Science

The Simple Beauty of Magnetic Fields.

Magnetic fields permeate our entire existence. The Earth’s molten iron core generates a gigantic magnetic field that shields us from the harsh solar winds that our Sun blows forth and, when it momentarily fails, generates the beautiful aurora seen at the more extreme latitudes. They’re also behind some of the greatest technological advances in modern times from things like the humble hard drive that’s in the vast majority of computer systems to the first television screens that were driven by cathode ray tubes.Visualizing a magnetic field is somewhat difficult though as whilst may things react to them they don’t really show you their beautiful field lines. Ferrofluids however are one material that showcases them quite distinctly and they’re quite beautiful:

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You can actually purchase both of the sculptures in the video from here and whilst they would make an awesome little art piece on their own I think they’d also be a great little educational tool. Magnets and iron fillings get you part of the way but ferrofluids like this give you a much better view of how the fields interact with each. Most importantly they show them in 3D space, something that’s incredibly hard to grasp when you demonstrate magnetic fields the old fashioned way.

Now if only someone would chuck one inside an MRI machine, I’m sure that’d make for quite a display.

Homeopathic Pills With Not Much In Them

NHMRC Rules Homeopathy “Useless For Human Health”.

You might not think it from reading this blog but I’ve actually been an advocate for some types of complementary medicine in the past. Predominantly this has been related to osteopathy which helped me tremendously with some back issues I had, especially when used in conjunction with more traditional physiotherapy. However that’s where my belief in them ends as whilst many practitioners would have you believe that their treatments can be effective for things other than what they’re directly influencing the science just isn’t there to support it. Indeed even the practitioners I use don’t believe that which is the reason I keep going back to them.

Homeopathic Pills With Not Much In ThemOne of my favourite dead horses to beat in this area is homeopathy, the practice of diluting something that causes the symptoms you’re experiencing in water to the point where none of that substance could remain. It’s practitioners then theorize that the water retains some “memory” of it which you body then recognises and somehow manifests a cure for ailments. Homeopathy has been scientifically proven to be no more effective than a placebo in numerous clinical trials yet it’s still a booming industry seeing on the order of $10 million worth of sales in Australia every year. You’d think that without any solid grounds for efficacy it wouldn’t be long for this world but it’s practitioners are an incredibly stubborn bunch.

Thankfully though the government commissioned the National Health and Medical Research Council to do a report on the efficacy of homeopathy for some 68 different clinical conditions and the results are, unsurprisingly, for the negative. The research was commissioned as part of a larger body of work concerning the government’s 30% rebate on complementary therapies which currently includes things like homeopathy. It’s quite possible that this will lead to the exclusion of such therapies from the rebate scheme, something which I wholly support. This won’t stop them from being sold though, they just won’t be subsidised as a complementary form of medicine.

On the flip side though I’m of the mind that people are more than welcome to put whatever they want in their bodies so long as they don’t harm anyone else. This research makes it clear that homeopathy can not treat clinical conditions and so anyone who advocates it as such is, in my mind, actively doing harm to that person. If you’re taking a homeopathic remedy for “general health reasons” and it seems to be working for you great, but consider that your experience is more than likely due to the nature of you thinking it was going to work rather than some magical properties of water that defies all scientific evidence to the contrary. In that case for it to work for someone else they too have to believe that and if they do they’ll likely find it without your help.

 

 

Seeing The Triple Point of a Substance.

At a high level I understand the concept of the triple point of a substance, the combination of temperature and pressure that can result in a substance existing in all 3 states, but practically I always had trouble understanding it. I think this was because I’d take it to it’s logical conclusion, I.E. that essentially the substance would exist in all 3 states simultaneously something which seems impossible. Of course in practical terms this never occurs with whatever substance existing in one of those 3 states, with the added ability to quickly change to another one. Explaining the concept is one thing though, seeing it in motion makes everything far more clear:

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The liquid in the video is called cyclohexane which has four distinct solid phases. I don’t think we’re seeing a transition between any of those specifically though, the temperatures required to meet them are below freezing and that appears to be room temperature, but this video does show how the triple point functions. Slight variations in pressure and temperature cause the substance to rapidly change from solid to a liquid and even straight to boiling (which you assume is producing gas). You probably wouldn’t want to reproduce this experiment as a demonstration to kids, cyclohexane is a derivative of benzene and likely carries the same nasty health effects, but you can do similar things as long as you have a vacuum pump.

Pouring water into glass

No, Fluoride Isn’t Making You Stupid.

There’s an argument to be made that we should be in total control of everything that goes into our bodies and I support that idea to an extent. However when your decision can adversely impact the lives of others that’s when I support intervention which is why I wholly support compulsory vaccination. This also extends to my support of water fluoridation as, again, whilst there’s numerous arguments that can be made against it the fact that it will benefit so many at almost no risk to others means it’s a net positive for us as a whole. Of course this hasn’t stopped a vocal minority from claiming all sorts of horrific things happening due to water fluoridation the worst of which being that it’ll make you stupid.

Pouring water into glass

 

A single article on Huffington Post usually wouldn’t warrant my attention, it’s not exactly known as the bastion of sound scientific reporting, but it came across my path not long after a similar post from a Facebook page called The Mind Unleashed claiming that fluoride in water lowered IQ significantly. Because I couldn’t help myself I spent a good couple hours tracking down the research and other articles relating to it. Just like most reporting on scientific discoveries this one is completely overblown and, when you dig into the details, doesn’t support the conclusions that many would draw from it.

I’d love to say that I was surprised by this but this isn’t my first rodeo with bullshit.

A review of water fluoridation studies done researchers at Harvard University concluded that whilst water fluoridation may affect IQ scores the levels that were detected in the study were at least 10 times higher than what’s found in artificially fluoridated water. Additionally the studies failed to control for other variables which are known to affect brain development and IQ scores like the fact that many of the studies were conducted in highly polluted areas in China. Funnily enough the control group in one of the studies were consuming water with similar levels of fluoridation to that of developed countries which shows pretty clearly that the current dosage levels work without the noted side effects.

On the flip side there’s a lot of research that shows water fluoridation reduces cavities in children and adults by a significant percentage, even in those who already have access to it through other means (like toothpaste or as an additive in other food staples). Indeed if you’ll allow me to get hand wavy for a bit there’s evidence to suggest that the average IQ has been trending upwards for the last hundred years or so called the Flynn effect. If fluoridation had a significant impact on IQ scores then we should’ve seen a harsh dip around 1960  when in fact we see the exact opposite. Now correlation does not equal causation but it’s a pretty good indicator that the negative isn’t true.

I could go on but the fact is that water fluoridation works incredibly well as a public health policy, greatly helping those who are at risk at developing tooth cavities and even those who’d consider themselves not needing it. Therefore removing it would cause harm to those who can least afford it to happen to them and that’s why bad science reporting like this needs to be exposed for what it is. I know I’m probably preaching to the choir here but I know how hard it can be to debate people who spout nonsense as fact and hope that you can use this as a reference rather than having to disappear down the research hole that I did.

The Strange Auditory World of Cochlear Implants.

It’s fascinating to think about how unique our perception of the world is. We like to think that everyone experiences the world in the same way we do but we all have subtle differences that influences the way we perceive the world. I for instance have partial red-green colorblindness which affects my ability to distinguish between darker shades of certain colours. The difference for me is subtle but for others who suffer from more pronounced colorblindness the different can be extremely drastic, completely changing how they view the world.

Similarly for those who are deaf or hearing impaired the world would seem like a very different place to them, bereft of all the noises and sounds we think are commonplace. For some there are treatment options available, like cochlear implants, and for the longest time I thought that the sounds that users of those devices were the same as the ones you and I can hear. As it turns out their auditory world could not be more different and the simulation below shows just how different it is:

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I had read a little while ago that music sounded completely alien to those who had received cochlear implants but actually hearing what it might sound like was actually quite shocking. The improvements that came through with the extra channels were impressive but I had a hard time recognizing the elements of the music, even after I heard the original clip. I understand that the main function of cochlear implants isn’t music (they are primarily aimed at speech) but the differences were so stark that it was, to be honest, quite shocking.

Thankfully it does seem like there are vast improvements being made in this area, to the point where users claim that music is enjoyable for them. Hopefully with time we’ll be able to improve even further so one day the auditory world of those with cochlear implants won’t be much different from ours.

The Amazing Speed of Cracks in Glass.

We’ve all been there at one stage in our lives, one minute we’re standing next to a perfectly fine piece of transparent silica (commonly referred to as glass) and the next we’re faced with a crack which seemingly came out of no where. Whilst we’re often able to see the events leading up to the eventuality the actual mechanism of a crack appearing appears to be instantaneous. Every driver who’s been on a gravel road and had the unfortunate happen can attest to this and whilst it might be of little comfort the process of that line appearing is actually quite intriguing. However you’re not going to be able to see it without anything but highly specialized equipment, something that can recording millions of frames per second.

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That video is shot at a staggering 10 million fps which is why the small ball appears to be hanging motionless in mid air for an eternity before the cracks in the glass appear. By comparison the cracks themselves appear to snake out from the point of impact with blazing speed, reaching the outside of the pane in an incredibly short span of time. This is why cracks in glass appear to come out of no where as the speed at which they move is so fast that it’s imperceptible to the human eye, moving at several thousand kilometers per hour. This is just for plain glass plates as well and those cracks can propagate even faster if you mold the glass in a special way.

A Prince Rupert’s Drop is an amazing example of this. They’re a curious thing to behold, resembling a tadpole, and are created by dropping molten glass into a bucket of water. The bulbous end is surprisingly durable, able to withstand punishment that’d shatter any other type of glass (like hitting it with a hammer) but if the wispy tail sustains even the slightest dent the entire structure will rupture violently. So much energy is released in the reaction that the fracture actually propagates at 1.9km/s which you can witness in gorgeous slow motion here.

I’ve often though of getting a couple to keep around the house as a conversation piece but I’d fear they wouldn’t last the weekend with me wanting to see them explode.

Cassini Saturn Hexagon

Saturn’s Hexagon and a Table Covered in Clay.

One of the strangest phenomena I’ve ever read about in our solar system (and there are many, like Venus spinning in the opposite direction to everyone else, but that’s a story for another day) none are more perplexing than the hexagon atop of Saturn. It’s strange because shapes like that don’t typically appear in nature, especially at scales of that magnitude. The question of how it came to be, and more importantly why it keeps sticking around, was an interesting one and whilst there’s a sound scientific explanation for it a video shared to me by a friend showcases how the effect can come about.

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You can see the effect most strongly at around 2:30 where he starts moving from the center of the spinning disk back towards the outer edge and, lo and behold, suddenly we have a hexagon shape created by a simple motion on a rotating disk. It’s easy to make the comparison between the spinning disk and the incredible winds that sweep across Saturn’s surface, but what about the artist’s arm motion? We can see it’s a simple periodic, much like a pendulum, but the scale of which these two forces act on would almost preclude any kind of relationship. As it turns out there are in fact some similarities but the mechanisms of action are far more complex.

The current theory is that the hexagon isn’t created by the wind currents per se, as the original spinning a bucket of water experiment would lead you to believe, instead its created by the differing wind speeds that are present throughout Saturn’s atmosphere. These differing wind speeds buffet against each other creating vortexes, eddies and waves. As it turns out Saturn’s north pole has the steepest wind gradient which gives rise to the hexagon. With this in mind the researchers created a system whereby they could spin a cylinder and its base at different speeds creating a gradient similar to that on Saturn and, with a little tweaking, a hexagon appeared.

Now you know all that you should take a look at the latest movie of Saturn’s north pole from Cassini showing the speed gradient in effect. Absolutely incredible, don’t you think?

BICEP2 Twilight

We Live in an Inflationary Universe.

The quest to understand our origins is an innate part of our psyche as humans. You can see evidence of this stretching as far back as we kept records as our ancestors grappled with the idea of where they originated from, whether it was a (relatively) simple question of lineage or the larger question of where we, and all that we know of, came from. Modern science has made incredible leaps in this area, expanding our understanding to show that we live in a universe that is old beyond any of our wildest guesses and is home to more wonders than any could have dreamed of. Still the ultimate question, of where everything began, still puzzles us although as of today we’ve begun to lay down the first few pieces in this puzzle and they’re magnificent.

BICEP2 TwilightYou’re likely familiar with the concept of the Big Bang, the theorized event that gave birth to our universe and marked the beginning of time. However the specifics of what happened during that time are the subject of intense debate among the scientific community and there are many theories that model what may have happened. One of the most popular theories is that during the Big Bang the universe underwent a period of massive inflation in the tiny fractions of a second after it began, expanding faster than the speed of light. There was a lot of indirect evidence to support this (like the fact that our universe is still expanding) but direct proof of this occurring had been elusive.

That was until the telescope picture above, called BICEP-2, caught a picture of something that could only exist if that theory was correct.

Our universe still has remnants of the Big Bang hanging around in something called the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). It’s a kind of radiation that’s pretty much uniform not matter which direction you look into, something which is pretty peculiar when you consider just how wide and varied everything else we can observe is. BICEP-2 was searching for something in particular though, a pattern in this radiation that could only have happened should the early universe undergone a period of rapid inflation. The technical term for this is primordial B-mode polarization and was widely believed to have a value of below 0.11 based on previous maps of the CMB. BICEP-2 on the other hand has come in at a 5 sigma confidence level (1 in 3.5 million chance of being random, the gold standard for confirmation in this field of physics) as 0.2, excluding many models and theories that were based on that assumption. It opens up a whole new world of physics and is the first direct proof of the inflationary model.

To understand just how huge of an impact this is going to have on the world of physics you just have to see the reaction of Andrei Linde, one of the first to propose such a model, and his wife Renata Kallosh (also a well renowned theoretical physicist) reacting to the news:

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It’s one thing to find proof of something and it’s another thing entirely to show something can not be. This discovery is powerful not because it shows us that a certain model is correct more it has shown us that the widely held belief was in fact wrong and we need to start heading in another direction. Confirmation of this shouldn’t be far off (indeed the team behind the discovery held onto the results for a year to make sure) and with that we’ll enter into a new world scientific debate, one that was so much more informed than before.

 

COSMOS: A Classic Revisited.

Carl Sagan was a great man. A long time advocate for the sciences he inspired a generation of new scientists with his influence, from the simple things like his lectures at Cornell to the wondrous television program called Cosmos. As someone who only fully came to the world of scientific thinking later in life I was completely unaware of his works until some years ago and was surprised at how well Cosmos stood the test of time. Since then however things what were mearly theories have matured into scientific facts and boundless new ideas have been created. Thus it was time for a new generation to be inspired by the wonders of science and none other than Neil deGrasse Tyson has taken up the task of doing so.

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Whilst the first episode is somewhat light on in the science department it serves as a basis from which the rest of the series will build upon. It pays homage to Carl Sagan’s legacy whilst not being bound by it, creating its own identity that’s distinct from that of the original works. I’d highly recommend you follow it as it will not only be amazing watching but it will also serve as the first steps you can take towards getting a deeper understanding of the universe we exist in.

No It Fucking Doesn't

You Keep Using the Word Sceptic, I Do Not Think it Means What You Think it Means.

There was no defining point in my life where I became a sceptic. More it was a gradual realisation that my preferred way of interacting with the world was questioning my observations and those of others, seeking out evidence to support or refute claims as they came my way. Eventually the wider sceptic movement began in earnest and I readily found myself identifying with them, reveling in the discussions that they brought forth. Thus the term sceptic became something of a positive term, one I could use to relate to like minded individuals. However those holding opinions that run contrary to the sceptical mindset have sought to take advantage of the good will the term brings with it.

No It Fucking Doesn't

The first to attempt to usurp the moniker for their own means were the climate change deniers, using the term to say that they were sceptical of the science at hand. Now that might have flown decades ago when our knowledge of the climate wasn’t as mature as it is today but the fact is that being a sceptic about this particular issue puts you against the vast majority of the scientific community. So in order for you to be a sceptic (and not just flat out wrong) you’d have to have some pretty substantial evidence that either runs contrary to the current scientific narrative or you simply believe the majority of the science community has it wrong. If you had the former then the wider scientific community would consider it in due process (as they have innumerable times before) and the latter is a faith argument, once which rapidly falls apart if you believe in anything else with a scientific base (like, I don’t know, computers maybe?).

The most recent judas to bring themselves into the “sceptic” community is the Australian Vaccination Network who, after numerous claims about their horrendously misleading name, have renamed themselves to the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics (sic) Network. The AVSN has long prided themselves on taking a reasonable approach to vaccinations, indeed even right now they have an article on their front page titled “Make an informed vaccination choice” (although it’s bereft of any actual information apart from the number of vaccinations kids will receive), so the title would seem fitting. However they have demonstrated time and time again that they are in fact not the scientific body they claim to be and do nothing to educate parents about vaccines and their effects on children.

I’ve had a go at them multiple times in the past for their absolutely unscientific stances on the effects of vaccines on children and their support of the conscientious objector exemption. Every time I make a post that mentions them I often receive multiple tirades about how wrong I was but without any evidence to back it up. I would then helpfully provide fully peer reviewed studies to substantiate my claims only to receive vitriol in return. Whilst I’m always hesitant to judge a following based on the actions of a few noisy individuals the problem is obviously not just limited to those few and anyone thinking they’re somehow promoting scientific thinking by denying a large body of evidence with nothing to back them up is causing far more harm than any benefit they claim.

So whilst this name change is hilarious it’s also symptomatic of a larger issue of people usurping the goodwill attached to the sceptic term. Far be it from me to be the final authority on what words mean what to everyone but I simply can’t stand people who pretend to ascribe to an ideal and do anything but. The now Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network is a prime example of this, touting themselves as an informative, scientific organisation that only has parents’ interests at heart. They do not and the sooner the organisation ceases to exist, or at least exert a discernable force on anyone’s decisions, the better.