SciBlogs

Archive October 2011

Future interactions, reinventing discovery, living homes and more aimee whitcroft Oct 28

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I am profoudly fortunate.  Every day, tonnes and tonnes of brilliant bits of information come flying at me over the intertubes.  I try to send as many of them back out as I can, and so today, I thought I’d put a couple into a post.

Enjoy!

First up: ‘Ubiquitous Computing’

My g+ stream is shouting excitedly about two primary things today.  One of them is Ripple.  The other is this concept video, released by Microsoft. It shows what they think might happen in terms of our interaction with technology and each other, and is, well, pretty cool.  Very Augmented Reality.  And very white (why is the future always white and perfectly clean?).

YouTube Preview Image

But yes.  Thoughts?  I’ve seen suggestions that this sort of tech may be only 3-5 years away, although I can imagine it may take quite a while longer than that for it to get into (some) organisations :P

Next: new Michael Nielsen book!

Michael Nielsen is, amongst other things, a writer.  One who’s rather well-known for his writing on innovation.  I’ve written about him before, and enjoy tracking his work.

And now, he has a new book out: Reinventing Discovery. Tim O’Reilly’s been pretty complimentary about it (I really hope he doesn’t mind my quoting him here):

It opens with a fantastic account of what we can learn about the future of science from explorations such as the Polymath Project and “the greatest chess game in history,” Kasparov vs. the World. But what really distinguishes it is its nuanced, intelligent descriptions of just how these projects work, noticing what is important about them in a way that few popular summaries do.

For example, consider this insightful line about the community behind Wikipedia:

“Wikipedia is not an encyclopedia. It is a virtual city, a city whose main export to the world its its encyclopedia articles, but with an internal life of its own.”

The book is full of gems like that, lessons from internet experiments in collective intelligence, with deep thought about how they apply to the future of what Nielsen calls Networked Science.

Can’t wait to read it!  And if you’re unsure, or don’t want to pony up the US$10 for a digital version, you can read the first chapter for free :)

And then… The microbial home

As some of you may or may not be aware, I have something of a jones for architecture.  I follow it, attempting not to knock it out in dark alleyways and run off with it over my shoulder.  And was extremely impressed today by The Microbial Home, from Phillips Design. It provides lighting, cooking abilities, breaks down waste (from kitchen and bathroom) to _grow_ things, and more, through the oh-so-very-clever-and-sustainable use of bacteria.  It’s marvellous.

Also, it’s very, very beautiful, and I wants one.

That is all. Except for a hat-tip to Idealog Magazine for pointing it out :)

Finally: which Nobel Prize should you go for?

I love Fake Science – they always provide me with a giggle*.  And on that note, I figured I’d share this flowchart, helpfully helping one to choose the correctly fitting Nobel Prize.  Huzzah!

nobel

Enjoy your weekend :)

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* They were also kind enough to write me _the best reference letter ever_.

Reprise: “Drone meets nerd, drinks beer and talks” aimee whitcroft Oct 28

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About 18 months ago I was approached to write an article for the Waikato-focussed Scope magazine.  Something about science, maybe, and business.  I figured it might be good fun to talk about jargon.

So below, with kind permission from Scope, is my article as it first appeared in Scope Winter 2010 (the latest edition, Summer 11, is here).

Credit: Scope Magazine, Winter 2010

Credit: Scope Magazine, Winter 2010

The word is out, and on the lips of Kiwi politicians, scientists and entrepreneurs: We need to improve our innovation activity if we’re to prevent New Zealand sliding any further down the OECD productivity rankings.

There are a number of good reasons why we’re not as innovative as other small countries like Finland and Singapore. Lack of private investment, for example. To some extent, New Zealand’s small population size and density also has an impact — critical mass generally needs, well, mass.

We also suffer from poor communication, particularly our fondness for jargon. Don’t get me wrong: within a field, jargon is extremely useful for sharing discrete and often complicated concepts. Indeed, Condillac (a philosopher) observed over 300 years ago that ’every science requires a special language because every science has its own ideas’. It’s also a brilliant form of linguistic tribalism.

Problems arise, however, when it is used out of context. Particularly with people not of the ‘tribe’. At best, it’s irritating; at worst, patronising and alienating. And it can cement stereotypes which are, frankly, not useful. Most entrepreneurs aren’t ‘corporate drones in suits who don’t get it’; most scientists aren’t ‘nerdy, cut off from reality and difficult to deal with’. Such stereotypes can have negative results, including missed opportunities and even conflict.

So, what do we do? To my business friends, may I suggest that ‘actioning’ and other such terms be some of the first phrasing to go. To my scientist friends: it is possible to use plain language to explain what you do. Sciblogs, a New-Zealand-based science blogging network, demonstrates clearly how engaging scientists can be when given the chance and encouragement. To both: take the time to listen to each other.

But there’s more to it than this. Not only is the language itself important, but so is an understanding of the strictures and context of each field. Science is often uncertain, and can take decades to mature to commercialisation potential (while needing funding from the beginning). Business is generally fast-moving, and functions such as marketing and PR — often deeply mistrusted by scientists — are pivotal if the business is to succeed.

We need translators, as well — people who can straddle the divide between science/ research and business. People who understand the language and intricacies of each well enough to help those involved understand each other. Both research and business (particularly in a global context) are becoming increasingly complicated, and people with the talent and training to live with one foot in each camp will become increasingly valuable. We need to find them, train them, and provide career opportunities and growth to match their value.

Finally, we need to get researchers and entrepreneurs together. Physically. I might go so far as to suggest by force, if necessary. There’s nothing like being in the same room to help overcome some of the difficulties so easily encountered in less immediate circumstances. How? Through competitions like What’s Your Problem New Zealand. Through incubators. Through events. Through supporting promising industries (like high temperature superconductors) and sharing the stories of, and lessons from, their success. If necessary, bribe people with beer (or wine) and funding incentives. Do whatever it takes to get people together and talking to each other.

Not only because we need to improve our research commercialisation and innovation capabilities, but because we should want to. Imagine what the famous Number 8 wire mentality and Kiwi ingenuity could do if we only gave it a decent chance…

And finally: my apologies to Lewis Carroll for co-opting his poetry a little.

Aimée Whitcroft works with the Science Media Centre, and is the deputy editor/ admin/contributor at Sciblogs.co.nz (an SMC initiative). After studying science and entrepreneurship, she has worked in management/strategy consultancy, market research and science communication.

Ta-da!

Young scientists tell it their way aimee whitcroft Oct 18

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UPDATE: I got the venue wrong: it Memorial Theatre, Kelburn Campus, Wellington :)

More on communication! Last night saw the first of two final Tell Us A Story events in Wellington.

tuas nerdnite

nerd nite Wellington and Tell Us A Story come together

Tell Us A Story is a VUW initiative encouraging postgraduate (read: young) science/engineering students to communicate with the public in an emotionally engaging way.  To tell their stories, not as they would at a conference or presenting a paper, but rather as they might talk about their passion with their friends and families.  And colleagues :)

These young storytellers could explain how they came to study their subject, or lessons learned from it.  They could talk about their origins, their current situation, or their plans for the future. They could even tell the story of the beastie (for example) which they study, as an anthropomorphic tale of life and love.

It’s all quite a cool idea.

Some 20 or so young students have battled through a number of heats, until only the top 10 remained.  Last night the public got see the top 10 finalists at nerd nite, an event* which seeks to showcase people talking about their passions, no matter how geeky/nerdy.  And my, was the venue packed – we must have had over 100 people crammed into Club Ivy, eager to hear not only what the young speakers were to talk about, but also what organisers Elf Eldridge**  and Elizabeth Connor might get up to, too.

I laughed a lot at Alex Barkers talk on electric shocks (while my friends and I mouthed ‘Safety Third!’ at each other), and was quite enchanted by Alexis Garland’s talk about the birds with which she communes. And, given that I live in Wellington, Laura McKim’s talk on active transport definitely struck a chord!

But all of them are lovely, really – there’s a great mix of earnest and fun-loving, moving and humorous, world-changing and world-understanding.  And sure, they’re not perfectly accomplished TED-like public speakers – not yet, at any rate – but I’m enormously encouraged to see young people, _in the field_, learning to communicate their work.  This is A Good Thing, and to be encouraged at every turn.

And it’s all going to happen again this Thursday up at Rutherford House Memorial Theatre, Kelburn Campus.

At each event, the audience is asked to vote for their top three, and the results will be pooled and final winners announced on Thursday.  And no!  I’m absolutely not going to say who won last night’s :P

If you missed last night, videos will go up shortly on the nerdnite Vimeo channel, and, of course, you can attend on Thursday night, too.  It’s free!  And awesome.

Speakers for the night:

Alex Barker: My all time top 5 electric shocks

Fabain Westermann: War of the worlds

Alexis Garland: Bird talk

Laura McKim: Active transport

Tapu Vea: From the hood

Paul Mensink: The life of a fish

Anne Wietheger: An epiphany and a happy end

Kerry Charles: No child left outside

juan Rada-Vilela: Artificial intellegence

Azeem Muhammed: The story of Daniel Morely

—–

* Organised by me, yes.  For over a year now.  It’s the only one in the Southern Hemisphere :P  Go Wellington!

** My TOSP co-host

Say what now? aimee whitcroft Oct 18

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Scientists and the public often seem to speak a different language.

And no, I’m not necessarily talking about the dense jargon employed by scientists or, to be frank, the private (or public!) sectors.  Instead, I’m talking about some pretty common words, like enhance*.  Or aerosol, or manipulation, or, even, scheme.

Taken from the article Communicating the Science of Climate Change (1), I think it’s a stark (and extremely useful reminder) to science communicators everywhere to bear your _audience_ in mind when talking science.

If a scientist about whose work you are writing gives you stick for using a non-technical term, or a synonym for manipulation which you know the public would understand as ‘scientific data processing’ rather than ‘illicit tampering’?  Explain to them, very sweetly, that they’re not the audience.

It’s increasingly important that we make the science clear.  Hopefully this will help :)

communicating science

Via AGU Blogosphere

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* I just think of someone sitting in front of a computer, saying ‘enhance…enhance…enhance’ as they make three pixels into a fully rendered image of a number plate.**

** On that note, behold!  The future is here, in the shape of _almost being able to do that_, sortof :)

—–

References

(1) Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol, October 2011 issue of Physics Today, page 48

TOSP Episode 6: October 17th 2011 aimee whitcroft Oct 17

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Featuring yetis, flashing bacteria, space!, brownian motion twists, That’s What She Said, better traffic control (hint: drive slower), nanotech _helping_ cell growth, wired petri dishes, vaccination, whale fall, NZ’s freshwater, and various fabulous eventry!

This week, aimee and Elf could happily have talked for hours, and managed not to.  We are proud :)

…..

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

New Zealand internet usage is on the up! aimee whitcroft Oct 14

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Internet usage in New Zealand is, not surprisingly, on the increase :)

Apparently, we’re choosing easier access to the internet, more data and faster access.  Huzzah! Statistics New Zealand has released the results of the 2011 Internet Service Provider Survey, saying the following:

A greater number of subscribers had access to faster upload speeds in 2011. The proportion of those with upload speeds of 1.5 megabits per second (Mbps) or more increased by over 70 percent in the year ended June 2011. The most common upload speeds remain between 256 kilobits per second (kbps) and 1.5Mbps, however, the number of subscribers using slower speeds is declining.

The number of subscribers using alternative technologies, such as cellular, cable, and satellite connections, increased by almost 50 percent between June 2010 and June 2011. Additionally, almost 2 million New Zealanders used a mobile phone to access the Internet in the three months prior to 30 June 2011. ’This reflects the developments in Internet-accessible devices such as tablets, pocket WiFi, and smartphones,’ ICT Statistics Manager, Jean Watt said.

The total number of broadband subscribers increased 14 percent since 2010 to almost 1.5 million subscribers. The number of broadband subscribers overtook the number of dial-up subscribers for the first time in 2007. Four years later broadband subscribers accounted for over 85 percent of the overall number of subscribers to the Internet.

The Internet Service Provider Survey covers all Internet service providers in New Zealand and is run annually.

And, if you’re wanting a quick digest of the full release, some quick facts below:

Key facts

  • The total number of broadband subscribers increased by 14 percent, to almost 1.5 million between June 2010 and June 2011.
  • The largest growth rate of all broadband connections was in cellular, cable, and satellite connections. When combined, these increased almost 50 percent since June 2010.
  • Almost 80 percent of broadband subscribers at June 2011 had a data cap of 5 gigabytes (GB) or more, with the most common cap between 5 and 20GB.
  • The number of subscribers with an upload speed of 1.5Mbps or more increased by almost three quarters since 2010.
  • The average subscriber consumed 9GB of data per month between June 2010 and June 2011.
  • In the three months prior to 30 June 2011, 1.9 million New Zealanders had active Internet subscriptions via a mobile phone.

The full results can be seen in PDF form below, or downloaded here.  You an also find the data tables here.



Giant squids and a bit of a giggle aimee whitcroft Oct 12

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In New Zealand, most of the news today centres around the Rena environmental disaster currently unfolding off our coastline.

Fossil ichthyosaur vertebrae.  Credit: The Geological Society of America

Fossil ichthyosaur vertebrae. Credit: The Geological Society of America

So I thought I’d bring in something else nautically-related, but this more on the subject of beasties historically thought to put holes in ships, than ships with holes themselves.

Sort of.

Some of you may be familiar with the Kraken, a mythological squid/octopus-like creature apparently resting at the bottom of the ocean, and which is able to eat ships as one might eat one’s morning cereal bits. Or something. It’s a subject I’ve a little interest in, given my love of cephalopods :)

Well, exciting stuff! Research which has eagerly been attached to, with lots and lots of newsy suckers*, suggests that our ancient oceans contained 30m long giant, superintelligent squids which liked to play with their food: in this case, icthyosaurs.

Since its discovery, paleontologists have been somewhat confused by the remains found in some 215 million year old (or so), Late Triassic rocks. The rocks, located in Central Nevada in the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, contain the remains of lots of large Icthyosaurs called Shonisaurus popularis. What has been causing the perplexion, however, is the arrangement of these fossils.

Firstly, it’s a mass death site, which is of interest. Hypotheses abound as to why this might be, but no actual definitive answers.

Secondly, and even better, some of the fossils don’t appear to be randomly arranged. There are _patterns_. For example, a double row of vertebrae which look like they were fit together by size.

Certainly it raises some eyebrows, but now, two scientists have posited an interesting hypothesis of their own: an enormous, very intelligent squid did it. They killed the icthyosaurs and arranged their bones into middens. The double row of vertebrae could even have been a self-portrait, as it resembles the arrangement of suckers on a tentacle. The squid would, they say, have been about 100ft (30m) long.

So there’s the background.

I’ll admit, much as I love the idea, there’s the issue of Occam’s razor. The site shows no evidence whatsoever of squid remains. One wonders whether other forces – like sediment moving due to currents/tectonic activity, currents themselves, scavenger activity – might have helped in the fossils’ arrangement.

Blogger Laelaps has written a wonderful piece on the subject. Highly recommended reading.

My problem here, other than wanting to start making happy ‘giant squid squeee!’ sounds or giggle so much I fall off my chair, is a serious one.

Firstly, it doesn’t appear that many of the stories about it got second opinions (although the LA times has got some of the pithier quips here). This is Not Good, particularly when covering areas such as science!

Secondly, it reeks a little of courting media attention without much attendant dignity. Which doesn’t look great from the outside, and tends to come at some point with a public backlash from people who think science is about grandstanding rather than getting to the facts.

Even worse, when news-making science then turns out to be heavily inaccurate, it’s pounced on by the anti-science bridage as proof-positive that scientists are, essentially, liars. Which really, _really_ doesn’t help with issues such as climate change.

So yes – next time you see an extravagant science claim? Check the paper (research paper)**. Check the sources. And journalists? Ask someone else, too.

——-

Related posts

FTL neutrinos FTW!

Robots and tentacles

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* Nature News has it. As does LiveScience, CBS News, FOX (O_o), the Huffington Post, Pop Sci (I’m saddened) and a number of other news sites.

** If the research isn’t even _from_ a published, peer-reviewed paper? Be extra careful.

Lauren Ipsum: a book about which I’m rather excited aimee whitcroft Oct 11

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I imagine many of you are familiar with Lorem Ipsum*, the ‘nonsense’ text used as a fill-in for websites and other things-using-words under construction.

Presenting, however, what looks to be a charming, and distinctly clever, new book: Lauren Ipsum.  It’s the story of a little girl who gets lost in the woods one day, and what happens next.  It describes itself as being “A story about computer science and other improbably things’, and then goes on to warn one that “no computers will be found in this book”.

It’s full of brilliant drawings, too ** :)

An excerpt:

This comes after my bestest favouritest bit of thus far :)  (Excerpt from Lauren Ipsum) [Click to enlarge]

This comes after my bestest favouritest bit of thus far :) (Excerpt from Lauren Ipsum) Click to enlarge

’It’s just a bunch of Jargon,’ he said. ’Hold still and stay calm.’ He cupped his hands to his mouth.

’STANI!’ he shouted at them.

All of the Jargon froze, their ears a-quiver.

’CEPAT! AFVIGE! SCHNELL! SCHNELL!

And just like that, they were gone.

Laurie collapsed against a tree. ’Th-thank you,’ she said.

’Sure thing, miss. Just rest here a while,’ the man said. He dropped his pack with a loud jangle, then sat on top of it.

’What’s a Jargon?’ she asked once she’d caught her breath.

’Jargon live in the swamps. They feed on attention. If they can’t get that, they’ll settle for fear and confusion.’

’But the first one was so friendly! I just talked to it a little and it started following me.’

’That’s how it starts,’ he said. ’A little Jargon doesn’t look like much. Some people even keep them as pets. But they form packs, and they are very dangerous.’

’That’s terrible!’

He shrugged. ’What can you do? Stand your ground and act confident. If you show any fear, a pack of wild Jargon will run you right over.’

’What did you say to make them leave?’

’I have no idea. It sounded good, though, didn’t it?’ he said. ’So what’s your name, miss?’

’My name is Laurie. I think I’m lost.’

’That’s wonderful!’ the man said. ’I’m lost too.’

’Oh no! You mean you don’t know where you are?’

’No, I know exactly where I am.’

’So you don’t know where you’re going?’

’I know exactly where I’m going. I’m on the way home.’

Laurie was almost too confused to feel confused. ’But if you know where you are,’ she said, ’and you know where you’re going, how can you be lost?’

’Because I don’t know how I’ll get there,’ the man grinned. ’I’m a Wandering Salesman.’

’A Wandering Salesman? What’s that?’

’We wander from town to town, selling and buying. There are two rules: You have to visit every town before going home, and you can’t visit any town twice. Every road is the road home except the road behind me.’

’So you always go to the next place you’ve never been to?’ she asked.

’That’s right! You’re guaranteed to get home eventually,’ he said. ’It’s only logical. Along the way I’ve seen the sunrise over the Towers of Hanoi and climbed the Upper Bounds. I’ve sat down at the Lookup Table and floated on the Overflow River. It’s a good life. Being lost can be fun!’

’It’s just a bunch of Jargon,’ he said. ’Hold still and stay calm.’ He cupped his hands to his mouth.

’STANI!’ he shouted at them.

All of the Jargon froze, their ears a-quiver.

’CEPAT! AFVIGE! SCHNELL! SCHNELL!

And just like that, they were gone.

Laurie collapsed against a tree. ’Th-thank you,’ she said.

’Sure thing, miss. Just rest here a while,’ the man said. He dropped his pack with a loud jangle, then sat on top of it.

’What’s a Jargon?’ she asked once she’d caught her breath.

’Jargon live in the swamps. They feed on attention. If they can’t get that, they’ll settle for fear and confusion.’

’But the first one was so friendly! I just talked to it a little and it started following me.’

’That’s how it starts,’ he said. ’A little Jargon doesn’t look like much. Some people even keep them as pets. But they form packs, and they are very dangerous.’

’That’s terrible!’

He shrugged. ’What can you do? Stand your ground and act confident. If you show any fear, a pack of wild Jargon will run you right over.’

’What did you say to make them leave?’

’I have no idea. It sounded good, though, didn’t it?’ he said. ’So what’s your name, miss?’

’My name is Laurie. I think I’m lost.’

’That’s wonderful!’ the man said. ’I’m lost too.’

’Oh no! You mean you don’t know where you are?’

’No, I know exactly where I am.’

’So you don’t know where you’re going?’

’I know exactly where I’m going. I’m on the way home.’

Laurie was almost too confused to feel confused. ’But if you know where you are,’ she said, ’and you know where you’re going, how can you be lost?’

’Because I don’t know how I’ll get there,’ the man grinned. ’I’m a Wandering Salesman.’

’A Wandering Salesman? What’s that?’

’We wander from town to town, selling and buying. There are two rules: You have to visit every town before going home, and you can’t visit any town twice. Every road is the road home except the road behind me.’

’So you always go to the next place you’ve never been to?’ she asked.

’That’s right! You’re guaranteed to get home eventually,’ he said. ’It’s only logical. Along the way I’ve seen the sunrise over the Towers of Hanoi and climbed the Upper Bounds. I’ve sat down at the Lookup Table and floated on the Overflow River. It’s a good life. Being lost can be fun!’

At present you can read (what I presume to be) the first chapter – Mostly Lost – and you can preorder the book.  Which will be available in both physical and digital formats, and hopefully in languages other than English too.  And, because it’s a Kickstartr project, you can pledge anything over a dollar, as as much more than that!

I pledged enough to get me an advance copy, and can’t wait for more!

———–

A story about computer science
and other improbable things.

*Or Beer Ipsum.  Or Bacon Ipsum.  Or Hipster Ipsum. Or Liquor Ipsum. Or Gangsta Ipsum. Or Vegan Ipsum. Or Veggie Ipsum. Or Tuna Ipsum. Or Samuel L. Ipsum. Or Bogan Ipsum. Or, even, Corporate Ipsum.  The list goes on. And on. And on. And on. And on. (As, apparently, does my ever-worsening RSI).

** Apparently it is a kids’ book.  Thankfully I define myself quite firmly as a kid.  Phew.

Science snippets aimee whitcroft Oct 10

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As my ‘Read Later’ list in Diigo acquires not only its own gravity well, but, at this point, its own set of physics laws, a post pointing to a couple of fun snippet-based science thingummies.

The winners of this year's Nikon Small World competition

The winners of this year's Nikon Small World competition

The first is, of course, that this week’s TOSP is out.  It covers everything from nanotech to transhumanism, space skiing to forensic science, the Nobels to the, well, Ig Nobels (and some of the appalling scientific blunders made by people who are part of that first illustrious crowd).

And, as I noticed last week but then completely forgot to blog: this year’s Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition results are out.  W000000!

Every year, people around the world send in the images they taken, in which they point Magnificent Magnification Machines at objects (flora, fauna and mineral), and record the results. Photographically.  Not only are the images stunning, but truly educational, too, allowing us to see far beyond the limits of the rather average orbs with which we get through our day to day lives.

The official website’s here, and the Boston Globe’s excellent photography blog, The Big Picture, has the results here.  Of course, Wired got in there, too (it’s where I first saw the results) :)

An ant's head - one of the winners of this year's Nikon Small Worlds competition.  Credit: Jan Michels, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Germany

An ant's head - one of the winners of this year's Nikon Small Worlds competition. Credit: Jan Michels, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel, Germany

UPDATE:  Oh, yeah.  I also just got sent this wonderful map, showing metrication (by year) of the countries of the world.  Note which countries have yet to adopt it :)

—–

Related posts

Brilliant photos of small things

Intermission: engineering photo contest

TOSP Episode 5: October 10th 2011 aimee whitcroft Oct 10

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This week’s podcast is, as usual, filled with interesting things.  Particularly Nobel-related things!

We (aimee and Elf) talk about science prizes, figures, finding life on Mars, transhumanism, the beginning of infinity, nanotechnology (what is it?), statistics, space skiing, forensic science, nature vs nurture the Nobels, the Ig nobels and World Space Week.

…..

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

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