Tag Archives: science

The Coolest Film in the World (Still a Better Love Story Than Twilight)

IBM is pretty cool. As part of their ongoing research into data storage based on single atoms, they’ve made the world’s tiniest film. It’s called ‘A Boy and his Atom’.

It uses a handful of carbon atoms (a figurative handful of carbon atoms, obviously). A few dozen individual atoms to create a little stop-motion tale about a boy with a big grin and an atom of his very own.

The IBM film-makers used a scanning tunnelling microscope to move the atoms around and create pictures. (An IBM scientist won the Nobel Prize for Physics for inventing the STM in 1986.) It took the team of scientist film-makers two weeks of 18-hour days. Take a couple of minutes and marvel at how frickin’ awesome science is.

It’s a simple story using phenomenally complex technology. And it’s still a better love story than Twilight.

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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?

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…

Our Slow-Burning Star

IMG_0814Ever wondered why the Sun hasn’t burned out yet? Or why, exactly, it will still be going in several million years?

‘Well, it’s very big!’ I hear you say. ‘There’s lots of fuel in there.’ Yes; yes, it is very big, and there is a lot of fuel. But that’s not why it’s such a long-term heat and light source. It is a little more complicated than that…

Here’s an interesting fact: kilogram for kilogram, the Sun puts out less energy than a human body. It is far less efficient than we are at generating power.

On the face of it, this is a little surprising – it’s an enormous flaming ball of gas that we couldn’t get anywhere near without disappearing in a puff of carbon. So how can it be so inefficient?

The answer lies in the fact that it is, indeed, a great big ball of gas and it behaves in a very similar way to gases on Earth. It turns out that gases are rather interesting and the way they behave under different conditions is predictable.

The Maxwell-Boltzmann curve

The distributions of speed and translational (movement) energy of the molecules in a gas are very similar if a gas is in equilibrium. The more molecules the gas contains, the fewer fluctuations in speed and energy distribution.

Essentially, this means that a certain percentage of gas molecules will tend to have a certain speed or energy level. This is best demonstrated using a Maxwell-Boltzmann graph:

A graph showing the Maxwell-Boltzmann curve of molecular speed distribution, with the most probably speed indicated.

The Maxwell-Boltzmann curve of molecular speed distribution

This graph shows that there is a most-likely speed for any given gas molecule to have (and a similar curve exists for molecular translational energy). As long as the temperature of the gas is constant, the fraction of molecules with the most probable speed remains around the same (as does the fraction of molecules with any other speed).

(Note that molecules with a given speed may not be the same; their individual speeds keep changing as a result of collisions with other molecules, or the gas container.)

The graph has a long tail at higher speeds and energies: the likelihood of finding a molecule with a certain speed and energy decreases as speeds and energy levels increase. It’s the same for protons in the Sun.

This is the reason for the Sun’s longevity: the chance of two protons coming together in nuclear fusion is tiny. It has been estimated that it takes one proton five billion years to fuse with another proton. Most of the time, protons zip around in the Sun at relatively low speeds and energies, bouncing off one another and carrying on their merry way.

They are to be found in the ‘lumpy’ part of the distribution curve; the area with the ‘most likely’ speeds and energies. It is only when a proton (or molecule) falls into the tail end of the curve that it approaches the speed and energy required to undergo fusion.

A graph showing the energy distribution curve of protons in the Sun, with the area where fusion will occur highlighted in purple.

The tail-end of the energy curve, where fusion will happen.

Most of the Sun is too cold for fusion. When those very few protons in the tail end of the distribution curve do come together in fusion, they release large amounts of stored energy.

It is, therefore, extremely unlikely that fusion will occur in the Sun. However, it’s so massive that its total energy output is enormous so it is pretty hot. And bright. If the distribution patterns of speed and energy were different, the Sun could have burned out millennia ago, or may never have got very hot at all.

Gases are predictable

The speed distribution of a gas depends on the mass of the molecule, but the translational energy distribution is the same for all gases at the same temperature.

In other words, the larger the molecules’ mass, the slower their speed; so the speed distribution will be affected by molecule size. However, the molecules’ mass has no effect on the energy distribution – it’s the same for all gases at a fixed temperature.

  • The speed and energy of a gas’s molecules increase as the temperature increases, as long as the volume is fixed.
  • The molecules’ energy is unaffected by a change in speed at a fixed temperature and volume.
  • The speed and energy are unaffected by an increase in volume, at a fixed temperature.

These properties have been extremely useful in the development of technology – and led to the invention of a simple but quite marvellous fire-starting device: the fire piston.

Because compressing gases leads to an increase in temperature, if you do it quickly enough you can ignite flammable material without any need for sparks or traditional fuel. An old-fashioned fire piston is still useful today for campers, climbers and other such adventurers. It’s small and easy to use: take a long, thin cylinder, a rod or piston, and place some flammable material in the bottom of the cylinder. Plunge the piston down rapidly, and watch the material ignite. This video shows you how to make one, which I will do at some point:

Science in action. It’s marvellous!

Why I love science

Or, at least, this is one of the reasons I love science…

Take a look at this article in Nature. It’s interesting, yes – especially if you understand anything of quantum gases. But it’s the comments that made me laugh!

The article also underlines our everyday misunderstanding of and misuse of terms such as ‘temperature’ and ‘heat’.

Dive in!

Nature article

Science also invites respectful, light-hearted banter. Compare this to the trolling and abuse you often see in the comments sections of blogs and YouTube…

Unexpected Developments Scupper New Year’s Resolutions

On January 1, 2011, I wrote this post. So, as promised, I’m revisiting it. I was on a false high, and in complete denial about just how bloody miserable I was. I was also convinced that I would have achieved everything on my list. Well, that didn’t happen – but for once I’m not full of woe and self-recriminations.

This year has been a hell of a ride. I left The Worst Job in the World™ and, instead of wallowing, I slapped myself around a little then stood up. I held my head high, took a deep breath, set my shoulders back and my chin in the air, and Changed My Life.

With a little help from my friends, and a LOT of love, support and encouragement from my husband, my family and my splendid friends, I started my own business. Sunflower Communications was born in April 2012, and has been so successful so far that I can’t quite believe it.

Then, I became part-owner of Wylie’s, The Ironmongers with the fabulous Charlie Collett. Which was unexpected but brilliant. I’ve always wanted a shop. Next  year will be super busy…

2012 has been the hardest, in places worst, but generally best and most rewarding and satisfying year of my life. So I will forgive myself for not achieving everything on last year’s list:

  • Try something new at least once a week.
Me and my girls at our first burlesque show

My burlesque début!

Not quite once a week, but I have tried something new very often indeed. And each time, it’s enriched my life, even if I didn’t like it. Plus, this little resolution gave me burlesque, and a group of fan-bloody-tastic, strong, clever, funny, kind ladies who I love very much.

  • Buy more music.

This, I achieved. Florence and the Machine, Nina Simone, Imelda May, Propeller Heads, dubstep, Scroobius Pip…

  • Spend more time with my family.

This, too, I achieved. But it’s on this year’s list too.

  • Go to more gigs.

Although I did probably go to more gigs than I did in 2011, I would like to see more live music.

  • Improve my wardrobe: instead of purchasing several cheap items of clothing from random high street shops, spend a similar amount of money on one item that is beautiful, well-made, and will last.

I achieved this – and made my own clothes too! Long may this continue.

  • Motorcycle road trip around Europe with some good friends.

This was quite good fun 🙂

  • Become a bloody brilliant pole dancer.

Well, I don’t know about bloody brilliant, but I’ve certainly improved enormously. Which pleases me enormously.

  • Go clubbing several times.

I did this. It was okay.

  • Cultivate an aura of calm togetherness.

I don’t think that this is ever going to happen!

  • Embrace the fact that I am now a corporate whore.

I’m not! I’m not! I am a small business owner, and I am HAPPY.

  • Run at least one half-marathon.

Oops… This year though, for sure.

  • Be a better, kinder, funnier person.

I hope I have achieved this last one. I’ve worked hard.

Resolutions for 2013

This year, I am being a little more realistic. I’ve made a few resolutions over at my Sunflower blog, but they’re mostly business related. Here are my personal resolutions.

  1. Get away for a week with Joe. Just the two of us.
  2. Spend more time with our families, especially my lovely brother, his fabulous fiancée and my little niece Ella.
  3. Run more. I’ve joined Park Run, and I want to do a half-marathon next year, and perhaps a full marathon the year after. Perhaps.
  4. Read more books.
  5. Pay off the credit card.
  6. Spend more time camping and walking and bicycling and picnicking with good friends.
  7. More improvements in yoga and pole.
  8. Make more time for studying.
  9. Continue enjoying burlesque!
  10. Write more. Blog more. Rediscover my love for writing about science.

Happy new year

Happy new year readers. I wish you all the very best for 2013; and if life throws terrible things at you, I wish you the strength and courage to emerge from them stronger, with grace, and with your heads held high.

Big love. Peace out.