Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Science, Society and Media Rubbish

BBC Question Time set, from http://www.flickr.com/photos/uk_parliament/

The inspiration for today's blog [1] results from the confluence of two infuriating but undeniable facts. Fact number one: since the last UK general election in May 2010, the former apprentice candidate and current right wing 'social commentator' Katie Hopkins (non-British readers should see footnote [2])  has appeared on the UK's flagship political debate programme Question Time as many times as all scientists on planet Earth put together. Fact number two: Katie Hopkins is a [EXPLETIVE]-ing idiot. This was demonstrated extremely clearly by her recent 'performance' on This Morning, in which she describes at length how she judges children based upon the names their parents happened to give them. This kind of daftness might be good for ratings but doesn't really get us anywhere.

I am, of course, ignoring the first commandment of the internet here; thou shalt not feed the troll, but there is a very important point to be made here about how science is viewed by the media and in public debate. If a ridiculous pantomime figure like Hopkins is afforded the same representation on Britain's most important debate show as the whole of science, it is simply impossible to properly discuss the numerous issues that face society that have science at their heart. Surrendering problems like climate change, power generation, healthcare and drug policy to the entrenched positions of political parties, print journalists and the occasional attention seeking oddball is not an effective method of reaching useful conclusions. 

Science coverage elsewhere in the media is all too often infected by the need to find 'balance' where it does not exist. For instance, man-made climate change is regularly presented in the media as an issue that is under debate by mainstream science, when in reality a massive 97% of papers on climate science are in agreement that humans are responsible. This sort of disingenuous media coverage acts as a barrier to necessary public debate, as we are left in the Sisyphean [3] position of constantly fighting battles over whether a particular scientific position is correct, rather than debating what we should actually do about it.

However, the problems with public debate go far deeper than just those described above. Not only is there a lack of attention shown to scientific opinion, there is also a lack of respect for the truth itself. For example, how can we hope to fruitfully debate about UK welfare policy when, on average, people believe the 41% of the welfare budget goes to the unemployed (actually it's 3%) and that 27% of the budget is lost to fraud (when it only 0.7% in reality) [4]. 

To try and disperse this truth obscuring cloud of BS we need proper evidence-based discussions and a good start would be to improve the ratio of red to blue in the graph below...

[1] So the blog's back after a long hiatus, in which I completed the very enjoyable third year of my four year physics degree. 

[2] Hopkins is a sort of failed, wannabe Sarah Palin, but without ever having actually achieved public office. Just imagine what that must be like, a failed version of Palin... nightmarish...

[3] Sisyphus was that guy in Greek mythology who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill over and over again forever. Greek myth and the f-bomb in one blog, not bad eh?

[4] Source: a poll conducted by YouGov in January this year http://yougov.co.uk/news/2013/01/07/welfare-reform-who-whom/

Monday, 29 October 2012

US Election Special

With the US presidential election only week away, and considering the fairly high number of American readers this blog gets (welcome aboard to you of all), I thought it fitting to focus this week's blog [1] on investigating the science friendliness of the Barrack Obama and Mitt Romney. In my opinion, the more a politician respects the scientific approach to life and reflects the findings of science in their opinions and actions, the more effective they will be. This process will involve looking at which candidate's views and policies are more in tune with modern scientific thinking. One particular answer may immediately spring to mind, but lets try and start with open minds!

First up; evolution. Despite the facts that 'On the Origin of Species' was completed all the way back in 1859 and that every single scrap of evidence found by anyone since has backed up Darwin's masterfully beautiful and simple theory, evolution somehow remains a contentious issue. However, this is actually one area of agreement between the two nominees, as they both have stated that they believe the theory of evolution to be correct and that they are against the teaching of creationism or intelligent design in schools. Romney has avoided discussing this issue in recent times, perhaps trying not to offend large sections of his party and supporters, but it is positive to see that neither candidate have attacked evolution. So far, so good then; 1-1.

The other area of science that inspires similar levels of angry and ill-informed debate as evolution is, of course, climate change. This most-important of issues has been bumped down the political agenda somewhat across the globe ever since the world economy sort of fell apart in 2008. As a result, the environment was not focused on during this election to any great extent. In a debate on science policy this month Obama responded to a question on climate change with "climate change is one of the biggest issues of this generation” and  “continue efforts to reduce our dependence on oil and lower our greenhouse gas emissions" [2], the sort of wishy-washy sentiments the imply that he'll probably get round to doing something if/when the financial climate improves.

In contrast, Romney has responded to questions on climate change over the presidential campaign in a entertainingly varied manner that merits a paragraph of its own. In June 2011 Romney stated that "I believe that the world's getting warmer. I can't prove that [nice of him to point that out], but I believe based on what I read that the world is getting warmer. And number two, I believe that humans contribute to that. I don't know how much our contribution is to that [lovely honesty again Mitt]". However, a mere five months later, Mitt had clearly had a change of heart, as he stated in October last year "My view is that we don't know what's causing climate change on this planet." Indeed, in the very same debate of this month mentioned above, Romney seems to endorse the science of man-made climate change and then in the next sentence claims that there is "a lack of scientific consensus" on this issue, which is completely untrue. Since we have very little idea of what Romney actually thinks about this (and cannot be sure that even he knows what he thinks), Obama wins this round. 2-1 Obama.

When assessing the differences between the Obama and Romney campaigns from the scientific/rationalist point of view, the real differences can be seen when looking at their approaches to social issues. On a number of these issues, such as stem cell research, abortion, contraception and even expanding health care coverage, Romney once held rather liberal views. Sadly, as his party has drifted rightwards over the past years, so has he, with the announcements that he would end the funding of the Planned Parenthood programme and restrict stem cell research, his expressed opposition to 'Obamacare' and his support for the wildly unscientific idea of defining 'personhood' as beginning at the moment of conception. Obama, on the other hand, is firmly on side with the rationalist position on these points. Final score Obama 3 -1 Romney.

Obama's greater appeal to scientifically minded people was underlined this month by an open letter signed by 68 Nobel prize winning scientists endorsing his re-election. Even with the current polls being as delicately balanced between Obama and Romney as they are, it would be perhaps slightly too optimistic to think that a British science blog with about 85 views per post could tip that balance one way or another. However, from following this election over the many months, it seems certain that a vote for Obama would be far closer to a vote for a more enlightened, more scientifically grounded future for America than a vote for Romney ever could be.

[1] Been away for a little while, busy getting used to being back at university. But on realising that writing this blog is a quite a good way to (sort of) productively procrastinate and avoid writing up lab work, here we are again! Hopefully will get back to this being weekly from now on.

[2] http://www.forbes.com/sites/stevensalzberg/2012/10/08/president-obama-and-republican-challenger-mitt-romney-talk-science/

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Why do stars twinkle?

This is a picture of a dwarf galaxy, the poetically named NGC 4214, and those gas clouds are regions where new stars are formed. Well, they were ten million years ago anyway, because that galaxy is ten million light years away and, of course, the further you look away, the further into the past you are looking. This hasn't really got much to do with the rest of this blog, but it is quite pretty though.

Essentially, the reason that stars twinkle is that we look at them through the Earth’s atmosphere. The stars we see in the night sky can be many light years away from Earth; our closest one (other than the Sun obvs) is just over four light years away, which is almost 26 million million miles. However, for almost the whole of the journey that light from those stars take to reach us, it travels through the near-emptiness of space. It is only in the final few hundred miles of this journey that the twinkling effect is produced.

Anyone who has ever experienced the weather in Britain knows how turbulent the atmosphere above us can be [1]. In fact, the layers of the atmosphere above the clouds can be even more chaotic, with ever-changing wind speeds and air pressures. The result of this when looking at far away stars is that they appear to slightly change in brightness or position, as the light is subtly bent in different directions by the changing conditions in the atmosphere, a process known as diffraction. This is the same effect as when an object is looked at water in a fish tank and appears distorted.

On the other hand, if you look our neighbouring planets (those visible to the naked eye are Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn), though they may otherwise look rather like stars to us, but they do not twinkle. This is due to the vast difference in scale between when we look at objects in our own solar system and when we look at stars other than our Sun. These stars are massively larger than the planets, but crucially, they are extremely far away, meaning that they appear to us as tiny dots of light. 

Stars twinkle because light from a single point can be easily distorted. The planets of our solar system may be many thousands of times smaller than those stars but they are much closer to us, so they appear to be made up of far more than single points of light. The most extreme example is the moon; clearly it is far too large for the light reflected off it to be distorted to the point where it would twinkle.

[1] Been quite nice today so far, although that means they’ll probably be rain/hail/snow/tornadoes/plagues of frogs falling from the sky coming along soon enough.

Note: if you want me to (attempt to) answer your science questions, just leave a comment on here or tweet me @tommojroberts and I'll answer you in a future blog.

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Neil Armstrong, My Hero

Neil Armstrong 1930-2012

It is always a gut-wrenching shock when heroic figures pass away, people whom we never imagine being troubled by such tedious, everyday troubles as illness or mortality. Yesterday, we lost one such person, one of our very finest. That man was Neil Armstrong, the first human being to leave this planet and set foot on another world.

The photograph above shows Neil just after returning to the lunar module following the completion of his mission on the surface of the Moon and captures perfectly the unknowable wave of emotions that must accompany the realisation that you have just completed the greatest achievement in human history and are about to begin a quarter-of-a-million mile journey home.

The astonishing bravery that Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin [1] demonstrated in being first to go to the Moon cannot be overstated. During their decent towards to lunar surface, the astronauts realised that their target landing area was covered in boulders, forcing Armstrong to take manual control of the lunar module and fly further, in order to find somewhere more suitable. They landed with a mere 25 seconds of fuel to spare, 25 seconds from the terrifying fate of being stranded on the Moon with no possibility of rescue [2].

While the great man's story has come to an end, Neil Armstrong has achieved a far more complete form of immortality than the rest of us can (probably) hope for. For as long as there are human beings on this planet (or any other, if we take seriously the continuation of Armstrong's fine work), they will know the name Neil Armstrong, first man on the Moon. When everyone else from our time has faded into the fog of history, when world leaders and petty warlords are forgotten and our religious figures are (probably) looked at in the same way as Thor or Zeus are today, Neil Armstrong will remain. This is the great irony of Armstrong's life, that the memory of this humble, modest man will surely outlive all others.

Armstrong's family have a rather lovely suggestion for people who want to pay tribute to Neil, 'the next time you walk outside on a clear night and see the moon smiling down at you, think of Neil Armstrong and give him a wink.'

Thank you Neil, for your courage, for your skill and for inspiring everyone to look up and wonder what else we can achieve.

[1] Who can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1wcrkxOgzhU&feature=youtube_gdata_player , taking a rather hands on approach to dealing with some moron. Moral of the story: do not call a Korean war veteran and moon landing hero a liar or a coward. It will not end well. For you.

[2] A poignant and rather chilling speech was prepared for President Nixon to read out in the event of this happening, well worth a read: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2010/11/in-event-of-moon-disaster.html

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

The Power Of Curiosity

The past week has certainly been a great time to witness what human beings can do when at their best. While planet Earth's greatest athletes put their physical brilliance on show in London [1], yesterday NASA demonstrated what human intelligence and imagination can achieve, with the landing of the latest rover on the planet Mars. 

Previous rovers, such as Spirit and the still operating Opportunity, had been relatively small robots, each weighing less than 200kg. This new rover, Curiosity (shown above), is about the size of a family car and weighs about a tonne (1000kg). Due to this immense size, NASA had to dream up an entirely new way to get the rover onto the surface of Mars safely. 

The image above is an actual photograph, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a completely separate spacecraft that was launched in 2005 to explore Mars from orbit, and show Curiosity on its decent through the thin Marian atmosphere. The decent stage was first slowed by parachute, then in a powered decent by firing small rockets before the truly ingenious final stage, where the rover separated from the rocket powered platform and dropped gently onto the surface of Mars on cables using the 'sky crane'. These cables where then cut using small explosives and the sky crane platform flew a safe distance away to crash land. 

Curiosity can potentially operate for over a decade, as it is powered by electricity generated continuously using an on-board source of plutonium-238 (atoms of plutonium with a total of 238 protons and neutrons), which decays to form smaller atoms, releasing energy in the process. This electricity will power a variety of scientific instruments, including a laser which will be used to vaporize rocks so that they can be analysed.

The rover has been tasked with a number of objectives, including gathering data on the climate of geology of Mars to help with future human exploration of Mars. However, perhaps the most exciting aspect of the mission is the search for signs that Mars was once able to support life. One of the reasons that Earth is such cosy place for life to exist is its hot iron core, which produces a magnetic field. This field protects Earth's atmosphere from having its atmosphere being stripped away by the solar wind, a stream of charged particles that is produced by the Sun. As Mars is much smaller than Earth, its core cooled more rapidly, meaning that it lost its magnetic field, along with much if its atmosphere. Curiosity will look for indications to whether Mars could have supported life before this catastrophic loss of atmosphere. 

Finding evidence of life anywhere beyond Earth would be monumental, it would cause us all to rethink our place in the universe. If life existed on Mars as well as Earth then that would imply that life is potentially common throughout the universe. That would raise interesting questions for us all, forcing us to look again at our scientific, philosophical and even (for those who hold them) religious beliefs. For this reason, if we could find evidence of life elsewhere, then that would be, in my view, the greatest discovery ever made by humankind. 

This final image shows one of the first views Curiosity has had of Mars (higher resolution colour images will come later as these take longer to send back to Earth). That mountain is in the centre of the crater that the rover landed in and is three miles high and Curiosity will climb part of it in the course of the mission. There's something rather poetic about a human-made rover called Curiosity climbing a mountain on the surface of a planet millions of miles from home.

[1] Including the greatest British performance since 1908, go team GB!

First image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc/6385411977/
Second image from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gsfc/7727084702/
Third image from: http://news.yahoo.com/mars-rover-curiosity-snaps-photo-craters-mysterious-mountain-005531743.html

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Summer Science Fun With My Local Paper

Just a quick post this week because I'm on holiday in Spain this week and next [1], so I thought I'd just let you know about a science related thing I was involved in personally last week.

Last Monday, my local paper, the Express and Star, printed a letter from a.. [2].. gentleman who was under the impression that the discovery of the Higgs boson was not, in fact, the best thing to happen this year so far. This letter was annoying for several reasons; it seemed to imply that all science was a waste of time/money, it used the phrase 'God particle', which makes no sense whatsoever, it called the quest to find the Higgs boson a "mad scientists' scheme" and, of course, it was rather badly written.

So, rather than just trying to deal with the fact I had been slightly annoyed by a man I've never met, like a normal person would, I decided to write a response. The following was printed in that same newspaper on Saturday.

"RE the letter in Monday's Express and Star entitled 'An ungodly cost in the name of science'. 

The idea that the pioneering work being done at CERN is a waste of money is simply preposterous. The discovery of the Higgs boson is one the greatest scientific achievements of our lifetimes and grants us all a deeper understanding of how our universe works.

Science has been dismissed by some throughout the ages as something only relevant to a select few. For example, when electricity was discovered there were those who dismissed it as a mere intellectual curiosity, but just look at how reliant our world has become on that advance. In addition, there are countless examples of important developments occurring as a by-product of investment in science. The World Wide Web itself was created at CERN, as a means of sharing information between scientists.

On the question of cost, this project is actually much less expensive than is commonly thought, with a budget comparable to a mid-sized European university, a small price to pay for an organisation that has contributed so much.

The scientists working at the Large Hadron Collider have already added greatly to the sum of human knowledge and will continue to do so for many years to come. They have demonstrated that when the peoples of Europe come together to work for a common goal, the result can be something to be truly proud of. 

For those interested in reading about what the Higgs boson is and why it is important, here is a link to my science blog on this topic: http://tiny.cc/2pilhw

Thomas Roberts, physics student at the University of Birmingham"

So take that, random fellow midlander, and remember that if you mess with science, you’ll receive a fairly politely worded response from a physics student/writer of a blog with almost 500 views [3]. Boom!

[1] In a place called J├ívea on the Costa Blanca, as I'm sure you're wondering.

[2] Probably quite mentally unstable (but who I am to judge, I'm writing a blog while on holiday).

[3] Joking aside, I’m truthfully very pleased that people have actually taken the time to read this blog, so thanks a lot to everyone reading this.

Friday, 13 July 2012

What Happened To The British Summer?

In a marked contrast to last week's successful finding of the Higgs boson, this week's blog is about something that has not yet been found by science, and perhaps never will; the British summer of 2012. After a teasingly summery late April/Early May, which coincided perfectly with the university exam period, the alleged 'summer months' have thus far been almost unremittingly awful. 

The Met Office has revealed that this June was the wettest on record, with double the average volume of rain for the month. This lead to widespread flooding and disruption across much of the country. July has so far seen little improvement, with more rain, less sunshine and cooler temperatures than normal. To make matters worse, these depressing conditions began almost immediately after a period of drought, resulting in almost everyone in the country making the hilarious observation that 'ohh isn't it ironic that it's tipping it down while there're hosepipe bans all over the place', well done Britain.

So what is the cause of this seemingly unending misery? Is it like in 2007 when Graham Dow, the (then) Bishop of Carlisle and one-time member of the House of Lords [1], claimed that flooding was caused by the moral decline of Britain, including the passing of pro-gay legislation? (Spoiler alert: no). 

Back in reality-land, what is actually happening with the weather is all down to the jet stream. This is a thin band of air about 10km up in the atmosphere that blows weather systems across the Atlantic from west to east. In the summer the jet stream ordinarily lies north of the UK, carrying low pressure weather systems (generally the wet ones) towards Scandinavia. Unfortunately for us, the jet stream is currently in the position it normally is in winter, resulting in those rain producing systems being forced across the skies above Britain. 

The jet stream has been in its current position for parts of numerous summers in the past, due to the natural variations that make the weather so much fun. What is unusual about this year is that the jet stream has been in this position for a longer period of time than normal and scientists are currently unsure whether this is just a part of that natural variation or a symptom of something more sinister. There is currently a record low of Arctic sea ice, which some research has indicated may be connected in some way to the jet stream. 

Extreme weather events are predicted to occur with increasing regularity as the world continues to warm, so we can all look forward to many years of those same people who pointed out how funny it is that we had house pipe bans in the rain pointing how funny it will be that global warming might be making some of our summers cooler.[2] 

[1] For readers outside the UK, the upper house of Britain's parliament must, by law, contain 26 bishops from the Church of England. We may live in the birthplace of modern democracy and of the Enlightenment movement, but we can also be stubbornly backward in some ways that must look pretty weird to foreign observers.

[2] This is why scientists use the phrase climate change these days instead of global warming.

Photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/jbgoblin/7525201174/in/photostream

For further reading on the jet steam: http://metofficenews.wordpress.com/tag/jet-stream/