Archive 2011

TOSP Episode 15: December 19th 2011 aimee whitcroft Dec 19

No Comments

The last TOSP before Christmas!

And, because we’re daring, it _isn’t_ Christmas-themed.  Just to give y’all a break.

Instead, Elf and aimee cover the winners of the Prime Minister’s Science Prize(s), how bees reach consensus (warning: headbutting), a very special new crab, Jupiter’s heart-cannibalisation, the race to create the bionic eye, and the effect that Foo Fighters concert has both on GeoNet (seismic sensors) and a human body :) And the Higgs boson results get a mention, too.


You can read the rest of this entry on the Sciblogs The Official Sciblogs Podcast site

TOSP Episode 14: December 12th 2011 aimee whitcroft Dec 14

No Comments

This week’s a little special.

In addition to aimee and Elf discussing how our brains process syntax and vocabulary (differently, it turns out!), the biggest black holes yet discovered and a 17 year old who’s made huge strides in the fight against cancer, Elf also sits down with a panel of our bloggers for a discussion!


You can read the rest of this entry on the Sciblogs The Official Sciblogs Podcast site

TOSP Episode 13: December 5th 2011 aimee whitcroft Dec 07

No Comments

Another week, another collection of brilliant stuff to talk about.

This week, Elf and aimee talk about groups.  Well, mostly groups, but also weta, astronomy, learning and why we don’t have a cure for AIDS.  As for groups — we look into how StarCraft 2 is contributing to cognitive science, how we can help the science of whale (dolphin) communication, and how physicists are doing it for themselves (and others).


You can read the rest of this entry on the Sciblogs The Official Sciblogs Podcast site

The British Library’s been digitising newspapers… aimee whitcroft Dec 02


There were many things of which I have been meaning to write today, but this particular piece of news has swept all of those aside.

BL newspaper archive example

The British Libray, the national library of the UK, is a not unimpressive institution.  Indeed, it’s so not unimpressive that it has the title of being the world’s largest library (in total number of items). According to its website, it holds over 150 million items, in almost all the world’s languages, has everything from drawings and scores to manuscripts and books, original cylinder recordings to stamps, and requires some 625 km of shelving which grows by 12km every year.

Heaven, in other words.

BUT! This post is not meant to wax lyrical about its many holdings, but instead focuses on one recent piece of news.  The BL has digitised up 4 million pages’ (and about 300 years’) worth of newspapers, which are now available and searchable online. And they’re not finished – oh, no :)  According to engadget, the BL and the company with whom they’re doing this, Brightsolid, are planning to digitise some 40 million pages over the coming decade.

Which is kinda cool.

According to them, you can search through the collection for:

News Articles – read about national events, as well as issues of local and regional importance. News articles are your window into daily life in historical Britain.

Family Notices – search for your family’s birth, marriage and death notices plus related announcements including engagements, anniversaries, birthdays and congratulations.

Letters – read letters to the editor written by the newspaper’s readers, including illuminating contemporary debates, aspirations and anxieties.

Obituaries view a wealth of contemporary information on the lives of notable individuals and ancestors.

Advertisements – these include classifieds, shipping notices and appointments..Illustrations – see photographs, engravings, graphics, maps and editorial cartoons.

Of course, it also means many people can have enormous amounts of fun trying to trace their families back – for myself, I quite hope to find out that I have several regrettable forbears who got up to all sorts of No Good*.  We shall see :)

The best thing, though, is that it’s _accessible_. OK, not as accessible as I would like it: while searching is free, you still have to pay to get your hands on this material.  But it’s really quite reasonable!  Contrast, for example: buying access to a pay-wall-restricted journal paper (just one) can cost on the order of US$30.  The BL is charging 80 squids (GBP) for 12 month unfettered access, 30 squids for 30 days/3000 credits (that works out to several hundred pages) or a mere 7 squids for 2 days and 500 credits**.

That’s a lot of information.  And I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see some wonderful research and learnings come out of it.  Just think of what’s happened with other publicly available and accessible datasets, such as the SDSS (think Galaxy Zoo)***.

With such projects, not only do the answers we can gain expand as more people are able to work on them, but so do the possible questions that can be asked: a positive feedback loop of knowledge.

Stunning stuff :)

But I’m still sad there’s a charge attached, as it puts it out of the reach of many both internal to the UK and external to it (30 GBP is an awful lot of money for, for example, a school student or a cash-strapped third world researcher).


  • Exhaustive coverage of crime and punishment — from infamous murder trials to heart-rending stories of men, women and children transported to Australia for the most minor thefts (in one case, seven years transportation for the theft of seven cups and five saucers);
  • Eyewitness accounts of social transformation — newspaper reports, commentary and letters to the editor on topics ranging from the railway mania of the mid-19th century to the extraordinary expansion of the temperance movement;
  • Illustrations and advertisements — the aspirations and anxieties of the time laid bare in searchable ads and classifieds, peddling everything from the latest fashion to miracle cures for baldness and venereal disease;
  • More about the newspaper digitisation.

    More facts about the Library.


    * So far, I have a forbear, C. K. Whitcroft, who won the R.A.C. Tourist Trophy in a Riley car in 1932. Another forbear struck people who declined to give them their share of the money (1858), one was involved in some sort of heroism in 1921, someone who was a detective in 1902 and some 41 other pages of results.  Heh :P

    ** Cost of pages is between 0.05 and 0.21 squids per page.

    *** It’s worth noting that the data from projects such as the SDSS is FREE.  Which is important. And yes, I’ve been reading Michael Nielsen’s latest book, Reinventing Discovery.  Stay tuned for a review soon!

    Beyond 2020 aimee whitcroft Nov 29


    I admit it, I’m a sucker for future scenarios.

    No, not necessarily because I think they’re accurate (or expect them to be!), but because they can exercise the mind wonderfully, reveal much about our present.  The best science-fiction is like this, too :)

    And yes, sometimes, they can absolutely be useful in preparing for the future.

    And it is with this in mind that I present the latest offering from MindBullets, founded by compatriot Wolfgang Grulke and his think tank FutureWorld. More on the presentation and its themes is available on their website.

    What do you think?  With which scenarios do you agree/disagree?

    I get emails from MindBullets every week, and can thoroughly recommend it – nope, I don’t always agree with the futurecasting, but sometimes, it’s pretty feasible.  And, again, a great exercise :)

    Actually, there’s a thought – how interested would y’all be in my sharing more of these nuggets?


    Related posts:

    Mindbullets goodness: The Avatar Wars

    Ulan Bator’s geoengineering scheme is THAT cool aimee whitcroft Nov 25


    Originally syndicated from the Lemur Attack Force blog (I’m doing the Mongol Rally next year, and we could use YOUR help!)

    As you quite possibly know, Ulan Bator is the capital of Mongolia. And, given that it’s going to suffer from the continentality effect as a result of its location (clue — it’s very landlocked and on a very big continent, amongst other things), one might expect it experiences extremes in weather, including very cold winters (see Quick Facts below) and warm summers.*

    Ulan Bator (red marker) - far away from many places.

    Ulan Bator (red marker) - far away from many places.

    Hooray, because that’s when we’ll be arriving there next year.

    The city, however, has come up with an ingenious method of protecting future residents and Rallyers from these extreme temperatures: an artificial urban glacier, designed to save on airconditioning (energy) costs in summer by helping to cool the whole city. It will also, happily, provide water for irrifation and drinking, too!

    The idea is to capture some of winter’s cool temperatures in enormous ice blocks, which will slowly melt over summer and cool the city. Naleds — the Russian term for these enormous ice sheets, or Aufeis in German — occur naturally along river and stream valleys in very cold environments (think far noth or far south). As water freezes and other water is forced over the top of the ice, a successive layer of ice sheets forms one giant ice layer, which can be several metres thick!

    And, later this year, Ulan Bator is going to be testing the creation of artifical naleds.

    For those interested, this is an example of geoengineering :)

    According to the Guardian, the scheme is going to cost 1 bn tughrik — a little over $1 million NZD. A Mongolian engineering firm, ECOS & EMI, is going to create these artificial ice sheets by boring holes into the ice which has started to form on the Tuul river.

    As one might expect, water will be forced up through these holes and across the ice sheet, forming a thicker ice sheet thasn would normally have formed — a naled . Just like in nature, basically but with Extra Boring Equipment. The boring process will be repeated throughout winter. The river, considered sacred by the Mongols, runs from its origin in the Khentii Mountains through the southern part of Ulan Bator, so thankfully there isn’t the problem of how to pick up and move the ice sheet**.

    In addition to the use of this process to cool Ulan Bator and other cities which deal with huge weather extremes, the engineering company involved also reckons that naleds could help, for example, counter negative effects from global warming such as glacier and icecap melting, and say that if properly used, could help repair permafrost.

    Naleds have been made by humanity before, it would seem: they’ve been used to build bridges for tank crossings, and as drilling platforms. They’re not always good, though, as they can threaten railways and bridges too, cause flooding on roads and blocked drainge.

    This seems pretty interesting and given that we’ll be in Ulan Bator next year late summer (all things going well, of course), we’ll happily report back!

    Quick Facts about Ulan Bator:

    Elevation: 1,350 m above sea level

    Highest ave. temperature (July): 23 °C

    Lowest ave. temperature (january): -27 °C

    Coldest national capital in the world

    Annual average temperature: -2.4 °C


    More climatological information:


    * Also, there are things like the urban heat island effect and climate change to consider

    ** The subject is addressed in a Futurama episode :)

    You don’t like it? Go somewhere else. aimee whitcroft Nov 24


    Oh, Feynman – you never fail to do other than impress me :)

    I think this may well turn out to be one of my favourite videos of all time.  In it, brilliant physicist Richard Feynman explains his attitude towards people who, well, doubt science.  Any he explains why he has said attitude.

    The video includes the wonderful line, Richard gesticulating:

    You don’t like it? Go somewhere else. To another universe, where the rules are simpler; philosophically more pleasing, more psychologically easy.

    Quite, Richard.  Quite :)

    Oh, and for the Kiwis?  This was given at the University of Auckland.  Can we have more speakers like him over, please?

    YouTube Preview Image

    The full lecture on QED – Quantum Electrodynamics, is available on youtube.  First part below.

    YouTube Preview Image

    The Vega Science Trust also has videos of the talk, split by subject matter (nicely done!)

    [HT to Derya Unutmaz on Google + for putting this in my path]

    Brinicle! aimee whitcroft Nov 24


    UPDATE: Please note – the picture below is a picture, not the video :)  The link to the video is later in the post…

    Yep, that is, indeed, a real word.

    The BBC has, for the first time ever, captured the formation of a brinicle

    The BBC has, for the first time ever, captured the formation of a brinicle

    The Beeb, bless their cotton socks, has released some excerpts from their new the new BBC/Attenborough series Frozen Planet.  Frozen Planet deals, as one might expect, with “the frozen wildernesses of the Arctic and Antarctic”, and while I’ve not seen it, it looks absolutely stunning.

    We’d expect nothing less of them.

    And the footage in particular to which this post refers shows a brinicle forming.  Brinicles – a portmanteau of brine and icicle – are the water equivalent of, well, icicles.  Brinicles are unusual, and form very differently from their atmospheric counterparts.

    Previously referred to as ice stalactites, this footage is the first time the creation of one’s ever been captured, hence all the excitement.  The footage was taken at Little Razorback Island, near Antarctica’s Ross Archipelago.

    How do brinicles form?

    As many of you will be aware, the act of freezing water forces most of the impurites, including salt, out of it.  Not all, but most.  The salt* that’s been excluded from this freezing water then dissolves into the surrounding water, decreasing its freezing point and adding to its salinity (and hence density).

    So this surrounding water sinks, creating in the process brine channels through which this supersaline, supercooled water sinks away from the ice.  If these brine channels happen to be concentrated in an area, then this supercooled supersaline water sinks through the water column (due to its higher density) in a plume, and starts to form an ice layer around it as the surrounding water freezes due to contact with the plume.

    Et voila.

    And brinicles are, it would appear, self-sustaining – that layer of ice forms a layer of insulation (think igloos!) which prevents the supercooled water from warming up and diffusing – indeed the opposite occurs, and brinicles grow ever deeper (well, as much as is permitted by water depth, ice growth, the water itself etc).

    What happens when it reaches the seafloor?

    It can freeze critters, essentially.  If a brinicle reaches the seafloor, that superdense water will, of course, continue to flow along the seafloor in whatever direction is downward (in terms of slope), and ice will form around it.  Once it’s flowed as far down as it can, it then pools – any bottom-dwelling creatures caught in that pool of ice and supercooled water will be trapped and freeze to death.

    More in this BBC article.

    Of couse, there’s a Wikipedia article, too (yay Wikipedia!)


    And, of course, a reminder – this week’s TOSP is out, and Elf and I witter on about a large number of interesting science-related goodness.  Check the TOSP 11 post for more details!


    * Oops.  The original post used ‘ice’ instead of ‘salt’ – a simple typo on my part.  Apologies for any confusion, and thanks to George for pointing out my error!

    The Case of the Mysterious Jellyfish aimee whitcroft Nov 17


    I love Wellington.

    Credit: Dave Allen

    Jellyfish! Credit: Dave Allen

    On fine days, I can cycle from from town around the bays to get to work, which is a lovely .  And last Friday was particularly exciting! In Evans Bay, only a meter or two from the pavement, a large jellyfish had come in to shore and was floating in the shallows.

    And when I say big, I mean big.  Well, far bigger than the hand-sized jellyfish I’ve sometimes seen washed up on beaches – this one was closer to the size of my head.

    After some excitement and beetling around, I contrived to have some (awesome) footage taken with a proper camera – the photos on my phone simply don’t do the jellyfish justice. I’m told that, subsequent to my leaving the scene, another jellyfish then came in, too, heading for first one.  Everyone left at the point, and we’re all choosing to believe jelly 2 was coming to show jelly 1 the way out, back to the group.  Anthropomorphism FTW :)

    What then followed was interesting.  I spent some time online, trying to figure out it was – to no avail.  Thankfully, experts were able to do exactly that: our spotted jellyfish was a Desmonema gaudichaudi.  It’s from the same family as the Lion’s Mane jellyfish  and is one of three species that appear regularly in Wellington harbour each year.

    Very exciting!  And beautiful to see something like that up close.  If you’re curious, there’s a video of it…


    Oh, also? The new tv series of Sherlock Holmes is awesome.  I recommend it most highly :)


    In other news, I came across this company while I was looking at jellyfish facts – they claim to have come up with a compound which protects one from sunburn _and_ jellyfish stings…

    5,000 posts on Sciblogs! aimee whitcroft Nov 15


    This post is, officially, the 5,001st blog post on Sciblogs.

    We are very happy bunnies

    We are very happy bunnies

    Since the inception of Sciblogs in October 2009 – a little over two years ago – we’ve been impressed with the quality of writing of our bloggers, and the growing stable of talent this network has attracted and continues to attract.

    And so, both Peter Griffin and I* would like to say a very strong and happy ‘thanks!’ to both our fellow bloggers and, of course, to our wonderful readers for continuing to read our work, and take part in the conversations to be had here!

    We value you all enormously – keep up the good work :)


    * I’m less dignified than … many people … so I am at this point grinning like a mad ferret and jumping up and down with glee.  There may be enthusiastic hands-waving, and I’ll probably end up tripping over something :P

    Network-wide options by YD - Freelance Wordpress Developer