Sunday, 29 May 2011

James: Perception of Science

I often wonder what the world thinks of science and scientists as through out my life I am surround by those within the bubble, as it were. To try and unravel what maybe thought of us by the outside world you have to look at what hits the main stream news and popular culture.
Looking the popular view you get tv shows and definitely Prof Brian Cox with his previously life as a pop star with D:Ream. I see things such as the big bang theory being created showing and increase the scientists stereotype, that is they are socially awkward brainy people that are funny to laugh at as they fail to fit in with the world around us. Brain Cox on the other hand has come to previalance because he is the exact opposite, like Richard Feynman he is easy to talk to and has the ability to explain complex ideas with ease for everyone to understand. Now I am not saying we are all like Brian but think of it this way. We wouldn't have science if scientists where unable to communicate.
This then leads me to labels. Prof Cox labels himself a geek, and you could say that those comic book loving social outcasts in big bang are nerds. But really what is the difference. Can you be a nerd, without being geek or vice versa. Interestingly a team that put together a 'Geek Calender' this year, containing snaps of people like Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre, have at the head of their website 'nerds on the march'. This would suggest that a 'nerd' driven movement has created a calender about geeks.

Admittedly these points lead me further from finding the difference between nerd and geek, but more importantly I see the use of the words changing. No longer are people negatively labelled using these words but more using it as an empowerment.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Angel: The secret behind a good cup of coffee

The Cafe Terrace at Night by Van Gogh
Coffee makers are an indispensable piece of equipment in every lab around the world, whether you are doing research with toxic chemicals or just pencil and paper. Scientists and coffee have a special and close relationship, maybe because somehow coffee carries an intellectual meaning. Nowadays, there are many issues regarding the benefical or harmful effects it may have on the health of a coffee drinker. To highlight this, the RCS has recently published an interesting article related to the following question: is coffee a guilty pleasure or a life saving elixir? But, there are many aspects to keep in mind before this beverage developes the specific oganoleptic properties that reach your palate.

Espreso is closely defined in scientific literature as an extract of an aliquot (25 ml±2.5) of a coffee blend produced using water at 88°C±2°C over a 25±2.5 s period...

Every grain of coffee involves a complex mixture of over 1,500 chemical substances (chlorogenic acids, fatty acids, tocopherols and triglycerides) that undergo many chemical and physical process ranging from growth to the extraction process. Generally speaking, we can split these substances into two main groups: volatile and not volatile. There are around 850 volatile substances, to which the delightful aroma can be owed, while roughly 700 of these substances can be solubilized in water.

Coffee has always been there in the background, like a dark liquid melody, perfuming the air with the scent of lands far away and unlimited possibilities.

The flavor profile of each coffee bean is strongly related to the altitude, annual precipitation, atmospheric water vapour and diversity of the soil in each growing area. For example, at higher altitudes oxygen concentration and humidity decrease, consequently the kinetics of some biochemical reactions are affected; such as the cleavage catalysis of some lipids.

Coffee by Drooney (deviantART)

Another factor to be considered is the post harvesting practices like the storage time of green coffee beans before undergoing the roasting process. Flavour precursors such as sucrose, trigonelline, and chlorogenic acid can suffer chemical reactions, that have a strong influence on the coffee flavor due to time, temperature and humidity storage.

Nevertheless, maybe the most crutial step to guarantee a satisfactory quality (flavor, aroma and color) is based on coffee roasting. This complex process involves moisture loss and several chemical changes; as for example Maillard and Strecker reactions. Besides, a cooler proccess, using water or air as a cooling agent, is performed in order to prevent excessive roasting that would affect the quality of the product.

Coffee Physics by ~luke-b (deviantART)
Finally, the extraction process to transport all the remaining substances to your fancy mug is the last step for a succesful brew. Water is the biggest ingredient, so the final taste and quality is going to rely on its pH and mineral content. Another important factor is the flow rate and temperature of water that comes through the load of blended coffee grains. Acid substances are the first to be dissolved, so when faster flow rates are used, a sour coffee emerges. On the other hand, for low flow rates extra undesirable substances are dissolved and the sour flavor becomes stronger. To avoid these problems, for example, some brewers have a filter that controls the flow rate, standarzing and improving the end taste.

There are more other factors playing a key role behind a pleasant and fruity aromatic cup of coffe like harvesting methods, the storage of your precious coffee, brewing methods,  and an endless etcetera.  Fortunately, most of them have been studied by many scientists and we will try to develope each topic in this evocate series.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

James: Radiation, Fact or Science Fiction

Radiation, radioactive and nuclear are all words that of late have been attributed negative connotations. Not just just thanks to obfuscation of what actually happened to the Reactor in Fukushima, which was down to poor infrastructure around the power plant not the fault of the reactor design, all the fail safes worked except the human one of finding a new power source within 8 hours. Yet I think one of the main perception problems with 'radiation' can be phrased as the old adage 'we fear what we do not understand'.
Still I lay my blame with those of the media and science fiction scaremongering. Now this may sound like it is starting to turn into a rant, but if I too just state feelings over facts we will not get anywhere. Thus, from now on I shall leave the opinions you and just present the facts.
650,000 deaths a year, across the globe, are attributed to normal levels of background radiation. The lowest dose, in a short period of time, to cause physical effects like radiation sickness; 25 Rem = 0.25 sieverts. The average a normal person, like you, will in counter in one day is 1x10-3Rem = 1x10-5 sieverts. Tiny, tiny amounts. Interestingly, many places in Cornwall have a higher level of radiation than is allowed in UK schools. Now you maybe thinking of cancelling that trip to Cornwall, but I urge you not to be perturbed the point I am trying to make is that even those who are writing the safety guidelines are overly scared. I am not suggesting you take a blasé approach to radioactive materials, just know the facts. The last thing I am going to leave you with is from a good graphical representation of radiation levels, my favourite bit to point out is that you get more from a banana than from living within 50 miles from a nuclear power plant for a year.
So now to you, go and make your own mind up about 'Radiation: Fact or Science Fiction'. Any response to which is greatly encouraged.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Milly: What lies beneath....

Ever wondered why you very rarely see dead animals strewn about the countryside? Perhaps not. Whilst gallivanting around the South of France last week I got out my camera and set off into the bushes with a stick hoping to find some animal to molest. There were none. Next door's cat, aptly named Professor Kitten, had made a discovery and was gleefully tossing about a mouse that was discarded after less than 10 minutes. The next day, I went to see what became of the mouse but found nothing. At first I thought the Professor had been back to finish his meal, but then I remembered something I had read a while back featuring a disturbing creature, the sexton beetle. Working together, a male and female beetle take good care of their young by providing them with a tasty corpse to feast on, buried underground and hidden from predators.

To see the beetles in action have a look at this video.

So next time you're out having a nice stroll in the countryside, make sure you tip your hat at the sexton beetle for clearing away the corpses.

Julio: Can numbers describe our universe?

I have read this little note about strange numbers that can be used to describe the universe. And wonder what you think about it, the numbers may be fundamental to the universe or are just an abstract creation of the man? And after all can you tell me what is a number?

Papi: Self-bias and psychology research

I've read this really interesting article about psychologists who like to cite themselves. Is this happening in other areas of science or just psychology? What do you think?

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Angel: Less focused and less productive

(Fourth in a series of blog posts written in response to this New Yorker article In Praise of Distraction)

Break times are okay and I agree with the idea to have a couple during the day, but you should to be careful if you spend all your day watching videos on YouTube, checking new fancy offers, status updating on Facebook or clicking follow icons on Twitter. The thing is not really rather you do this or do not, the issue is more related on which kind of distractions increase or decrease your performance. An article published by the New Yorker reports that free on-line access to viral social networks or e-websites is helpful to enhance concentration and productivity inside companies.

"..if we spend lots of energy controlling our impulses in one area, it becomes harder to control our impulses in others.."

I feel that extrapolate the concept of coffee break to Internet break sounds really awesome, but in the 1920s, time of the quantum and atomic physics' effervescent, there weren't any superfast broadband  or fancy smartphones, distractions were so far different. For example,  physicists lodged in the Bohr's Institute, three-story stucco residence with a roof of red tile, used to work hard and discuss new experiments or mathematical topics until late. Nevertheless, pin-pong or discussions over the charm of Danish girls during the meal or reviews on the latest film of Billy the Kid, were breaks of relax and talk about non-scientific matters. Even although, some of these topics weren't excluded to be analyzed using the scientific method,  for example the experimental testing, with toy pistols in hand, on the explanation of why the villain draw his gun after the hero does.

"Poor Casimir," said Rosenfeld. "He had to wait until the lovers had safely got over their troubles and married and all, before he could resume his calculations. He did not lose a second either: every time the lamps lit up, they invariably disclosed our friend bent over odd bits of paper and feverishly filling them with intricate formulae. The way he made the best of a desperate situation was truly admirable."

Making reference about science, scientist performance is related with the creativity in creation and resolution of questions, so the necessity of non-scientific activities or distractions is something important. For example, taking time to read something not totally related with our own work or taking time to have a short walk can help to clarify, organize and bring about  ideas to tackle a problem. Perhaps, this is the main reason why Albert Einstein loved to have long outdoors walks. In my case, reading about fiction and poetry or watch some pictures are helpful activities to encourage my creativity and make me feel enthusiastic about the things that human being can achieve.
Niels Bohr Institute in 2005 (
Niels Borh Institute in1920 (Emilio Segrè Visual Archives)

At the end, I think it's important to have some breaks but the way manage time plays an important role in what can be a waste of time or something that can increase your performance during your day. Finally, If you're interested in know more about human aspects of the scientist involved in the develop of the quantum theory take a look on the book by Barbara Lovett Cline: Men Who Made a New Physics: Physicists and the Quantum Theory.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Papi: What do you believe in?

I first met professor Bruce Hood as my second year lecturer on developmental psychology. I was nice to see him again as the host of the Manipulating Biologies talk, at the Grant Bradley Gallery. I was glad when he said that he’d be happy to give me a short interview.

YC: You recently wrote a book about the supernatural and how that affects people; the book’s conclusion was that believing in supernatural is good for us.

BH: Yeah, it’s a book about where these beliefs come from. We often assume that our beliefs come from our parents or culture, so we indoctrinate people to believe things. That’s true to a certain extent, but there is a whole host of beliefs that seem to emerge spontaneously in all of us. And of course, we also have to ask why do many cultures share the same sorts of beliefs, which suggest that they are universals.

So, I am interested in the origin of these universal beliefs and I happen to think that they may be spontaneous and natural occurring, if you like byproducts of the way our brains are designed to infer meaning in the world. So, I work on origins of supernatural beliefs. I study children’s assumptions; and what we find is that they reason about all manner of things, and often assume the presence of invisible forces or energies or patterns, which don’t exist. And when you look at them more clearly you can see really the rudiments of what become later adult supernatural beliefs. So, to give you an example children look at the natural world and they see it seems to be order and structure, so naturally infer that there must be someone who designed it, which could obviously be the case of a god or a creator. They also think that the mind is separate to the body, so again that could also be the basis for manner beliefs you know for telepathy and the ability of the mind. So, I am interested in the science of belief and where it comes from.

YC: So why is it good for us to actually have supernatural beliefs?

BH: It’s both good and inevitable. The good side of it I’ll say and not everything is good, because some beliefs obviously are used and abused. Some people will claim that’s the case of religion. But I tend not to talk about religion because I think those are political issues. But you know for example, some people will engage in remedies that they think will help them when in fact they’re either non-effectual or they’re actually dangerous. So, homeopathy is something, which has no active ingredient but it works because of the power of placebo, which is the belief that if you do something you’ll get better. Likewise, superstitions also work because if you think you can do something about your environment or control an outcome then you generally do better. And that’s why you find superstitions amongst those people who are faced with potential threat in their job and/or in situations where they don’t have much control. If they engage in a ritual or some superstitious behaviour they generally perform better. If you stop them or thwart them doing their ritual then they feel the loss of control and therefore feel stress. So, those are the sorts of good aspects of it, but I also think they are inevitable because as I said a bit earlier the natural byproduct of trying to understand your world is to assume there are all these things operating. The obvious experiment that we can’t do is to raise children in isolation on an island; my prediction would be that given enough time they too create all the gods, all the rituals and all the superstitions, which currently exist in our society today.

If you want to know more about professor Hood, then you should check his blog.

Monday, 2 May 2011

James: Physicists and Sport

Physicists and sport, not normally two things you would put together. However, Bristol has the precedent of an annual 5 a side football tournament for Physicists. Idea being it is a friendly competition between all the research groups within the school of physics. This year saw nine teams enter; Correlated Electron Systems, Quantum Photonics, Particle Physics, Astrophysics, three teams from the nanophysics and soft matter group, plus an all girls team and the reigning champions Interface Analysis Centre.

I was attending this year as the only new player in the IAC team. I must admit that I was expecting it to just be a bit of a laugh and no one to take it too seriously. However I was wrong, all laughs and smiles in the galleries but the moment of kick off and the competitive nature kicked in. It was also interesting to see that everyone was against the IAC, one of those things if we don’t win, we certainly don’t want them to win. In stark contrast the girls team ‘Girls Allowed’ where supported very vocally, especially when they scored two goals against Quantum Photonics.

Despite who the crowd wanted to win at the semi-final stage only the IAC, Particle {Physics}, Astroturf {Astrophys} and the Nano veterans where left. With IAC finish top of their group by winning every game went into the game against Astroturf with some confidence, which showed as they won a comfortable 6-0. In the other semi things where far more even with the Nano veterans just edging it to set up a repeat of last year’s final.

The final was very tense and was decided by a single strike on the 5th minute for the IAC, the rest of the game was tense with the Nano vets forcing a handful of great saves and even hitting the bar on one occasion. Yet when the final whistle blew the IAC, undefeated, had yet again retained the trophy which will I’m sure stoke the fire for next year’s competition.

From a personal point of view, I thought it was a great day (apart from badly twisting my ankle in the first game) as it brought all the groups of physics together with a common interest and a reason to go out for a drink afterwards. Normally there isn’t a great deal of cohesion between the groups as there is no academic cross over, from an internal point Quantum Photonics and Particle physics are as different as Biology and English, don’t get me started on Astrophysics that is like a different world.

So if you take nothing else away from this article I hope you see that however strange and odd physicists seem they are real people who play sport and socialise just like you.