Weekly Roundup 76

This week I was talking to some friends and one of them suggested a very interesting idea which I’ll try my best to convey: In the opening song of the popular Lion King, one of the lines is “more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done,” and this is strictly true. There are more things in this world than can ever be understood by one person and of course this is just one world in the colossal black sea of the universe. But to extend the idea a bit further, in the past, when the complete sum of human physics knowledge was relatively small, it may only take a few years of study to be at the cutting edge of research. Now, if you count proper physics education to start in about year 11, it takes nine or ten years to complete a PhD starting there. Is it implausible that at some point in the future it will take a persons full lifetime to reach the edge of human knowledge and they will die just before discovering anything new. Is the technological process of elongating life working faster than we are pushing scientific boundaries (not to mention there are various theoretical caps on life such as brain breakdown into Alzheimer’s, heart failure as it wears out, the probability of cancer from background sources, et cetera).

In a way, its quite a relaxing though to remember that we’ll probably never have to deal with these problems and it’s a bunch of future human’s problems to deal with. Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 74

There has recently been a bit of a heated debate started due to University of Oxford decree that academics would suffer compulsory retirement at the age of 67. The goal of this policy is simple: rejuvenation. The idea is that all these old decrepit professors are just hanging on to their jobs while these starry eyed, high spirited young scholars are being left out, how dare they. Of course there is probably some genuine concern, it is often described as the “leaky pipeline” how, for instance in chemistry degrees, its about a 50:50 split based on gender which is roughly maintained into the PhD students and yet when it comes to professors suddenly this equality seems to fall away. There is also the fact that, unlike with straining manual jobs, age isn’t really hampering issue for scientists. This means there judders and leaps when it comes to employment and many graduating PhD students simply can’t find one of those limited number professorships. Of course this also the counter argument; if professors can perform their duties as good as ever, regardless of age, how can that be a reason for, in essence, sacking them. There is also the argument that, without these experienced professors, the current number of research groups and PhD programs could not be run. Some people say these rulings will hamper young academics in the long run instead of helping them. It currently seems unlikely that this age limit will be removed or changed by any great degree as motion to do so have been outvoted by Oxford’s Congregation each time it has been brought up in the past.

Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 73

The tale of Galileo and the treatment his theories received is a very famous one. However the story has become slightly distorted over the centuries and the the truth is a bit different from the common telling. Back in the 1600s religion and science were inseparable concepts. The fact it was called natural philosophy should be enough of a hint to that. But the idea that the catholic church at the time opposed any scientific idea is quite absurd. Off the top of my head I cannot think of any culture in history that has actively attempted hamper scientific research, except for perhaps the intellectual slaughter of the French revolution. But although the church supported the scientific pursuit in a way of “gaining an understanding of God” there was always the tinge of the fanatical with religious scripture being presented as evidence. But in Galileo’s case it wasn’t the church that used such arguments, at least not at first. Galileo’s observations of Venus had led him to the conclusion that the Earth went round the Sun. To describe this as his theory though would be highly inaccurate; the ancient Greeks had pondered a similar idea. Aristotle had pointed out that the stars should appear to move based on parallax went around the Sun, and this evidence still stood. With Galileo unable to refute this evidence he used passages of the Bible to counter some critics. Quite soon some members of the church had started to use similar evidence back relying on scripture to disprove Galileo’s more advanced claims, these philosphers were described as  “not want[ing] to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times” by Galileo. Quite soon, with emotions running high, Galileo was accuse of heresy both of theological and scientific nature. There is no denying that close minded doctrinal beliefs were what led to this result, but stories rarely have only perspective to be told from, and I would like to think my view is the most accurate.

Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 72

Although not directly related to science I believe the following story does have a certainly message that is certainly applicable: During the second world war the Center for Naval Analyses a branch of the United States Navy conducted research into the damage sustained by aircraft during their dogfights. By creating a detailed map of where the aircraft had been pierced and shredded it would be possible to improve the armour of these points in order to reduce casualties and improve fighting ability. It took a particularly brilliant mathematician, called Abraham Wald, to point out the flaw in this scheme. If the planes were being damaged in these locations and yet still managing to return it showed that this damage was, in fact, unimportant. More armour really needed to be added to places for which no returning plane ever seemed to be damaged, for it is clear that if damage was taken at this point, the aircraft was downed and failed to return. It is this simple twist of thinking that makes all the difference and which can change the conclusion so much. Being able to extract the real conclusion from the data is an important skill of a scientist and so, as a bit of practice, I’ll leave you with some information and you can draw a conclusion:

California has, out of the United States, one of the worst mortality rates for sufferers of tuberculosis. What can this tell us about the California’ climate as it relates to tuberculosis severity?

Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 71

Australia is notorious for the measures it goes to to protect its ecosystem. Although I have never read much on Australia’s history, the famous case is that of the cane toads that were introduced to hunt down beetles that were easting sugar crops. As Australia’s ecosystem has always been finely tuned, these toads, with no natural predator, proceeded to multiply out of control and wreak havoc on the native species. Any biological life, whether it be plant or animal, has to be scrutinised intensely before being allowed onto the continent nation. Unfortunately this zealous protection of its borders has possibly caused irreparable damage to the study of botany. In March, a collection of rare flowering plants with samples dating back to the 1800s was sent from the Museum of natural history in Paris to herbarium in Brisbane. During transit through Australia’s customs the pressed plants were stopped, held and then incinerated completely. There are others, but this was still the most complete taxonomical history of these flowers we had and they have literally gone up in smoke. This has, as you might expect had repercussions in the botanic community. Countries are now suddenly a lot less willing to send samples to Australia until it can be assured that they won’t meet the same fate. This just has the effect of slowing down research even more. Ultimately, I’m not sure what lesson there is to take from this; perhaps that rules and regulations are no replacement for common sense?

Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 70

Now although the wonders of the ancient world may have been great feats of architectural design, if you ask a material scientist about wonders of the ancient world, there are two that come to mind. Roman concrete and Damascus steel. Many of the great structures of ancient Rome such as the Pantheon, the Colosseum and the Basilica Nova were all built from concrete and are still standing (partially in some cases) 2000 years later. Although modern concrete construction has come a long way and in mechanical properties surpasses Roman concrete, the Romans building material is still the epitome of durability even against arid and salt water environments and we are not quite sure how to make it. There have been some chemical and historical studies into the manufacture of ancient concrete and so there is definitely progress in that regard; but then comes the Damascus steel.

Just the image below should highlight one unique aspect about it, its surface is covered in a pattern that looks more organic that metallurgic. It has, to some, become almost legendary, with feats such as being able to cut a hair dropped upon it common to hear about. Although it may not be as impressive as all that, it was an absolute marvel for the time, and in a way still is. It is considered a superplastic and is also incredibly hard at the same time. Studies performed on the archaeological samples we still possess showed that there are carbon nanotubes present aiding in the unique properties. Of course metallurgists are still at a loss for working out how people in the 3rd century were able to create such an alloy and what we would have to do to create some for ourselves.

Although the Greeks get remembered, quite deservedly for the most part, as being heralds of technology and innovation. It should never be forgotten that the Roman Empire, the Abbasid Caliphate, the Song dynasty and many other great societies in history have all brought some of the most fantastic revelations in the scientific field.

Until tomorrow, goodnight.

Weekly Roundup 69

An important mistake that members of the public seem to make is thinking that what the majority of scientists think, is the truth. An example often given is that most scholars thought the Earth was flat and they were wrong. Despite the fact that no culture past the ancient Greeks has actually thought the Earth was anything other than round (the “fact” that people thought the Earth was flat is itself a myth), the point still remains. What is considered truth today can in fact be proven wrong tomorrow. I think the misconception stems from a mix up between science and philosophy. Most people would probably say that science is what we know and philosophy is what we believe but actually I see it as more sensible to look on these subjects the other way round. In science we a take a hypothesis, a belief (whether we believe it or not), and test to see if it’s right. If evidence supports the hypothesis we hold that idea until solid evidence comes along to disprove it. Philosophy is about logic and reason, the inherent concepts and what we can know to be true based on assumed lemmas. Scientific thought is something that does keep on changing and some of the greatest mistakes in scientific history have been assuming that some previous theories are just too big to question.