Archive July 2010

Great sciencey watchables aimee whitcroft Jul 29


August looks set to be an absolute cracker for that segment of my readership who a) likes to watch science-related programming and b) has access to TVNZ 7 (hilariously, I don’t actually fit into the latter group).

tvnz7 science

Still, even if you don’t, then guaranteed you’ll have a friend who does, and it’s a handy excuse to go and sit on someone else’s couch and flatten their snacks/wine/fridge contents.

To get on with it, then, August has been designated ‘Spotlight on Science & Technology’ month on said television channel, and there’s a veritable cornucopia of fun things at to point the eyeballs.  Done in conjunction with the Royal Society and MoRST, the idea is to get people all excited about science and technology and so forth.

You can go have a look at the schedule here – I was going to pick out some programmes I thought looked especially interesting, but the list rapidly became, well, comprehensive.  Or, to put it another way, it _all_ looks really interesting.

All that remains is to ask: anyone have a TVNZ7-enabled couch on which I can come over and sit?


Also, further, and in addition, there’s even more!  And this time, all you need is an internet connection :)

Hot Science is a fantastic channel of documentaries and series on science in New Zealand.  Some of the docos are hosted by Paul Callaghan himself, which is pretty cool – for those not familiar with him, he’s one of the legends in the sci/tech/innovation scene in New Zealand, being a brilliant scientist and also one of the brains behind magritek.

While they all look absolutely fascinating, I’m particularly interested in “Beyond the Farm and Theme Park”,  “Nanoclusters”, and the programmes on optics and communications.  There goes my weekend, apparently…

(HT: Nick Jones of the Centre for Software Innovation)

Go forth! Make friends! aimee whitcroft Jul 28


Or, why having a social network is very good for you.  Really.


Yes, fine, I’m biased.  I admit it.  I see no harm in the burgeoning everywhereness of social media and stuff.  And I think having friends is awesomely important. As far as I’m concerned, the more friends we have, and the more people to whom we’re connected, the less isolated we feel.  Which is good.  It’s more difficult to condone a war against people you know.  It’s more difficult to do terrible things to yourself or those around you if you’re feeling connected. It’s far easier to feel happy, and to spread it, if you know you’re far from alone.

And yes, I realise that there are some very interesting theories out there about the effect that social media is having on making our relationships more numerous, and more shallow.  It’s not a debate into which I’m going to enter right now, to be honest.  That’s a discussion for another time.

No, the purpose of this post is to talk about social connections (family, friends, partners etc) more generally, and the immense benefits they have for all of us.

In a paper (a meta-analysis, to be precise, of existing literature) published just this morning, researchers have found a very, very strong correlation between having a social network, and an increased odds of survival.  You know, generally.  Or, to put it another way, having low/inadequate/insufficient social interaction/integration ups your chance of dying.  Quite a lot.

So, to the details, then!

To dispense with some obvious assumptions: it doesn’t matter how old you are, whether you’re a boy or a girl, how healthy you are to begin with, or what killed you.  Bear that in mind.*

Depending on how one cuts the data, the review found that social interaction improved a person’s odds of surviving, in general, by 50% at least!  Again, to cut it the other way, it would appear that not being socially integrated is more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being obese, being an alcoholic, or never exercising.  Hmmmmm.

While at least some of this effect could be linked to people who’re connected living healthier lives (physically and emotionally), it’s clear that that’s not all there is to it – there appears to be a suite of biological processes, as yet not understood by us, which come into play too.

So, how do we make use of this information?  Well, preliminary investigations have shown that formal social interventions have some effect.  But the review also points to the fact that it’s integration, not received support, that’s more predictive of mortality.  Which means that, ideally, one wants to facilitate people’s existing connections and help them to improve and deepen them that would be of most use, rather than simply hiring strangers for the job.

It all comes back down to community, whether it’s geographical or not.  Those who have people with whom they feel some connection are likely to be happier, healthier, and also, frankly, better supported and looked after should they fall ill.  So go out.  Make friends and connections.  Enjoy the life you have.

And never, never let anyone feel alone.


*OK, there are a couple of limitations.  To my mind, the most interesting of these were that all social relationships were taken to be positive.  This is, of course, somewhat unrealistic.  Indeed, research suggests that negative social relationships can be linked to a higher risk of mortality (duh).  Marital status was used as the example here – while it’s often used a measure of social integration, it’s becoming increasingly clear that that’s very dependent on the quality of the marriage.  And, of course, since it’s a review of over 140 studies, it’s difficult to get exact parity of metrics over everything. Aaaand, of course, most of the data comes from the West.


Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, J. Bradley Layton (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review PLoS Medicine : doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316 (link to abstract)

All kinds of trippy goodness – food as scanned by MRI aimee whitcroft Jul 19


Hah!  Still alive!  (Possibly)

mri fruit

A melon

A little bit of very intriguing strangeness today.  And yes, a brief post too.  Still, the amount of time spent watching this in fascination should hopefully make up for that.

Some very interesting person took a bunch of different foods, and bunged them into an MRI scanner.  For the fun of it.  And to see what would happen.  And it’s mad!  And quite strange.  And very beautiful.  And it moooooves.  Hypnotically so.

What’s an MRI scanner?  Well,  commonly used in hospitals, it’s basically a giant magnet into which people (or, y’know, fruit) are placed.  It’s a pretty new technology (from the 70s), and works by using very powerful magnetic fields to realign the hydrogen atoms in the water contained by your body.  Which means it can take very detailed pictures of your inner workings, layer by layer. And can generate 3D images, too.

It’s not always used medically, though.  The same tech gets used (albeit under a slightly different name) in other fields of enquiry too. And, brilliantly, it’s a prime candidate for high temperature superconductor use.  Which is a win for New Zealand, given that we’re very involved in HTS tech*.  More on that another time, though.

Enjoy the show!  My favourite’s the artichoke…


* If you find HTS stuff fascinating, read this!  A previous post on their use (as proof of concept) in vehicles.  Land vehicles.  With all wheels and things.

In which I make an excuse, but put out a suggestion aimee whitcroft Jul 12


Greetings, readers all


I have become too busy, and my blogging's fallen over (but very temporarily)

Yes, I am alive.  No, I have not forgotten my duty to you all to produce entertaining and informative content.  However, I am at this point stupidly busy, and thus have fallen a little behind.

Amusingly, the gravity well around my to-write-about list has now acquired the ability to levitate small objects around it. Objects thus far include a pot of geraniums*, a surprised-looking goldfish and, for some reason, my coffeepot.  Which it won’t give up, no matter how emphatic my attempts to wrest it therefrom.  Possibly the accelerations I’m using aren’t high enough.  Maybe it just likes the ghosts of caffeine past.

However, be assured that science continues, and fascinatingly so.  And I shall be writing about it again the near future.

In the meantime, and as an idea, does anyone have something that they’d like explained to them in more detail?  Sort of an ‘I’ve always wondered about…’ kinda thing?


* Anyone get the reference?

In which I join the ‘hello readers!’ meme aimee whitcroft Jul 07


And it’s not just a cheerful greeting, either.


Rather, it’s an encouragement for our blogs’ readers to step forward, say hi, and introduce themselves. Started, well, multiple times in various ways, the most recent instance thereof is superhero science blogger** Ed Yong resurrecting his own meme.  ‘Cause you can do that when you’re kickass.

Anyway, since then the clarion call has been picked up by the legendary Carl Zimmer, fellow Research Blogging Awards 2010 finalist gg (whose tweeted weird science facts, under the name drdryskull, are always illuminating), and fellow Sciblogs denizen Grant Jacobs.  And there are more joining at every nanosecond.

Little wonder, then, that I felt the urge to join in.

Also, it is something in which I’m genuinely interested.  Not only so I can say ‘O hai’, but also because having a market research background means one always wants to know these sorts of things.

Questions you could answer might include:

  • Your background
  • What you do for a living
  • What you do for fun
  • Other favourite blogs
  • How on earth you found me, given my position on the arse end of the world
  • Any constructive criticisms you might have (nonconstructive criticisms will be met with a witheringly ambivalent ‘meh’)
  • The percentage towards which you feel you’ve reached the full potential of your superpowers.  Feel free to elaborate
  • And, of course, anything else you’d like to witter on about/share.  ‘Cause blogging’s supposed to be, y’know, interactive

Please, prove wrong my assumption that I’m going to be hearing the crickets chirping…


* And no, I don’t feel dirty for joining in on a meme.  Not at all.  So there.

OOH, also, Carl Zimmer conducted a pretty cool science reader survey earlier this year.  Commentary/results here.

Deep-sea critter madness: new species, new photos aimee whitcroft Jul 07

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I love Wired.*

Sea cucumber.  And nope, it's not CG...

Sea cucumber. And nope, it's not CG...

I also love strange deep-sea critters, and brilliant photos of them.  So this recent article in Wired is a quite a treat.

Captured between 700 and 3,660 (or so) metres** deep along the mid-Atlantic ridge***, it showcases 10 new deepwater species which are intriguing scientists for a slew of different reasons, including what they might teach us about the move from being spineless, to having backbone (and no, that wasn’t a metaphor for growing a pair).

It’s also, says the article, a reminder that :

“…we cannot just study what lives around the edges of the ocean and ignore the vast array of animals living on the slopes and valleys in the middle of the ocean.’

Which I would have thought was, um, self-evident.  But yes.  Anyway, marvel at the wondrous beasties!  And all hail to the people at the University of Aberdeen, who found and photographed them.

HT: Gareth Renowden, for pointing to the article :)


* So much so that I was almost**** tempted to buy an iPad. Srsly. (For the uninitiated, Wired’s app on the iPad is really, really lovely.  Really.)

** Measurements originally in feet. Can we please, please all convert to the metric system already?

*** Which is a very, very big mountain range. The largest on Earth, in fact.


**** But not quite.  Hah!  Also, footnoting footnotes?  Excessive, or fun?

Space geekiness: a lecture aimee whitcroft Jul 06

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I really, really hate it when events don’t have an online presence.

radio telescopes

I like broadcasting things.  Not to be able to do so easily, particularly when it’s something interesting, is upsetting.  I have fitlets of pique thereover.  As it were.

Anyhoo, on to the point of this post: tomorrow, in Wellington, there’s going to be a lecture on radio astronomy, next gen telescopes and so forth.  To make the obvious pun, it’s going to be astronomically cool.*

In the words of the email telling us about it:

The 2010 Hudson Lecturer is Dr. Melanie Johnson-Hollit of Victoria University of Wellington. The subject of the lecture will be “Exploring Astrophysics in the Radio Renaissance”

Across the world radio astronomers are gearing up for a plethora of new radio telescopes which will herald a vast increase in the sensitivity and allow new and ground-breaking research. At the end of this golden path is the billion-dollar Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, but even before we reach the SKA there will be much exciting new science to be done. In this Hudson lecture I will present an overview of radio astronomy and discuss plans for next generation telescopes and what exceptional science will be produced, by way of example I will focus on research into galaxy clusters – the largest gravitationally bound objects in the Universe.

The Hudson Lecture is RSNZ Wellington Branch’s premier annual lecture. The Hudson Lecturer is awarded in recognition of the Lecturers effort in Science or the promotion of Science and Technology.

It honours George Vernon Hudson (1867 – 1946) who was a distinguished amateur naturalist and scientist. An original Fellow of what is now the Royal Society of New Zealand, he was on its Council from 1923-46. Hudson was President of this branch (then the Wellington Philosophical Society)
in 1900-01 and 1911-12.

I intend to attend.  And gape in awe, fascination and general starry-eyed** happiness.  Anyone else who enjoys this kind thing should come too!

To the RSNZ Wellington guys – any way we can help you get your website updated a little?


* Yes, I just smacked myself upside the head for that one.

** Again, sorry.

Planck telescope’s first full-sky image of the universe aimee whitcroft Jul 06


A brief post, this, simply to alert everyone to this absolutely stunning image.

cmbr 2

The European Space Agency has a telescope called Planck.  This marvellous technological beastie was sent about a million miles into space in August last year and proceeded to take the next ten months or so scanning the sky.

Why?  Because of what maps like this (more will be forthcoming next year) can teach us about the universe, how it began, and and how galaxies, stars (and eventually us) began to form.

For those interested, the centre of the image is predominantly the Milky Way, with the blue bits being dust and the red bits being hot gas.  The yellow bits are particularly interesting – they’re the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation (CMBR), which can be thought of as the still-rippling echoes of the thunderclap made by the Big Bang.  Initially completely uniform, it then developed differences in temperature and density – hence the mottled appearance in the picture.

Indeed, the presence of the CMBR is considered the best evidence we have of the Big Bang model of how our universe began – no other theories are able to explain it.

If you want more details, I’d suggest visiting the ESA’s website.  Also, they have high-res images.  Irresistible ones.

Happy space pr0n!

A seriously impressive tree of life aimee whitcroft Jul 01

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There’s been some interesting commentary on Sciblogs recently about the tree of life.


Tree of Life. Notice the tiny 'you are here' just under 'Animals'

As my part of the discussion (albeit an extremely brief one), I present you all with some major taxonomic madness*. A very, very detailed tree of life**.  It was made by looking at the RNA sequences of about 3,000 species, with the aim being to try be as representative of the major groups as was practicable.  Apparently, the number of species represented is about the square root of all species thought to exist on earth, which is kinda cool.

Another cool fact, of these 9 million species, we’ve only formally described and named about 1.7 million of them.

Anyone know how that 9 million species figure was reached?

And, you can use it free.  Just print it big enough…


* Madness courtesy of the Hillis/Bull Lab at the University of Texas (a shoutout to all Austin-based peeps).  A big hat tip to MAKE magazine for alerting me to this.

** What makes it even cooler?  It’s been the originator of some excellent tats and other artwork…

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