Category Archives: Education

Vaccination ‘Hesitance’ Put Bluntly

Question: Do you know anyone who’s had smallpox? How about polio? No?Polio Vaccine

Well no wonder there’s a sudden surge of doubt about vaccination – not because we’ve realise how well it works, but because we’ve forgotten what life was like before vaccines.

I am a parent. I can understand the idea of injecting my child with something that turns out to be harmful would be hard to bear. First do no harm, they say. Can we be sure there is no harm?

Sounds a like a fair question… but… isn’t. It’s not that simple.

Having a vaccine may seem like a dangerous intervention, and surely no action is better than a risky one?

Well if you believe that, you are not alone, but are making a cognitive error, the error to assume inaction is a virtue. As Haile Selassie said “Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted; the indifference of those who should have known better; the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most; that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”

In order to help those stuck in this cognitive trap, I would ask them to consider this thought experiment.

BluePillRedPill

Rather than choosing to go to a doctor for a vaccine, say the famous ‘MMR’ triple-jab, or choosing to stay at home, let’s imagine the choice was one of two medications, one the MMR, with its supposed* risk of autism, but which gives immunity to measles, mumps and rubella – and the other is a compound with no known benefits, but a known risk of causing measles, mumps and rubella. And of course the added possibility of causing an epidemic at the same time.

(*) Let’s add to the mix the fact that there is zero evidence of any link between MMR and autism, and also point out that failing to immunise your kids is reckless cruelty not only to them, but also to all those who cannot be vaccinated for ‘real’ reasons, such as being too poor, too young or too sick.

To those still on the fence, this last bit is for you.

Do you not realise that what seems like concerned parenting has actually cost real people their lives? For what?

Yes, drugs go wrong. Yes, corporations are often tempted to hide bad news. Yes, the human body is complex and we do not understand every last detail.

But if you think that those pressures overwhelm the ‘good’ in mankind that has led life expectancy to climb gloriously every single decade this last century, then you are missing all the good news.

smallpoxNo small part of the doubling in life expectancy was due to vaccines.

Please don’t take me with you back to 1900. Rather look at this picture of what smallpox does and thank your lucky stars she’s not your child.

The speed of evolution – revisited…

I have been keeping my eye on the evidence that ‘life experience’ can be passed on in your genes.DNA

It has been proposed many times as a mechanism of evolution, and indeed was considered likely before the concept of ‘selection’ was understood. It’s attractive because saying that ‘survival’ is the one and only way to adding value to the genes seems, well, wasteful.

Surely, you’d think that a fear of snakes based purely on the idea that people who were not afraid of snakes were ‘taken out’ of the gene pool by snakes, is less efficient than a mechanism that captures experience – that snake killed my dog, I should avoid snakes, and so should my kids…

However, once DNA was understood and shown to be dense with what seemed to be all information that could ever be needed, dissent waned to an all time low. The mechanisms of DNA were pretty clear – your DNA was set at birth and while it might mutate a little randomly, had no way to ‘learn’ from your life before being combined with a partner’s to create offspring. The case seemed pretty settled.

There remained niggles though. I worried about the speed of evolution as we have so very much to learn and so little time to evolve! So I looked for ways evolution could amp up its power. It seemed to me that nature, so darn clever at self-optimisation would make improvements to our design based on non-fatal experience, or indeed passive observation.

Others similarly concerned continued, often in the face of deep scepticism, to study what is called epigenetics, the science of heritance not coded by DNA – and thus having the potential to be edited during our lives.

I first heard about it around 10 years ago when media reported that the actual DNA sequence was not the only way info could be stored in cells – in theory the histones present can affect how the DNA ‘works’ (how genes are ‘expressed’) and their presence could thus change the characteristics of any lifeform coded therein. The type and number of histones may be few (relative to the number of base pairs in DNA) however, the many locations and orientations they can take create a fair number of possible combinations and permutations.

When I heard about this theory, I was put into a state of high curiosity. On the one hand, it was a little blasphemous, but on the other hand tantalising. If nature could find a way to combine the power of selection with the potential benefits of life experience, we could get much faster and more effective evolution.

My curiosity was soon rewarded with another possible mechanism for smuggling info to the next generation. DNA methylation – the idea is that DNA can host little ‘attachments’ in certain places. These may be temporary, and reversible, but they have now been clearly shown to alter how the DNA expresses itself.

On the face of it, the evidence that DNA expression is environment dependent is rather strong, but the idea that the environment around the DNA coil actually contains consistent and persistent intelligence picked up during our lives is much harder to prove.

And so teams have been beavering away trying to get to the bottom of this, and this week one such group has fresh news for us. A Nature Neuroscience paper has tested the theory in a rather clever way.

lab miceThey started by teaching some mice a new fact (that a certain smell would be associated with trauma) and then later, tested their kids. Lo and behold the kids whose parents had been taught fared significantly better in the test than untrained, unrelated mice.

This may sound a little trivial, but you must remember that the current ‘popular’ understanding of genes is that they only gain intelligence by surviving – or more precisely they shed stupidity by dying. However, here we are seeing information pass between generations without the need for anyone to die.

Furthermore, because of the carefully selected lesson taught to these mice, the researchers were actually able to see that a specific part of the DNA, while not different in design was nevertheless more active.

Now, I do not know enough about DNA to double-check this claim, but you can rest assured others will – because that’s what journals are for – and in this case the implications are huge.

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Like what, you ask?

Well, off the top of my head, it means that much of what we do between birth and reproduction will affect all our descendents – this undermines the idea that one’s body is one’s own to do with as one pleases.

It also indicates that there is potential for us to deliberately control the expression of our DNA, allowing us to do some genetic engineering without actually changing the DNA sequence.

More importantly, and more controversially, it would mean natural selection would not need to explain all the marvellous diversity we see around us on its own.

It remains to be seen what proportion of our ‘design’ is coded for outside the DNA, or indeed how much this mechanism can improve or speed up evolution, however I for one hope it works out to be right and that mother nature has indeed figured out how to seriously boost the power of selection.

Negative pressure: impossible surely!!?

two_tall_treesI read some comments on Scientific American today that instantly made my blood boil. Or cavitate at least.

It was an explanation of how tall trees get water right up top. No I never thought about that before either.

water-boreholeAnyhow, anyone who’s drilled a borehole knows you can only suck water up 33 ft before you get a vacuum forming, water boiling and general pumping failure. Hence the need to put a pump at the bottom of a deep borehole.

Now, I had always thought capillary action was what sucked water up plants, handily bypassing this issue, and there, right in the comments, it was asserted that this was a ‘common misconception’…

What, me wrong!? Never!

After the shock, I did what a good scientist is supposed to do, fighting the desire to simply namecall, I watched her darn video.

I remained skeptical. Very skeptical. I again overcame desires to write rude comments in youtube and went a read up on it properly…

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Ok, so it turns out that there is some sort of truth to it: indeed some clever people believe water can be ‘sucked’ to the top of tall trees, which does indeed require negative pressure.

So I ask, why won’t the water boil? Boiling-Water

Because, they say, it’s ‘meta-stable’. Like super-cooled water, or superheated water, water can supposed go to ‘tension’ without boiling if only you can prevent that initial bubble forming. Simple!

A little more thinking and internal wrangling, and I slowly conceded it just might be. Yes, ok, negative pressure is not really all that radical, it is essentially tension. It’s common in solids, it’s just the idea that water can be ‘tense’ that is difficult to get one’s head around.

So, the process had begun; I started to consider that maybe I was wrong. It’s not pleasant folks, and I am not trying to beat my own drum, I am sure there are plenty of other times when I’ve failed this test, it was just interesting because here I think I passed it…

Anyway, back to the point. Alas, I then read even more deeply, that though I find myself agreeing that water can indeed be under tension, and that sort of does mean negative pressure, I’ve yet to be convinced that ‘wicking’ it not at least involved in tree sustenance. Anyone who has dropped a dry cloth in water knows the water climbs into the fabric.

Furthermore, if there was negative pressure in the tree’s ‘pipes’ why wouldn’t they collapse?

It took deeper digging, but now all my cognitive dissonance is resolved, and I feel just fine by closing my investigation with this makeshift conclusion: that while trees do suck water up (via transpiration and the pull of surface tension in narrow openings) the pressures needed are not too crazy BECAUSE OF THOSE GOOL OL’ WICKING EFFECTS!!

Yup, I have to conclude that the attraction of the fluid for the xylem walls helps ‘keep the water up’ and thus preventing it from pulling too hard on the water above it.

It turns out this is what many others think [great minds for sure], and some [’nuff respect] took the steps of building a pressure probe small enough to poke into a plant’s pipework. What they found supports my newly cherished (but alas already 120-year-old) Cohesion-Tension theory of tree hydration.

In other words, while wicking (capillary action) is not a sole actor, it is there in a critical supporting role. Aaah that’s better, as you can see I wasn’t totally wrong ūüėČ

PS. On the other hand, negative pressures seem to be a new and reproducible fact for us to worry about!

Want to lose weight? Try the Engineer’s Approach to Diet

Ok, if you’re tired of being lectured about your sweet tooth or laziness (or both), and just want the straight dope from an engineer, you’ve come to the right place.

A TractorYou see, over the next couple of minutes, we’ll see that a human body is not much different to, say, a tractor. It’s a tough machine and just like a tractor has very few needs – a little fuel, a little air and a little water.

Ok, ok, we’re a little more complex, but when push comes to shove, we are pretty similar, let me show you…

Food = Fuel

My wife despairs, but she I must point out that she chose to marry an engineer with hardly any niceties. Yes, ok, food is more than just fuel, it’s one of the joys of life yadda-yadda, but, to the engineer in me food is just a handy Continue reading

Requirements for Promoting a New Scientific Theory

I have been reading some pretty strange stuff about Gravity recently. It seems there are some pretty odd folk out there who have taken thinking about physics to a new, possibly unhealthy, level.

Gravity: It's the Law

Basically, they are crackpots. Well I guess it’s a slippery slope – one day you wonder why the¬†earth¬†is sucking down on you, the next you decide to spend some time on the knotty question. Soon¬†enough¬†you think you’ve got it, it is clearly that the earth is absorbing space which is constantly rushing down around us dragging us with it. Or similar.

So yes, its true, Einstein did not ‘solve’ Gravity, and there is still fame and fortune to be had in thinking about gravity, so this is the example I shall use today.

The trouble with Gravity is that Einstein’s explanation is just so cool! He explained that mass warps space and that the feeling of being pulled is simply a side effect of being in warped space. It sounds so outlandish, but also so simple, that it has clearly encouraged many ‘interesting’ people to have a crack at doing a better job themselves.

So, as a service to all those wannabe physics icons, I offer today a service, in the form of a checklist Рwhat hoops will your new scientific theory have to jump through to get my attention, and that of the so-called ivory tower elite in the scientific community?

Requirement 1: Your theory needs to be well presented

presentation counts!Yes, it may sound elitist to say, but your documentation/website/paper/video should have good grammar. Yes, yes, one should not use the quality of one’s english to judge the quality of one’s theory, and I know prejudice is hard to overcome, but this is not my point. My point is that in order to understand a complicated thing like a physics theory it needs to be unambiguous. It needs to be clear. It needs to use the same jargon the so called ‘elite’ community uses. Invented acronyms, especially¬†those with your own initials in them,¬†are out.

Requirement 2: Your proposal needs to be respectful

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Again, this is not about making you bow to your superiors in the academic world. Indeed in the case of Gravity, the physics community is one of the most humble out there. While I agree academia is up it’s arse most of the time, this is about convincing the reader that you know your stuff. In order to do that, you need to show that you know ‘their stuff’ too. If you have headings like “Einstein’s Big Mistake” it is a bit like saying to the reader ‘you are all FOOLS!’ and cackling madly. Don’t do it!

Respect also means you need to answer questions ‘properly’. That means clearly, fully, and in the common language of the community. You cannot say “its the responsibility of the community to test your theory”. This is a great way to piss people right off. It is your responsibility to make them want to. This usually means dealing with their doubts head-on, and if you can do that, I promise you they will then want to know more.

Requirement 3: You need to develop credibility

Sorry, as you can see we have yet to consider the actual merit of the theory itself. I wish it were not so, but we are humans first and scientists second. We cannot focus our thoughts on a theory if we doubt the payback. And if you say¬†that aliens came and told you the scientific theory, then people are unlikely to keep listening, unless, perhaps they’re from Hollywood.

But seriously, credibility is the hidden currency of the world, it opens doors, bends ears and gets funds. It takes professionals decades to build and it is really rather naive to waltz into a specialism and expect everyone to drop their tools and listen to you.

That said, the science world is full of incomers, it is not a closed shop as some would you believe. If you follow requirements 1 and 2, and are persistent (and your theory actually holds water) then you are very likely to succeed.

Penrose_triangleRequirement 4: Your theory needs to be consistent

I have seen some pretty strange stuff proposed. Gravity is a¬†manifestation¬†of the flow of information, or the speed of light is determined by a planet’s¬†density. Find your own at crank.net. Let’s look at this peach as an example:¬†http://www.einsteingravity.com/.

This exhibit is great example of how not to go about promoting your theory. “Monumental ¬† Scientific ¬† Discovery ¬†!” it screams across the top, then the first claim is this:

1) The Acceleration of earth’s Gravity x earth orbit Time (exact lunar year) = the Velocity of Light.
(9.80175174 m/s2 x 30,585,600 s = 299,792,458 m/s)

Now this is rather remarkable. Can it really be that you can calculate the speed of light to 9 significant figures from just the earth’s gravitational¬†acceleration¬†and the length of a year? Intuitively I suspect you could (eventually), but then I started to think, well, what if the earth was irregularly shaped? The gravitational constant is actually not all that consistent depending on where you are either. So I checked, then I noticed he said ‘lunar year’. What? Why? What is a lunar year? Then I calculated that the time he used was 354 days, which isn’t even a lunar year. Add to that that he gives the¬†acceleration¬†of gravity on earth to 9-figures despite the fact that nobody knows it that well (like I said it is location dependent). Does he do the same test for other planets? No. Well what if they have no moon!

So, 0/4 for on our checklist for einsteingravity.com!

Requirement 5: The theory needs to be be consistent with well-known observationsevidence

Now if your theory has got past requirements 1-4 , well done to you, you will be welcome to join my table any time. Now is when you may need some more help.

Once a theory is consistent with itself, it now needs to agree with what we see around us. It needs to explain apples falling, moons orbiting, light bending and time dilating. This is the hardest part.

It cannot leave any out, or predict something contrary to the facts. It cannot be vague or wishy-washy. It needs the type of certainty we only get from the application of formal logic – and that old chestnut – mathematics.

No you cannot get away without it, there is no substitute for an equation. Equations derived using logic take all the emotion out of a debate. And they set you up perfectly for requirement #5.

crystal-ballRequirement 6: The theory needs to make testable predictions

If your theory has got past the 5 above, very nice job, I hope to meet you one day.

We are all set, we have a hypothesis and we can’t break it. It has been passed to others, some dismiss it, others are not so sure. How do you create consensus?

Simple, make an impressive prediction, and then test that.

Einsteins field equations for example, boldly provide a ‘shape’ of space (spacetime actually) for any given distribution of mass. With that shape in hand you should then be able to predict the path of light beams past stars or galaxies. These equation claimed to replace¬†Newton’s simple inverse square law, but include the effects of time which creates¬†strange¬†effects (like frame dragging), which, importantly could be, and were,¬†tested.

The beauty of these equations, derived via logical inference from how the speed of light seems invariate, and now proven many times, is that they moved physics forward. Rather than asking, ‘what is gravity’, the question is now ‘why does mass warp space’. It’s a better question because answering it will probably have implications far beyond gravity – it will inform cosmology and quantum theory too.

Conclusion

So if you are thinking of sharing with the world at last your immensely important insights, and want to be listened to, please remember my advice when you are famous and put in a good word for me in Stockholm. But please, if, when trying to explain yourself, and are finding it tough, please please consider the possibility that you are just plain wrong…

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Jarrod Hart is a practicing scientist, and wrote this to shamelessly enhance his  reputation in case he ever needs to peddle you a strange theory.

Further reading:

Leveraging the Inventiveness in your Mind

There are some tasks our brains find hard. We cannot remember long numbers or calculate square roots and we learn information at such a low rate, it takes a lifetime to fill up our hard drive/brain.

illusion

The impressive visual tools in our brains are fun to trip up.

We are fooled by simple magic tricks, our memories can change and we constantly lie to ourselves in order to avoid cognitive dissonance.

Yes, we are pretty awful, and it’s pretty amazing we manage to get through the day. The reason we do is that our brains were not designed to remember long numbers or to calculate square roots, we were designed to …get through the day.

Thus it’s no surprise that we can¬†spot tigers hiding in the shrubbery, and judge someone’s intent from the curl in the corner of their mouth – things¬†computers can’t even dream of!

evolution

Amazing Things the Brain Can Do

There are some really remarkable abilities the evolutionary arms race has given us. Consider for a moment how hard it is to teach these skills to a computer:

  • Facial recognition (from any angle!) – and similar advanced pattern recognition
  • Theory of mind – our ability to¬†realize¬†that others have motives and intentions and the ability to guess them reasonably well
  • Inventiveness – our ability to make connections from disparate fields

Much has been said about these skills, and in particular, much value has been placed on theories about our inventiveness – if only we can understand how we invent, we can unleash a torrent of innovation!

torrent_of_ideas

The ideas usually run something like this: the human mind is so highly integrated that many concepts are forced to overlay one another so connections are inevitable Рwhile others suggest the mind reviews new learning each night during sleep and tries to spot patterns, suggesting our innovative spark is really just our pattern recognition skill in disguise [1].

While I suspect there is truth to both theories, there is probably more to it than that…

Another Amazing Skill Often Overlooked

Now – if you have ever caught a child being naughty, you may have been lucky enough to see another remarkable human talent…

Lying.

naughty-baby

Lying is tricky. Lying requires amazing computation – it needs theory of mind, it requires creativity, and does its invention under pressure.

Lying requires creating an entire alternate reality that fits the evidence but makes you look innocent of all crimes! It’s so hard that young kids don’t always get it quite right, but at some point most of us master the art.¬†Our brains can also be switched to this mode of inventive overdrive in another way: when we attempt to explain incomplete data.

The most common opportunity to fit a narrative to incomplete data is when we recall faded memories Рit turns out many of  us can bring out our internal Dr. Seuss when recounting our roles in past events.Dr-seuss-oh-the-thinks-you-can-think1

And because we all like to think of ourselves as pretty darn awesome, our memories cannot contain any information that could contradict this most evident truth. Thus when we recall situations when we did something downright shameful, our brains become positively electrified and we will magic up perfectly good reasons for what we did out of thin air.

Almost everyone can do it. However, if you ask us to write a short bit of utter fiction, our ability instantly vanishes.

writers_block

Leveraging Brain Power

So the question is this… how can we tap into these remarkable abilities? Do creative people already do it?

I, for one am going to try!

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[1] How the mind works РSteven Pinker

Big Pharma: Heroes or Villains?

What is ‘Big Pharma’?

Many people have argued that alternative and complimentary medicines are suppressed because they threaten the status quo for ‘big pharma’. ¬†Before we accept this claim, let’s unpack the idea of big pharma a little to understand the incentives at play and when it may be right not to trust big pharma.

Let me start by making it clear Рbig pharma, as a label for the largest pharmaceutical companies, deserves a healthy dose of outrage; but before we toss the baby out with the bathwater, but lets see when Рand why.

Big pharma is just another name for ‘big business’: a big business is an organism that has grown beyond the people that founded it, such that rather than having emotions, conscience or guilt, it has KPI’s like turnover, cashflow and return on investment. Big pharma is in the business of making money and as such should generally be expected to default to that option unless constrained by law. The collective conscience of shareholders only tends to kick in when dirty laundry is put out on show. Ok, so firstly, I think we can agree, a business is not a charity.

Next we take this lack of compassion and combine it with size and complexity – we see we now have an organism susceptible to plain outright crookery – from the white collar sort, like insider trading – to the very tangible – such as the dumping of toxic waste. These practices usually require the corruption of people – but not always – it is very easy for companies to do bad things without any individuals having malicious intent; it could simply be negligence or incompetence, or it could simply be that profit sometimes comes before fairness.

Take for example the problem of selling DVD’s in the world market. They are small and lightweight and easy to ship worldwide. This usually means that the price would be similar worldwide, if dealers in one country were to raise prices, residents would simply import the product. However, the enormous wealth differentials that exist between, say, the USA and Mexico, mean that the company could set a high price to extract maximum value from the US market, but then essentially price themselves out of the Mexican market. If they lowered the price, they would sell more product but with much reduced profit margins.

This problem is thrown into stark relief in the case of drugs, where the most profitable option is often to cater to the richer countries. This is sound business – set your price high, keep your factory trim, reduce shipping costs, keep high margins. However, if the drug can radically improve health outcomes, this policy could be seen as unethical.

This is the sort of problem big pharma face routinely; they are not selling entertainment, they are sometimes selling life itself, and often find they need to play profits against ethics in they way I describe above. It is thus hardly surprising that the general public have a distrust and general suspicion toward Big Pharma. In addition to drug import controls, there are¬†many¬†other situations where governments have had to step in to ensure the pharmaceutical companies ‘do the right thing’, such as the case with antiretroviral drugs (for HIV) coming into Africa.

Now think for a moment on this thought experiment: what would happen if a small publicly traded company discovered a cheap and easily reproducible cure for cancer? Would they really be able to hold on and extract full value for their shareholders? History actually suggests they wouldn’t – the drug would become public property, or would simply be nationalised if the company tried to resist. Inventions like the major vaccines and the first antibiotics were often not patented, and we see if we look at the pharmaceutical industry that their biggest profits come predictably not from miracle cures but from drugs that cater to the maladies of the richer classes.¬†The top targets are heart disease, heart-burn, stroke, mental health and asthma. Once you ¬†add disorders like diabetes you have accounted for the most profitable chunk of the industry.

This trend raises fresh concerns, because there are many severe ailments that are simply not attractive to profit making operations, the poster-boys being malaria, TB and HIV/Aids. Drug companies can be bullied into doing work in these areas, but it tends to fall to governments and charities to fund research in the afflictions of the poor, or on the so-called ‘orphan diseases’ – ailments that affect too few people to ever make a profitable market.

Economists will also argue that profit making businesses, being creatures under the strict control of incentives, will be unlikely to aim for ‘cures’ because cures are ‘one-offs’. While this criticism has some sad validity (in the board-room if not in the clinic), we have to remember that the big drug companies only exist¬†because they make profits; in an imagined world where the first dollars were always spent on the most dire diseases and we only get to do botox and erectile dysfunction once those are all solved we would have no private industry at all, so far fewer trained scientists, far less public knowledge and certainly no map of the genome. We have to remember that to some extent at least, the aging american taking their cocktail of pills every day for the last 50 years has in some sense subsidized the field doctor in rural Africa. Yes, they also subsidized Wall Street excesses, but perhaps it’s a deal worth making.

Publication Bias

Another area where drug companies increasingly in need government intervention is in drug trials; specifically, they are presently allowed to pick and choose what to publish; this sounds OK at first, because, surely, you assume, the drug¬†company¬†has to make a bulletproof case before the drug is licensed? Well, if you do 100 trials, you may well find 50 good results, and publish those, and simply sweep the duds under the carpet. What’s more is those duds could have revealed possible side effects or interactions that could actually turn out to be real issues later on down the road. This is going to be a big one in the next few years.

The Big Picture

When criticizing the pharmaceutical¬†industry¬†it is easy to get caught up in the weeds, for there are weeds, but let’s also try to remember that this century has seen unparalleled improvements in life expectancy world-wide, and the improvements in child mortality in the third world do owe a lot to the sometimes cold-hearted business models intrinsic to western medicine.

Before I move on, and being a scientist, I wanted to make another point about big pharma. While it’s true that big money is involved, we have to¬†remember¬†that the Pareto principle applies here too – the majority of the profits come from the minority of the research. There are legions of perfectly good people, motivated by no more that the desire to help people in distress working in healthcare all around the world. Drugs are highly integrated with other therapies at the clinical level and the people actually running trials ‘in the trenches’ face-to-face with the patients (and often dealing with terrible trauma) ¬†are rarely shareholders in big pharma, and many would not even think for a second they are part of what people would call big pharma. Yet it is they who have gradually built up our current understanding of the human body, not the men in suits.

Conclusion

To me, the idea of executives at the top 5 drug companies has become conflated with the idea of the ‘canon’ of western medicine. The idea that the whole world of ‘proven medications’, the result of countless years of hard graft (and the learnings from millions of deaths), can be dismissed because it’s under the control of ‘fatcats’ is a sick tragedy. Western medicine is simply a name for ‘what has been statistically been proven to help’, and the idea that even a tiny fraction of the scientists who developed it would be working to suppress good ideas from outside the ‘fold’ sounds frankly paranoid. Yes big pharma has some warped incentives that cause it to focus on the wrong things and leave the poor out in the cold, but all¬†for-profit publicly-traded businesses do that! Ask yourself for a minute – even if a cure for heart disease were found that threatened the profits to Pfizer and friends, could they really recruit a worldwide network of conspirators who think a cure for cancer is something worth selling their very souls for to suppress?

It hard enough to run a real business, let alone running one so effectively in complete secrecy in the face of so much scrutiny. If they have that much skill and power, they should go legit, they would make a real killing!

Exceeding the Speed-Of-Light Explained Simply (and the Quantum riddle solved at no extra cost)

It has recently been in the news that some particle may have exceeded the legal speed limit for all things : 299,792,458 metres per second.

Of course, this will probably turn out to be a bad sum somewhere or perhaps waves ganging up, but the whole hubbub has raised my hackles, and here’s why.

Because Albert Einstein at no time said what they say he said (see here for example). They misunderstand relativity! Things can move at any speed we want, and I will try to explain the fuss now.

So let’s get to it!

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First, we have to consider the way space warps when we move.

The problems started when people realised that light always seems to have the same speed, regardless of the speed you were moving when you saw it. This seems to be a contradiction, because surely if you fly into the light ever faster, it will pass you ever faster?

Well the tests were pretty clear, this does not happen. The speed is always c.

For several years, people were unsure why – until they were told by Einstein in 1905. In the meantime, another ponderer of the problem (Lorentz) decided to write down the maths that are required to square the circle.

The so-called Lorentz equations show, unequivocally, that space and/or time need to warp in order for relative speeds of c not to be exceeded, even when two items are going very close to c in opposite directions to one another.

So something needed to give, and it was space and time!

So, newsflash! it was not Einstein that first published on space and time warping. His contribution (along with Henri Poincar√©¬†and a few others)¬†was to explain how and why. His special theory¬†showed that because there is no ‘preferred’ frame of reference, a speed limit on light was inevitable. The term ‘relativity’ come from this – basically he said, if everything is relative, nothing can be fixed.

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Ok, so we have some nice observations that nothing seems to go faster than the speed of light  Рand we have a nice maths model that allows it. So why do I persist in saying things can go faster than the speed of light?

Let me show you…

There is a critical difference between ‘going’ faster than light and being ‘seen to be going’ faster than the speed of light, and that is where I am going with this.

So lets take this apart by asking how we actually define speed.

If a particle leaves point a and then gets to point b, we can divide the distance by the time taken and get the mean speed (or velocity to be pedantic).

The issue with relativistic speeds are that the clock cannot be in both point a and point b. So we need to do some fancy footwork with the maths to use one or other of the clocks. So far so good. This method will indeed never get a result > c.

The nature of space forbids it – if the Lorentz transformations that work so well are to be taken at face value, then for something to exceed c by this method of measurement, is much the same as a number exceeding infinity.

So all is still well. Until you ask, what about if the clock is the thing that travelled from a to b?

In this case, the transformations cancel! The faster the movement, the slower time goes for the clock, and you will see its ticks slow down, thus allowing its speed to exceed c.

The clock will cover the distance and appear to have tavelled at c on your own (stationary) clock, but the travelling clock will have ticked fewer times!

If you divide the distance by the time on the travelling clock, you see a speed that perfectly matches what you would expect should no limit apply. Indeed, the energy required to create the movement matches that expected from simple Newtonian mechanics.

The key point here is that while the clock travelled, the reader of the clock did not. If you do choose to travel with the clock, you will see it tick at normal speed, and see the limit apply – but see the rest of the universe magically shrink to make it so.

Some have argued that I am not comparing apples with apples, and that by using an observer in a different frame to the clock I am invalidating the logic.

To those who say that, I have to admit this is not done lightly. I have grown more confident that this inference is valid by considering questions such as the twin paradox over and over.

The twin paradox describes how one twin who travels somewhere at high speed and then returns will age less than his (or her) stationary twin.

Now if we¬†consider a¬† trip to Proxima Centauri (our nearest¬†neighbour) the transformations clearly show that if humans could bear the acceleration required (we can’t) and if we had the means to get to, say, 0.99c for most of the trip, that yes, the round-trip would¬†take over 8 years and no laws would be broken. However the travellers themselves will experience time 7 times slower (7.089 to be precise). Thus they will have aged less than 8 years. So, once they get home and back-calculate their actual personal speed, it will exceed all the live measurements.

This has bothered me endlessly. Although taken for granted in some sci-fi books (the Enders Game saga for example) this clear ‘breakage of the c-limit’ is not discussed openly anywhere.

Still uncertain why people were ignoring this, I read a lot (fun tomes like this one) learned more maths (Riemann rules!) and also started to look at the wider implications of the assertion.

On the one hand, the implications are not dramatic, because instant interstellar communication is still clearly excluded, but that whole issue of needing a 4 years flight to get to Proxima Centauri is just wrong. If we can get closer to c we can indeed go very far into the universe, although our life stories will be strangely punctuated, just as in the Ender books.

But what about the implications for the other big festering boil on the body of theories that is physics today – quantum theory?

Well, if one is bold enough to assert that it is only measurement that is kept below¬†c¬†and not ‘local reality’, then one can allow for infinite speed.

In this scenario, we are saying measurement is simply mapping reality through a sort of hyperbolic lense¬†such that infinity resembles a limit. Modelling space with hyperbolic geometry is really not as unreasonable as all that, I don’t know why we are so hung up on Euclid.

With infinite speed at our disposal, things get really interesting.

We get things like photons arriving at their¬†destination¬†the same tme they leave their source. Crazy of course… but is it?

Have we not heard physicists ask – how is it the photon ‘knows’ which slit is blocked in the famous double slit experiment? It knows because it was ¬†spread out in space all the way from it’s source to it’s final point of absorption.

If you hate infinities and want to stick with Lorentz, you can equally argue that, for the photon, going exactly at c, time would stand still. Either way, the photon feels like it is everywhere en route at once.

If the photon is indeed smeared out, it probably can interfere with itself. Furthermore, it is fitting that what we see is a ‘wave’ when we try to ‘measure’ this thing.

A wave pattern is the sort of thing I would expect to see when cross sectioning something spread in time and space.

Please tell me I’m wrong so I can get back to worrying about something useful. No, don’t tell me – show¬†me – please! ūüėČ

Pet Peeve of the Week: Starfield simulations are always wrong, and here’s why…

Ok, if you don’t know what a starfield simulation is, lets sort you now – look at the video below first.

Ok, for those of you without youtube, think then of the screen savers on early windows PC’s – you may recall the screensaver that makes it look like you are flying through space – this “stars flying by” visual is the thing I am talking about. If you are interested, you can presently download this screensaver here.

Now when this screen saver came out, I’ll admit I was still a bit of a nerd – with a thing for both astronomy and for computers, so I set out to make my own. What I learned along the way initially puzzled me then annoyed me and then made me give up in disgust.

Ok, so before I tell you the ‘big secret’ of what annoyed me so, take a look at this animation:

I think you’ll agree it’s quite good – yes the stars are not perhaps as pretty in their distribution as some of the pictures from the Hubble¬†(see below) but that is quite¬†forgiveable.

Despite the boring uniformity of the stars, I want to draw your attention to the complexity involved in creating this animation. Just ‘guessing’ the paths of the stars by having them start small, somewhere near the middle, and then gradually grow and swing to one of the edges will not do. I tried this, trust me, it looked crap.

No, it turns out the only way to make this look decent is to do the honest thing and create a virtual 3-d world and then place the stars in it, then fly the camera through the space and have the computer figure out the paths for all the stars. Sound tricky? Well it bloody well was in 1995 when I tried it, though I reckon it’s easier now. I used POV-Ray¬†to render hundreds of stills and then tried to create a loop to make an animated gif. It was only like 200-200 pixels and it took days to render but it eventually finished and looked – absolutely nothing like the windows screen saver.

You see, I made the school-boy error of distributing stars ‘realistically’ in my 3-D space – I put them proper distances apart, randomly, and I gave them¬†realistic ‘sizes’ (relative to the inter-star distance). Instantly I had my first problem. The stars were all too small to even be detected by the renderer. Ok, so it turns out stars don’t work like normal things, their apparent size is not due to their actual size but a combination of their brightness and their distance. Fine. So I had to make them far bigger so they could be seen (which is utterly wrong wrong wrong to my purist heart).

Ok, so now I had spots. Did we get that sense of flight? No.

The next issue was that you needed only a few stars to create a ‘busy frame’ (say 20 stars), but most of them were stupendously far away and would stubbornly refuse to budge. The only option was the put absolutely bazillions of stars in the field so that at least a few were nearby enough for you to ‘swoosh’ lavishly past. Of course, to get that many stars, the whole view has to be completely plastered with stars – to the point of being a plain white screen. So I had to do another fudge – I had to create a sort of ‘fog’ that filtered distant light. This meant the viewer would only see nearby stars. Wrong wrong wrong again!!!! I happen to know from my own space travels (on spaceship earth) that we can see rather far without trouble, and thus this fog effect is a terrible hash.

However, I was getting somewhere with the sim. It looked like dots moving now. They did not get any bigger as they got closer, but they did move faster and get brighter, due to the fog. But damn, all the ‘nice’ starfield sims did¬†have the stars actually getting bigger, so now I increased the size of the stars again – so big that the stars were¬†literally¬†only a few dozen¬†diameters¬†apart and hey presto, it now looked good.

binary stars

Stars are not happy bedfellows!

Now think about that Рthe stars were only a few dozen diameters apart. The earth is actually about one-hundred sun-diameters from the sun; so what we are talking about it a super dense space, rammed with stars. Wrong wrong wrong. Stars that close tend to get involved in all-out gravity war (see the picture!)

So it occurs to me that the nerdy folks who have a hand in creating those ‘nice looking’ simulations are probably aware of their dirty little crimes. These simulations are not simulations at all, they are but an ‘artist’s renditions‘. Now that is an insult of great proportion to any red-blooded computer programmer. All I can say is, you should have formatted that floppy when you realised what you were doing and moved on with your life. It’s too late now – I know your crimes and will not let you sleep easy tonight.

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Update, 2011…

Ok, I have that out of my system. The question is (it should be burning your lips): what does superfast space flight look like then?

To answer this well, you simply need to put more effort into the simulation – you need to consider the great¬†asymmetries¬†in the star distributions – think how small they really are, then think about their clusters, then spiral arms, then galaxies, then clusters of galaxies, then…

I have referenced this video before and I do it again unashamedly – take a look, because they have already done what I suggest…

I think the makers should get a Nobel prize.

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Update 2012…

Ah, I am not alone in my nerd-dom. Now you can fly around in a pretty darn impressive virtual universe and see for¬†yourself¬†how the stars really actaully fly past. Happily, the results are not at all like most starfield simulators. You can fly vast distances with the sky literally ‘unmoved’. It is only once you come near a star or star cluster that those few will move, and only when you are moving stupidly fast yourself (like 2 parsecs per second) in a dense part of a galaxy, will you get anything like the old Windows starfield effect. My inner nerd feels justified. You can run the simulator on your own PC, get it at:

http://en.spaceengine.org/

Or read about it at io9:

http://io9.com/5924776/new-simulation-is-as-close-to-traveling-through-space-as-it-gets

Amazingly, this has been in the works for some time – this video from the sim was uploaded in 2009 already, it gets to the starry stuff in the second half:

Energy Drink Misinformation

Zero calorie ‘energy’ drinks piss me off. Why?

A zero calorie energy drink is a flat-out contradiction. 

Think about it. What is a calorie? If you don’t know, look it up. Yes, exactly, it is a measure of… energy content! WTF?

What I want to know is this: how come we let big business redefine our language to their own greedy ends? I mean the people who make low-calorie energy drinks know they have no energy in them, so why are they called energy drinks?

I think its because energy is a misunderstood concept and they are taking advantage of this.

Understanding what energy is (and more importantly isn’t) will allow people to more accurately decide things correctly – like whether it’s a good idea to try hike 100 miles across a desert armed only with zero calorie energy drinks.

So for background, please take a look at my article on energy designed for people with too little time to read a whole book, or even a pamplet.

Now, the specific issue here is that people are confusing energy sources with stimulants. Sure, the sugary versions do actually supply some energy, but no more than a can of Coke Рbut these guys are not charging those absurd prices for sugar Рthose prices, and claims, are for the drugs. Compounds like caffeine affect our nervous system and interfere with our built-in protection systems, systems that make us feel tired after effort, mechanisms that force us to get the sleep we need in order to rest our muscles and reboot our brains.

The issue here is that the word stimulant is not as easy to sell as ‘energy’, and the English language does allow us to mix up feeling ‘energetic’ with feeling alert and ready for action. ¬†The nerdy scientific truth issue here is that tired people actually still actually have plenty of energy (especially if they are prosperous about the middle) it is just their inclination to use that energy that changes.

So next time you feel tired but need to keep going, by all means get a ‘so-called’ energy drink but remember it is mainly just a drug. The next time you hit a wall 20 miles into a marathon, remember to get some real energy.

 

 

Postscript

So is messing with you body’s tiredness systems bad?¬†Not necessarily! We must also resist overreacting and committing another crime – resorting to the¬†naturalistic fallacy that messing with nature is fundamentally a bad idea. I quite like it when medical science messes with natural things like smallpox and malaria for example.¬†Stimulants are not all bad, keeping alert can keep us safe when driving, and used in moderation can actually help us focus through tedious study or exams.