Monthly Archives: February 2013

This is not science. It’s tweed.

I am beginning an extremely non-scientific study into the use of tweed to denote Englishmen in American film and TV.

Every time I see an Englishman in tweed in an American production, it will find its way here. This was inspired partly by Giles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (who almost always wears tweed) and partly because we watched a truly dreadful film last night, and the lasting impression that we took from it was: Americans use tweed to denote an Englishman.

Anthony Stewart Head as Giles from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Wearing tweed.

Rupert Giles. He’s wearing tweed in almost every photo on the internet. True fact.

The film we watched last night was dire. Red Lights, in case you’re wondering. It started as a formulaic jumpy paranormal film, then slid into something much more interesting (although I didn’t care about any of the shallow characters) and then committed suicide disappointingly at the end. Plus, there was a really obvious twist.

But I digress: it was clear, from this film and from other American productions, that Americans use tweed to identify Englishmen. I’ve had a quick search for the scene in question, but I can’t find it. It’s when all the reporters are clamouring around the scientists (I think). One of them is English. He’s wearing tweed.

Spotted any uses of tweed in American film and TV? Let me know. I’ll document them here. It’ll be thrilling.

Clinical trials and reports: a petition

Just a quickie today. Please go and sign this petition: All Trials Registered.

Around half of all clinical trials have not been published; some trials have not even been registered. If action is not taken urgently, information on what was done and what was found in trials could be lost forever, leading to bad treatment decisions, missed opportunities for good medicine, and trials being repeated unnecessarily.

This is one of Ben Goldacre‘s pet projects, and it’s crucial.  In his words: “Positive findings are around twice as likely to be published as negative findings. This is a cancer at the core of evidence-based medicine.”

Find out a little more about why this is so important here.

Whimsy with the Moon

The Moon. It inspires stories, songs, spirituality, whole religions, silliness and conspiracy theories. Not to mention being responsible for the tides and the very existence of life on Earth as we know it. Not a bad hall of fame for a large lump of cheese.

It’s also the home of the Clangers. They say it isn’t; they say it’s a planet that just resembles the Moon, but that is a cover-up. A cover-up, I tell you! Incidentally, have you ever taken a close look at the Clangers? Rather sweet and ditsy little creatures, central to the childhoods of people of my parents’ age?

Oh no. No no no. Look again.

The Clangers on the Moon, with other stuff going on. They're alarming massive

Look at them. They’re fucking massive.

Let’s look at the facts. You can clearly see the curvature of the Moon in the illustration above, which also shows the Clangers pointing at a large lump of rubbish. This tells me the following: the Clangers are fucking massive.

I was going to do a whole bunch of calculations based on the circumference of the Moon (10,921 km), its angle of curve in that picture, and the relative height of the Clangers to find out how tall that would make them, but frankly I can’t be arsed. Suffice it to say, they are clearly taller than a very tall building.

Would you really want to be anywhere near giant mice with voices like slide-whistles and a penchant for volcanic soup? I think not.

Anyway, the thing that sent me down this particular garden path was this picture from I Fucking Love Science. (I do.)

A series of photographs of people doing cool stuff with the Moon, to make it look like the Moon is within reach.

All the things you can do with the Moon (no Clangers involved).

How cool is that?

What can you do with the Moon?

A Robin Ince post on atheism and drinking

I do like Robin Ince. He’s funny, clever and generous of thought. This is a good post, and reflects my feelings on the matter. I also like how you can chart his drinking progress as the blog progresses – there is at least one paragraph that has wandered into a ditch!

Enjoy.

Robinince's Blog

Take this as you will, that is the way of things. You have probably read this before, written by other people in a more pertinent and concise manner, but if you have a minute or two and nothing better to do…

 

About a month ago, someone asked if I felt i was a bit zealous with my atheism. I asked them for some evidence of my zealotry (yes, always a stickler for evidence, damn these scientists muttering in my mind) and they politely backed down as they realised that my zealotry was based on presumptions. 

This may be due to my Christmas shows, Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless people, which a few people seem to imagine is some rally where a gathering of excited atheists strip naked, smear themselves in the offal of dismembered papal emissaries and scream banshee-like as the high priest Richard Dawkins rears up on…

View original post 1,115 more words

Lightning has an electromagnetic personality

In the late 1700s, Charles Augustin Coulomb put the snap, crackle and pop from a number of perilous experiments together and deduced the form of the electrostatic force law. Here’s what he found:

  1. You can’t tell just by looking at an object whether or not it carries a charge. Unless you’re an X-Man. Possibly.
  2. There are only two types of charge: positive and negative. Opposites attract, as the old cliché goes. And an object with equal amounts of each is electrically neutral, like Switzerland.
  3. All normal matter contains electric charge (except Findus lasagnes, which are not yet understood by science).Electrons may be transferred from one object to another.
  4. In an isolated system, the total electric charge is always conserved. So when you rub a balloon on a cat, no charge is created – electrons are simply redistributed between the cat and the balloon (and anger is created in the cat. Cats are often not subject to the usual laws of physics. Mine can teleport). Charge has its very own law of conservation.
  5. Because of the attraction between unlike charges, any item with a deficit of electrons (which has, therefore, a positive charge) will attract negatively charged items. But that’s not all: it will also pull in any electrons that happen to be hanging around. That’s how electric currents work, in the very simplest terms. Put a negative thing next to a positive thing, and electrons will flow from one to the other until they’re sharing them equally.

Fun facts about electric charge

  1. A small plastic troll doll with purple hair. Looks like it's been introduced to a Van der Graaf generator.

    Me. On a Monday.

    If you super-dry your hair then give it a vigorous brushing, you can make it stand on end. I often don’t need to put this much effort in; my barnet’s natural state appears to be one resembling those little trolls. 

  2. You can stick balloons to the ceiling using electrons, thus defying the laws of gravity. This is an interesting demonstration of the difference in strength between the electrostatic force and the gravitational force. Relatively speaking, the electrostatic force is MUCH stronger. Mind-bogglingly so. (Although you can’t really compare them, because they are fundamentally different things with arbitrary units of measurement.
  3. If you’re wearing nylon clothes, and you take them off in a dark room, you can sometimes see sparks as the separation of the clothing from your skin causes the air around you to undergo electrical breakdown. You can dismantle the air, like an X-Man. Possibly.
  4. Electrostatic charges are responsible for lightning. (More below.)

One of my favourite things is finding out that an everyday (but brilliant) phenomenon is still not fully understood by our biggest brains. We really don’t understand how lightning works! Partly because experiments are bloody dangerous…

A scientist named Georg Wilhelm Richmann, a German physicist living in Russia, was killed during a lightning experiment in 1753. He has the dubious honour of being the first person killed during an experiment involving electricity.

He was electrocuted in St Petersburg while “trying to quantify the response of an insulated rod to a nearby storm”. Any excuse to duck out of a meeting, even back then: he dashed off on hearing the news of a thunderstorm, taking his engraver with him to record the event for posterity.

During the experiment, and somewhat predictably (with the benefit of hindsight), he was struck by lightning. (It’s said that it was ball lightning, a very rare phenomenon that wasn’t believed to exist until the 1960s.)

The explosion that followed blew up his shoes, singed his clothes and knocked him dead. That wasn’t the end of his scientific exploits, however; his body was dissected to find out what effect his terminal experiment had on his organs.

We don’t understand lightning

Lightning is probably the most dramatic and well-known natural phenomenon resulting from electrical charge. But how does it work? Well, here’s what we know:

  • On humid days, rising air currents carry water vapour up into the atmosphere.
  • This occurs in giant clouds – they’re around 10km thick.
  • The water droplets cool as they rise, then freeze to form hailstones. Hailstones are required for lightning to occur.
  • The hailstones grow as more water condenses on them, then begin to fall under gravity when they become obese.
  • As they fall, they tend to melt and emerge from the cloud as heavy rain.
  • Lightning flashes develop near the base of a cloud, and are caused by the separation of positive and negative charges within the cloud.
  • The electrical activity occurs at an altitude where the temperature is between 0°C and -10°C – the only temperature range in which both hailstones and supercooled water drops can exist simultaneously.

Beyond these facts, we’re not really sure of anything!

We all know what lightning looks like, but this video shows a whole plethora of beautiful phenomena set to the strains of Robert Miles epic tune ‘Children’. One of the soundtracks to my messy youth.

Theorising about lightning

Most of the theories about the origins of lightning are based on a transfer of charge between the rising water drops and the falling hailstones. This leaves the water drops with a net positive charge and the hailstones with a net negative charge.

With the water drops pulled to the top of the cloud by rising air currents, and the negatively charged hailstones falling under gravity, the result is a net excess positive charge near the top of the cloud and a net negative charge near the bottom.

The tops of clouds are happy. The bottoms are angry.

Diagram illustrating the charge distribution in a thundercloud.

This process increases until the electrostatic charges are so large that one of two things (may) happen:

  1. The vapour in the cloud undergoes electrical breakdown, allowing the electrons to flow up through the cloud in a giant spark of lightning – a ‘cloud flash’.
  2. The air beneath the cloud suffers electrical breakdown and the negative charge at the bottom flows to the positively charged ground as forked lightning.

As I said, though, the charging mechanism is not really understood. The middle of a thundercloud is a bit of a hairy place to be, so there are not many experiments documented. I quite fancy making some kind of protective bubble and mooching into a cloud. If anybody would like to fund this hare-brained scheme, do drop me a line. You could be in line to share a Nobel Prize, you never know…