Saturday, 31 December 2011

Ambiguous new year!

Today, I shall be hearing the phrase 'Happy new year' a lot. I don't like it. 

I appreciate the sentiment behind it, when it is said to mean 'I hope you have a happy new year', often shortened to just 'happy new year', which is less specific but you can usually tell what is meant by it. 

Ironically, saying 'happy new year' before the new year has actually started is one way of telling that it's intended to mean 'I hope the new year is a happy one for you'. Obviously as the old year is still currently happening, by default it requires a forward-looking, predictive element to the statement. Ergo, it obviously means the person saying it wants you to experience happiness in the new year. A cynic might suggest that this will inevitably happen at some point, as given the length of a year it's highly likely that some parts of it will be happy ones. It's possible to have an entirely miserable year, but in Western society by and large this is statistically unlikely.

So, when someone says 'happy new year' to me before midnight on new year's eve, I interpret that as them saying 'I hope the new year is a happy one for you to an extent that is beyond that anticipated by normal statistical likelihood'. Hypocritically of me though, if someone did actually say that in full, I'd be quite alarmed.

However, I do take issue with the phrase 'Happy new year' when used on Midnight on new years eve, and on most of new year's day. Because it's not a prediction then, it's a statement. And it's an inaccurate one, to say the least. As soon as the clock hits 12 on NYE, everyone starts saying happy new year as if it's an established fact. It isn't.

If you say 'happy new year' as the clock hits 12, what you are saying is 'the new year is here, and it's a happy one'. This, based on about 11 seconds of the year having actually passed. Undoubtedly, as you're probably at a party with friends and in a cheerful, inebriated state, they probably have been 11 happy seconds. But that's nowhere near a big enough sample to base such a firm conclusion on. A year is 31,557,600 seconds long. So, based on the initial 11 seconds, you've decided that the remaining 31,557,589 seconds will are definitely going to be happy ones? More fool you, that's not how things work at all. That's like declaring the winner of a marathon before most of the runners have even crossed the starting line, or crowning the winner of Masterchef before they've even got to the kitchen, based on the fact that you've spotted that one of the contestants is using an ingredient that you like. Such blas√© attitudes annoy me, they aren't helpful. 

Officially, if you're going to be declaring whether a year is happy or not, you should at least base your decision on the data provided by how half of the year has been. So the phrase 'Happy new year', in order to be a valid one, should be used around mid-June at the earliest, because then you have a decent body of data to go on, but you may also have noticed trends in the years progress and have an awareness of upcoming events.

However, stating it in mid-June means that the 'new' element of 'Happy new year' is now redundant and completely inaccurate. So, overall, there is now point where 'Happy new year' used as a statement rather than a prediction can be accurate. And as a scientist, I try to discourage inaccuracy wherever I can.

"Ah, but Dean", you may say, "you say you don't like inaccuracy, but earlier you said a year is 31,557,600 seconds long, when 60 secs x 60 (mins) x 24 (hours) x 365 (days) is actually 31,536,000 seconds, so surely your own accuracy needs more work?"

And I'd say yes, surprisingly observant and pedantic commenter, your maths is impeccable, but you have also overlooked the fact that, in astrological terms, the Earth orbits the sun every 365.25 days, this is why we have leap years. And even if you ignore the astronomical element, you have to take into account that every 4th year is 366 days long, so overall the average year is 365.25 days long, which is 31,557,600 seconds long. So, my accuracy is even more extreme than you realised, not less. But thanks for your concern.

So bear all this in mind, and when you're at a party and midnight rolls around, and someone says 'Happy new year' to you, you can tell them in detail why their statement is flawed, and I'm sure they'll thank you for it. 

That's what I would do. But I don't get invited to new year's eve parties any more, for some reason.

Twitter: @garwboy

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

DECEMBER 20th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 20th: Sprouts

There are lots of really good things about Christmas, but then there are many parts that nobody likes at all. Namely; Sprouts! Everyone hates sprouts. Even the people who claim to like sprouts secretly hate them, seeing as everybody hates sprouts, apparently.

They sit there, on your plate, being rubbish and awful, spoiling the dinner for you with their small, green, evil, spherical presence. Why do we even have them? It's 'traditional', they say. Like having a tangerine in your stocking or having to endure the critical and racist proclamations of increasingly inebriated elderly relatives. It's the done thing, so you've got to do it.

Thing is, unlike the majority of other things on the Christmas dinner plate, sprouts are green. Why is that? Obviously, being a plant, they contain chlorophyll. You might not know chlorophyll, but it's the pigment that allows photosynthesis to happen, a process which is essential for pretty much all life on Earth. So that's nice.

Unlike all the other bone idle vegetables like potatoes, who just sit there underground, not doing anything apart from getting fat and sprouting feelers to spawn more greedy, useless offspring, sprouts are up and about, storing nutrients and also generating oxygen for us to breathe, essentially pulling double duty as both a source if vital gas and mass for us non-photosynthesising life forms.

And how do we repay them? We boil them to death, devour them en-masse, and complain about how crap they are the whole time. Is that was Christmas means to you people?

Ungrateful gits

Twitter: @garwboy

DECEMBER 19th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 19th: Uranium-235

Christmas can be described as a time of year where there is great deal of anticipation and work towards it. Then when it's finally arrived, it requires a lot of work to keep it under control, because if you don't keep an eye on it then it will get out of hand, and possibly cause devastating carnage in the brief space of time where it occurs.

Also, the presents. There's usually one thing you want. Possibly two. There are many things you'd like, but few things you actively want. And sometimes you get them, or you get something that gives more than you were expecting. That's always nice

Encapsulating both of these things is uranium-235, an isotope of Uranium that is the one we use to generate nuclear power. Uranium-235 has an odd atomic structure that means the nucleus can be split relatively easily, by the addition of another neutron. This releases a lot of energy, as there is a net loss of mass when the nucleus splits. This mass becomes energy.

Thing is, when the uranium-235 nucleus splits, it releases neutrons. These could feasibly hit another atomic nucleus and cause it to split, releasing energy and more neutrons, which could feasibly and so on and so on.

In the enriched form of Uranium, there pretty much always another atom within neutron-spitting distance, hence the chain reaction used to give us nuclear power, or nuclear weaponry.

Bright lights, followed by uncontrolled carnage. Isn't that just like Christmas?

Twitter: @garwboy

DECEMBER 18th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 18th: The Necker Cube

The build up of exciting, chunky presents under the tree is synonymous with Christmas. The soft, edgeless presents are fine, but everyone knows they're just socks. And since where were socks exciting?

No, it's the boxy, cubic/rectangular ones that really stoke the imagination. It could be anything? Anything that fits in a box. It might even be an Xbox, in a box. Like some sort of 'box squared'. Which, considering that squared is one step below cubed, which is what a box is, then a 'box squared' might suggest some sort of sub-box? It's a mathematical-philosophical minefield.

But one fun thing you can do with basic, transparent boxes is look at them. Yes, I said look at them. What's fun about that?

Well, if you look at a Necker cube, it's an image that can be perceived as both angled downwards, or upwards. There is nothing to distiguish the two states, so people either see it as pointing 'up', or pointing 'down'. Then, if you look at it long enough, it switches from one to the other. Then back again. Then back again. And so on.

It's just a good example of how the brain's perception system doesn't deal with ambiguity, so it tries to impose order on a visual stimulus when perhaps there is none. 

So there you go, an example of how, in response to the most basic stimulus, your brain overshoots and gets things all messed up. So it's important, at such a hectic time as Christmas, to load up on as much stimulation as you can to keep it quiet, or maybe just obliterate it with excessive booze

Your choice, but either way, the doctor recommends!

Twitter: @garwboy

DECEMBER 17th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 17th: Coal

The traditional Santa mythology emphasises how he discerns between naughty and nice children. Nice children, they get toys. But what do naughty children get? It could be anything; reindeer dung, wood shavings, beard clippings, unwashed Santa pants, anything that the big man can get his hands on that he and a child are unlikely to want.

But apparently, he gives them coal. This makes a superficial amount of sense. Coal is ‘dirty’. Coal can’t be played with. Coal is mundane.

That is, unless you’re a science fan, of course. If you are, what Santa Clause is essentially saying to you is; “you’ve been very bad, so what you’re getting is a mass that is essentially the compacted remains of dinosaurs and prehistoric plants, that is millions of years old and has been processed by the incredible heat and pressure applied by the very Earth itself, and extracted from the ground in conditions that are extremely dangerous and regularly kill people”.

Any bad kid worthy of the title should be very happy with coal. But maybe they’re not? Maybe I just don’t understand kids. It’s an old tradition, of course. But imagine the consequences of it all.

Bad kids get threatened with coal, don’t heed the warnings, and then actually do receive coal. Children arguably don’t really have enough appreciation of the consequences of their actions to completely alter their behaviour to appease some omnipresent magic bearded man (whatever the Pope may tell you), so the receiving of coal convinces them that life isn’t fair, and you have to look after number 1 in this world, every man/woman for himself etc.  All other kids would have the cool toys they so desire, but can’t have. This would be compounded further by the revelation that there was never any Santa in the first place, so you can’t even trust your family.

What you’d eventually end up with a large proportion of the adult population who had no real grasp of ethical behaviour, a fierce sense of self interest, a covetous desire for the possessions of others and access to a lot of coal.

(Short one today, and probably tomorrow, v busy of late)

Twitter: @garwboy

DECEMBER 16th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 16th: Ducks

There is one group for whom Christmas is not exactly a joyful time of year. It’s the exact opposite if anything. I refer, of course to the fowls.  That’s ‘fowls’, no ‘Fowlers’, the desperately unlucky Eastenders family, although it works for them too, as it probably does for any British soap opera family at Christmas.

But even more than unfortunate fictional families, fowls (Galleiforms, if you prefer) have good reason to fear Christmas, as it pretty much translates to ‘mass slaughter’ for them. Something about Christmas makes humans, in the west, at least, want to consume the flesh of a deceased relatively-obese bird. Not that we don’t do that at other times of year of course, but it becomes a bit more intense at Christmas time.

Turkey has to bear the brunt of the festive lust for flesh, although chickens come in for it too, but then when do they not? This is likely to be a result of Christmas occurring in the past when meat was somewhat more of a luxury, rather than something that you can find discarded in gutters the morning after the day people beak up for work. If the quantity of meat was the priority, rather than the quality, then it’s no wonder Turkey came to the forefront of holiday foodstuffs, usually being the biggest, chunkiest of the fowls. Although given Christmases pagan roots, it does make you wonder where this whole ‘kill something big and consume its flesh’ ritual originally came from.

If that’s a bit of a dark way of thinking of things, I have precedent. Coming from a small Welsh village, by family growing up were part of a small rural community where ovens large enough to cook whole turkeys were very rare. I’m told that, on Christmas eve, it was normal for groups of the women to travel with their Turkeys en-masse to the local crematorium, which wasn’t in use at that time of year. You can figure the rest out for yourself.

I have no evidence to back this up, it’s purely anecdotal. But still, put’s sprouts into perspective, doesn’t it?

But apparently, before Turkey (in the UK at least), it was goose. This makes sense; goose can be obtained in Britain, whereas Turkey is indigenous to America. And it’s a fairly hefty bird which, like turkey, doesn’t really get a lot of sympathy from people, as they’re believed to be nasty, unpleasant creatures. But this does draw up the fowl/waterfowl disparity.

One bird that seems to get off relatively lightly at Christmas (but not completely) is the humble duck. People have a bit of a soft spot for ducks, with their comical waddles and lust for bread. It’s possible to interact with ducks in a pleasing, slaughter-free environment, so they are relatively innocuous.

Although maybe that’s not it? Maybe ducks are largely avoided, and goose was replaced so readily, as festive food, because waterfowl (anseriformes, if you like) are relatively very fatty. Cooking and eating them is, therefore, more of a chore. Goose fat, which is smokeless, is still used to roast things, but it’s been separated from the goose long beforehand.

Evolution-wise, this makes perfect sense. If you end up spending a lot of time in the water, being made up of substances that increase buoyancy/insulation is obviously going to be an advantage. So ducks and geese are packed with fat, which is made up of a variety of fatty acids, which are hydrophobic and insulating.

Interesting chemistry anecdote, apparently fatty acids were originally called aliphatic acids, but during the preparation of a paper in the early days there was some dictation issues and the person typing it up thought, reasonably enough, that they were called ‘fatty acids’. The name stuck, for obvious reasons. (My chemistry teacher told me this, I don’t have a reference)

Also, did you know a ducks quack doesn’t echo? Well you shouldn’t, because it does.

So, ducks are like the new expensive toy that children want for Christmas. Looks cool, should be fun, but a lot more complicated and fiddly when you realise how many bits are involved, and it never does exactly what you think it should

Twitter: @garwboy

DECEMBER 15th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

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December 15th: Susan Greenfield

You get a lot of fictional pop culture stories about Christmas. Some are good, some are crap, some are surprisingly violent, but the common factor that unites a lot of them is that there is often a character or some sort of body that, whether by design or by consequence, seems hell-bent on ruining Christmas for everyone involved.

Scrooge, the Grinch, King Herod, all fictional characters (apart from Herod) who's selfish desires mean they are at best nonplussed, at worst pleased about the fact that their actions ruin Christmas for innocent people. King Herod could, arguably, plead ignorance given the context, and also given the fact that it's unlikely that he did any of that stuff in the Bible, but that's by the by.

Of course, in the real world, we don't have people who would be so honest about their festive-cheer-destroying actions. Ruining Christmas is frowned upon. But then, some people still do their best.

We can't eat too many of those treaty things, that's bad for you. Don't undercook the Turkey, that's probably poisonous.  Drinking too much? Don't do that, you'll probably die. Have you not spent enough on gifts? then you're ruining the economy. Have you spent too much on gifts? Then you're stupid for not having enough money saved for the months ahead. Are you a Christian? Then how dare you not appreciate Jesus enough at this time of year. Are you not a Christian? Then how dare you not appreciate Jesus enough at this time of year. And on it goes.

But at least, once all the health and morality concerns have weighed down on you with their guilty burdens, you can enjoy some time playing with your gifts (if you're a child), or playing with the children's gifts (if you're not). Nothing wrong with that, surely? With all the other guilt-inducing health-destroying elements of Christmas, a bit of harmless play is fine, right?

No. It's not. So say's Baroness Susan Greenfield, previously celebrated Neuroscientist, tabloid darling and apparent nemesis of all things technological and fun.  In this society, most entertainment items are a lot more high tech than they used to be. But that's bad! Anything that over stimulates you, anything that might be enjoyable that comes with a plug or battery (within reason, pervs) is bad for young minds, because it might corrupt them in some ill-defined way.

Susan Greenfield is seemingly opposed to anything which needs a screen to work. Be it video games (except the ones she makes money from, presumably), the internet, or even porch doors (possibly). That last one might seem like a wild accusation based on nothing, but that seems to be the way she does business. I've made my opinions on Greenfield's views quite clear before now, so please see that if you want a thorough critique of why her views are so much hot air. But it bears repeating here as it's a Christmas, and you might possibly end up letting kids enjoy their new games worry free, and we can't have that now can we?

So keep it in mind, if you see a child enjoying themselves with something electronic this Christmas, be sure to wrench it from their gasp, berate them for befouling their young minds with too much stimulation, and kick them outdoors to play, where it's clearly just as stimulating, but colder and with more dog crap, so it doesn't count for some reason.

Next time, Andrew Wakefield explains to us how coloured fairy lights lead to diabetes and premature balding (in men and women)

Twitter: @garwboy

DECEMBER 14th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 14th: Quantum Entanglement

All this talk of Father Christmas travelling around the world in one night, visiting every child and delivering at least one gift for each of them (or something unpleasant for the ones who have not met his ill-defined but thoroughly checked criteria for being  'nice', but either way, mass is donated to each child), it's all well and good. But how could he do this? It's all very well saying that he's 'magic', but that's not really an explanation, that's hand waving and invoking the mythical Macguffin.

In this day of instant internet access and Children being better at computers than their parents, it's harder and harder to fob children off with blaze non-explanations. They'll just go and look it up if you don't provide a satisfactory answer, and then they'll realise the whole 'Father Christmas is real' thing is just an elaborate con told to kids for ill-defined reasons. Their ignorance will be shattered by finding out the harsh truth at too-young an age, they will lose all trust of their parents and become a cynical and ill-disciplined child, eventually becoming an authority-bucking teenager who will have no qualms in experimenting with drugs and casual sex, eventually dropping out of the education system and becoming a homeless derelict who survives thanks to petty theft and small-scale drug dealing. All because you couldn't think of a good explanation for the activities of Santa Clause. Is that what you want?

So, here's an idea. Is it possible that the Santa-system is one based on quantum entanglement? That mysterious system whereby previously connected particles/molecules/miscellaneous remain entangled by some unknown mechanism. Quantum mechanics has given us a lot of weird stuff to consider, and this is one of the good ones. You split two entangled particles and separate them by a great distance, then manipulate one, and the other will show direct signs of that manipulation, despite the fact that it's very far away. A direct connection that transcends space and time? That would come in handy, wouldn't it.

So maybe Santa is the master of quantum? If he was capable of large-scale quantum manipulation, it would explain a lot. Let's look at the arguments.

·         As previously pointed out, his naughty/nice list has to take into account the vast fluctuations in the Earth's child population, their associated behaviours and locations, and as a result this list has to be constantly updated and checked at least twice. This would require an extraordinary degree of computational power. Modern CPUs may not be up to the task, but a quantum computer? That should be easily capable. But the processes that would support quantum computing are notoriously fragile, and would probably require a very stable, low energy environment to function properly, so Santa would have to spend a lot of time in some very cold, isolated environment...

·         Actually, how can Santa possibly know if every child is being bad or good? The songs suggest he personally watches every child which, as well as being creepy, is a big task. But what if he had a direct quantum connection into the home of every child? For someone with his manipulation of quantum processes skills, it wouldn't take much, just a small sample of matter from something that is still in the child's home, per se. Let's say, I don't know, the ink from a pen or graphite from a pencil? But even then, the establishing of a quantum connection to every child would require every child to write something and send it directly to Santa. Which is ridiculous...

·         How does he get to every child's home in a single night? Well, one possible explanation for quantum entanglement is that entangled things stay connected via wormholes, that Science-fiction go-to favourite. Connecting two disparate points of space to allow instantaneous travel between them in a manner that is outside the usual temporal constraints, that would be handy wouldn't it? Using the initial connection established by the child's scribbling (see above), Saint Nick could establish more reliable connections with each visit, all he'd have to do is leave something in the child's possession that he created and that's entangled with something in his home base. So it would have to be something the child didn't have before, but that they'd be unlikely to panic about or dispose of. Like a toy, for example. Teenagers eventually stop writing to Santa and put their toys away, so he stops coming.

·         Actually, what would this wormhole travel look like, to someone who was lucky enough to witness it? It's bound to be a very high energy process, so it would look like a large fat man emerging from a bright, high-energy opening that appears to lead to a tight tunnel that he couldn't possibly fit into according to normal spatial laws. But people who see this wouldn't have the vocabulary to explain this, so they'd have to describe it using metaphors they can relate to.

·         But Santa isn't often spotted, is he? You'd think with millions of children trying to catch a glimpse, a few hundred would be successful, just based on the law of averages alone? But if Santa has control of quantum processes, he could well have the ability to manipulate his superposition. Santa may exist in a condition of unspecified possibilities. If someone does see him, it should be feasible for him to collapse the quantum wave function to a state where he isn't there at all. Or maybe he can transfer into some parallel world where he's in the room but the child isn't. It's quantum, why the hell not?

So there you go. If a child ever asks you how Santa does what he does, feel free to give them the full Quantum explanation.

'But Dean', you may say, 'how does he do all this? What gives him such mastery of quantum processes? And what's the deal with the Reindeer?'

I don't know. He's not actually real, so just chill out, no need to get carried away.

Twitter: @garwboy

DECEMBER 13th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 13th: The Periodic Table

One phrase that keeps popping up a lot during Christmas is ‘making a list, checking it twice’. This suggests a few things, namely that Santa Clause has a LOT of time on his hands. Making a list of every eligible child on earth, that’s an arduous task, and possibly a never-ending one considering the birth rate of human society (let alone checking it twice). I would suggest that it’s unlikely that he could ever have it done within the space of single year, when you include the births, accidental deaths and children graduating from childhood to teenage/cynical phase that occur constantly throughout the year. It’s like painting that bridge.

But then again, if we’re starting to go through all the things that Santa claims to be able to achieve that aren’t logically possible, that is, ironically, a list that’s never going to end.

Speaking of ongoing, overly complex lists, science has one in the form of the periodic table. Never mind checking it twice, the periodic table has been ‘checked’ countless times, with adjustments being made whenever required. Much like Christmas gift lists, it was all much simpler in the old days. It was just a block of wood and an orange then (or Earth, wind, fire and water from an elemental perspective). But these days it’s all PS3 games and tamagotchis! And in terms of the periodic table, it’s noble gasses, transition metals and transuranium elements. Particularly with regards to the latter, it’s hard to check them twice when, being the products of nuclear reactions, they have a fraction of a second. But saying that, some have a half life of millions of years. So, you know, no rush.

But how could I summarise the complexity and detail of the periodic table in an understandable and entertaining way in just one blogpost?

I can’t. Simple as that. So instead, here’s the awesome science rapper Jon Chase to do it in the form of rap for you. Merry Christmas.

Twitter: @garwboy

DECEMBER 12th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 12th: The Fovea

Christmas. There’s a lot more that goes into it than one person can feasibly experience. The amount of preparation involved in acquiring gifts, all that food to get, cook, and give to people who may well be too intoxicated to recognise what it is they’re consuming.  The decorations, the work scheduling to get it all organised, the arrangements, the visits. A lot of effort by one part, which may be experienced as nothing more than a brief visit and an exchange of pointless Christmas cards by another party. It’s tragic, in a way.

And that’s just on a small-scale, individual family basis. What about the industrial processes that go into the whole festive season? Christmas seems to have a profound effect on the whole economy, it’s reported in the news, with constant update son how the high-street is doing. And think of the manpower that goes into converting every branch of every multinational into a more ‘festive’ style. Even the fictional aspects, the Santa and his elves thing, if that were true, it would involve countless hours of manual (‘elf’ual?) labour and the violation of spacetime by a bearded fat man; and for what? This herculean effort is experienced by individual children as a period of excitement and the acquisition of a few more flimsy toys. Is that really all it amounts to?

This shouldn’t be surprise though, seeing as humans experience such a thing on a regular basis. Our own eyes and brains are actually capable of experiencing only a small fraction of the visual stimulus that constantly bombards us. You’d probably assume that our eyes encode the visual scene we experience in much the same way as a camera processes an image; light goes in, gets moved around a bit, then sent to the brain/film/memory card. But no, not the human eye.

When it comes to fine detail, the sort of useful, accurate, specific processing is limited to an alarmingly small area. It’s the fovea, the part of the eye that’s most densely packed with photoreceptors (only cones, no rods, by the way). It can pick up on the small details, the finer points, and no other part of the eye can. It’s like a very small searchlight casting about through the fog of our visual sensory input. What we essentially do is use the fovea to focus (no pun intended) on things which our visual systems classify as worthy of attention. Visual psychology experiments have used tracking software to follow a person’s eye movements when looking at stimuli such as elaborate paintings. It’s interesting, the tracking pattern is like someone tried drawing the painting themselves on an etch-a-sketch while suffering serious drunken tremors.

But it’s enough. The brain can take this scattering of detailed glimpses and build up a detailed and, more relevantly, useful perception of the world itself. All from a part of the retina that’s no even a millimetre in diameter. Even for something as small in area as the retina, that’s a pretty pathetic amount of space given over to detailed perception, don’t you think? Especially when the periphery of the retina can’t even encode colour (our brain just infers it later in the processing stage, if you’re wondering).

But if you did think the fovea was a measly allocation of useful processing space, look at it this way; this measly bit of retinal space is sufficient to provide us with the sort of rich detailed vision we take for granted, despite the fact that it’s mostly the result of brain processing rather than direct sensation. You want more? Well, if the fovea were twice the diameter it is, we’d actually need brains the size of beach balls to handle the data input. And that wouldn’t be practical. We’d need crackers to have paper hats that were a lot bigger (there may also be other consequences, like needing bigger wigs if you’re a bald man).

So yeah, the effort that goes into making Christmas happen is just like our visual perception; far more is going on than we can actually perceive. But what we have, that is usually more than enough.

See, I can do schmaltzy too, just so you know.

Twitter: @garwboy

DECEMBER 11th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 11th: Kepler 22-b

For some, Christmas is all about the anticipation. What you're going to get, how other's are going to react to what you get them, will you get what it is you actually want, are you going to end up never speaking to certain family members again? The possibilities are what get some people worked up, to the point where the actual main reveal is something of a disappointment.

At the time of writing this, a similar situation exists in the astronomical community, as well as, to a certain extent, the 'understanding the universe and our place in it' community, although they can get a little theological/philosophical at times. The sort of people you would invite round for dinner, but wouldn't want them renting your spare room for fear of constant discussions about man's role in the grand scheme of life itself when all you want them to do is pay for some of the milk they keep stealing from you.

Recently, it was announced that the most Earth-like planet to date was discovered. Named Kepler 22-b, it's sparked a lot of debate and conversation about the ramifications of the possibility of life, the uniqueness of Earth, interest in space travel and numerous other things. Its location is known, it's in the right place to support life (by our standards, anyway) in the 'Goldilocks zone', it's bigger than Earth but not excessively so, and it's (by galactic standards) right down the road. But they don't know if it's made of mostly gas, rock or air yet (but judging by the name, they seem to know its cup size?) so it may be completely useless for what we 'want'?

This is the space science equivalent of the big chunky square present under the tree with your name on it. It could be the new laptop you've been going on about, it could be a new PS3 that you're sure you've heard a few hints about, or it could be a large pair of novelty pants in an oversized box.

Time will tell, but in many ways, the waiting ends up being the best part. That is sort of the point of advent calendars, in a way

Twitter: @garwboy

DECEMBER 10th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 10th: Trilobites

You get a lot of ‘stuff’ at Christmas, don’t you?  It’s different kinds of stuff, yes; But a lot of ‘stuff’, overall. Some of the stuff is very obviously Christmas stuff, some of the stuff is everyday stuff that is just receiving more attention than usual because it’s Christmas.

For example, cheap decorations (tinsel, baubles etc.) and red bobble hats = Christmas stuff. Vegetables, nuts and winter clothing = regular stuff that is rendered festive by the Christmas period. And this first part of this piece has the word ‘stuff’ in it far too much, doesn’t it?

That’s sort of the point though. What defines ‘stuff’? It could be argued that it’s the sort of thing that is encountered often and/or in large enough quantities that it breaches the point where the human mind finds it necessary to specify it in any detail. And we encounter this sort of thing often at Christmas.

The brain is quite good at filtering and generalising when presented with too much stimuli. “What did you get for Christmas?” “You know, stuff” (Pairs of socks/pants, deodorant, slippers if you’re of a certain age group).  Those chocolates you get in the big tins, the ones that have nougat or that hard crystallised stuff which nobody can identify, they’re generally lumped together as ‘leftover stuff’.  And so on.

Scientifically, stuff has a different meaning. Dark Matter, for example, is ‘stuff’ because it is impossible to specify. There’s lots of it (supposedly), but scientists are very keen to actually see the bloody stuff (although by definition, that should be impossible). However, scientifically speaking, it’s rare for a species to be classified as ‘stuff’.

If any has managed this bizarre achievement, it’s the Trilobite. One of the most abundant fossil types you’ll find, it’s more of a species type than an individual species. Trilobites arrived on the scene, life-on-Earth-wise over half a billion years ago, and hung around for at least a quarter billion years. In comparison, humans are just at the point where we’ve crawled out of the sea.

Trilobites.  They spread everywhere. They swam, they hunted, they filtered, they grazed, they may well have dressed up like bats and fought crime (although this is doubtful as this was long before the existence of bats, or crime as we know it, probably).

Then they died out, as things often do. With their exoskeletons and widespread antics, they left durable remains everywhere, becoming the fossil equivalent of a pair of socks at Christmas; not something you’re unhappy about getting, but it will probably be thrown aside while you seek out the ‘cool’ stuff.

But there will come a time when you need the socks, and while that games console is riddled with bugs and just causes frustration and headaches, the socks are always reliable and useful. Trilobites are a bit like that. Despite the fact that most lay people would think of them as fossil ‘stuff’ (if they think of them at all), trilobites have taught us an amazing number of things. Or ‘stuff’, if you prefer.

Trilobites and socks at Christmas; generally ignored, but we’d be complaining if they weren’t around. We’re so ungrateful as a species.

Twitter: @garwboy

DECEMBER 9th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 9th: Robert Liston

For your typical adult, Christmas always seems to fly by. This is probably a consequence of the ever increasing build-up to Christmas, which the commercial sector currently starts advertising some time around the summer solstice. With a build up that lasts for at least 2 meteorological seasons for something that lasts about 3 days (not counting the desperate Bacchanal that is New Years Eve), it's no wonder that Christmas seems to go by in a mad rush.

But despite the ludicrous build up time, there still seems to be a frantic sense of rush around Christmas. There have been months to get everything done, but still the shops are clogged on Christmas eve with people suffering a sudden attack of remembering they have family, , and whoever is in charge of hosting the family on the day itself usually ends up as a twitching mass of stress and tension, red enough to rival the jolly fat man himself (either Santa or some bloated sleazy uncle who keeps turning up despite nobody knowing who he's related to, take your pick).

Couple this with the tendency of some children to tear the wrapping off presents so manically that you wonder if they've got secret a habit of snorting crack out of shiny boxes, and there's a palpable sense of franticness and speed around the festive season. Everyone has a lot to do, and it seemingly against the clock.

When it comes to science, the man who personifies this is Robert Liston, fastest knife in the West End (I didn't make that up, that's an actual nickname)
The link will give you all you need to know about Liston, but just in case you prefer to finish this first, Liston was a surgeon. Everyone respects a surgeon, right? The ability to actually delve inside a living human being, repair a living, biological system that's not working to a potentially fatal extent, and put everything back together so the patient lives through the whole thing; what more noble, honourable profession is there?

Liston was nothing like that.

It's important to remember, for all that some people might not like it now (I'm looking at you , homeopaths!), medicine used to be a hell of  a lot worse in the 1800s, and surgery in particular. The 3 main developments that made surgery something people survived with some regularity were anaesthetics, analgesics and antiseptics, meaning people stopped dying due to the horrific pain during surgery, the horrific pain after surgery, or infections caused by the surgery (this would have been before germs were even properly discovered and recognised as something to avoid, so hospitals were rarely cleaned; why would they be?) Blood loss is also a problem, but they've got that essentially under control too these days.

Liston operated (in every sense of the word) before any of these things were taken into account during surgery. The only thing that mattered was speed. Medical knowledge wasn't as advanced as it is now, so it was a simple two-step system; lop it off, quick as you can. Job done.

Liston was the best at this. He brought the energy and enthusiasm of a hyperactive child opening presents on Christmas day to the operating theatre. And you know how sometimes those kids will get so carried away they actually end up damaging the present as well, sometimes irreparably? Liston did that too.

Which is a nice way of saying he killed a lot of people with his enthusiasm. And you may be thinking 'surely with no anaesthetics or hygiene, pretty much everyone undergoing surgery died back then?' And you'd be right, but Liston went the extra mile and is one of the only surgeons to have killed bystanders.

This is a guy who accidentally cut off a man's testicles during one surgery (I'm assuming that wasn't what the operation was actually for), but his most famous case was when he amputated a leg in 2 and half minutes and killed 3 people. In these days of the 1800's, surgery was a popular form of entertainment, hence the term operating 'theatre'. People would gather round and just watch. It's like Saw 3D, only with no popcorn, so it probably smelled slightly better.

During this one amputation, Liston cut off the patients leg, but the patient died from gangrene anyway. He also cut off the fingers of an assistant who was restraining him. The assistant also died from gangrene. At the end of the amputation, he somehow got carried away and slashed through a spectators coat, and they promptly died of shock from the fright. When people say 'natural medicine', this is the sort of thing they never think of.

Imagine a child so carried away when opening a present they break 3 of their siblings gifts, take someone's eye out, stamp on the dog and set fire to the tree. Now give that child a saw and you've essentially got Robert Liston.

Just to put the fast pace of the Christmas period into some sort of perspective.

Happy Friday!

Twitter: @garwboy

DECEMBER 8th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 8th: Ice

Another persistent theme of the festive season is one of snow and other cold-weather phenomenon (if you’re in the Northern hemisphere, that is; conditions are different in the southern hemisphere given the seasonal variations, but I’m not sure to what extent westernised cultural norms overrule logic in this instance)

Every recognisable festive image or icon, be it a space-time defying over-generous bearded fat man, and indoor fir tree, a sleepy picturesque village or anything in a liquid-filled globe that you shake, has to be covered in or at least be in close proximity to some snow. And what is snow? It’s just ice with a lack of discipline.

People can be a bit hypocritical about ice and snow at Christmas, though. They celebrate its image, even going so far as to get imitations of it to decorate with, and they’ll espouse on the joys and merits of children playing in it. But when ice and snow actually does show up, it gets nothing but complaints. This is like name dropping a successful friend or family member to impress other people and get things your own way, but if said person then shows up and asks if they can say with you for a few days, all you do is whinge about the inconvenience, like how you have to pay more for the heating bill and they use up all your salt.

We all like to have a moan about the snow and ice if and when we are confronted with it, that’s almost part of the tradition (of a UK Christmas at least).  But so is gift giving and generosity, we’re told. And yes, ice is annoying; it bursts the pipes, clogs up the traffic, occasionally causes us to fall over and break something, and forces us to wear thick clothes which are impractical and annoying for tasks requiring fine motor control. However, this list of gripes does seem somewhat petty when you consider what ice provides in return; namely, the existence of life on Earth.

Granted, there are probably some sulphur breathing worms on undersea volcanic vents which would dispute this fact, if they were capable of complex cognitive processes and cross-species interaction, which is doubtful. But even they might be indebted to the icy goodness. Life as we know it on Earth wouldn’t be possible without ice doing what it does, and I’m not just referring to the Frozen Planet life, as cool as it may be (pardon the pun).

As you may probably know, ice doesn’t behave like most other solid substances. For one thing, it’s less dense than the liquid form of the substance, water. Ice floats, which is nice. This means it forms a sort of protective, insulating layer on bodies of water in very cold conditions, allowing liquid water to persist beneath, rather than ice sinking and eventually causing the whole mass of water to freeze solid.

As you probably know, liquid water is integral for life to exist, providing an essential medium for pretty much all biological processes to occur in, being known as a universal solvent.

Unlike all the other chalcogens, H2O is a liquid at room temperature. Oxygen, being a bit of a greedy molecule, tends to hog all the electrons in this molecular state, giving it a net negative charge, leaving the poor hydrogen atoms (or ‘protons’ if you prefer) all exposed and naked in their positivity. This means water molecules are ‘polar’, negative on one end, positive on the other, like a magnet, sort of (actually, how do they work?). Essentially this means water molecules are drawn to each other under typical environmental conditions, rendering it a liquid.

But when it’s cold enough, the hydrogen bonds that are so rapidly formed and broken in liquid water become more ‘fixed’, as there’s less energy to break them, feeble as they are. But hydrogen bonds are actually longer than the polar bonds in liquid water, meaning the molecules are further apart, meaning it’s less dense than the liquid.

It’s like getting a box of Lego for Christmas. When it’s in a box, it’s closely packed but all ‘loose’, you can shake it about. When it’s assembled into something, it’s a lot more rigid but also takes up a lot more space. And it’s essentially stable, but takes a certain amount of energy before it reverts to its ‘fluid’ state. With ice, it’s a significant introduction of heat energy, with Lego it’s more of a misplaced foot and a lot of swearing. Either way, the result is the same; rigid but fragile bonds are broken.

It’s a lot more complicated of course, but essentially it goes like this: Ice floats √† Life exists.

Also, its inclusion makes everything look ‘Christmassy’, and enhances the quality of various beverages, alcoholic or otherwise. It’s up to you which is more important, but surely that’s enough to overlook a few burst pipes or traffic jams during the festive season?

Twitter: @garwboy

DECEMBER 7th [Science Comedy Advent Calendar]

December 7th: Patient HM

For many people, the Christmas period is used as a sort of 'anchor' for memory. It is generally accepted, regardless of the evidence to support this, that Christmas is a happy time, a period of childhood in particular where there is a strong emotional component, where a lot of good things are condensed into one short period and so tend to stick in the memory.

In a way, the Christmas period gives us the opposite of Post Trauamtic Stress Disorder, PTSD. PTSD is a serious issue for many people, and one of the hallmarks of it is a tendency to mentally 'relive' the memory of the incident that led to the trauma. This may seem illogical. Why would we want to keep repeating things we find unpleasant? After a bout of food poisoning, we don't go straight back to the kebab shop we stumbled into at 2.30 am and order another discount 'box of meat', just to repeat the colourful experience. But with PTSD, people do apparently constantly relive the cause of their distress, like a diabetic injecting syrup into their veins for 'fun'.

It's a product of the way our memory systems work. The traumatic experience kicks our autonomic nervous system into high gear, with our fight-or-flight coordinating sympathetic nervous system flooding our bodies with adrenaline and the like. and one of the consequences of this is that it amplifies the memory processing aspects of the limbic system, which is also heavily involved in emotion processing. It makes sense, in an evolutionary context. If you find yourself in a dangerous position, facing a considerable threat, it would be best to remember it as vividly as possible, so that you rapidly learn to avoid it in future. Humankind may not have survived if our memories of sabre-tooth tiger encounters were recalled as just 'brown snarling thing, big teeth, or possibly tusks?'. As such, our brains are wired for intense recall of emotionally intense experiences. These ones stand out from our daily memories like a big shiny star on a Christmas tree, which is just a green mass with shiny bits on it.

Admittedly, this is not how memory is described in many textbooks, but then academic literature has never really targeted the festive market. It's a niche sadly overlooked, one that this blog is hoping to corner.

But if PTSD can cause us to relive unpleasant experiences, perhaps Christmas can have the same effect in the opposite way? For a child, it's an intense period of pleasure, gratification, acquisition and all things fun and magical, perhaps the flood of positive emotions cause the memories formed at this time to be more salient? We always tend to look back at childhood Christmases with a rosy glow. Unless they were shit.

But or most people, childhood Christmases are period that they wish would never end. But look at that realistically for a second. What kind of life would that be? Never moving on, never progressing, it's just always 'now'. Sounds horrible, really.

One person who knew exactly what this was like (or, more realistically, could have known but was unable to do so) was patient H.M. Although it sounds a bit like the name given to someone undergoing some sort of super-soldier research project, the trusth was far more mundane and far more useful to science.

Patient HM suffered from crippling temporal lobe epilepsy. In order to treat this, surgeons basically removed his temporal lobes. Presumably they'd mainly treated people suffering appendicitis before this point.

Although it cures his epilepsy, patient HM didn't know this. He didn't know much about anything after the surgery, as he lost the ability to form new memories. He still had his short term memory, but that has a capacity of about 30 seconds, which isn't much use really. He was like the guy from Memento, but without a burning desire for revenge to motivate him to do stuff.

For the remainder of his life, HM's most recent long term memory was preparing for the surgery. Thanks to his condition, we've learned a great deal about the human memory system, as we're not really allowed to cut out bits of people's brains in order to see what happens, even if they're not bothered about it.

Patient HM contributed a great deal to the study of the human mind, despite the fact that he knew nothing about this. And Christmas is all about generosity, isn't it? And what could be more generous giving a great deal without even the minimal conscious awareness of it? Although that latter also describes victims of theft, so maybe it's not an ideal comparison.

Patient HM passed away almost 3 years ago exactly, with almost 6 decades of his life that he had no memory or awareness of, all of it acknowledged briefly but then discarded like the umpteenth pair of hideous socks given to you for Christmas by a doddery relative.

Patient HM; gone, but not forgotten.

…actually, given the context, that last bit is quite insensitive. Apologies.

Twitter: @garwboy

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