Blog Post Index

39. Thinking mathematically

Few of us are gifted with strong mathematical talent. But then, few of us are gifted with musical talent or mathematical talent or literary talent. So how come we can enjoy music or art or writing, even though we don’t have much talent for these activities ourselves,...

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37. Give peas a chance

How do you use a packet of frozen peas to catch a polar bear? There’s a science to it. You cut a hole in the ice, distribute the peas symmetrically around it, and hide. Then, when a bear comes up for a pea, you kick him in the icehole. Ok, maybe that’s not very...

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32. Why do people become scientists?

I thought that this would be an easy post to write. Just scour through some scientists’ autobiographies (I have around a hundred on my shelves), pick out some quotes, and the post would write itself. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Because scientists love talking...

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23. Internet woes

Readers of these stories will have noticed something of a hiatus in the last few days. The reason (or sequence of reasons) is simple: I am in Australia; I live in a rural community; the broadband signal comes down the telephone line; the telephone lines are made of...

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22. Benjamin Franklin’s missed chance

Science is everywhere. All you have to do is to keep your eyes open, and retain your childhood sense of wonder (the French poet Arthur Rimbaud defined genius as “the recovery of childhood at will”). Which is just what Benjamin Franklin did when he was travelling from...

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21. An interlude with Vestal virgins

Before going on with the story of oil on troubled waters, we might consider the plight of the vestal virgins of ancient Rome. These were a group of six hand-picked girls from noble families, whose duty was to maintain the sacred flame in the temple of Vesta. The...

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20. Oil on troubled waters

The connecting link between all of the stories in this series is that they illustrate the myriad approaches to scientific thinking. Another connecting link is that each story has suggested others to me, so that the stories constitute a random walk through my own...

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19. The UNscientific method: Part 2

The unscientific method is particularly prevalent in advertising. I suppose that I have always been aware of this in a vague sort of way, but it really came home to me at a time when I had my fifteen minutes of fame after using physics to work out the optimum time to...

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18. The UNscientific method: Part 1

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 consensus?” then the answer is clearly NO. As this series has shown, and will continue to show, there are many, many...

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17. Bacon and eggs

The sixteenth-century Elizabethan courtier Sir Francis Bacon proposed a “scientific method” that still holds some sway in the popular imagination. His idea was to collect as many facts as possible, and then look for some sort of order or guiding principle. One has to...

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16. Making sense of the world

A lot of things that seem to make sense are just plain wrong. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, for example, thought that it made perfect sense to assume that men had more teeth than women. He was married twice, but he never thought to look and check his assumption....

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15. The uncommon sense of science.

  The great Victorian biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, aka “Darwin’s bulldog” once defined science as “applied common sense”. It was probably the silliest thing that he ever said. Because, as the behaviour of light shows, many aspects of the universe do not obey...

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13. An experiment with Christmas cheer

Take a wine glass, filled with white wine if you like, or water if it’s too early in the day or you don’t drink wine. Shine a bright light from one side (in the pictures here it’s an LED torch; you can see the reflection of its multiple elements near the bottom left)....

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12. Newton and the cat flap

In the last post I gave a brief list of Newton’s achievements (except for one, which I discuss below), but failed to fulfil my self-imposed obligation to say just how he came up with his ideas. In fact, it’s a difficult question to answer, because Newton himself gave...

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9. Einstein’s toolkit

The trouble with you, Mr. Einstein, is that you don’t know how to count.  Einstein’s childhood violin teacher The calculations that Einstein performed to draw his conclusions from the simple initial “what if?” assumption needed a new sort of mathematics. Just as he...

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5. Light Relief

Deviating momentarily from our theme of light, and the famous scientists who were involved in figuring out its properties, here is some light relief, concerning scientists who never actually existed: The Italian Stronzo Bestiale appeared as a co-author in many erudite...

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3. Newton’s Missed Chance

The story of light is still going, with some very surprising twists, as later posts will show. Light itself can even be twisted, like the fibers in a rope, and also used to lift small objects and move them around. When Newton published his book Opticks in 1704,...

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2. Two Fingers to Newton

If you want to repeat one of Isaac Newton’s most significant experiments, try holding your index and middle fingers up to the light (don’t do this, as I once did, in a train full of drunken football supporters!). With the tips of the fingers just touching, there will...

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Renaming the comet lander

My suggestion for renaming the Philae comet lander after the ancient Greek marathon runner Pheidippides (Nature 515 (2014) 492) (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v515/n7528/full/515492f.html?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20141127) The Rosetta spacecraft's Philae probe, which...

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The Great Aussie Barbecue

Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Oxford U.K., 8–10 July, 2011 The Aussie barbecue is a unique celebratory institution. From humble beginnings, with meat cooked on a ploughshare over an outback campfire, or on a shovel in the firebox of a steam locomotive, the...

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Madoff’s Willing Partners

The Washington Post There seems to be little doubt that Bernard Madoff is a cheat. His apparent Ponzi scheme, in which capital from new investors would have been used to pay "dividends" to earlier investors, ultimately cost the participants many billions of dollars....

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Listening to Vegetables

Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery Synopsis: In this talk I will explore the strange world of vegetable acoustics, from the sounds that tell us how fresh a vegetable is when we tap it to the use of vegetables as musical instruments. The talk will cover: The screams,...

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A Scientific Amuse-Gueule

Book Review: Kitchen Mysteries by Hervé This Times Higher Education Supplement This's new book is an exuberant paean for the role of science in cooking. The reader who is content to be swept along in a torrent of prose will be rewarded by many striking images, such as...

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