Archive September 2011

Some of the most appalling drivel I’ve ever seen aimee whitcroft Sep 29


I generally stay out of the whole Creationist argument (well, on my blog at least).

Let me be clear – I am an atheist.  Very staunchly so.  But other people write far better and far more cogently than I on the clash between creationism and science, and I’m quite happy to let them do so.

So today’s post will be a short one, and I will do my best to refrain from ranting.

I am NOT, however, amused.  Not at all.

Certainly, I’ve read the Bible, and I’ve heard about other Creationist texts and the scientific nonsense they espouse, but today I came across a textbook, currently being taught to 4th grade children, which set my teeth on edge.

I think the book’s called Science 4 (it’s not made clear), but of far more importance is the explanation of subjects, including the moon and electricity, within.

To quote the book on the subject of electricity:

creationist electricity

To be clear.  This is absolutely incorrect.  We know _lots_ about electricity.  Many, many books have been written about it. Much of our current technology would not be possible without our understanding it.  If you want to read a more detailed rebuttal, have a look here, for a start.

On the subject of the moon (you can read the entire chapter here, but beware, your jaw may permanently unhinge):

creationist moon

click to enlarge

Once again, not true.  While there remains debate, the current favourite hypothesis is that a giant impact explains the moon’s origin. Certainly, of the debate surrounding the moon’s origins, the ‘God created it’ hypothesis is seldom held out as a valid one.

A lovely long page on the various hypotheses can be found on the University of College London website. NASA has a research centre, CLOE, devoted to the subject.  There’s this, “Implications of isotope data for the origin of the moon“, written in 1986.  In fact, there’re lots and lots and lots of resources on the matter.

Update: New study proves Moon was created in massive planetary collision. Yop…

My point, for both examples, is that there’s a tonne of information which directly puts the lie to the flagrant lies being told by this textbook.  The problem?  I’m not sure the children being taught this will find that out in time.

Which is what really upsets me.

I’m not particularly interested in which deities people believe in, or their personal beliefs.  I become upset, however, when not only are people holding desperately onto their ignorance (which really does matter when it comes to the public influencing their politicians) but, even worse, passing it on to their children.

Children with this poor an understanding of how things really work are unlikely to do very well in the work force, especially against competitors who _are_ decently educated.  Nor are they likely to, through their votes, get their governments to make sane policy decisions.

And that?  That is a _terrible_ concern.

I’m so angry my hands are still shaking…

TOSP Episode 3: September 26th 2011 aimee whitcroft Sep 26

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UPDATE: Youtube vids now up (and at bottom of post)

Including fallen angels satellites, post-doc jobs in NZ, Foldit, HIV, nanotubes, Chinese space programme, neutrinos, intuition, suing geologists, Otzi, poetry.  And a bunch of other stuff!

This week’s episode is a little longer than usual.

Why?  Because there was such a preponderance of interesting sciencepr0n that we (aimee and Elf)  just couldn’t help ourselves*.  So we didn’t try :)


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

FTL neutrinos FTW! aimee whitcroft Sep 23


* Ahem *  Well, not quite.              (Note: FTL = Faster Than Light)


The first image, taken in 2007, of a neutrino interaction. The neutrino, coming from the left of the figure following an interaction, produces several particles identified by their tracks in the detecting 'brick'. Credit: INFN (Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics)

Not entirely, at least.

Those of you watching the science news today may have noticed an awful lot of excited wittering about results being published today which suggest the neutrinos may have broken the speed of light.

Please note the use of ‘may’ there.

First, a brief note on neutrinos themselves.  My favourites of the subatomic particles*, they are virtually massless, seldom interact with, well, anything (making them tricky as hell to detect), and on top of it all, have a pretty fascinating discovery story, at least some of which involves enormous underground pools of bleach.

They’re similar to electrons, in fact, except for the intriguing characteristic of having no electrical charge.  How’re they made?  By nuclear reactions and certain kinds radioactive decay – our sun, for example, pumps out a fairly respectable number of them, but at least some of our experiments actually involve our making them, and pointing detectors in their direction**.

Oh, and also?  Neutrino detectors are seriously, seriously beautiful and involve some wonderful chemistry/physics.  Examples include IceCUBE!, Super-K, and MINOS.

Now, on to the Science of the Day.

Nothing, at least according to one of Einstein’s equations (you know, the one beginning e=…), can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum (light travels slower in dense media***).  However, scientists on the Opera (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) experiment are announcing today, at Cern, that they appear to have results showing neutrinos doing exactly that.

And it’s got everyone extremely excited because, well, it could overturn causality – the idea that cause comes before effect.  We’re talking _time travel_ here, people.  And having to fundemtnally relook at our understanding of physics.

Amusingly, though, it does, finally, allow us the following joke (thanks @rmi!):

“We don’t allow FTL neutrinos here”, said the barman. A neutrino walks into a bar.

Over the last three years, our somewhat-bemused scientists have been watching the arrival of some 15,000 neutrinos, and noticed that they were arriving slightly faster than they should.  Apparently, some 60 billionths of a second earlier, with an error margin of plus/minus 10 billionths of a second.  This in a 730km, 2.4 millisecond (ish) trip.

At this point, I’m going to quote from the Guardian:

The measurement amounts to the neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light by a fraction of 20 parts per million. Since the speed of light is 299,792,458 metres per second, the neutrinos were evidently travelling at 299,798,454 metres per second.

Physicists can claim a discovery if the chances of their result being a fluke of statistics are greater than five standard deviations, or less than one in a few million. The Gran Sasso team’s result is six standard deviations.

To everyone’s credit, the scientists involved are being very careful to point out that they are not, as yet, claiming to have overturned any equations whatsoever, and are asking their colleagues to help them either verify the results, or figure out what happened.  Which is pretty awesome :)

And there are a number of alternate hypotheses floating around for the result.  Perhaps they took a shortcut through some other dimensions, for example. Perhaps the ultimate speed isn’t that of light, but of neutrinos, and something’s slowing light down more than we thought.

And, in a really fun conversation thread on Facebook, Ethan Dicks said the following:

For comparison, when I was at IceCube, three sigma results were trivialized, but four sigma is where you start to think about publishing. If they want to support overturning a simple and fundamental thing like the speed of light, six sigma is not overkill.

Not having seen their evidence yet, I would initially wonder if the neutrinos didn’t take some “shortcut” during the muon-tau oscillation. After all, the important phrase is nothing can go faster than light *in its medium*. If the neutrinos are doing something unfathomably bizarre, perhaps the speed of light still holds, but we don’t understand the medium or the path the neutrinos took.

I’d bet on some flavor of “hyperspace” before I’d bet on time travel.

Ethan’s a former researcher and three-time South Pole Winter-over for the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the IceCube Collaboration. He ran AMANDA for a while, then then helped install and run IceCube for a bit, too.

And perhaps it’s nothing at all: a fluke, or some new interesting effect.

Either way, we’ll be watching closely!

The paper can be found here, and Cern’s doing a webcast, too.  I _would_ link to all the coverage out there, but there’s tonnes of it, and you have Google :)


* They’re like the ninjas of the subatomic particle world.  Very, _very_ sneaky.  Also, I get the impression, rather diffident.  And, possibly, they may help explain why our universe favours matter over antimatter (they can change ‘flavour’ from muon neutrino to electron neutrino). Thanks to Seth for alerting me to that one.

** Yes, I am paraphrasing :)

*** I’m forbearing from making any puns here about poor media reportage and shining the light of knowledge onto things



It’s worth noting that arXiv isn’t peer-reviewed, much as I absolutely love the papers posted thereon :)

Also, I’d like to know who’s driving the media frenzy on this – the scientists?  Cern?  The media itself?  Because at the moment, the news is actually ‘we have something interesting which we cannot currently explain’.  Yes, it’s _very_ interesting, but still… I’d have been far more interested to hear about this once it’s been through all the checks and balances the scientific community will go through over these results. If it turns out to be an error, I’m concerned there’ll be the inevitable chorus of ‘naughty scientists, wasting our money and time, blah blah blah’.  So yes – is this actually _responsible_ science reporting?

Introducing a new blog: The Official Sciblogs Podcast aimee whitcroft Sep 12

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The idea of a Sciblogs podcast is one that has been mooted many times, and we’re well chuffed to be able to introduce exactly that: The Official Sciblogs Podcast.

TOSP banner v1

Called TOSP for short, the podcast, which is hosted by Scibloggers Elf Eldrige (Just So Science) and yours truly will give a brief rundown of some of the interesting stories (and Sciblogs posts!) to come out of the preceding week.


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

Online open education aimee whitcroft Sep 09

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Online, open education – about the best thing for autodidacts since, well, the printed word*.


Of course, open online courses and learning material aren’t just for autodidacts/infovores.  There are many, many people out there for whom the fees of a college/university are simply out of reach.  Further, there are even _more_ people for whom access to almost any sort of education, let alone top notch material, is impossible due to the tyranny of distance/their geographical location.

Enter open, online education.  Course material that’s available as long as one has internet access, and is _free_.

It’s been around for a while, certainly, but I started to get particularly excited when some of the world’s top universities – MIT springs to mind – began offering _their_ course material.  It opens up a whole new world, for people wanting to learn about everything from Ancient and Medieval Philosophy to Quantum Mechanics.

Some links, pointing to more lists of courses etc.

400 Free Online Courses from Top Universities (this site, and the Open Culture cause, are particularly fantastic)

Universities with the Best Free Online Courses

Five Top Universities That Offer Free Courses Online

Also, in what is going to be _fascinating_ to watch, Stanford (and KnowLabs) is about to offer three online courses, open to _anyone_ who wants to take them**.  Why is it particularly interesting?  Well, the class sizes are huuuuuuge (I’ve seen figures saying 130,000 people in over 190 countries for the AI course).  How will that work?  What fascinating data will be returned from it?

Oh, and for the AI course at least, one can choose to take part in one of two streams – the full-on one, with Stanford grade exams, assignment etc, and the more ‘relaxed’ one, without as much of the, well, heavy workload (but, I get the impression, all the same content).

I’ve registered for the AI course, and think the machine learning one looks pretty interesting, too :)  But there’s just so MUCH to go out and learn!



* And a quick post, before I rush out to stuff my face with delicious mexican food :)

** Interestingly, the AI course’s terms of agreement say it’s a non-commercial release of the course (‘beta-access’), suggesting that at some point courses of this sort will be making money in some way.  With fees?  The sale of textbooks?  Dunno…

Letter bombing nanotech researchers?! aimee whitcroft Sep 02


Straight from the WTF files, the news that nanotech (and related) researchers are being targeted by, well, lunatics.

grey goo lolz

Calling themselves the Individualidades tendiendo a lo salvaje (Individualists with Savage Tendencies, or ITS), said group has been sending letter bombs to nanotechnology labs in Mexico, France, Spain and Chile.

None of the bombs hurt anyone until earlier this month, when they wounded (but thankfully didn’t kill) Armado Herrera Corral, the director of a Mexican technology transfer centre.

But why? Why are these people sending letter-bombs?  People who, terrifyingly, say they are _inspired_ by the Unabomber.

Because they’re scared of ‘grey goo’.

In such a scenario, self-replicating nanobots run amok, destroying the biosphere and life and earth. And, admittedly, it’s one that’s not _completely_ impossible.  Scientists including Eric Drexler – a top molecular engineer – have mooted it as a possible problem, although he’s since said that such fears are obsolete.

I think what bothers me most is the sheer stupidity of the action.  If the gray goo scenario is a valid one, how on earth could injuring or killing a couple of scientists prevent this from happening?   Do they think that it would focus  heretefore nonexistent (apparently) attention on this danger?  One that, if prominent scientists are talking about, has no doubt been considered by the scientific community? Why aren’t they bothering to keep up with the opinions of scientists they reference (like, I dunno, Drexler)?

I’d argue that this sort of behaviour makes their worries more likely to seem lunatic/fringe, and therefore be discounted.

Oh, the group also thinks that technologies such as social media are dehumanising (where, interestingly, research shows exactly the opposite).

Their manifesto* can be found here, and features such gems as

Many of the scientists will say it has been to ’help humanity.’ But deeper within these simplistic excuses are hidden psychological needs that are called surrogate activities. Surrogate activities (e) refer to all those acts or tasks that aim to reach an artificial end and not a real one.

The scientists say that they create carbon nanotubes, for example, to make life more comfortable for humanity, but the true reason that most of them (f) do this is because they feel a strong emotional commitment to the branch in which they develop; that is, they do not do it so humanity lives ’better’ as they have always claimed, but rather for a vague personal and psychological realization, so that, with this, we arrive at a swift and irrefutable conclusion, most scientists base their research on their twisted psychological needs, on their surrogate activities.

O_o.  Indeed.


* I generally find that any piece of writing using strange capitalisation is unlikely to be well thought out, cogent, or particularly sane.

The article in which I came across this news can be found here.

Python and science aimee whitcroft Sep 01

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Python, apart from being a type of roughly tubular slidey reptile known for swallowing large things, is also a programming language.

python logoAnd rather a good one, at that.

First released in 1991, its design philosophy was all about ease, flexibility and simplicity: easy to learn and easy to read/understand.  And, since then, it’s gained a growing number of fans who are quite happy to trumpet why they prefer it over languages like, for example, Java :)

It’s also dynamic, open source and free, which is seriously cool.

Anyhoo, my interest in Python was piqued recently by a couple of things – firstly, the absolutely excellent mix & mash competition.  Said competition uses, in its data mashup tutorial for beginners, Python*.  Additionally, I spent much of last weekend at Kiwi PyCon**: NZ’s annual conference on all things python.

And, fascinatingly, I’ve discovered that Python is gaining increasing use in the scientific community, and not just amongst computer scientists!  It’s being used for a number of things, including:

  • getting one’s benchtop instruments to talk to each other
  • machine learning (PyBrain)
  • plotting of data (matplotlib etc)
  • signal processing, image processing, Fourier transforms, optimisation, linear algebra and so forth (SciPy)
  • N dimentional array manipulations (NumPy)

I’ve only _just_ started learning Python, So I’ve not got much to say that’s terribly educated on the subject.  However, at the conference I was impressed by the really wide range of applications for which it’s used, and the close feeling of community and commitment amongst those who use it.  It also, apparently, has great support (which can be an issue with open source software).

VUW/MacDiarmid Institute student Shrividya Ravi, who is doing her PhD in materials science and uses Python herself, has written this great piece on how and why a scientist might use Python.

Other articles on how and it’s used can be found below:

Ruby, Python, and Science – The Endeavour

’Should I switch to Python?’

Python for Scientists

If you’re interested, I’d thoroughly recommend getting in touch and signing up with the NZ Python Users Group, NZPUG.  It’s a great way to share questions and knowledge with other users, and based on what I saw at PyCon, these are good people.  And supporting good people is a good thing :)


More information

Wikipedia article on Python

Get Python here


* For those interested in learning how to DO this data mashup thingie, there’s a free workshop in Wellington _this Friday_.  I’mma be there :)

** And mad props to the PyCon organisers for inviting me, and letting me take along fellow SciBlogger Elf Eldridge!

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