a nice surprise - I heard about Open Labs at the London Science Blogging Conference and quite a few of the bloggers in attendance were hoping to get in, so I'm quite chuffed - thanks!

There were around 830 submissions narrowed down to 50 essays, one poem and one cartoon. If you missed them first time around, you can still buy the 2006 and the 2007 anthologies. Both of those, as well as the new one, are available in paperback or as a PDF download at lulu.

You can buy the book from lulu - no profits come to me, but go to funding the Science Online science blogging conference.

For what it's worth, my post that made it was one I wrote for Plus Magazine called United Kingdom - Nil Points about the maths of the Eurovision Song Contest. Amusingly, as the title is a bit of an in-joke for Eurovision fans, the name of the article was changed to Political Music for the mainly US audience this book will attract!

The article starts:

It is one of my favourite times of year, and I'm not even European.

The Eurovision Song Contest to Australians is a strange mix of bad 80s music, songs about "joy", "love" and "unity", amazingly good-looking hosts, scantily dressed Eastern Europeans and reality TV winners from Western Europe.

But another reason I love it is because it is about politics and maths. For the first time in my life, living in the UK, I get a chance to vote for the winner and watch it live instead of having to ignore radio reports (of course it's all over the news) till the Sydney Sunday evening replay.

I guess this year I'll be avoiding the news all day so as not to ruin the delayed Sydney SBS coverage! Get over to Plus and read the original article, or even better, buy the book as a PDF or paperback from lulu.

Counting down to Geek Pop

In less than one day now, the Geek Pop 09 Music Festival will kick off.

Geek Pop is a free online music festival that brings together science-inspired artists from around the globe in a gleeful celebration of geek culture. The festivities kick off on the 6th March (UK time) and runs until the 15th as part of National Science and Engineering Week in the UK.

What is great for us geeks who don't reside in the UK is that it is a virtual festival - it is completely online. Sometime later on today the Geek Pop site will be transformed and we’ll have access to geeky music from all over the world, as well as interviews, lyrics for every song and geek chic festival merchandise. There will also be a festival highlights podcast.

To find out a little bit more about Geek Pop, check out the Episode 94 of my podcast, in which I spoke to festival organiser Hayley Birch about the festival, where the idea came from and what type of music we can look forward to.

And check out this youtube advertisement for Geek Pop by molehillmedia - very amusing...

See you there, virtually that is...

Wednesday 4 March 2009

A Month of Maths

It must be the geekiest month of the year. March plays host to three days dedicated to mathematics.

At this very moment, parties are raging around the world in celebration of Square Root Day - 03/03/09 (3 being the square root of 9). Square Root Day only occurs 9 times a century - the last time was 02/02/04 and the next time will be 04/04/16. As it's 7 years till the next one, make sure you celebrate hard! There is even a facebook group you can join to connect with fellow square-root fans.

And maths fans are likely to keep their parties going, as the following day, March 4th, is World Maths Day. World Maths Day takes place each year on the first Wednesday in March and is one of the world’s largest educational events. Its aim is to lift numeracy standards and is free of charge for both schools and students. Check out the World Maths Day website for ways to get involved.

Maths fans then get a few days rest before starting up the celebrations again for Pi Day. Pi Day is observed on March 14th (03/14 in the American date format), as π is roughly equal to 3.14. Pi Minute is celebrated on March 14 at 1:59 am and Pi Second at March 14 at 1:59:26 am (π to seven decimal places is 3.1415926) .

So, before you complain to the police about the loud music coming from your neighbour's place after midnight this month, take a moment to consider that it's probably from a maths party - let them have their fun. We mathematicians don't get invited to many parties...

Monday 2 March 2009

Ep 100: Your Top 10 Science Stories from 2008

With 2008 done and dusted, it is now time to look back and reflect on the science year that was. It is also our 100th podcast episode, so I would like to say thanks very much to all my subscribers, whether you get your Mr Science fix via the podcast, email, in an RSS reader, however you do it, thanks! If you have, by some chance, listened to all 100 episodes, then I'd love to hear from you as not even my parents have listened to them all....

The winner of our 2008 year in science competition is... Dr Steven Farrell from Cork in Ireland. Congratulations Steven! Steven won the random draw for suggesting the Large Hadron Collider as his favourite science story from 2008. Thanks to everyone who entered the competition and suggested stories - each story listed below was entered by at least one person. Steven has won the book The Open Laboratory: The Best Science Writing on Blogs 2008 - the book will be published very shortly and will feature one blog by me - I'll put out a post about this when the book comes out, but in the meantime, check out the 2007 version.

Listen to his podcast here - includes short snippets from the music of 2008, plus a couple of shout-outs from friends of the show (thanks Brains Matter and Jacqui Hayes from Diffusion):

Now to the countdown....

10. Weird Animals

2008 was a year for weird science emanating out of Europe:

9. Weird Research (impacting our sex lives...)

Two bits of weird science that made the news in 2008 will have quite an impact on our sex lives:
  • But the researchers from California who confirmed that the humble roll of sticky tape is a source of x-rays should perhaps concern us. The researchers admit that Soviet scientists had found something along these lines in the 1960's, but still don't know how it works. We should all think twice about wrapping Christmas presents with the tape dispenser close to our nether regions...

8. The Kakeya conjecture

And now for some difficult science, and the work of Zeev Dvir and Australia’s own Terence Tao on the Kakeya conjecture is mind-blowing, if you understand it.

The Kakeya conjecture is part of geometric measure theory and stems from the Kakeya needle problem posed in 1917:

What is the least area in the plane required to continuously rotate a needle of unit length and zero thickness around completely (i.e. by 360 degrees)

For instance, you can rotate a unit needle inside a unit disk, which has area π/4. By using a deltoid one requires only π/8 area. See here for an animation of that rotation.

In 1928, a bloke by the name of Besicovitch showed that in fact you can rotate this needle in an arbitrarily small amount of area – that is, essentially zero area. This seems unintuitive, but is not too difficult to picture. Imagine you have a needle and you slide it along the direction it points for some distance (which costs zero area - remember the needle has zero width). Then turn the needle slightly, which costs a small amount of area, slide it back and turn it slightly again. Then slide up, turn, slide back, turn etc. At each turn you rotate in the opposite direction to the last. If you keep doing this until the needle has completed 360 degrees, the amount of area that has actually been used to turn the needle gets smaller and smaller for smaller and smaller turns at the end of each needle slide. Check out this animation to see this idea in action.

The Kakeya conjecture concerns the fact that you can make this needle turn through arbitrarily small amounts of area, and takes it into higher dimensions (that is, not simply 2 dimensions). Zeev Dvir, who according to Terence Tao produced a “beautifully simple argument”, proved a special case of the conjecture, the finite field Kakeya conjecture.

Perhaps this should have made my mathematics highlights of 2008

7. The creation of artificial bacteria by Craig Venter

Scientists have discovered a more efficient way of building a synthetic genome that could one day enable them to create artificial life. The method is already being used to help develop next generation biofuels and biochemicals in the labs of controversial US scientist Craig Venter.

Venter has hailed artificial life forms as a potential remedy to illness and global warming, but the prospect is highly controversial and arouses heated debate over its potential ramifications and the ethics of engineering artificial life. The J. Craig Venter Institute succeeded in synthetically reproducing the DNA of a simple bacteria last year.

6. Chandrayaan moon landing by India

India became the first country outside the US and the old USSR to land a spacecraft on the moon. Its lunar orbiting spacecraft Chandrayaan 1 released the Moon Impact Probe, which reached the surface of the Moon on Nov 14 2008. This date was chosen to commemorate the birthday of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister who initiated India's space program. Developed in India by the Indian Space Research Organisation, the MIP had the Indian flag painted on its exterior. Although Japan and Europe had previously commanded their orbiters Hiten and SMART-1 to crash on the Moon's surface at the end of their lifetimes, India's MIP was the first probe designed specifically for a trip to the lunar surface since the Soviet lander Luna 24 in 1976.

The Indian MIP-1 probe did not include braking rockets and was destroyed upon impacting the lunar surface at its planned speed of 3,100 miles per hour.

5. Stem Cell Fraud

One of the less savoury aspects of science is fraud. In 2006, South Korean Hwang Woo-suk fabricated stem-cell results in two academic papers, and in 2008, stem-cell fraud again hit the headlines.

Morayma Reyes, a former member of one of the highest-profile teams in stem-cell biology, was found to have falsified results. In 2007, the work of Catherine Verfaillie and researchers from the University of Minnesota became mired in controversy, after magazine New Scientist pointed to irregularities in their published results. An expert panel was examined and it was found that PhD student Morayma Reyes had falsified data.

The fraud is significant as in 2002, the team published a paper in Nature suggesting that a rare type of adult stem cell from bone marrow could give rise to all of the body's tissues. Such versatility had previously been seen only in embryonic stem cells. This was an astounding result and opened the door to creating cell-lines in a more “ethical” manner than using embryos.

4. The Story of HM

The most moving science story from 2008, and certainly some of the best science writing, comes from the New York Times and concerns the life and death of Henry Gustav Molaison, known as HM.

HM knew his name, that his father’s family came from Louisiana and his mother’s from Ireland. He knew of the 1929 stock market crash and World War II, but not much more. He could not remember anything of his life before 1953, when he underwent an experimental brain operation to correct an epileptic seizure disorder. He emerged from the operation with profound amnesia and had lost the ability to form any new memories.

For the next 55 years of his life to 2008, everything he did, from meeting someone, to going for a walk, eating dinner and watching TV, in his mind, it was the first time he had ever done it. And throughout those 55 years, he was recognised as the most important patient in the history of brain science. He took part in hundreds of studies and contributed immensely to our understanding of learning, memory and what it means to be human. HM died in 2008.

3. Discovery of water ice on Mars

I love the fact that it was a Mars Phoenix twitter status update that confirmed what many of us had always hoped, that there is water ice on Mars.

Water-ice has been found in vast quantities just below the surface across great swathes Mars. Some people are now arguing that NASA should now commit itself to a manned landing within 20 years. The discovery was made by the Mars Odyssey spacecraft and now seems to answer a long-unanswered puzzle, where did all the water on Mars go? We’ve known for a while from valleys on Mars that water once flowed and we used to ask whether all the water evaporated into space because of the lack of atmospheric pressure on the surface. Now it seems it all froze underground. If it all melted, Mars would be completely covered in a planet-wide ocean!

Incidentally, the Mars Phoenix Lander won a Shorty award for twitter its efforts.

2. Climate Change

Climate change will feature in every top 10 of science from now until the year 3000, if we’re still here and writing blogs and recording podcasts - and it's making its third appearance on this blog after topping the 2006 list and coming in 9th in 2007. The hole the in ozone layer was the second largest in history, the Arctic experienced its second smallest cover of ice, and after remaining flat for a decade, methane levels started to rise again.

The Australian government let nearly everyone down with its soft carbon targets, and concerns have mounted over the global production of biofuels which have been grown in place of food crops.

Watch this space, I’m sure climate change will feature again in 2009.

1. The Large Hadron Collider

In the words of Dr Steven Farrell, our competition winner...

I loved the LHC for a couple of great reasons. Firstly, growing up in the age of Bond villains who were intent on gigantic technological pieces capable of destroying the earth, I loved the idea that the collider might possibly generate a black hole and consume the earth thus destroying all evidence of human existence. Awesome. I don't care if any number of physics associations came out and said it wouldn't happen. They couldn't be 100% sure that it wouldn't. Fantastic. And the second reason is obviously that this rather expensive piece of technology that took a fair bit of time to put together broke. And pretty darn quick too. So yeah, that's my highlight.

It cost approximately US$10 billion to build, and almost 20 years to complete, got everyone excited, then it broke. For about week, everyone was an expert on the Higgs boson and fearful that the LHC might create a mini-black hole, which would not only swallow the Earth, but the whole Universe! After a few tests and no black holes, a small fault in one of the magnets caused the LHC to be shutdown. Watch this space in 2009.


So there you have it, the top 10 science stories from 2008 as contributed by Mr Science Show lovers. Thanks to all who contributed and we'll do it all again next year! Please let me know of any stories you would have liked to have seen - and please write and say hi if you're a long-time listener of the show!

Listen to his podcast here: