Blog Post Index

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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89. What is stress?

What is stress? Reality is the leading cause of stress   Lily Tomlin (“Trudy the Bag Lady”) What is stress? How does it wreak its havoc? How can we tell when it is reaching dangerous levels? Is it the same for human relationships as it is in the physical world? Many...

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88. On unexpected connections

Three upcoming papers (as of May 27, 2015) in Physical Review Letters and Physical Review Applied illustrate beautifully how ideas from one branch of science can inform and catalyze advances in another quite different one: When brittle materials fracture, the rough...

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John Nash obituary

26.5.15 I have just written an obituary of John Nash and his wife Alicia for the U.K. Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/may/25/john-nash It describes Nash's contributions, not only to game theory, but also to mathematics. Here is the original draft:...

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85. Necessary mysteries

The world is full of mysteries. Until the last few hundred years, these were thought to be the prerogative of religion and philosophy. But with the advent of science, a new category has come into being -  "necessary" mysteries. Many of the odd, sometimes...

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The world’s most evil scientific paper

 A 33-page paper that gives a refined estimate of the mass of the Higgs boson to ±0.25% has just been published (Aad, G. et al. (ATLAS Collaboration, CMS Collaboration) Physical Review Letters Vol. 114 191803 (2015) 191803. The work itself, some of which was done by...

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Altruism: the key to our future

There is much debate about altruism. Does it really exist? Why should it exist? If it does exist, is it really disguised self-interest (Mother Teresa once claimed that her main motivation was looking after her own feelings)? Or does it have a genetic/Darwinian basis,...

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Tasting and the brain

This post also appears on the Oxford Symposium for Food and Cookery blog A recent paper in Nature (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature13873.html) tells us for the first time how taste sensations on the tongue are transmitted to the brain. It...

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Demise of Lomborg “consensus centre”

May 8, 2015 Bjorn Lomborg's "consensus centre" at the University of Western Australia, intended to provide academic respectability for a preconceived position held by the Australian Government, is dead. I had been involved with other members of the Royal Society of...

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Numbers with character

There are all sorts of numbers to which we have attached names that suggest that they have almost-human characters (the correct technical term is personification). So there are perfect numbers, real numbers, complex numbers, and even narcissistic numbers* Narcissistic...

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79. Science in society

In my last-but-one post I asked why we should care about scientists think. Looking back, I see that I answered a different question: how can we get people to care how scientists think. But the why is equally important, and it is a question that is by no means easy to...

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The Higgs boson of biology

The discovery of the Lokiarchaeota, a new "missing link" phylum lying between the prokaryotes and the eukaryotes (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/fig_tab/nature14522_F1.html) is surely close in importance to biology as was the discovery of the Higgs...

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The essential humanity of science

I see science as one of the humanities. I hate the phrase “science and the arts,” as if they were separate entities, pursuing different objectives. But both need … imagination, the engine that propels science, just as it propels all other creative activity....

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Toiling in the shadow of the corkscrew

Does wine enhance the creative spirit? Stephen Fry has no doubts: Wine can be a wiser teacher than ink, and banter is often better than books. Stephen Fry “The Fry Chronicles” (London: Michael Joseph (2010)) p. 122. A notice outside a bar near Bath’s Theatre Royal...

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Some thoughts on rejection

Writers get used to rejection, even if it hurts at the time. But a Chinese economics journal found a way of not making it hurt so much: We have read your manuscript with boundless delight. If we were to publish your paper, it would be impossible for us to publish any...

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74. The nematode solution

If you have ever heard of nematodes, it has probably been in the context of gardening, where these little worm-like creatures are used to control slugs by the unpleasant process of crawling into the slug’s body through its various orifices, releasing a bacterium that...

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Taking a jaundiced view

Herewith a few sceptical quotes to mull over: I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when...

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73. Getting back to Turing

Getting back to Turing: Turing’s “reaction-diffusion” model for morphogenesis has inspired many mathematicians and computer scientists to get interested in biology – the first, because Turing’s non-linear equations are interesting to grapple with, and the latter,...

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The science of Uri Geller

One of my favourite quotes, from Tim Healey (ed.) “Strange but True: The World’s Weirdest Newspaper Stories”, Octopus Books, London, 1984, p.93. I have been trying to trace the origin of the above story, but so far without success. In the meantime, may I quote my own...

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Science quotes I: Piet Hein

Piet Hein was a Danish architect, designer, and polymath. His contribution to this series lies in his "grooks" - short, punchy poems that hit at the heart of a question. The definition of a good after-dinner speaker in Denmark is someone who can talk for half an hour...

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72. Make your own mermaid

The pattern of cells in our bodies, and indeed in that of all living beings, is a result of self-organization, which we are only just beginning to understand. More of that anon, and of the thinking behind it. In the meantime, I cannot resist a brief interlude on the...

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71. The attraction of repulsion

When we think of self-organization, we tend to think of objects attracting one another to get together and form patterns. But, as Terry Prtachett pointed out in The Color of Magic, ‘hate is an attracting force, just like love’. And when I came to study particles that...

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70. Patterns from nowhere

How does the zebra get its stripes? How does the leopard get its spots? And why should a mathematician be interested? In Alan Turing’s case, it was because this particular mathematician had an idea. And, as befits someone with a mind so thoroughly adapted to lateral...

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68. The gömböc society

Meet the gömböc (pronounce goemboets). It is a three-dimensional object that self-rights. If you put it down on a horizontal surface, its clever shape ensures that it will start wobbling around until it has safely reached its equilibrium position, no matter what...

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How I was murdered

Very pleased to find that I was murdered in an episode of Columbo (http://www.columbo-site.freeuk.com/msmoke.htm) through touching an electrified iron fence while walking down a wet street. A very fitting end for a scientist!

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64. On getting your units right

The incident of the Mars Climate Orbiter, described in the previous post, shows that it pays to check your units, and get them right. One spectacular miscalculation, which fortunately ended with no loss of life, was when Air Canada Flight 143 ran out of fuel on a...

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63. On spinach and spacecraft

What do spinach and spacecraft have in common? Well, they both contain a lot of iron, right? Wrong. The myth that spinach is a good source of iron goes back to the 1890s, when the first analysis was performed in Germany. Unfortunately, when the data were published, a...

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62. An addendum on dragons

Just a day after I wrote the last post, an article “Here be dragons” appeared in Nature online (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v520/n7545/full/520042a.html). The theme: That dragons are merely asleep, and are likely to be reawakened by climate change, and the...

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61. The science of dragons

Meddle not in the affairs of dragons For you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup. That advice from an anonymous author sounds pretty good to me. Yet many scientists have meddled in the affairs of dragons. Which is odd, considering that they don’t exist (dragons,...

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57. An Enemy of the People

On November 26th, 1998, I was named by the London Times newspaper as “an enemy of the people” for using physics to work out the optimum way to dunk a biscuit. It was my first venture in using food as a vehicle to help communicate how science works. To date it has also...

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54. Erections in the Year of Light

Erectile dysfunction, the subject of many a cartoon, is in reality a very distressing condition that affects more than 150 million men worldwide. But now, in this Year of Light, light has come to the rescue. But first, a little history. Some of the early devices that...

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52. The man who fed Prozac to clams

Harvard has slipped to sixth in the Times Higher Education’s list of the world’s top universities (https://www.timeshighereducation.com/world-university-rankings/2017/world-ranking#!/page/0/length/25/sort_by/rank_label/sort_order/asc/cols/rank_only). I wonder whether...

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50. What did Emmy Noether do?

Historic woman scientists are rightly being brought to public attention at the moment, but it isn’t always clear from the publicity just what they were celebrated for. Try this: Emmy Noether was a German mathematician who made groundbreaking contributions to abstract...

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48. Teaching calculus to babies

Speaking a language to a baby, even for short periods of time, makes it easier for the child to learn the language later on. Similarly, the ability of a child to use numbers* is enhanced if parents talk to them about numbers to them from a very early age (e.g....

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45. My great Fermi discovery

The central library in my home town of Sydney is giving away books – not just any old books, but those that have never been borrowed. Sadly, but not surprisingly, many of them are scientific books. Browsing through the heap, I was thrilled to find a copy of Enrico...

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