Archive for September, 2011

September 28, 2011

What do scientists do?

by Joshaniel Cooper

As an experimental physicist this is a question I am asked fairly often (mostly by non-scientists but occasionally by my bosses). I have been trying to find a concise way of answering the question, and have so far failed. Thus I now reply with the statistically correct answer which is that most  of my time is spent watching a number on a computer screen either go up or go down. The size of the number and the speed of its changing varies according to the experiment but for the most part that is what scientists do (any other scientists who disagree please state your point below).

I am aware that this is incredibly un-enlightening  but I am happy to have given a truthful answer that is audience invariant. Any improvements would be welcome.

September 27, 2011

Eyebrows: What are They All About?

by Nathaniel Virgo

Humans are the only animal to have these weird little tufts of hair above their eyes.  I find the question of why this is to be a surprisingly interesting one, worthy of a long and rambling post about human evolution.

September 22, 2011

Giganto-Satellite to Crush City

by Nathaniel Virgo

A NASA research satellite is spinning out of control and is due to crash-land today.  The satellite, which weighs 20,000 tonnes and could easily be mistaken for a small moon, is expected to explode in a deadly fireball of fiery death, engulfing an area of at least 500 square kilometers.  Its malfunctioning weapon systems were designed to target cities, and NASA expects it to obliterate one with an expected population of just over two million.  Unfortunately, because of the battle station’s unpredictable trajectory, they won’t know which population centre is doomed until about two hours before it hits, leaving precious little time to evacuate the area.  A NASA spokesperson was unavailable for comment on why a research satellite needs to be so big, how such a gigantic object was launched into Earth’s orbit, or why its trajectory is biased towards built-up areas.  However, they did release an estimate that your personal probability of being one of the millions who perish in this impending disaster is 1 in 3200…

…or at least, that’s what I was able to deduce from a news report on (Australian) telly the other day, which quoted the 1 on 3200 figure and then ran a whole segment on how much more likely you are to be hit by this satellite than to be struck by lightning, win the lottery, etc.

Of course, in reality, the 1 in 3200 figure is the probability of the debris from the falling spacecraft hitting some person, somewhere in the world, i.e. there’s a 3199 in 3200 chance that it will just plop into the ocean or crash in some unpopulated area and not hit anyone at all.  Since there are seven billion people in the world, your chance of being the one person who does get hit is 1 in 22 trillion.  You’re more likely to win the lottery and get struck by lightning than you are to be struck by debris from this particular piece of falling space hardware.  All of which was completely obvious to me the moment the news anchor quoted the figure – with just a tiny bit of thought it should have been obvious to them as well.

September 20, 2011

The Sun is not made of gas

by James Thorniley

Dawkins is expanding his shelf in Waterstones this month with a book aimed at young teenagers. I haven’t read it yet, but what made me giggle for just a second was how Dawkins sums up the chapter on the Sun (see video here, 2:30):

What really is the Sun? Well the Sun is a huge ball of gas…

Except it’s not, it’s a huge ball of plasma. Plasma is not gas. This confusion is of course entirely the fault of that They Might Be Giants song. Fortunately they corrected themselves, so this post is just an excuse to link to this video:

September 14, 2011

Carbon rejuvination not capture

by Joshaniel Cooper

Carbon capture has been widely purported to be an easy solution to one of the many global crises (the carbon dioxide one in this case). It essentially revolves around the principle that CO_2 in the atmosphere is bad so we should take it out of the atmosphere and put it somewhere else (tankers, the sea, secret underground lairs etc.) and for the most part the concept is correct. It is also a little retarded though as any CO_2 caught will eventually escape and add to the issues of a future generation (not to mention all the hassle of catching it in the first place). Fortunately help is at hand!

I recently went to a conference on electrochemistry, the last talk of the conference was by a guy called Andrew Bocarsly and was by far the most interesting talk of the conference (and I enjoy electrochemistry so the rest of them weren’t exactly boring).  His (as it turned out serendipitously discovered) solution to the issue of CO_2 storage was ingeneous- CO_2 has carbon in and fuel has carbon in so just convert the CO_2 into fuel again! The caveat is of course that this must be done whilst expending less energy (or CO_2) than getting rid of it would.

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