Lost in cat science

NEWS FLASH!

I’m breaking out of this here cave, this “astro” cave. No longer to be restricted to the limited world of the internet, I’m heading out on the electromagnetic spectrum, in a way that can only be described as talking on the radio.

Yes, from 8.30 am this Thursday 27 January I’ll be joining the team on Lost in Science, a weekly program of news, discussion and sciencey explanations on 3CR Community Radio 855 AM. But, if you can’t listen to AM radio at 8.30 on Thursday mornings you get a second chance when it’s repeated at 6 pm on Tuesday nights.

And if you miss that, you get a third chance when it’s podcast on the 3CR website. So take up any of these options and listen to me talking about physics and other not-quite-physics topics.

And if you’re reading this because you heard me mention this blog on the show: Hello! You should probably get yourself over to Lost in Science’s new blog, lostinscience.wordpress.com, to read about the following topic:


Bonus gag: Turning over and over like that, that’s what I like to call a “loll cat”.

Stop that pigeon

This morning, walking to work, I saw a pigeon wandering in and out the door of the local Bakers Delight. It was affecting nonchalance, but the young bloke behind the counter was watching it with an untrusting glare.

Pigeons: the natural predators of bread.

Or at least the crumbs.

Science chic

So, there’s this cycle chic movement, which seems to be about hipsters taking ownership of the roads away from M.A.M.I.L.s (middle-aged men in lycra – I got that from someone at work). Apart from that dubious goal, one of its aims is apparently to make cycling more appealing by getting cool people to ride bikes, rather than just saying that bike riders are cool.

This reminded me of the constant effort that’s made to get The Kids interested in science by convincing them that scientists are cool. Which for some reason never seems to work.

Instead, I’m proposing that we take a cue from cycle chic and enlist as science communicators people who are already cool. And I’m talking really cool. Even cooler than Brian from D:Ream.

Our starting point? Björk.

As she so rightly says, the scientifical truth is much better – you shouldn’t let poets lie to you.

Another year, another doomsday

It’s January, so it must be time to check who’s predicted the world is going to end this year. Let’s see… Ah yes, it’s Mr Harold Camping, who assures that the Rapture will take place on 11 May 2011.

He ought to know, as he’s an old hand at this game, having previously predicted it would happen on 6 September 1994. Admittedly, his book was called 1994?, so it was really more of a tentative prediction. But still, points for experience.

1994? by Harold Camping

The answer is no

Despite the fact that their main source material explicitly states “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (see The Bible), nothing stops these would-be KenKen enthusiasts from crunching any numbers they can find to get the result they want. Yes, I’m looking at you, Sir Isaac Newton.

But, you know, maybe they’re onto something. Back in 1992, a Korean group called Mission for the Coming Days predicted the Rapture on 28 October of that year. One of the students in my Honours class was working at a hotel at the time, and she reported that a bunch of these devotees had booked a room and then proceeded to trash it, assuming they wouldn’t need to pick up the bill in the morning. That’s kind of cool.

Sure, the next day’s going to suck, but imagine the sort of party you’d have if you truly believed the world was going to end tomorrow. Even if you wanted to avoid burning all your heavenly bridges, you could still have a pretty good time. And these guys who predict apocalypse after apocalypse must be constantly planning the next shindig. I can see the appeal, and I also wonder if there are people who are hooked on the whole doomsday thing for the social life alone.

Just don’t pick the castration cult, that’s all I have to add.

Saint Wikolas

  1. White hair.
  2. Gives stuff away for free all over the world.
  3. Tries not to be in Scandinavia in December.

Yes, Julian Assange is Santa Claus.

That is all.

Contents may differ from package

Today’s post has two shameless, self-serving objectives. The first is to raise awareness of Melbourne Cupcake Day, an alternative first-Tuesday-in-November event for those who prefer sweet treats over losing money and throwing up. It deserves to be a phenomenon – the bake-off that stops a nation (better slogans are welcome).

Secondly, I want to put my own cupcake day entry on the internet:

Space invader cupcakes

I admit they’re not the most beautiful things in the world, but those are red velvet cupcakes topped with space invaders made of pop rocks.

It’s my belief that that is exactly the sort of thing the internet loves, so I’m going to put it there and see how long it takes for the first search engine hit to land. Take it away, Alta Vista!

And while we’re on a slightly retro topic, there’s something I’ve always wanted to say about Space Invaders, the game. It was hugely popular in its time, so much so that for me and my peers it became the generic name for all video games (“let’s go play the spacies!”).

And yet, I was always a bit disappointed that the aliens in the game didn’t look like the creepy monsters on the side of the machine:

Space invader machine

Someone please make a version with them in it. That would be so cool.

Ain’t no drought in this here ocean

Ah, Herald Sun. How we rely on your scientific reporting, particularly when it comes to creative interpretation of climate change.

A couple of months ago we had an article about how the first 6 months of 2010 were, globally, the warmest ever recorded. This was ably refuted by the accompanying photo of a lifeguard shivering next to a Melbourne pool in winter. Unfortunately I can’t find a link to the article, but it’s a classic theme that winter disproves global warming.

Last Friday, that was matched by a story about water restrictions remaining while storage levels rise. All quite reasonable, including a climate expert who describes the ongoing trend towards drier conditions. But most important was the picture they chose to illustrate the article:

People on a jet ski at St Kilda beach

Summer Disbray and Lara Tori enjoy the nice weather at St Kilda beach.
Picture: Stephen Harman Source: Herald Sun

Yes, there’s plenty of water there. At the beach.

Next week: kids eating Frosty Fruits show that the ice caps aren’t really melting.

5 reasons why Stieg Larsson movies are better than the books

Last night I saw The Girl Who Played with Fire (or Flickan som lekte med elden, if you prefer) and was pleasantly surprised to discover that the film was better than the book.

Accepted wisdom says that it’s usually the other way around; the chief exception being movie tie-ins (for a sterling example, see the paperback adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula: A Francis Ford Coppola film, a book-of-the-movie-of-the-book, or a thing that shouldn’t exist). But that just proves the rule of whichever came first is better.

Not in this case. Apart from it taking up much less of my life than the 600-odd page novel, I enjoyed the movie much more. Here are five legitimate reasons why you should too:

  1. In a movie, you’re generally not inside the characters’ heads, subjected to every little thought they have. In this case, that means you don’t have to hear about all their mental peccadilloes, like Blomkvist’s frustration that no one understands his multiple simultaneous love affairs, or Ronald Niedermann’s unfortunate fear of the dark, or Lisbeth Salander solving Fermat’s Last Theorem the proper way (oh yeah, spoiler alert).
  2. You also don’t have to worry about all the dead-end sub-plots that don’t fit into a 2 hour movie – like the inept police investigation, which follows every red herring in an effort to prove Stieg Larsson’s point that men who hate women are bad.
  3. By leaving out those sub-plots, you also don’t have to remember all kinds of near-identical Swedish names (don’t get me wrong, they’re lovely names – sorry, löveljë nämenens).
  4. Similarly, all the locations actually look like interesting places rather than just names from an Ikea catalogue, and all the people have real, distinct identities, instead of the generic Scandinavian faces of my imagination (okay, maybe that’s my lack of effort).
  5. You learn that Paolo Roberto is a real person.

Schrödinger’s parliament – update

Previously, we discussed the indeterminate result of Australia’s federal election and how that left us in a very rare state of macroscopic quantum superposition. Well, I discussed it, and if you did too then you’re probably wondering how far the analogy can be pushed in light of this week’s Oakeshott-Windsor led resolution.

The answer is: just a bit further. Instead of a normal election result, where the quantum system collapses into a classical state either one way or the other, we have a more fragile equilibrium that still has a chance of fluctuating, even if only on individual pieces of legislation. This close-as-you-can-get-to-classical-while-still-being-a-bit-fuzzy-around-the-edges situation is, I declare, a coherent state.

To save me having to go into the details, please read the linked Wikipedia article if you want to find out more. I usually find Wikipedia to be quite good on matters of quantum physics, and this article is no exception. One of its gems is to point out that a coherent state is not the same thing as a Fock state, which is a state with a definite quantum number of particles.

But then again, some would say we really are in a totally focked state.

(Thank you, thank you. It took two blog posts and two weeks of hung parliament to build up the gag, but I think you’ll agree the punchline was worth it.)

Bad scientist

Lex Luthor is clearly a bad scientist. If for no other reason, then the simple mathematical formula of ‘bad guy + mad scientist’. (What? That’s how maths works.)

But he does go to some good sources for his science news. In Action Comics #890, where Action Comics is famously the title that Superman first appeared in, but which Lex Luthor has recently taken over in what could be considered a metatextual response to his failure to conquer either Superman or the Earth, we have the following scene:

Splash page from Action Comics 890

Here, Luthor has plugged himself into his Lexcorp Intelligent Listening Engine, a phenomenally over-engineered virtual reality system that allows him to search for the mention of certain key words on the internet (most of us would just use Google, but then we’re not mad geniuses). He’s seeking news on certain black lantern rings, which appeared in DC Comics’ Blackest Night storyline (don’t bother asking, just read Wikipedia). And yes, he’s wearing bike shorts.

But the important bit is in the lower left of the page, where we see the following caption:

- some new influence on the subatomic world - @benjamingoldacre

That would Dr Benjamin Goldacre, writer of the Guardian column, blog and book, all called Bad Science and all well worth reading. And although his actual Twitter username is @bengoldacre, and his interests are typically more around medical research than subatomic physics, it’s a nice tribute. Where better to go for your sciencey internet needs?

And after all, comic book science is some of the best bad science you’ll find.

Bonus feature: If you want to know what happens in the rest of the comic, check out the live reading from CONvergence 2010. I had no idea they did that sort of thing, but I found it in an internet search. Without, I might add, the aid of any fully-immersive 3D display, and without having to strip down to my underwear. Take that, Lex Luthor.

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