February 2010

Wonders of the solar system – next sunday (7th March) BBC2 9pm

I feel like today I have been staring at this trying to figure out where the lines cross.  Not literally, just a metaphor.

via 3Z

This morning I heard the sad news of the death of a trainer in Orlando, Florida.  They are claiming that she fell or slipped into the pool and drowned when attacked by a killer whale (orca whale).  Although eye witnesses report that she was attacked and dragged into the water.

I remember seeing killer whales in a show and feeling quite sad for them.  Part of me thought that it might be like keeping pet cats (like chubby and needy Tillie and Tallie), but then I have to remember that domestic cats are domestic.  They have had many hundreds of years (probably  thousands) of domestic breeding and are far from being a wild animal.  I shudder when I think of Tallie trying to  survive on her own in the wild.

Killer whales are wild animals, they are carnivorous and they are intelligent and calculating hunters.  A few months ago I heard a person say, on TV, that killer whales have never been reported to kill people and the few attacks that have been reported have been put down to mistaken identity as they thought we were seals.  I think that this is a very narrow minded and blinkered opinion.  They are killers, and I remember reading about Ernest Shackleton’s account of being hunted and attacked (in a highly organised and intelligent way) while in antarctica.  I remember reading it and it being chilling.  These were cold calculating hunters who knew exactly who and what they were after.

I got let out today to go for my annual visit to the university.  Standing in front of uni students from 9 to 5 (with 2 hour break) is a lot more draining than standing in front of pupils.  I feel wiped.

I did get a day pass to the new library though.  I got to spend half my lunch just dandering round it and browsing obscure books on organic chemistry.  I especially liked the CS Lewis reading room.  You have to walk through the wardrobe to get into it, ha ha.  Although there was no fir trees or snow, big let down.  Much more effort required from the library people.

I agree with Ben, the BBC reporting that homeopathy cures cancer is irresponsible.  That’s not what they reported but they did have a woman on claiming it and that’s what people will see.  The group of MPs seemed to have looked at the evidence and decided that the NHS should not waste money on something that works no better than placebo.  This is a good thing.  However, the BBC did not seem to want to give it enough air time or proper debate.

Anyway, let me take this opportunity to present Ben on Homeopathy:

And on the nacebo (sp?) effect.  WARNING:  Ben says some naughty words at the start of this next video.  I DO NOT approve.

Actually he swears a bit in the middle and he swears a bit near the end as well, so don’t watch it and trust me, the negative placebo effect that he talks about is INSANE

click here to watch the nacebo video

snow @ 6pm?

I have been working on my powerpoint for my ‘ict in science’ lecture.  It’s about how ict can be used by teachers in the classroom.

100 slides, too much?

I am feeling very grumpy today.  Probably not for one particular reason, just the cumulation of hundreds of little ones.

A colleague wanted a lift to work this morning.  I stipulated one condition; that he got up at the crack of dawn to go to the market.  As the lovely Sharon chatted to the stall holders and got the vegetables and fish, I and my passenger wandered around and drank coffee in the atmosphere (apparently I can’t be trusted to buy the right vegetables, or fish).  For the privilege of this ridiculously early experience my passenger bought me breakfast, thanks J.  As we waited for breakfast to be fried up the lady asked if the lovely Sharon wanted a wee cup of tea.  Then she mentioned that I was not there last week and she missed me as she had special Valentine’s cakes for me to buy the lovely Sharon.  J. looked at me strangely and curiously inquired, “does everybody know you two here?”  It must have been all a bit surreal to him, I don’t think he had quite woken up yet.


Computer Alpha died tonight.  It was an old machine that faithfully fed our laptops media and shared space for many a year.  Did it tire?  Did its hard drive crunch too much?  No, it was a case of death by cellotape holder.  I knocked it off the desk and it clipped the USB wifi thingy.  The impact ripped out the socket and shorted the motherboard un-dramatically.  The death was not fitting of such an old and faithful machine, but it is not in vain.  It lives on in the guise of several donated organs to the phoenix that is Computer Beta: a work in progress at the moment.

I got up at 6:30am. I put my bike on the car. I drove to a carpark. The temperature was below zero as I left the car and began the rest of the journey to work. I would love to say how beautiful it was. I would love to write about the colours in the sky as the sun rose. I would love to have meditated on the white frost and the still clear pool of the lough. I did think of these things briefly (5, maybe 10 seconds), but then I mostly thought of how insanely cold I felt. For the whole 40 minutes my hands were completely numb.

“In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it’s the exact opposite.”


Just discovered an amazing scale of the universe scale in animation.  Fascinating and nicely presented.  I am definitely adding this to my powers of ten lessons.  Click on the images (either) to see the animation.  It may take a minute to load.

Emission spectra scarf = ultimate geek sheek [chic]

via Jiahao Chen

WHY do people insist that they can pick and choose science? I believe this bit of ‘your’ science but I don’t believe that bit.  Science is a process and not a collection of opinions.  The same scientific principles that we probe history with are the same ones we use in medicine, communication and everything science.  Why do people believe that they are entitled to an opinion on science?  Dara O’Briain puts it best;

You don’t step onto an aeroplane and say, “Excuse me, I don’t like the shape of those wings.  I think I’d like square wings.”

Real life dragon discovered?   Click here for the story.

via sciencepunk

Paul Dirac is …….The Strangest Man.

Being off for a couple of days has meant that I got to read and relax a bit.  In a bookshop I found the biography of Paul Dirac.  I had seen it before and thought it looked good but was put off by the fact that it was such a heavy tomb.  However, this time it had a sticker on it that said ‘Winner of the 2009 Costa Award‘ – SOLD.

To be honest I think I am more inclined to read a science book at the moment anyway, and I am glad I caved in to the sticker.

Paul Dirac was probably the genius of his time, he is certainly up there with Einstein and Newton.  The reason why you might not have heard of him was that the media was at the time uninterested in him.  He was strange, too strange.  He was simply a man who said very little at any time and who seemed to remain emotionless at nearly all times.  He shy-ed away from the limelight nearly always.

So far I am finding it difficult to put the book down, being both interesting and highly readable.  I have not found a biography so captivating since I read Genius by James Gleick – The biography of the bongo playing New York physicist Richard Feynman.

On this topic, I was teaching about some different scientists the other day and someone asked me who my favourite scientist was.  Without needing to think about it I replied: Feynman.  Then one of the students said, “Richard Feynman?” This shocked me a little as it is sad to say that most of them know only of Newton, Einstein, Darwin and Hawking.  It turns out that this student, in Year 10, has already read a couple of Feynman’s books.  Excellent!

many consider Richard Feynman one of the greatest teachers of physics

Dirac and Feynman 1962

Given the choice between trying to watch survivors through a terribly slow connection (and intermittent microwave use) and standing under the stars on this relitivly clear night…..  I chose both really to take some star pictures.

Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky (not the pole star which most people think is the brightest) and it can be seen in the center of this picture.  You can also see the high tech greenhouse with its solar panel on the fence to the right.

Using binoculars with the camera enabled me to take pictures of Orion that show the colours of the stars.  Betelgeuse is the super red giant star that is the left shoulder of Orion.  Another nicely coloured star is the orange red giant Aldebaran.  Aldebaran is the left eye of Taurus, the V shape that can be seen on the far upper right of the picture.

Again, sirius is in the picture.  This time Sirius (the dog star) is on the very bottom left of the picture.

The crop below shows the colours in Orion a little better:

Using a cheap digital camera in this way is a revelation to me.  I have seen pictures of these of these stars before and I have obviously caught some of the colours with my own eyes, but taking these myself and seeing the colours in them was amazing.

via batman comic generator

On the way home the moon visibly travelled down towards the horizon.  The dark winter clouds and the cold blue sky set it beautifully.  When we got home it was so close to moonset that I had to attempt to capture it.  It was my first attempt to capture such a sight with a compact digital camera and a pair of binoculars.


I played about with the brigtness a little to see the earth-light a little better.  This is the sun’s light reflecting off the earth and lighting up the moon.

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