Monthly Archives: July 2011

A billion billion billion billion billion times bigger…

Book 7 of S104: Exploring Science is entitled, rather niftily, “From Quarks to Quasars”.

Quarks are the smallest things of all, the fundamental constituents of the Universe, measuring 10-19 m across; quasars are the most distant objects we can observe, and are around 1026 m away.

There’s really no way to get your head around these extremes of sizes; suffice it to say that quasars are a billion billion billion billion billion times larger than quarks. Even analogies are impossible. Imagine a marble and a… no. There’s nothing big enough. Or far away enough. Imagine a marble and something MUCH further than a quasar?

“Common sense is the deposit of prejudice laid down in the mind before the age of eighteen.” Albert Einstein

Well, leaving aside ludicrous quantities of billion, cosmology is the study of the very, very large and particle physics is the study of the very, very small. This aspect of the module combines both of these studies into one neat package, and that package helps to answer the fundamental questions:

  • How does the Universe behave?
  • What rules does it follow? Or is it an anarchist, breaking glasses, listening to the Sex Pistols, and throwing sofas out of hotel windows?
  • How does the Universe change with time?

I’ll get back to you on those when I’ve worked out the answers. Quantum physics will help.

In the meantime, here’s a philosophical take on the very, very small by those reknowned poets, They Might Be Giants:

Looking at the nature of the Universe takes you outside of the everyday into the realm of the fascinating, the baffling, and the just-plain-weird. Particles that are in two places at once; antimatter; eleven-dimensional space-time.

“If quantum physics hasn’t profoundly shocked you, you haven’t understood it yet.” Niels Bohr

Hang on to your hats, because Kansas is about to disappear…


The real story

This is what the story should be about. Russell Brand’s tribute to Amy Winehouse is heartfelt, and nicely written. But the real message is vitally important.

The way this country deals with drugs and addiction is ridiculous. It doesn’t work. It’s run by non-expert politicians, who ignore scientists and doctors, and are terrified of the Daily Mail readers whose sterile and squeaky-clean lives never come into contact with drug addiction or alcoholism. It’s easy to sit in an ivory tower and pass judgement, condemning addicts to jail or worse.

Yes, Amy Winehouse and all other addicts make a decision to take a drug – be that an illegal drug like crack cocaine, or a legal drug like alcohol or valium. But addiction is a disease, and it can be treated. If we can be bothered.

This is not a leftie hand-wringing liberal view; it’s a fact. Instead of reading the popular press (whose journalists are, by and large, not medical experts) or listening to Auntie Joan from Surburbia, go and speak to some doctors. Experts in addiction. Read some research. It’s all there on the internet (the wonderful resource that it is).

Oh, and treating addiction is much cheaper than jail, too. And as an aside: quite a lot of prisoners go into jail clean, and come out addicted to something. That’s not right.

So next time you sneer, or roll your eyes at a junkie or alcoholic, take a moment to think about how the problem could be fixed. Listen to words from a recovering addict.

A bigger picture

A sense of frustration drives this blog, borne out of the reaction to certain events over the past few days in the media, and which has been driven by the use of social networking sites. It has been pointed out that social media is immediate, and deals with the here-and-now – and that’s true. But there’s a disturbing phenomenon at work, that I think is a dark side-effect of a fantastic social tool.

Over the past few days, the crisis in Somalia has been growing. Uncountable people are dying of thirst and starvation, and the western world has the resources and the ability to alleviate the suffering.

At least 92 young people were massacred in Norway while at a summer camp, reportedly by a right-wing gunman.

A drug-addicted and alcoholic singer-songwriter was found dead at her flat yesterday morning. It’s thought that Amy Winehouse died of a drugs overdose – the post mortem will tell us.

I read all the papers every day as part of my job, and there has been some coverage of the famine in Somalia, I’m sure there will be a fair amount about Norway. I’m positive that there will be a massively disproportionate amount of cover about Amy Winehouse.

There has already been a massive outpouring of internet grief about her death; there seems to be little perspective here among the general public. Her death is a tragedy to her family, friends and community – but it shouldn’t be on the front pages of anything except the music press. Of course her fans will be upset; that’s natural. But the really worrying thing is this: there will be a lot of focus on her “troubled soul” and a waste of talent – the waste of talent is certainly true (she had an extraordinary voice).

However, I predict (and I hope I’m wrong) that there will be almost no focus on the problems that put her in that situation in the first place. The wider societal problems affecting real people: the choices that lead people to addiction (and they are choices, and the individuals are entirely responsible for them).

Her death is sad, and her family will have a difficult time living their grief in the public eye. I hope they get some peace to deal with it in private. And I hate the jokes that go around after a person’s death, and particularly hate the gloating. No death is a cause for laughter and rejoicing. But she’s one person.

Linked to this phenomenon, and a source of genuine anger, is the kind of reaction from the public to events like the Soham murders. Again, a terrible tragedy for their families and community – but they were only two people. And if they hadn’t been extremely pretty little girls, they would not have received half the publicity they did. A huge number of children are – equally sadly – hurt or killed every day, but they’re not quite so photogenic. Raising awareness of issues is a good thing. Bringing out the pitchforks is, emphatically, not.

The same people who set fire to a paediatrician’s house because her job title sounds a bit like “paedophile” were the ones raising merry hell and fake grief over the Soham girls. And absolutely nothing good has come from that. From the sinister and empty “something must be done”, something has been done.

Society’s trust has been eroded and communities have been broken down. Not by the girls’ murderer, but by the pitchfork-wielding public and politicians desperate to show that they’re not uncaring and unable to act. The wider issues have been completely sidelined, and real experts have been ignored. No longer are you innocent until proven guilty in this country; if you want to work with children, you’d damn well better jump through six hoops to prove you’re not an evil, child-molesting monster.

What is the result of this? Scout trips will cease. Duke of Edinburgh’s supervisors will be dwindle. School outings will become more difficult. Why should perfectly normal people have to prove they’re not child abusers before they can volunteer to help out on a school trip or a Scout outing? Children are told they can no longer trust adults. No wonder there is such a lack of respect for other individuals out there; if you’re told you can’t trust people, why bother to treat them with respect?

And the worst thing of all, the most frustrating aspect of everything to come out of the Soham case, is that this policy will have no effect AT ALL on incidences of child murder and abuse. Not only does about 80 per cent of abuse take place within the home, by a family member or close and trusted friend, but Ian Huntley (the Soham murderer) would not have been caught in the net in the first place. So the girls’ deaths would not have been prevented.

Abuse of anyone is a bad thing. All deaths are sad, and if they can be prevented, they should be. But tragedy on a large scale, on a human scale, is real. All I’m asking for is a little perspective, and for people to open their eyes to the wider world.

For those accusing me of being heartless: perhaps I am. But I don’t have enough within myself to shed tears for every individual. There is an awful lot wrong with this world, and a lot that I grieve for. I don’t need to focus my grief on a single celebrity, and I certainly want nothing to do with the competitive public grieving that seems to be the current fad. There is a huge amount that is good and wonderful about the world too, and I’d like to focus on that for a while.

Tim Minchin

You see? I go and do all that writing, and that there. And I have a wee rant and a moan (some of it shamefully nicked from Ben Goldacre, I’ll admit) and then a mate goes and points out Tim Minchin.

Now, I’m always a couple of steps behind what passes for popular culture these days (getting old and all that) but HOW HAVE I MISSED THIS MAN? He’s funny. Very bloody funny.

Watch this:

That is all.

Everything must flow

Everything is connected. Absolutely everything. From the more obvious water cycle, to the less obvious carbon cycle, to the frankly astounding and mind-boggling fact that we are all made of stardust.

Simple, observable, everyday phenomena tell us an enormous amount about how the Earth works. For example, I found out during my study of Book 6: Exploring Earth’s History, where that yellowy-orange dust comes from. You know the stuff, it ends up on your car sometimes after it’s rained. That is dust from the Sahara desert, and it only appears after a big sandstorm.

Sahara dust makes its way to our cars

The fine, red dust is carried up into the lower atmosphere by the wind, and – if it’s fine enough, and the wind is blowing in the right direction – it is transported to our little island and deposited on our cars (much to the annoyance of my dad – it’s an abrasive dust, you see, and if you scrub at it the paintwork is damaged).

In the past, dust from all over the Northern Hemisphere was swept up towards Greenland and deposited on the ice cap in the fresh fall of snow. Millenia later, some of our more extraordinary adventure-scientists (I think that’s a reasonable title for them) journeyed to the Arctic and took samples from the ice.

These ice cores tell us, amongst other things, how our climate has changed over the past 140,000 years. They show us the peaks and troughs of temperature, give clues as to how arid or humid the climate was, and tell us about the chemical composition of the atmosphere.

All this comes from the presence of dust in ice, and the proportion of heavy or light isotopes of oxygen (that’s 18O or 16O) in the snow that fell on the ice-cap.

The oldest-known rocks on the planet

Another use for isotopes is in radiometric dating of rocks. The oldest rocks we know about are around 4,280 million years old and occur in Hudson Bay, Canada*. That’s not long after the Earth and the other planets of our solar system formed (about 4,560 million years ago). They are pretty rare; rocks tend to get recycled during tectonic activity.

Rocks are, against all probability and expectation, extraordinarily interesting. Not only do they provide humanity with gems such as diamonds and emeralds; they provide us with fossils. Look at the rocks next time you see a cutting by the side of a road. Really look at them. That layering, if you’re in an area of sedimentary rocks, is giving you a snapshot of the past. You’re looking into prehistory. There may even be fossils in there.

Connected to this geological time-line are deep-ocean cores – the sediments laid down by erosion and the dead organic matter in the seas. They provide another means of establishing a relative time-line – and it’s all calibrated by the radiometric dating of rocks.

The study of rocks gave us the cause of the last mass extinction, that of dinosaurs (and a huge number of other families) in the K-T event about 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous Period and the beginning of the Cenozoic Era. It’s called the K-T event because scientists are awkward so-and-so’s: K comes from the Latin for chalk – “kreta” (for Cretaceous) and T comes from Tertiary (an obsolete – but still used to confuse us students – name for the Cenozoic Era. And here is where I feel old: I’m sure I remember reading in books when I were a wee lass the name Tertiary. Cenozoic is a new one on me).

So what did cause the extinction of the dinosaurs? It probably wasn’t one single event (and it’s pretty much agreed that the other mass extinctions were not caused by a single catastrophic event, but by a combination of changing conditions). There were two events that happened at around the same time, on opposite sides of the world: a 10km meteor smashed into Mexico (you can see the crater on topographical maps) and in India there was, over the course of a couple of million years, an episode of flood-basalt volcanism.

The consequences of a meteor impact are fairly obvious: shockwaves, quakes, but mainly the dust, debris and gases entering the atmosphere. This would only last for a few months; but a few months of starvation is all that is needed to knock a species to its knees. Or its tentacles, if it has no knees. In short, the knock-on effect would be enormous (everything is connected, you see).

Likewise, the volcanism across the world would have a similar effect in terms of gas and dust – but spread over a longer period. CO2 and SO2 levels would rise, increasing the global mean surface temperature (they’re greenhouse gases) – but at the same time, the dust in the atmosphere would increase the planet’s albedo (the amount of sunlight reflected back into space). So overall, the planet would cool, and the rain would be acid.

This had the devastating, but on the surface insignificant, effect of collapsing a population of plankton because it couldn’t photosynthesise. Of course, everything above it in the food chain suffered as well…

Although these events were natural, they should be a cautionary tale to us humans. Every action has consequences. A change to the atmospheric composition can have far-reaching effects; alter the pH of the sea, and the consequences could be devastating. We don’t fully understand how it all works yet; but we know that changing one tiny variable will alter a dozen more in ways that we can’t necessarily predict.

Everything is connected, and it can tell us an enormous amount about ourselves; our past, present and future; where we came from, and where we might go.

To those who say that science takes the mystery out of life: you are so wrong – if anything, it deepens it and whets the appetite for knowledge and understanding. And you are missing out on the adventure of a lifetime.

*The image of the Hudson Bay rocks was borrowed from here: I thank the photographer, but will certainly remove it if requested!

Biological joviality

I’ve the afternoon off work to complete the Tutor Marked Assessment for Book 5: Life. And I haven’t blogged in a while. I am also Sick with an unknown malaise of the throat. So, I give you: Biology Jokes!*

Biology is the only science in which multiplication is the same thing as division!

Did you hear about the famous microbiologist who traveled in thirty different countries and learned to speak six languages? He was a man of many cultures.

Confucius once said, “When you breathe, you inspire, and when you do not breathe, you expire.”

The bad news is that the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Amoebas is shrinking. The good news is that none of the amoebas has lost any of their members.

At NIH (National Institute of Health), there is a sign on the door of a microbiology lab that reads “STAPH ONLY!”

Q: What is the fastest way to determine the sex of a chromosome?
A: Pull down its genes.

The teacher asks, “Jessica, what part of the human body increases ten times when excited?”
Jessica blushes and says, “That’s disgusting, I won’t even answer that question.”

The teacher calls on Johnny: “What part of the human body increases ten times when excited?”
“That’s easy,” says Johnny. “It’s the pupil of the eye.”

“Very good, Johnny,” responds the teacher. “That’s correct.”

She then turns to Jessica and says, “First, you didn’t do your homework. Second, you have a dirty mind. And third, you’re in for a BIG disappointment.”

A man goes into a bar and asks: “Can I have a pint of energy please?”
The barman pulls the pint and says: “That’ll be 80p please!”

Enzymes are things invented by biologists that explain things which otherwise require harder thinking.

Did you hear about the biologist who had twins? She baptized one and kept the other as a control.

One day the zoo-keeper noticed that the orang-utang was reading two books – the Bible and Darwin’s Origin of Species. In surprise he asked the ape, “Why are you reading both those books?”

“Well,” said the orang-utang, “I just wanted to know if I was my brother’s keeper or my keeper’s brother.”

It has recently been discovered that research causes cancer in rats.

I do apologise. I’ll get me coat!

*Shamelessly stolen from the Internet.

The ethics of genetics

No, I’m not going to attempt to untangle the entirety of the ethical issues surrounding advancements in our knowledge of genetics. That would require more time, space and skills than I have at my disposal. These are simply a few thoughts…

I have found the chapters on DNA and genetics extremely interesting – and thought provoking. The OU included a short section on ethics when it comes to IVF treatment and genetic diseases.

Advances in our knowledge in this area may, one day, lead to cures for congenital illnesses and diseases, or even prevent them altogether – and this, surely, is not something that many people could be opposed to. Is it? Stem cell research has massive potential to save countless lives and prevent untold suffering – and yet some people find a way to be opposed to it. This baffles me.

A clump of cells is not a life. It is a potential life. I know that many will argue with me; and that’s fine. They are as entitled to their opinions as I am to mine. But to use a philosophical or religious belief to stop the kind of research that could – literally – change the world is, to my mind, a criminal act of arrogance.

Do human beings have a “right to life”? I’m not sure. It’s purely a human construct, you see. Society, however, does have an obligation to look after the people who are here now, and to try and improve the lot of those who are suffering. Developing new methods to combat disease and illness is a large part of that.

Now for the controversy

Following on from the debate about humans’ “right to life” is the modern notion that everyone has a “right” to have a child.

I sympathise enormously with couples who are unable to have a child of their own. It must be deeply upsetting. I do not think that IVF treatment should be publicly funded. I’m not even sure that IVF treatment for reasons of infertility is a good thing. My reasons are fairly simple; I’m a fairly simple kinda girl.

This world is becoming crowded – should we really be adding to the global burden of overpopulation? This may seem a facile argument, and anyone who thinks this may be right. However, it’s an undeniable truth on a global scale.

More pertinently, though: there are many, many, tragically many unwanted or orphaned children in this world who want and need a good, loving home. The desire to procreate is entirely selfish (no, it is!); and never more so than when manifested in the choices of people who cannot have their own children. If being a parent is so important – and of course it is to those who want it – why does it matter where that child came from?

And in terms of cost: infertility is not (usually) a disease. It’s not something that needs to be “cured”. There are myriad health issues that desperately need funding – life-saving funding – and I do not believe that fertility treatment should be one of them.

Contrary to popular belief, NICE (the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence) doesn’t run a “postcode lottery”. It’s not that simple; choices for drug and treatment funding are based on many more variables than cost alone. (More often than not it’s because a drug is experimental; or has shown no real benefits. But that’s a blog post for another time.) In an age which seems to almost fetishise motherhood, fertility treatment is offered on the NHS for anyone who wants it – and that, to me, seems deeply unfair when the NHS is struggling under the weight of those who need help urgently.

And no: if I was unable to have children and wanted to have children, I wouldn’t have IVF treatment. I would adopt.

I am pro-choice. I am pro-choice in almost every walk of life – I believe that, armed with as many facts and as much information as possible (from all sides of a debate), people should be free to make whatever choices they want, as long as they are prepared to accept the consequences and bear the burden, financial or emotional.