I quite frequently find myself on a train heading down south to the beach town of Brighton (it's a pebble beach in England, so try not to let 'beach' conjure mental images of Bali). It's a lovely place, filled with lovely people. It also has a large contingent of my friends living in it, and we tend to like to have an alcoholic beverage or two. However, visits are not always roses and sunshine, as there is an unavoidable sticking point that drives home the differences between Northern and Southern drinkers ... The size of the head. No, not cranial circumference, I'm discussing the thickness of that layer of delicious foam on top of your pint of ale. As a Northerner, I was raised from a very young age to expect my beer to be served a certain way, but the Southerners just get it all wrong! They just scrape the head off entirely, sometimes with an actual knife, to fit more beer in their glass! Mental! I've encountered this North/South beer disagreement many times, and it has caused a number of heated, mildly inebriated arguments. ...Read More
... There is a growing body of evidence, spanning back not just decades but centuries, that in some situations, if you believe that you are receiving excellent care, your prognosis is improved. Your outlook is improved just by believing it is. This, in a nutshell, is the placebo effect, and for a long time it has been a tough pill for scientists to swallow. Luckily, science doesn't give up every time it finds something mysterious, but it has taken a while for this phenomenon to be taken seriously. But taken seriously it should, if we want to once and for all rid ourselves of sham alternative therapies. ...Read More
... THE LIST was basically an even bigger napkin with what looked like song lyrics and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics scrawled all over it. He looked at the list, looked at me, and began ... "So, what do you think of the Moon landing hoax?". I distinctly remember an involuntary face-palm taking place - though perhaps this is a false memory owing to looking back on this event in exasperation so many times - as I immediately knew my next hour was going to be painful. ...Read More
Recently, I was caught out by a sudden downpour that was absolutely not predicted by the BBC, and it got me thinking about how weather-persons still so often get it hilariously wrong. The human race has achieved some spectacular things: we've sent cameras to Pluto, we've decoded DNA, we're untangling quantum mechanics, and we've invented the iPad ... and yet, whether or not it will rain 4 Tuesdays from now is almost completely unknowable (alright alright, it's knowable if you're in India mid-Monsoon season, smartypants). The reason it's (often) unpredictable is chaos, and as an Englishman I feel particularly suited to talk about unpredictable weather. This story begins with a classic problem in mathematics/physics, something unimaginatively known as the three body problem ...Read More
Once, Trolls were purely mythical creatures that lived under bridges and ate unsuspecting would-be bridge crossers. Or, if you prefer Tolkein mythos, Trolls were great big dimwitted creatures that can only be defeated by a combination of Hobbit word-play and direct sunlight. Either way, it's safe to assume that when these myths were being written, the total sum of actual death certificates that read "Cause of death: Troll" was nil.
That's not quite true anymore.Read More
... The idea goes that, aeons ago, before Google Maps and Uber, if your little family/tribe was going to do well in life (particularly if your neighbours were the type depicted in Mel Gibson's ode to insanity, Apocalypto), then you'd be better off if you keep tall, strong people around to help keep you and yours head and shoulders above the rest. And so, nature selected for the people who find height appealing. Despite there being next to no benefit to being tall in the modern world, this suggests we have a deep down, evolutionary and instinctive preference for the tall ...Read More
In my last blog I made my opinion on blue sky research pretty clear; it's great! I also suggested that sometimes you just have to let scientists work on their ideas, without pressuring them to come up with immediate economic outputs. There is definitely a case to be made, though, that scientists, now and then, need to be watched very carefully. Some science is just bad. ...Read More
Lots of exciting news about gravitational waves going round since last week, but whenever some discovery is made in physics, such as the long awaited finding of the Higg's boson from a couple of years back, a lot of people see the news reports and ask "who cares?". Well... They raise a fair point. Why should we care about such abstract discoveries?Read More
... I then of course, in an ill-advised move, offered my thoughts. If this were a panto, the crowd would be screaming "DON'T FEED THE TROLL!" at me, but I pressed on and pointed out that, were I on a date with someone who just assumed I'd pay for everything, I'd likely pay and then never contact them again. She was visibly shocked ...Read More
... This is yet another disease spread by our old enemy. No, I'm not talking about the Scots, I'm talking about the Mosquito. In light of these recent reports, I'm left asking myself, once again, why we haven't wiped the mosquito from the face of the planet. Forget the War on Terror, or the War on Drugs, or the War on [insert noun here] ... what about the War on Vampire Flies? ...Read More
... The system promotes healthy competition, and selects for sound research. Bad science gets filtered out, and successful scientists advance their careers. Right? Well, that's the idea, but it doesn't quite work that way. There are pitfalls to this recipe that can't be avoided by just being good at your job. You've also got to be lucky. ...Read More
I'm an Englishman, and as such, I love a good cuppa. A nice brew. A 3-bag pot. Tea, tea, tea. I don't think there are any countries that drink it quite like we do - and no, I don't think Asian green and herbal tea drinkers count. I'm talking about a cup of the ...Read More
... if you give a lab rat a choice between pure water and morphine infused water it will keep going back for the morphine. Rats become addicts very quickly. There's a huge caveat to this observation though - these rats were caged. They weren't carefree rats about town, they were caged animals. So in the 70s, a group of scientists did something unusual - they repeated the morphine experiment, but this time not just in a cage, this time in rat heaven. ...Read More
I've been training to run a marathon recently, and, inevitably, that has led me to ponder the origins of humankind.
Humans have outrageously big brains - some admittedly bigger than others - and it has always been my understanding that the reason we survived the competition with all the horribly fast, ferocious and disgusting species out there was because...Read More
Last night I met my doppelgänger. Or did I? One thing's for sure: he was not my identical hand twin.
Faces are funny. Unlike every other aspect of our lives, our brains seem completely incapable of forgetting a face. Names are easy to forget. Was it Dave? Steve?... Oh it's Mary, my bad. Faces on the other hand ...Read More