Archive: Mar 2013

Why hasn’t spring sprung yet?

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After a weekend of heavy snow across much of the UK, everyone is asking, ‘is there going to be much let up from the cold?’ Well, at the moment it’s unlikely. The UK has been experiencing it’s coldest March since 1969 and is close to becoming the coldest month of the year so far (Philip Eden, 2013), a big comparison to last year when March was the 3rd warmest on record! Across much of Europe temperatures are at least 5 degrees below the seasonal average and across parts of Eastern Europe and western Russia, temperatures are up to 14 degrees below the norm. So what is going on? There are a couple of reasons for this unseasonably cold March we have been experiencing and what is likely to be an unseasonably cold start to April too, but they are all interlinked. The jet stream is in the wrong position. Normally during spring, the jet stream begins to push northwards across the UK so that we are positioned south of …

All you ever wanted to know about Harvestman, but were too afraid to ask

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Harvestman, Daddy Longlegs, Shepherd Spider, Grandfather Greybeard: all colloquial names for members of the Opiliones order. Yes, they have eight legs, but they’re not actually spiders. In fact, according to Chris Buddle, professor of arthropod ecology at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, “Comparing a spider to a harvestmen is like comparing a blue whale to a chimpanzee.”   But how do you tell the difference between a harvestman and a spider? Well, harvestmen don’t have a waist or separate abdomen. Cellar spiders are often mistaken for harvestmen because of their long spindly legs, but they have a definite waist and also make silk. And don’t get confused about Daddy Longlegs either. Chris was surprised to learn that in the UK what we call the Daddy Longlegs is actually a crane fly. If you want to know more about these unfamiliar creatures, you can buy the book by Ricardo Pinto-da-Rocha, Glauco Machado and Gonzalo Giribet called Harvestmen: The Biology of Opiliones.  …

A Question Of Faith

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  To say religion is a contentious issue may qualify as a serious contender for understatement of the millennium. The Western World in particular has experienced a greater number of religious scandals in recent years, along with a growing and more vocal secular movement. But religion is not a recent phenomenon and, from Aristotle to Aquinas, has always been at the forefront of attempts to explain our existence. It is only relatively recently, with the advent of modern scientific discovery, that these traditional modes of faith have been challenged by a new and empirical worldview. And yet, faith and religion continue to hold a prominent place in the hearts and minds of billions of people across the globe. So just what is it that makes them such attractive concepts, and why are they so prevalent throughout human culture? What’s immediately clear, is that the origins of our obsession with faith are mired deep in evolutionary history. Indeed, it all seems …

Scientists in fiction: the good, the bad and the poorly represented

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Science and scientists are a huge part of our society and, perfectly reasonably, this means that a good number of men and women in white have had starring roles in our fiction. Be it in books, comics, or on the silver screen, there really are a vast array of fictional scientists out there influencing how people perceive science-types and, by extension, the disciplines they devote their lives to. In this post, I discuss why I’m not entirely comfortable with some of the ways scientists have been represented in recent years, and speculate wildly over some of the problems Hollywood et al may be causing. To put it straight out there, my major gripe with science in fiction is what I like to refer to as ‘the polarisation of fictional scientists trend’. By this I essentially mean that, more often than not, a fictional scientist is either the saint-like expert who is ignored as he/she warns of impending disaster or doom (think Dennis …

All spin and no substance – the story of the neutrino, the little neutral one.

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This is the story of the neutrino (Greek letter nu ; ν), a little piece of spinning nothing (i.e. a mass;less particle, but with angular momentum) whose existence was theoretically required by the need to balance certain equations in nuclear physics. How a mass;less thing could possibly have momentum of any sort however, was a paradox which was left unaddressed for the time being, and even today, though we mostly agree that it must have some mass, it is so miniscule (even in particle physics, where things are notoriously tiny) that we have no accurate idea of what that mass might be. It was Wolfgang Pauli who, in 1930, in order to explain how beta;decay could work while conserving mass, momentum, charge and angular momentum, postulated that there must be a new;to;nuclear;physics particle involved in the reaction. Pauli tentatively called this theoretically required particle a ‘neutron.’ However, James Chadwick discovered and named the ‘real’ neutron (i. e. the particle we now know as the neutron) in 1932. Chadwick’s neutron was a …

Bad Boys…

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When we think of science we like to imagine dedicated men and women laboring intensely for one grand and noble aim; the pursuit of knowledge. But unfortunately, the scientific spirit has not always been quite so pure. History shows that there have been many evil empiricists who were willing to abandon all ethical considerations in pursuit of their own twisted aims. So, just who are science’s top 5 bad boys? Let’s take a look… 5) Scientist: Sidney Gottlieb, Experiment: MKULTRA The fact that Gottlieb’s unofficial moniker was ‘Dr Feelgood’ may give you some indiciation about his particular field of scientific misadventure. An American military psychiatrist with a PhD in chemistry, Gottlieb worked with the CIA during the Cold War. Displaying an extraordinary single mindedness, he tended to prefer to solve all problems by simply poisoning the offending party. He was the mastermind behind the plot to place thallium in the soles of Fidel Castro’s shoes. A potent depilatory, the thallium was supposed …

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