Mini Stories from Science

92. The art and science of dunking

92. The art and science of dunking

June 5th On this National Donut Day in the U.S., here is the first chapter of my prize-winning "How To Dunk a Doughnut": an illustration of how scientists think about the problems of everyday life. One of the main problems that scientists have in sharing their picture...

91. Our beautiful minds

91. Our beautiful minds

Scientists at the University of Virginia have found a previously unsuspected network of lymphatic vessels connecting the brain directly to the immune system (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature14432.html). Why is this so important? For a...

90. Millikan and Ehrenhaft: a lesson in scientific thinking

90. Millikan and Ehrenhaft: a lesson in scientific thinking

Today (June 2nd) is the 102nd anniversary of Robert Millikan’s publication of his measurements of the charge of the electron. But he had a competitor – the congenial Viennese physicist Felix Ehrenhaft, a frequent host to Einstein and others. So how come Millikan got a...

89. What is stress?

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...

88. On unexpected connections

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...

87. Earth viewed from Mars and the Total Perspective Vortex

87. Earth viewed from Mars and the Total Perspective Vortex

NASA has produced the first picture of the Earth taken from Mars (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/spaceimages/details.php?id=PIA17936). The very insignificance of our planet is overwhelming, and reminds me of Douglas Adams’ invention of the Total Prespective Vortex in The...

86. Anacondas, piranhas and a plastic-eating fungus

86. Anacondas, piranhas and a plastic-eating fungus

The Ecuadorian rainforest holds many surprises. When I visited it on the way to the Galapagos one of those surprises was a 20-foot anaconda on the banks of a lake where we were swimming. It slithered slowly into the water on one side of the lake as we climbed rather...

85. Necessary mysteries

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...

84. On hot apple pies, exploding kedgeree and the birth of a new idea

84. On hot apple pies, exploding kedgeree and the birth of a new idea

I haven’t yet finished with Count Rumford, because his encounters with heat didn’t end with brass cannons. Apple pies were also on the menu, and their properties puzzled him: When dining, I had often observed that some some particular dishes retain their Heat much...

83. Suicide, beer and a honeymoon: the human side of thermodynamics

83. Suicide, beer and a honeymoon: the human side of thermodynamics

Scientific ideas can come to anyone, and come from anywhere. In the case of the nineteenth-century German physician Julius von Mayer, they came from seeing horses sweat as they pulled a heavy load up a hill. Stimulated by his observation, he was the first to conceive...

82. Manipulating water drops for fun and profit

82. Manipulating water drops for fun and profit

I’ll get back to Rumford and the story of heat shortly, but having been distracted by the wonderful Fibonacci clock, I find myself even more distracted by the beautiful structures that water droplets can form themselves into when trapped inside larger oil drops. The...

79. Science in society

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...

77. A tale of two Watsons

77. A tale of two Watsons

There is a new cookbook out: Cognitive Cooking with chef Watson. The underlying idea is that IBM’s supercomputer “Watson” has looked at the individual flavour compounds in different foods, and created new dishes by matching up the foods that have flavour components in...

76. Why we should teach students how scientists think.

76. Why we should teach students how scientists think.

When I started this series of Mini Stories, I did so out of pique. Not one, but two agents had told me that people would not be interested in a book about how scientists think. I thought that they would be – or, at least, that they ought to be, and would be if someone...

75. Manufacturing nanostructures – our clumsy imitations of Nature

75. Manufacturing nanostructures – our clumsy imitations of Nature

Scientists are fascinated by patterns in Nature. We are only just beginning to understand how the cells in our bodies and those of other animals arrange themselves into elaborate patterns, but we have made rather more progress in understanding the patterns formed by...

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