Monthly Archives: July 2012

Can athletes keep breaking records forever?


Will the men’s 100m race on day be run in under 5 seconds?

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss breaking world sporting records at 1 minute 25 seconds in this clip:

[audio – World sports records and faked moon landings.mp3]

Will humans keep getting faster, stronger… sillier?

Although it seems that world record sports performances are being beaten all the time, I would suggest that a new world record is a very rare occurence indeed. We might feel like we hear about new world records alot but this generally coincides with us watching the very best the world has to offer competing in the Olympic games.

Long-established world records are broken occasionally but the longer records have been kept for a sport, the more unlikely becomes the probability of that record being broken again. The science/statistics/probability theory that tells us this is called ‘extreme-value statistics’ and is illustrated in my rather natty drawing below. Human beings capable of achieving anything close to world-record times are rare and the chances that those people are competing in a sporting event are rarer still. Every time 0.1 second is shaved off of a world record time, it becomes more unlikely that the new time will be bettered.

Extreme-value statistics demonstrates that as new records are set, the possibility of beating them is reduced.

If humans were to become bigger, stronger, and faster, then we would expect records to keep falling. Are we getting bigger? I would say yes – if I look around in the hallways of the university where I teach, I am now dwarfed by many of the undergraduate student body. This is not ‘evolution’. That process will always select for bigger and stronger, or smaller, if those characteristics aid in survival. Evolution takes millions of years. The fact that my generation is bigger than my parents generation and that the undergrads tower over me is down to nutrition. Childhood nutrition is vitally important and has never been so good for so many as it is at the moment. This results in the increased stature that I observe. Kids today are, therefore, bigger and stronger and I would say that if that trend continues – then world records will continue to fall.

Sally Ride – a physicist goes to space


Sally Ride was the first US woman to go into space and, at the time, the youngest American astronaut.

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We talk about Sally at 8 minutes 20 seconds in this clip:

[audio – Synthetic biology Halley and Sally Ride.mp3]

A physicist in space – sort of like Howard Wolowitz

Today I am paying homage to Sally who has passed away. She died earlier this week after a battle with pancreatic cancer at the age of 61. Sally was not just an astronaut but a scientist whose contribution to science needs acknowledging. Sally earned her PhD from Stanford University for her work in astrophysics and free electron laser physics.

Her major contribution to the seventh space shuttle flight lay in pioneering the use of its robot arm (always called the Canada Arm or Canadarm if you talk to a Canadian – which I am. You’d think we built the whole shuttle and launched it!)

A Nasa advertisement in the student newspaper in 1978 led to Ride becoming one of the six women among 35 new members of the astronaut corps. They brought scientific and engineering skills to a field till then the preserve of military test pilots. By the time she left Nasa, in 1987, she was the director of its exploration office.

In 1989 she became professor of physics and director of the California Space Institute at the University of California, San Diego. She co-wrote seven science books for children, and in 2001 founded Sally Ride Science, to stimulate interest in the subject in schools. The company’s chief executive, Tam O’Shaughnessy, was Ride’s partner; she survives her, as do her mother and sister.

• Sally Kristen Ride, physicist and astronaut, born 26 May 1951; died 23 July 2012

Edmund Halley (he of the comet) comes up to Oxford


The scientists of days-of-yore were multitaskers extrordinaire

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We talk about Edmund at 5 minutes 59 seconds in this clip:

[audio – Synthetic biology Halley and Sally Ride.mp3]

Edmund Halley – he’s on a stamp just like Jacques Cousteau

On July 24th, 1673, young Edmund Halley ‘came up’ to Oxford as a fresh-faced new student (I guess they all came up from London in those days). He attended The Queen’s College but never did get a degree out of them.

When I read about the scientists of days of yore, I am always amazed by all of their interests and accomplishments. These days we tend to specialize but Halley did everything. He:

-Was an astronomer

– charted trade winds and monsoons

-thought about the problem of gravity and convinced Issac Newton to publish his mathematical principles (Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica one of the most significant math books ever – and with publishing costs paid by Halley!).

-built a diving bell and spent much time underwater (hmmm… just like Cousteau again).

-Oh… he also discovered a comet which is now named in his honour.

Halley's Comet in 1986

Halley’s comet (not to be confused with Bill Haley and his Comets) is the most famous of the short-period comets and returns to visit us every 75-76 years.

The comet sheds a bit of its surface each time it approaches the sun and heats up – at the rate its melting, it looks like its only got a few tens of thousands of years left. Be sure not to miss it in 2061 (tickets on sale now at usual outlets).

Scientists create an artificial jellyfish from a rat’s heart cells!


Synthetic Biology

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We talk about the jellyfish at  1 minute 52 seconds in this clip:

[audio – Synthetic biology Halley and Sally Ride.mp3]

What are those wacky scientists up to now?

For the past 2 years I’ve been hearing the term ‘synthetic biology’ but it is just in the last few weeks that it is really becoming a buzzword. Scientists have this week created an artificial jellyfish. Any normal person’s response upon hearing this would be… huh?

Why do we need a fake jellyfish? Basically as a proof-of-concept. If scientists can convince a small set of heart cells coated onto a silicone support to beat like a heart, and therby impart a jellyfish-swimming-like motion, then they are one step closer to designs for more efficient artificial hearts than the ones that we have now.

Synthetic biology is all about creating novel biological organisms or metabolic processes that will make our lives easier…

Anybody ever seen Terminator!

July 25th, 2012 – What would it take to really build an artificial jellyfish?

Science on TV – ohhh… the glamour


Science on CSI Miami is ridiculous – a small rant (just for fun)

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We talk science on TV at 8 minutes 25 seconds in this clip:

[audio – 5 a day and science on TV.mp3]

Perfect hair and carries a gun!

The American television series CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) and its spin-offs have created a new phenomenum in higher education. Demand for places to study biology in university because the life of a forensic investigator looks so glamerous and sexy. Their hair is perfect and they look divine… and they carry guns.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the fact that these dramas actually do promote sciency things. It’s just that they do it with a bit too much artistic licence at times. I mean, just look at Calleigh’s hair – if you were really doing forensics where the case is made based on a single ‘fiber’, wouldn’t you have that up and hair-netted?  Don’t let’s talk about the lack of a lab coat.

Similar to my own lab

Even better, check out the wall-sized flatscreen communications systems that Horatio and his gang use to communicate with important people. What’s wrong with using Skype!? In what universe do criminal investigations services have the money to pay for gagetry like that. I bet IRL some are still trying to get an upgrade from Windows 98.

More realistic dramas include ones like BBCs Waking the Dead although, even then, I wish they’d turn on a light in the lab sometimes. Who does autopsies in a gloomy darkness with just a soft spotlight to light the way (well we here in Britain do live in gloomy darkness most of the time I suppose).

If you’re lucky enough to get a job as a forensics investigator, you will use biological techniques to evaluate numerically coded specimens and some of the techniques will take days or weeks.  We don’t have machines yet like Abby Sciuto’s amazing DNA sequencer that spits out a result with a picture of the perp in 10 seconds.

Jerry Lewis as the Nutty Professor (1963)

At least the portrayal of scientists that look and act like Abby is preferable from that commonly encountered in years gone by. Most of the scientists I know are just pretty normal people. You don’t need to be wacky in any way to be a scientist so please don’t feel that there is some stigma associated with your interest in science!

5-a-day fruit and veg – what counts?


So if I eat 5 servings of french fries will that do the trick?

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. 5-a-day discussion starts at 1 minute 48 seconds in this clip:

[audio – 5 a day and science on TV.mp3]

What does 5 a day mean?

The concept of 5-a-day has been widely adopted as a ‘guideline’ for how much fruit and vegetable you should consume on a daily basis. The suggestion is that 5 servings of different fruits and vegetables will have a health benefit for most people.

Some questions arise because of statements like that:

1) Do all fruits and vegetables count? 2) How big is a serving?  3) Can I eat 5 servings of just one type of fruit?

Would’t it be brilliant if 5 servings of french fries smothered in salt and ketchup (also a vegetable) did the job. I’d sign up to 5-a-day in a second. Unfortunately, that isn’t in the spirit of the suggestion. In fact, potatoes are one of the few vegetables that don’t count towards your 5-a-day. Potatoes and a couple of other vegetables are starchy and therefore count as a different component of your diet – even though they are widely believed to be vegetables🙂

As for serving size, in total we are talking about 400 grams of fruit and veg a day or 80 grams for each of the 5 servings. I have just now weighed an apple on my lab scales and it weighed 153.47 grams. Then I ate it (only 4 more servings for me today then) and weighed the core (21.10 grams). In total therefore, I have just consumed 132.37 grams of apple goodness.

Nobody is suggesting that you should weigh out all of your fruit and veg. That’s the point of a simple to remember slogan like 5-a-day. Just eat 5 things that are roughly equivalent to an apple or slightly smaller in size.

french fries… maybe they’d count if the slogan was 6-a-day

The 5 things might be a whole fruit like a banana, apple or orange. They might be a serving of fresh or cooked vegetables like carrots, beans or corn. They could be canned or frozen vegetables. You might even have a smoothie or two (just don’t overdo the sugar). It is important to mix your vegetables to achieve the full goodness that the suggestion intends. Different fruits and vegetables contain different minerals and vitamins that are all essential for your good health. That’s why the slogan sometimes suggests that you eat different coloured fruits and veg. The colours are pigment molecules that in themselves are a source of dietary nutrition.

Can I have french fries for my remaining 4 servings today? Awww… I never get french fries…

‘Unstealable’ objects


Why can a phone be described as ‘unstealable’?

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss unstealable objects starting at 7 minutes and 1 second in this clip:

[audio – Weather and Unstealable objects.mp3]

Electronic chains, maybe

Surely, if I want to steal your phone, that should be no difficult task. Just stick it in my pocket and I’m off. Well, nowadays, small and valuable electronics items like smartphones, laptops and tablet computers have a trick that means that thievery isn’t such a lucrative pastime. They will just let you know where they are!

The rotten weather


The weather in England this summer mostly ‘sucks’. How about where you live?

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We talk about the weather starting 50 seconds into this clip:

[audio – Weather and Unstealable objects.mp3]

More floods and droughts than ever before

Ugh… what a miserable spring and early summer it’s been in England. It has been raining virtually continuously for 3 months – ever since the day Southern England had water restrictions enforced due to the drought that lasted all winter. We grumble about the weather sometimes in England, and the place is never going to be as sunny as, say, Yuma (the sunniest place on Earth), but this has really gone too far.

Now some are asking, ‘is it possible to have a year with no summer at all?’ Well, let’s assume that when someone asks that question that they mean ‘without summer-like weather at all.’ It turns out that it’s not unprecedented. There was the famous summer of 1816 – the summer of ‘eighteen hundred and froze to death.’ It is believed that the rotten weather that year resulted from a combination of low solar activity with a volcanic winter event. The 1815 eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia filled the upper atmosphere with particles that had a reflective effect leading to a decrease in average temperature of LESS than 1 degree celsius.

Now a similar thing is happening. Worryingly though, not because of a volcano but because of us. This time the trend is going to be far more difficult to reverse. Humans burn too much petroleum and that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. All of the CO2 has the opposite effect from the volcanic ash cloud. Instead of reflecting heat, it acts like a big blanket around the Earth and keeps heat in. The small decrease in average temperature in 1816 had a profound effect on summer weather that resulted in crop failures and famine. Global warming which will cause average temperatures to increase by a few degrees in coming decades is going to mess up our weather jut as much as even the biggest volcano could.

Some, those of us in England for example, might have had cause to celebrate when we first heard of ‘global warming.’ Did it mean that within a few years we would be enjoying warmth and growing bananas and soaking up the rays? No, it more likely means that crazy weather patterns will become more commonplace. We swing from drought to flood in the UK and elsewhere on the planet some of the hottest, driest weather ever experienced is happening. Very slight increases in average annual temperature add energy to evaporation-driven processes resulting in abnormal storm systems for some and baking temperatures for others.

I’m afraid that global warming is a fact. Even those that were once critics of the idea are now seeing the truth (see: conversion of a climate-change skeptic). Our weather will always fluctuate so that we have cycles of cold years and hot years but the trend is for temperature to increase. What can we do about it? Some say that it is already too late, even if we stop burning fossil fuels today it will be impossible to reverse the trend – this is likened to the amount of time it takes to stop an oil tanker even if it is heading for a reef. Scientists call this inertia.  I say enough of the doom mongering. We’re late to recognize the problem but we are now starting to invest in alternate, cleaner energy programs.

Humans are supremely adaptable to changing environments and we will adapt as we ‘weather the storm.’ I just wish the sun would come out!