Archive: Jan 2013

Poor old Pluto

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Two things happened in 1930 (well, ok, more than two things to be precise): Disney gave Mickey Mouse a big floppy, friendly puppy-friend; and a young astronomer, Clyde W. Tombaugh, 22 years old, and working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff Arizona, assigned to a meticulous task, after much arduous work, identified a new planet. Neither had a name at first. A few months after Tombaugh discovered it, an 11 year old British school girl (Venetia Burney), with an interest in classical mythology, suggested the name Pluto for it because the Roman god Pluto could disappear at will, and was thus as elusive as his namesake planet which had proved so hard to find; I’m not sure when and how Mickey’s dog acquired its name. It was all so simple then, any large body orbiting the Sun was a planet, and there were 8 of them until Pluto came along. New discoveries since however, seem to have rewritten the rules …

A new spin on computing

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Spin, as anyone who has ever heard Alistair Campbell speak, is a tricky thing to figure out. Quantum spin – a property many subatomic particles have – is equally confounding, but, if understood, could lead to a powerful new breed of computer technology called spintronics. Despite its name, quantum spin does not actually refer to a rotating ball such as the Earth. “The electron is not physically spinning around but it has a magnetic north pole and a magnetic south pole,” says Professor Philippe Jacquod, a researcher in spintronics at the University of Arizona. “Its spin depends on which pole is pointing up. It can point in either of two directions which we usually term up and down.” This property has aroused the attentions of computer engineers who recognise the similarity with traditional electronics, which use either the presence or absence of an electrical charge to represent binary data. Magnetic spin, with its similarly dual character could, if harnessed, allow …

Myths, Misconceptions and Misunderstandings

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In late 2012, applied mathematician Samuel Arbesman released an intriguing little book called ‘The Half-Life of Facts’ in which he seeks to explain why a lot of the information that we all thought we knew is continually being disproven. It’s an interesting read, but the central premise should really come as no surprise. After all, science is based upon a continued quest for the refinement of knowledge, in which no theory, no matter how precious, is allowed to become immune to refutation. Still, there remains a stalwart group of pseudo scientific ‘facts’ that possess the peculiar ability to survive intact, even in the face of new contradictory evidence. So in the spirit of public service, and with the hope of helping to cleanup mankind’s collective meme pool, here’s a list of some of science’s most common misconceptions.   5) Bulls are enraged by the colour red This myth is so prevalent it’s even become the basis for a common British …

Why Beethoven could not have been a reptile (or why you can’t swallow a cantaloupe for breakfast)

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This is the story of three little bones.They’re called the ossicles (literally little bones in Latin), and they’re in your ear. Unless, that is, you happen to be a reptile reading this, in which case you’ll only have one in each ear with the other two (or rather four) distributed symmetrically in your jaw. It’s a curious bit of evolutionary history, and nicely illustrates an aspect of evolution which called exaptation, the re-purposing of an existing structure. The presence of the ossicles in the reptilian jaw is one of the factors which allows some reptiles (particularly snakes) to swallow things significantly bigger than their own heads (think of a python swallowing a deer, and you’ll get the idea).In mammals on the other hand, these ossicles migrated the short distance from the tip where the jaw meets the skull into the zone known as the middle ear, where they joined the single bone of the reptilian ear which connects the ear-drum …

Tomorrow’s World

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Chances are, if you’re reading this, then you’re a bit of a Science Fiction geek. But even if you do happen to be one of those weird people who remain unfazed by the latest Star Trek trailer, you’re probably still familiar with some of Sci-Fi’s most famous ‘inventions’. From Captain Kirk’s wireless communicator to Marty Mcfly’s pink hoverboard, Sci-Fi has long been predicting the future, with widely varying degrees of success. Still, every once in a while an author comes along with an idea that is so groundbreaking and so accurate that it simply beggars belief. In honour of these scientific savants, we’ve trawled through the history books to bring you Science Fiction’s top five technological predictions.   5) Invention: In Vitro Fertilization, Author: Aldous Huxley In July 1978, Louise Brown achieved instant fame when she became the first baby to be born using in vitro fertilization. As well as bringing joy to her family and friends, her arrival also …

Book Review: Into That Forest

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Into That Forest Author: Louis Nowra Published: 7 January 2013 Publisher: Egmont Books Summary: Wonderfully told and deeply moving ‒ an instant classic. It’s strange to think that, under the right conditions, humans can revert back to the wild state our ancestors worked so hard to detach civilised society from. After all, we still have the tools; keen eyesight and hearing, a decent sense of smell and a predators’ ability to problem solve, we just fail to utilise them, or simply employ them in different ways. And regressing to the wild-side is exactly what happens in Into That Forest; stranded in the Tasmanian wilderness, two young girls, Hannah and Becky, are adopted by a pair of Tasmanian tigers and spend the subsequent four years learning to hunt, read the outback and generally live as wild animals. As the girls integrate themselves with their new parents, they lose the use of English, instead opting to employ the grunts, snarls and body language of …

When do You stop being You?

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Canadian scientists have created a functioning virtual brain able to do many complex tasks humans take for granted – from remembering lists to recognising number. It can even do some basic components of IQ tests. The Semantic Pointer Architecture Unified Network – or SPAUN for short – was created by Chris Eliasmith and his team at the University of Waterloo. With its 2.5 million simulated neurons SPAUN is way ahead of the curve in terms of ability.  It can see with a virtual “eye” and has a virtual “arm” that it uses to draw.  This is all achieved by simulating what tasks the brain can carry out, rather than simulating the exact functioning of the brain. Other projects, such as The Blue Brain Project (TBBP), are taking a slightly more reductionist approach by attempting to simulate every single neuron in action. In 2005, TBBP had created its first simulated nerve cell. By 2008, it was running an artificial neocortical column consisting of 10,000 …

Heatwave turns Australia purple

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Over the past week many parts of Australia have been influenced by unseasonably high temperatures. Although it is the peak of summer, temperatures have continued to soar above average. So high in fact that the Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM)  has had to add extra colours to their temperature scale in their colour map. These high temperatures have been caused by a ridge of high pressure developing across the country bringing dry and settled conditions. In addition to this, the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) pattern is beginning to turn more towards La Nina bringing warmer sea temperatures to the area. ENSO is a climatic pattern that occurs in the tropical Pacific Ocean and alters the temperatures of the water. La Nina is known as the cool phase as the cool water in the eastern Pacific intensifies and the trade winds intensify  but these means that warmer seas are more likely around eastern Australia.  Tuesday (Monday night in the UK) has been the hottest …

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