February 23, 2008

Giant Sea Spiders

Giant sea spiders: enough to give the screaming abdabs to arachnophobes the globe around. A recent scientific research vessel was trawling the deep waters around Antarctica and found, along with armoured shrimp, giant sea spiders that reach up to a foot across.

Such a giant sea spider would make somthing of a show if it came up the plughole into your bath tub, don't you think? Fortunately they live in cold water an I always have hot baths....but still.

Scientists studying Antarctic waters have filmed and captured giant sea creatures, like sea spiders the size of dinner plates and jellyfish with 6m tentacles.

A fleet of three Antarctic marine research ships returned to Australia this week, ending a summer expedition to the Southern Ocean where they carried out a census of life in the icy ocean and on its floor, more than 1000m below the surface.

"Gigantism is common in Antarctic waters - we have collected huge worms, giant crustaceans and sea spiders the size of dinner plates," Australian scientist Martin Riddle, voyage leader on the research ship Aurora Australis, said.

6 metre tentacles? No cheese before bed tonight I think, that won't help my dreams. The giant sea spiders were bad enough....

The giant sea spiders, along with giant worms and crustaceans, are among up to 1500 species that Australian, Japanese and French scientists have brought back from the icy waters off Antarctica as part of a two-year census of marine life. With an Australian ship scouring the ocean floor and the French and Japanese searching for life in the mid and upper reaches, the scientists conducted a count of species known as the Collaborative East Antarctic Marine Census.

They found more than just those giant sea spiders too:

Giant sea spiders, huge worms, fields of glass-like filter feeders and `flabbergasting' fish were among the ocean life recovered from the floor of the Southern Ocean by researchers aboard the Aurora Australis, voyage leader Martin Riddle said.

So stunning was the wealth of discoveries, the ship's recent voyage south as part of the Collaborative East Antarctic Marine Census would go down as one of the great marine science voyages of all time, Dr Riddle said.

Using trawls and underwater video photography, scientists had ventured as far as 2km below the surface.

"We were amazed at what we found," Dr Riddle said. "We went there with certain expectations, but those expectations were far exceeded."

"We saw giant worms, giant crustaceans, giant sea spiders, glass-like tunicates, enormously diverse areas in some places.

Yup, much more than just the giant sea spiders:

Among the bizarre-looking creatures the scientists spotted were tunicates, plankton-eating animals that resemble slender glass structures up to a yard tall "standing in fields like poppies," Riddle said.

"Gigantism is very common in Antarctic waters -- we have collected huge worms, giant crustaceans and sea spiders the size of dinner plates," Riddle added.

You can see the video of the giant sea spiders here.

Giant sea spiders and other species are among thousands of creatures—a quarter of them previously unknown—found in the icy depths of the Southern Ocean.

February 23, 2008 in Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 15, 2007

Garrett Lisi

Garrett Lisi claims to have discovered the Theory of Everything, the key to understanding the universe around us. Not bad for someone who spends his summers surfing and his winters snowboarding.

Garrett Lisi, 39, has a doctorate but no university affiliation and spends most of the year surfing in Hawaii, where he has also been a hiking guide and bridge builder (when he slept in a jungle yurt).

In winter, he heads to the mountains near Lake Tahoe, Nevada, where he snowboards. "Being poor sucks," Lisi says. "It's hard to figure out the secrets of the universe when you're trying to figure out where you and your girlfriend are going to sleep next month."

Despite this unusual career path, his proposal is remarkable because, by the arcane standards of particle physics, it does not require highly complex mathematics.

Even better, it does not require more than one dimension of time and three of space, when some rival theories need ten or even more spatial dimensions and other bizarre concepts. And it may even be possible to test his theory, which predicts a host of new particles, perhaps even using the new Large Hadron Collider atom smasher that will go into action near Geneva next year.

The key to his theory is this:

Lisi's inspiration lies in the most elegant and intricate shape known to mathematics, called E8 - a complex, eight-dimensional mathematical pattern with 248 points first found in 1887, but only fully understood by mathematicians this year after workings, that, if written out in tiny print, would cover an area the size of Manhattan.

E8 encapsulates the symmetries of a geometric object that is 57-dimensional and is itself is 248-dimensional. Lisi says "I think our universe is this beautiful shape."

What makes E8 so exciting is that Nature also seems to have embedded it at the heart of many bits of physics. One interpretation of why we have such a quirky list of fundamental particles is because they all result from different facets of the strange symmetries of E8.

And the reason it's all so exciting is that unlike many alternative explanations his theory actually provides testable hypotheses: things that ought to be there if we go look for them. If we do find them when we go looking then that supports his ideas. This is, of course, the essence of science. Your hypothesis has to be testable.

The crucial test of Lisi's work will come only when he has made testable predictions. Lisi is now calculating the masses that the 20 new particles should have, in the hope that they may be spotted when the Large Hadron Collider starts up.

"The theory is very young, and still in development," he told the Telegraph. "Right now, I'd assign a low (but not tiny) likelyhood to this prediction.

"For comparison, I think the chances are higher that LHC will see some of these particles than it is that the LHC will see superparticles, extra dimensions, or micro black holes as predicted by string theory. I hope to get more (and different) predictions, with more confidence, out of this E8 Theory over the next year, before the LHC comes online."

Note that he's not insisting that the exceptionally simple theory of everything is in fact true, not as yet. But that it might be true, with some level of probability, and that we should go looking for ways to test whether it is actually true or not. If it turns out to be, that's a Nobel Prize certainty.

November 15, 2007 in Science | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

October 05, 2007

Ig Nobel Prizes 2007

The Ig Nobel Prizes for 2007 have been announced. Here's a full listing of the Ig Nobels this year:

For the world's sword swallowers, it must have been an important study: a medical analysis of the dangers and side-effects of their profession. Fortunately, doctors concluded that the most likely injury from inserting a long piece of sharp steel down your food pipe was just a humble sore throat.

As well as adding to crucial knowledge about work-related injuries, the unique study last night earned its author, radiologist Brian Witcombe at Gloucestershire Royal NHS foundation trust, this year's Ig Nobel prize for medicine.


Medicine Brian Witcombe of Gloucester and Dan Meyer of Antioch, Tennessee, for their report in the British Medical Journal, Sword Swallowing and its Side-Effects

Physics L Mahadevan of Harvard and Enrique Cerda Villablanca of Santiago University, Chile, for studying how sheets become wrinkled

Biology Johanna van Bronswijk of Eindhoven University of Technology, Netherlands, for a census of the mites, insects, spiders, pseudoscorpions, crustaceans, bacteria, algae, ferns and fungi with whom we share our beds

Chemistry Mayu Yamamoto of the International Medical Centre of Japan, for developing a way to extract vanilla essence from cow dung

Linguistics Juant Manuel Toro, Josep Trobalon and Núria Sebastián-Gallés, of Barcelona University, for showing that rats cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards

Literature Glenda Browne of Australia, for her study of the word "the" and the problems it causes when indexing

Peace The Air Force Wright Laboratory, Dayton, Ohio, for instigating research on a chemical weapon to make enemy soldiers sexually irresistible to each other

Nutrition Brian Wansink of Cornell University, for exploring the seemingly boundless appetites of human beings by feeding them with a self-refilling, bottomless bowl of soup

Economics Kuo Cheng Hsieh, of Taiwan, for patenting a device that catches bank robbers by dropping a net over them

Aviation Patricia V Agostino, Santiago A Plano and Diego A Golombek of Argentina, for the discovery that Viagra aids jetlag recovery in hamsters

A news report on the Ig Nobels:

October 5, 2007 in Science | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

September 21, 2007

Advocacy Research

Well, yes, Mick:

This highlights a real growing problem – the rise of advocacy research. Instead of spinning the wheel and seeing what evidence emerges, many researchers now start from a political assumption, then look for “facts” to fit. Advocate researchers typically aim to “discover” that their pet social problem is even worse than imagined, and that we are all at risk. Playing up the issue of problem gambling is a favourite game of those whose real aim is to whip the mass of “problem people” into line. So they were shocked when the commission survey denied them the “right” result.

But haven't you noticed that it's the newspapers that make the most of it? From Jessica Alba's "sexiest walk" to the EOC's "40% gender pay gap" , the only reason these studies are knocked up is because the press splashes them all over the front pages.

September 21, 2007 in Science | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

August 29, 2007

Reporting on Evolution

I do get slightly persnicketty about this sort of thing:

Men have evolved to seek wives and girlfriends who are younger than they are to maximise their chances of reproducing, researchers have found.

The way I understand it is that no one or thing has "evolved to". It's that those who did so had more surviving offspring, said trait, if it is genetically caused, thus spreading through the population.

Here it's a minor thing: men look to the potential fertility of mates, women more to (and of course this is an average across the population, not a determinant for any one individual) the social status/wealth and resources of the male.

One thing does rather amuse me: the six year age gap leading to the maximum amount of children. That's not far off what has traditionally been, in UK society, a 7 year gap. However, much more common in US life has been marrying much more closely within the same age group (high school sweethearts, meeting at college, all that sort of stuff). And Americans tend to have more children than Brits.

August 29, 2007 in Science | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

August 16, 2007

Faster Than the Speed of Light

Sounds very odd indeed to me:

A pair of German physicists claim to have broken the speed of light - an achievement that would undermine our entire understanding of space and time.

According to Einstein's special theory of relativity, it would require an infinite amount of energy to propel an object at more than 186,000 miles per second.

However, Dr Gunter Nimtz and Dr Alfons Stahlhofen, of the University of Koblenz, say they may have breached a key tenet of that theory.

The pair say they have conducted an experiment in which microwave photons - energetic packets of light - travelled "instantaneously" between a pair of prisms that had been moved up to 3ft apart.

I'll admit that my physics isn't up to date (not that it ever was, O Level only) but isn't the point of Einstein's equations that you cannot accelerate a particle, a particle with a rest mass of greater than zero, to the speed of light, for that would require infinite energy? As photons have no rest mass (??) this doesn't in fact apply to them? And that the equations certainly do allow faster than light travel...it's the acceleration to it that is not possible?

Also, (from reading those Asimov et al books of science essays) isn't there some well known example of radio waves moving faster than the speed of light? Through a board (or matrix?) of some kind? The only problem being that information still moves through it slower than that limiting speed?

Ah well, no doubt someone who actually knows about these things will be along soon enough to explain it all to us.

August 16, 2007 in Science | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack

May 31, 2007

And So Does Civilization Fall

Alerted by Ben Goldacre to this piece of the purest nonsense in The Independent I am left wondering if this is how civilizations fall. When the obviously well educated in that society, let alone the proles for whom the State provides as little as it can, believe in fantastical alarums, how can it survive?

I am well-doctored, to put it mildly. I probably consult more doctors than Woody Allen, who has separate screenings of his movies for his doctors. Everyone is entitled to a hobby; mine just happens to be my health, and what a fascinating hobby it is.

Start with a hypochondriac then.

When at a loss to explain my new malaise, I visited my naturopath.

Correction, a deluded hypochondriac, one who consults charlatans.

Believe me folks, it's not going to get any better from here on in.

She insisted that my exhaustion was caused by electromagnetic "smog" in my flat.

Yup,  been going on since we started using light bulbs and that wireless radio, hasn't it?

This made sense, as my symptoms had begun soon after installing wireless technology in my sitting room.


For example, although I've turned off my wireless access I can still tap in to my neighbour's Wi-Fi downstairs.

Mmmmm...so you were exposed to these electromagnetic waves from your neighbour before you installed your own and they didn't affect you. Showing that the causality of your own system is what?

"Any imbalance in our electromagnetic field creates a disturbance in cell structure and function, which can lead to illness in sensitive individuals," says London-based complementary health practitioner Dr Nicole de Canha.

Right, well, obviously, umm, is this "our electromagnetic field" anything to do with our aura? Or, perhaps, something that is affected by the earth's own magnetism? You know, that reason that when we ever move south or north we fall ill?

Even cordless hands-free home telephones - such a boon to multitaskers, enabling one to patiently listen to friends and family for hours while cleaning cupboards, re-potting house plants and reorganising the CD collection - are now off-limits. Their electrical force-field is nearly as powerful as that of a mobile phone. Since I'm now chained to a phone on a lead, my cupboards are filthy and my friends are neglected. But at least I'm less radioactive.

As a commenter at Ben's place says, at last, we have a test for these things. Point a geiger counter at those claiming to be suffering from said radiation and count the clicks.

Conventional headsets transmit sound to the earpiece through a wire, but as wire is an electrical conductor it may also deliver radiation directly to your head.

That pretty much kills the iPod then, doesn't it?

The homeopathic medicine company, New Vistas, and the Australian flower essence company, Bush Flower Remedies, both make drops that claim to reduce the amount of radiation stored in the body.

Radiation? Stored? Look, I'm all in favour of capitalism but guys, don't you think there's something a touch unsporting about taking money from the severely deluded?

"The heart of the unit is a programmed microprocessor unit that produces a holograph field that is amplified through an internal aerial system. This protection field protects the human system from the negative effects of EMR,"

Err, holograph? Isn't that light? So it is the lightbulbs that are killing us? Or is it the handwritten documents coming to get us?

As yet, no one knows what price we will pay for our dependence on modern technology.

As compared to not having modern technology actually we do. We're surviving, something which a good 99% of the 6 billion on the planet wouldn't do without it.

Naturopath, homeopath, holographic fields, look, we might as well start sacrificing virgins by throwing them down the wells to cure society's ills.

That is if sanitation (ooooh! modern technology!) and the sex education system have left us with any of either.

700-square metre radius


May 31, 2007 in Science | Permalink | Comments (11) | TrackBack

April 21, 2007

More on That Lancet Report

Tim Lambert reports that (some) of the background work and calculations on the second Lancet report about excess mortality in Iraq are being released. There are, however, some conditions:

The data will be provided to organizations or groups without publicly stated views that would cause doubt about their objectivity in analyzing the data.

Err, you can check what we've done but only if you don't already disagree with us?

Apologies, but isn't this rather the antithesis of the scientific method? The release of such data is, I think, intended so that those who do disagree can have a look and check what you've done, isn't it?

April 21, 2007 in Science | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

March 07, 2007

Thallium Poisoning

There's been another case of suspected thallium poisoning:

An American woman and her daughter, both of whom fell ill mysteriously during a trip to Russia last month, had been poisoned with thallium, hospital officials revealed yesterday.

The deadly metal is the same substance originally blamed for the poisoning in London of former KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko.

Marina Kovalenskaya, 48, and her daughter Yana, 25, flew to Moscow last month from their home in Los Angeles for a family wedding. They fell ill in the early hours of February 24.


"Thallium is less strongly restricted than polonium. You can get hold of it from any university laboratory, not just in Moscow, but also in New York or London," said Lev Federov, president of Russia's union of chemical societies.

You don't even need to get it from a university lab. There are some industrial uses (certain types of glass) but the biggest use of the salts (which is what would be used to poison someone, either deliberately or in error, rather than the metal itself) is in cockroach poisons. I don't know whether the Russian version still does use it but it certainly used to , as similar products in many other countries did. It's a sort of chalk, that you use to draw a line on the floor: as the cockroach walks over it, "tasting" to see where it's going, it ingests it and dies.

(That is, at least, what I've been told anyway).

I certainly wouldn't want to judge what has happened here but it is possible for there to be accidental thallium poisonings as well as deliberate ones. From memory there was one ten to 15 years ago at Great Ormond Street. A child had been poisoned by mistake in some Third World country just before coming to the UK. It took the intervention of a detective novel writer (PD James perhaps?) to explain it, as she'd used the idew in a recent plot.

(Love to see if that story can be confirmed actually, think it might have been before everything went online though).

March 7, 2007 in Science | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

February 22, 2007

Statistics Bleg

Just a question that's been running aoround my mind. As this EUObserver report puts it, we measure the poverty rate in the EU by measuring the population of a country against the median income of that country.

When we look at the US poverty rate (well, in one of the forms of the calculation, anyway) we look at the population of the entire place and mark it against the national median income.

But given the huge regional variations in income across the US, is this in fact comparing like with like? Shouldn't we be comparing the EU poverty rate by measuring the whole population against the EU median income?

Just wondered whether that had ever actually been done?

February 22, 2007 in Science | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack