Archive for the ‘science’ Category


Medical sense reclaiming ground in Australia

7 January 2015

I’ve seen a couple of articles recently that give me faith that medical science – and medical sense – are causing a reversal of some worrying trends.

Treatments that don’t work

In 2012 the previous Australian federal government asked the Australian chief medical officer for a review of “natural” therapies that were – and still are – covered by Medicare and many private insurance policies. Those treatments included naturopathy, aromatherapy, ear candling, crystal therapy, flower essences, homeopathy, iridology, kinesiology, reiki and rolfing.

This was welcomed by anyone who approves of taxpayer money being spent on treatments for which there is clinical evidence.

The Australian newspaper has posted a couple of articles in recent days (which I haven’t linked because they’re behind paywalls) about leaks that that review will be released soon, and it will not be good for those alternative therapies. Homeopathy got an early knocking already last year. Bravo, I say. This letter to the Australian agrees.

It’s a shame that practices like acupuncture, chiropractic, and Chinese medicine were explicitly omitted from the review, but it’s still a very good step.

Homeopathic Literature

Homeopathic Literature

Anti-vaccine movement declines

In other good news, the Guardian reports that “the income and membership of the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network (AVN) has significantly diminished in the past three years”. Both media and governments are treating the AVN appropriately (that is, they’re not pretending that theirs is an informed or balanced view), and people are responding.

Now for immunisation rates to climb back up.


The state of science research in Australia is slipping even further

2 December 2014

I’ve harboured dreams of going back into a more scientific job in a few years. I miss doing science. But I’ve realised that to do so in Australia today would be foolish.

Knife cut paper with budget

Earlier this year I mentioned that CSIRO had had to make significant cuts following government reductions in their funding.

The bad news continues. Cuts of support staff mean that CSIRO scientists aren’t spending all their time on doing actual science. And one of our Nobel-tipped researchers has been let go.

CSIRO isn’t the only agency being affected, though; these groups are losing nearly $310m between them:

  • The Australian Research Council (ARC)
  • The Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO)
  • Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)
  • Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS)
  • Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) program

While there was to be a new $110m+ medical research fund, the unwise doctor’s visit co-payment the Liberal government proposed to deliver it is likely to be abandoned.

An opposition party will always spin hyperbole, but the Australian Labor Party makes a reasonable case that cuts to university and preventative health programs means the overall cuts to science are much bigger, despite their attempt at funding medical research. Someone who has been involved in research grant administration in North America agrees strongly with this view.

The ABC’s Fact Check department estimates that it’s true that science research spending as a percentage of GDP in Australia is as low as it’s been since they started keeping records.

Australia’s science and math skills are slipping, we’re only average on scientific citations, and our collaboration between industry and research is terrible.

It just doesn’t feel like an environment that values science.


Interactive Periodic Table

16 October 2014

Whether you’re a student learning about the elements or just a chemistry nerd, this interactive periodic table of elements is pretty neat.



News of the Obvious: Homeopathy is Nonsense

9 April 2014


From Lifehacker:

The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has released a new draft paper on the effectiveness of homeopathy following an in-depth analysis across 68 different health conditions. Unsurprisingly, the paper concludes that there is no reliable evidence that homoeopathy is effective for treating any ailment. Rather, it’s a potentially dangerous pseudoscience that can dupe patients into rejecting conventional and effective treatments.

The emphasis is mine.

It will take a lot more than this restatement of obvious science before the scores of homeopathic “treatments” disappear from Australian pharmacy shelves, or before the government stops listening to “alternative” medicine lobby groups.


Primordial gravitational waves, and ants in the curl of space

18 March 2014


You know a scientific discovery is big when it makes the regular news, and the apparent discovery of primordial gravitational waves has done that.

These results are believed to show what happened in the early universe, right after the Big Bang. If they survive peer review then they’ll be the final confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, and the first direct evidence of universal inflation. These are big deals because they further strengthen some already very strong theories.

For an interesting illustration of what led to the BICEP2 project and how it was carried out, read this story on Scienceblogs’ Dynamics of Cats.

Being a very clever ant, you realise that you can figure out something about the lake [in which you’re floating]!
For example, you realise that while it is a very deep lake, it is not infinitely deep.
In fact you can, eg by measuring some of the swirls, and where the waves break, figure there are shallows in some parts of the lake.


Watch Kate Upton Posing In Zero Gravity In A Bikini Because Science

19 February 2014

Thank you, Gizmodo.

Sports Illustrated had a wonderful idea: demonstrate how zero gravity works on muscular and fat body masses by putting Kate Upton in a bikini and taking her in a parabolic flight.

Kate Upton

Moving pictures, too. For the science, you understand.


Why Do People Fear GMOs?

15 February 2014

There’s a lot of public angst in several parts of the world about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). In one way this is surprising, because there is plenty of evidence that they’re entirely safe.

But in another way it’s not so surprising: most people don’t have the biomedical knowledge to know that other species’ DNA is making its way into plants all the time.

And, as this article from Cosmos points out, we have a psychological tendency to fear man-made risks more than natural ones. We also fear risks imposed on us more than ones we decide to subject ourselves to, which is why I think it would be fine to label GMO ingredients in a non-panicky way.

Research into human cognition and risk perception psychology has found that…the brain is only the organ with which we think we think. To be blunt: we are not as smart as we think we are…The brain is first and foremost in charge of keeping us alive and it uses everything it can to figure out whether something might pose a risk, including not only conscious reasoning but all the subconscious animal instincts we have evolved to make quick protective judgments about whether something feels scary. Many of those instincts have been identified, and several of them help explain why that angry young man in the coffee shop is so afraid of GMOs.



Games I made in a Python class: play them

16 January 2014

A few weeks ago I finished my third free online Coursera course: An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python.

I enjoyed it a great deal. I used to do a lot of programming, but it’s been a long time. I’d never done Python before but didn’t find it a difficult language to get my head around.

It was challenging, though. They covered a lot in the video lectures in each of the 8 weeks, moving very quickly through topics. There were quizzes and programming assignments every week. The amount and depth of work for a free course was considerable.

It focused on interactive programs – that is, games you can play – which was sort of new for me. It was also my first foray into object-oriented programming, which is well-suited for games. This was a challenging change of mindset at first but by the end I really got into it.

We created all our games in an online tool so that we could submit them for peer gaming. You can play the games I created, if you like. Here are a couple of the later ones. After clicking each link you’ll get a screen with the code on it; click the Run button (the one in the upper left with the little arrow) to play the game. Note that these probably won’t work in Internet Explorer, but they should work in Chrome, Firefox, or probably Safari.

Pong. Yep, the game with the two paddles and the bouncy ball. This is made for two players. The player on the left uses the W and S keys to move their paddle up and down; the player on the right uses the Up and Down arrow keys to move theirs. Note that we didn’t implement complicated bounces off the corners of the paddles; the ball either bounces back if it hits the front of the paddle or counts as a miss. There’s a  button to let you restart the game and score.

Memory. This is a single-player game where you turn over two cards at a time by clicking on them with the mouse. If the two you pick match they stay turned over; if they don’t they flip back when you click the next card. The object is to try to match them all in as few clicks as you can. Again, there’s a restart button.

Blackjack. A simple version of the classic card game. A single player plays against a dealer. You can hit (get an additional card) or stand (let the dealer take some); the winner is the closest to 21 without busting (going over). Dealer wins ties, and hits as long as he’s showing less than 16. After a game finishes, hit the Deal button for a new game.

RiceRocks. A simple version of the classic arcade game Asteroids. This one took us two weeks. Single player, but with fancy images and sound (which the course supplied). Use the Left and Right arrow keys to rotate your ship, use the Up arrow key to thrust forward, and the Space bar to shoot. You have three lives. Sorry, no hyperspace or flying saucers. After playing you’ll need to hit the Reset button on the code screen (the back arrow, the last button) or close the browser tab to make the sound stop. Sorry.

There’s a lot of geeky enjoyment built into these games. Enjoy.




Because of black holes, we have wifi

26 November 2013

Mathematicians and physicists predicted the existence of black holes before we ever found them; perhaps unsurprising since they don’t give off any light. But eventually we figured out that they really could exist, and then we predicted that they should in fact emit radiation, and then we found that radiation and all sorts of other hints that tell us they’re actually there.

Black hole (don't be scared, it's just an artist's rendering)

Black hole (don’t be scared, it’s just an artist’s rendering)

That makes it sound easy, but it was extremely hard. Filtering out all the radiation we get from space to identify just some bits of it as coming from matter as it falls into a black hole is very tricky. Scientists used a mathematical technique called Fourier analysis which can identify different frequencies of signal from one incoming mashed-up signal. And their analysis worked in identifying stuff that was radiating as a result of black holes.

Fourier analysis can tell you that one signal contains three discrete ones

Fourier analysis can tell you that one signal contains three discrete ones

Later on some clever scientists at CSIRO in Australia were trying to solve the problem of how lots of people in the same space, or that were moving around, could have their computers all networked. Running a wire to everyone is impractical. Using a radio signal would be possible but at the relatively low powers, short ranges, and confined spaces needed they got lots of signal reflections that made the incoming signal a bit mashed-up.

But these clever folks remembered what the black hole scientists had done and used Fourier techniques to disentangle the signals they needed from that mashed-up mess. And wifi communication was born.


Engineering toys for girls

24 November 2013

Your little girl doesn’t have to grow up to be a princess. Maybe she wants to be an engineer.


Quantum physics made relatively* simple

21 November 2013


Hans Bethe was a nuclear pioneer, a contributor to the Manhattan Project, a founder of Cornell’s physics program, and a Nobel prize winner. And in 1999 – at the age of 93 and from his retirement community – he recorded three videos as an introduction to quantum physics.

Cornell now has those videos free to watch online.

*Pun intended.


A lot of Australia’s media coverage on climate change is political and wrong

31 October 2013

The facts are simple:

  1. There is scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. Looking at 12,000 peer-reviewed abstracts on the subjects of ‘global warming’ and ‘global climate change’ published between 1991 and 2011, where those papers took a position on the cause of global warming over 97% agreed that humans are the substantial cause of it.
  2. One third of articles in Australia’s major newspapers rejected or cast doubt on the overwhelming findings of climate science. Also, Andrew Bolt indulges in humanity-baiting for ratings.



Climate sceptics are more likely to be conspiracy theorists

3 October 2013


A study just published in PLOS One finds that people who deny man-made climate change are more likely to believe in (a) completely free markets and (b) conspiracy theories about vaccination and the new World Order.

Free-market worldviews are an important predictor of the rejection of scientific findings that have potential regulatory implications, such as climate science, but not necessarily of other scientific issues. Conspiracist ideation, by contrast, is associated with the rejection of all scientific propositions tested.

Read the entire paper here, or this summary in the Guardian.


The IPCC report: doubt it if you’re a fool

1 October 2013


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its 5th assessment report this week. You might have heard.

They have said that long-term trends confirm that our climate continues to warm, that this will very likely have very dire consequences for weather events and sea levels in the next couple of hundred years, and that they’re now 95% certain (up from 90% five years ago) that human activity is contributing to this in an unprecedented way.

Naysayers continue to dispute this. These naysayers are deluded.

I’ve read the Summary for Policymakers of the most recent report. You can too, it’s a PDF downloadable from the link above. It is complicated stuff. I get most of it, but I am a person who lives and breathes science. I was a scientist for some years. I have a Masters degree in applied science. I read about science all the time. I understand physics and probability. I take science and maths courses for fun in my spare time.

But even so it is challenging for me to absorb the details of this report.  And despite my extremely strong science background I am not a climate scientist. Which means that the vast bulk of humanity has no chance. I’m not being a snob when I say that. Most people just don’t have the background in peer review methodology and chart design and sampling theory and heat transfer methods to understand the summary, let alone judge the findings.

So the very best reasons to believe the IPCC report are:

  • There is zero chance that the roughly 800 climate science experts at the IPCC could all conspire to fool the world, even if for some reason some (or most!) of them wanted to.
  • There is zero chance that climate scientists and impacts experts (including those outside the IPCC) who comment on man-made global warming – 97.2% of whom agree it’s happening – could all be fooled or are also conspiring to fool us.
  • We trust scientists in all other areas of endeavour – medicine, chemistry, astronomy, etc. Why are we selectively second-guessing these guys?

So I’m continuing to make the personal lifestyle choices I can to minimise my own environmental impact. And I will strongly support, with my votes and donations, large-scale endeavours that I think make sense for curbing our reliance on carbon-emitting technology.

If you don’t you’re a fool.


Genetic breakthrough brings scientists closer to cure for multiple sclerosis

30 September 2013

From the ABC:

A team of scientists from 13 countries, including Australia, examined the DNA collected from 80,000 people with and without MS, in a bid to understand why certain people are susceptible to the debilitating disease and others are not.

They were able to double the number of known genetic variants that they say can make a person more susceptible to developing MS.

I actually know someone whose partner was a particpant in that study. It’s exciting and hopeful that we’re making advances in understanding multiple sclerosis. It’s an incredibly damaging disease, both physically and psychologically.

It’s also interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that the study shows that the genes it identifies overlap with genes known to be involved in other auto-immune diseases such as Crohn’s and coeliac disease.



Why other queues always seem to move faster than yours

30 August 2013

From the BBC’s pages for health and science: people are susceptible to the

mistaken impression that…two things are associated when they are not. This is a side effect of an intuitive mental machinery for reasoning about the world. Associating bad traffic behaviour with ethnic minority drivers, or cyclists, is another case where people report correlations that just aren’t there. Our quick-but-dirty inferential machinery leaps to the conclusion that the events are commonly associated, when they aren’t.



Just Thinking about Science Triggers Moral Behavior

29 August 2013

I have never seen the conflict that some people maintain exists between an atheistic worldview and the presence of human morality. This Scientific American article, on a recently-published PLOS One paper, suggests that humans are actually inspired to be moral by science:

Researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara…hypothesized that there is a deep-seated perception of science as a moral pursuit — its emphasis on truth-seeking, impartiality and rationality privileges collective well-being above all else.

Across…different measures, the researchers found consistent results. Simply being primed with science-related thoughts increased a) adherence to moral norms, b) real-life future altruistic intentions, and c) altruistic behavior towards an anonymous other.



Meet ATLAS, an advanced humanoid robot

14 July 2013

In 2008 I blogged about Boston Dynamics and the four-legged robot called Big Dog that they’d created.

In 2010 I blogged about their even more nimble Little Dog.

Now Boston Dynamics have gone humanoid. Check out ATLAS.

Next week: Skynet.


The 10 Best Physicists, according to the Guardian

12 May 2013
Paul Dirac. Predicted the existence of antimatter, created some of quantum mechanics’ key equations, and laid the foundations for today’s micro-electronics industry. Won a Nobel prize. Turned down a knighthood because he didn’t want people using his first name.

Paul Dirac. Predicted the existence of antimatter, created some of quantum mechanics’ key equations, and laid the foundations for today’s micro-electronics industry. Won a Nobel prize. Turned down a knighthood because he didn’t want people using his first name.

I couldn’t put together a better list of great physicists than the Guardian has done. It’s good to see the ones that aren’t household names (but should be) like Maxwell, Rutherford, and Dirac.

  1. Isaac Newton
  2. Niels Bohr
  3. Galileo Galilei
  4. Albert Einstein
  5. James Maxwell
  6. Michael Faraday
  7. Marie Curie
  8. Richard Feynman
  9. Ernest Rutherford
  10. Paul Dirac

Of course there’s a strong case for the inclusion of Nikola Tesla.

My favourite bit in the Guardian bios of the above physicists is this:

For his achievements, Carlsberg brewery gave [Niels] Bohr a special gift: a house with a pipeline connected to its brewery next door, thus providing him with free beer for life.

Now that’s a satisfying career.


Support for Kiera Wilmot

6 May 2013


This is Kiera Wilmot. She’s a 16-year-old American schoolgirl who carried out a mildly risky chemistry experiment on school grounds. For this she was arrested, expelled, and is presently being charged with a felony that could result in up to 5 years in prison.

Kids do stupid things that put themselves and others at risk of harm all the time. But this was not a stupid thing: it was curiosity. Arresting and expelling her seems like an incredible overreaction. Experimentation is one of the fundamental ways in which an interest in science is expressed and nurtured.

Here are two good responses that reflect the general opinion of the community that cares about science more than sealing kids in bubble wrap: