Blog Post Index

137. Creepy objects

After my radio broadcast on the relics of scientists in museums around the world (http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/ockhamsrazor/preserved-scientists/8624266), I received a number of suggestions for creepy additions. So I'm starting a blog here on creepy...

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136. Brilliant bacteria

Sometimes a scientific paper comes out that generates a gasp of admiration at first sight. That is true of a paper just out in Physical Review Letters “Nonlinear self-action of light through biological suspensions" (Anna Bezryadina, Zhigang Chen (San Francisco State...

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Units of measurement

The calving of a huge iceberg from Antarctica is a serious issue in the context of global warming, but has also sparked an ongoing debate on the best unit of measurement to describe its size. "The size of Delaware" screamed the initial, U.S.-based news sources. "Well,...

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What is a jerk?

Even some physicists are surprised to learn that "jerk" is a scientific measure. That's right! A "jerk" is the time rate of change of acceleration, or (equivalently) the third derivative of distance with respect to time. Which reminds me of a nice story by my friend...

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My recent radio broadcasts

I live a divided life, spending half the year in Australia and the other half in the UK. While in Australia, I recorded several programmes for ABC Radio National on various aspects of the science in our lives. They are now all available on podcast. Enjoy! 1. Science...

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134. Flying Blind Into the Future

Dramatic, unforeseen change is an increasing feature of our interconnected world. But how can we prepare for it? This is a blog summary of a feature article due to appear in "The Actuary" (July edition), and on which I will be expanding in a keynote talk to the 2017...

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132. A great loo story

(If any readers can tell me the origin of this, I would love to know!) Academics, and especially critics, have long been associated with “high” culture. It is only within my lifetime that their attention has increasingly been drawn towards “low” culture, with Clive...

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18. The UNscientific method. Part 1.

(Feb 3, 2017) I temporarily removed this early post because it seemed to be attracting spambots. Now re-posting. Enjoy! I am often asked the question “Is there a scientific method?” If the question means “Is there just one method that all scientists accept and use by...

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My career in poetry

I am stimulated to write this post by the news that the “celebrated American poet Joseph Charles McKenzie” has composed a poem to celebrate Donald Trump’s inauguration. The poem contains the immortal lines “With purpose and strength he came down from his tower To...

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Awkward Objects

If ever I had combined my interest in science with that in mediaeval history, this wonderful-sounding conference, taking place in Helsinki this April, would have provided the ideal vehicle. Its topic is “awkward objects” associated with the body; “including, but not...

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Vale Leonard Cohen: that’s how it goes.

Leonard Cohen has died. Perhaps he should have received a Nobel Prize, or shared one with Bob Dylan, because he certainly produced some of the most memorable descriptions of the human condition to be found anywhere. The one that sticks in my mind is this: Everybody...

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Are you over-exerting your brain?

In the days when I was an enthusiast for competition bridge, I read a book by the British writer Victor Mollo which featured a character called The Hideous Hog. One sentence from that book, describing the Hog’s excuse for making a mistake, has always stuck in my mind...

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Rabelais in the modern world

Rabelais's rumbustious romp with the brief title  The Heroic Deeds of Gargantua and Pantagruel was written in the sixteenth century, with the first part being written in 1532. I am lucky enough to own a limited edition illustrated by the Australia artist Francis J....

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118. Gassing on about neon

A recent article provides an exciting glimpse into one way that scientists think, although you might not think it is so exciting at first glimpse. Let the scientists speak for themselves: Neon is an abundant element in the atmosphere, but it is much scarcer on Earth...

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Brain cutlets, anyone?

In celebration of the “offal” theme at the 2016 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, here is the wonderful brain cutlet story from Lawrence Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell, a semi-fictional diary of his time on Corfu. The Count is “Count D” (probably an invented character,...

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116. Einstein’s sock (continued)

My latest 15 min radio broadcast in the Ockham's Razor series begins with the story of why Einstein decided not to wear socks (see Mini Story #7), but goes on to encompass how we can make the best decisions in our complex world and how Governments and big business are...

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115. A New Theory of Vacuum Cleaning

It is said that Pierre Curie could never enter his own laboratory while an experiment was in progress, because his body had become so radioactive that his mere presence discharged the sensitive electrometers. It was while pondering this story that I came up with my...

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Food and Desire

Here are the talk notes and accompanying Powerpoint Slides for the keynote talk that I gave on "Food and Desire" at the second Biennial Dublin Gastronomy Symposium (DGS) that (3-4 June 2014, Dublin Institute of Technology). It was a wonderful meeting, full of food and...

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111. Let’s dance – nano style

How can we better integrate science and the arts? Drama seems a fairly obvious medium for integration, and Michael Frayn used it effectively with his play “Copenhagen,” which dramatized the 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Dance is a lot less...

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The real dangers of Australia

Many of our European friends have expressed apprehension at the idea of visiting Australia on account of the ferocious sharks, poisonous snakes, spiders and jellyfish, etc. But the real problems lie elsewhere: Some birds laugh at you: Others look sideways...

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Will Turnbull reverse the cuts?

Nov 4, 2015  Here is the text of an open letter (submitted to Sydney Morning Herald but unpublished) to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, drafted by me on behalf of the Royal Society of New South Wales. In a recent speech, Turnbull promised to “invest in...

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How quickly can Zombies spread?

Here's how quickly zombies could spread across the United States (http://mattbierbaum.github.io/zombies-usa/). It's just a quirky model for the spreading of different types of infection, and you can run the simulation for yourself. Think how good it would be if...

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103. Visual multiplication

The great English mathematician G.H. Hardy, speaking of his Indian protégé Ramanujan (see post 25) once quoted to his colleague Littlewood that “every integer was his [Ramanujan’s] personal friend”. “I like that,” said Littlewood “I wonder who said it?” “You did,”...

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The f-index: Measuring Your Twitter Performance

Are you a successful tweeter? Here's how to work it out scientifically. There is an ongoing debate about how best to measure research performance, if indeed it can be measured, and if the measurements actually mean anything. I have had my fair say on this, and argue...

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Let’s get REAL science on the public agenda

My friend Philip Ball has written an excellent post on the difficulties of communication at the journalist/scientist interface (philipball.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/silence-of-geronotologists.html …). But Philip is being too modest in describing himself simply as a...

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100. Of cricket balls and icebergs

For my 100th post (how time flies when you are having fun!) here is another example of lateral connections. This one started when Matteo Rini, Editor of the American Physics Society’s Tip Sheet, told me about some experiments* where researchers had dropped ice-coated...

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99. Sex on the motorway

When I first started on my quest to make science accessible by showing how scientists think about the day-to-day things that interest us all, my first thought was to do the science of food and cooking, about which I knew a little bit. But lots of other people were...

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98. Necessary Mysteries

The remarkable experimental discovery that (in the quantum world at least) “future events can decide what happened in the past” (http://www.digitaljournal.com/science/experiment-shows-future-events-decide-what-happens-in-the-past/article/434829) has stimulated me to...

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Pluto, Asimov, Hawking and you

Stephen Hawking is in the news again. He has been congratulating NASA’s New Horizons team on the successful flyby of Pluto, which produced some spectacular images, while simultaneously warning of us of the dangers of science to the future of human race, particularly...

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Why science writers write

Why do writers write? Is it, as Edward Gibbon claimed , to seek immortality, or is there some other reason? Charlotte Bronte said that she wrote because she could not help it. George Orwell put it more strongly when he said that “Writing a book is a horrible,...

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The impostor syndrome: are you a sufferer like me?

The impostor syndrome is the feeling that you are a fraud. That you’ve slipped through the system undetected, and any minute now someone is going to find you out. That on the surface you may look deep, but deep down you know that you are shallow. It’s a feeling that I...

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94. Woodquakes and earthquakes

Two upcoming papers in Physical Review Letters shed a light on the way that scientists can use analogies to understand fundamental physical processes. Some analogies can be just plain barmy, as with Newton’s analogy between the number of notes in a musical scale and...

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The Problem of Trust

Notes for Talk at Granada seminar “Physics meets the Social Sciences: Emergent Cooperative Phenomena, from Bacterial to Human Group Behaviour” (Wednesday, June 17 (2005)). This has been a staggeringly interesting meeting from my point of view, because I’m in the...

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FIFA and Tosca: Two dramas with the same plot.

The dramatic events at FIFA have some very interesting parallels with Puccini’s opera Tosca. Tosca, the heroine of the plot, is faced with an unenviable choice. Her lover Cavaradossi has been condemned to death by the corrupt police chief Scarpia. Tosca is left alone...

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