Updates on the latest from the world of 'straight' science.

Epic Rube Goldberg Machine

Here's an epic Rube Goldberg machine, designed to turn the page of the newspaper by taking a sip of coffee (via destroyed laptops and heated hamsters)...

You can read more about the creator, Joseph Hersher, and his obsession, at the New York Times.

In the Hand of the Beast

How to horrify any person worried about the imminent rise of the machines: take one car seat with 5-point racing harness, attach to robot arm. Strap yourself in, and mind your head:

Now imagine the video if Skynet was self-aware...

The Radioactive Boy Scout

What happens when a Boy Scout decides to get his "Atomic Energy" badge? Check out the story of David Hahn, the 'Radioactive Boy Scout', who in 1994 attempted to build a fast breeder nuclear reactor in his backyard shed in in Detroit.

As a postscript, in 2007 - four years after this documentary went to air - Hahn was charged with stealing smoke detectors, most likely to use as a source of radioactive materials for further experiments. His mug shot at that time showed his face pock-marked with open sores, probably caused by exposure to radiation.

Sure, he seems bat-poop crazy, but you can't argue with that can-do attitude...

Sir Martin Rees Wins Templeton Prize

Britain's Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees has been announced as the recipient of the 2011 Templeton Prize, an award that "honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works". The £1 million prize is the largest in science, and has often been the subject of scathing criticism by anti-religion campaigners and scientists.

The selection seems an odd one - Rees has, on a number of occasions, made clear that he is not religious, and that he doesn't see a place for dialogue between science and religion as they cover fundamentally different areas of life. Nevertheless, the Astronomer Royal is certainly not anti-religion - he has in the past been described by Richard Dawkins as a "compliant little quisling" for his moderate views on the subject, and one would suspect this award won't endear himself further to the "militant atheists" - and has a cosmological viewpoint that leads him to view with suspicion any person who believes "they've got anything more than an incomplete and metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality".

According to the Templeton Prize website...

Martin J. Rees, a theoretical astrophysicist whose profound insights on the cosmos have provoked vital questions that speak to humanity’s highest hopes and worst fears, Sir Martin Reeshas won the 2011 Templeton Prize.

Rees, Master of Trinity College, one of Cambridge University’s top academic posts, and former president of the Royal Society, the highest leadership position within British science, has spent decades investigating the implications of the big bang, the nature of black holes, events during the so-called ‘dark age’ of the early universe, and the mysterious explosions from galaxy centers known as gamma ray bursters.

In turn, the “big questions” he raises – such as “How large is physical reality?” – are reshaping crucial philosophical and theological considerations that strike at the core of life, fostering the spiritual progress that the Templeton Prize has long sought to recognize.

This Guardian interview with Rees regarding the Templeton Prize hammers on the point about science vs religion, but Rees steadfastly refuses to become involved ("I try to avoid getting into these science and religion debates") - making the interview a rather awkward affair, until he opens up more when the topic turns to astronomy and cosmology. But there are a few pearls in there nevertheless, such as this quick riposte:

I think just as religion is separate from science, so is ethics separate from science. So is aesthetics separate from science. And so are many other things. There are lots of important things that are separate from science.

Personally I've always found Rees' thoughts to be cogent and thoughtful - and, coincidentally (or was it...?!), I had turned to him for my "quote of the day" for my news briefs last Monday and the Monday before.

Update: Quelle surprise! P.Z. Myers calls Martin Rees a mediocre "slice of soggy toast". Also, Richard Dawkins says it won't look very good on Rees's C.V., and Professor Sir Harry Kroto says accepting one million pounds will no doubt be "very bad for Martin", and he should donate it to the British Humanist Association. Meanwhile, Jerry Coyne labeled it a travesty, saying it continued the Templeton Foundation's "serious corruption of science". So there.

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Single-Celled Wonder

From the 'things that make you go hmmmm" department: behold the sand-grain house built by Difflugia coronata, a single-celled amoeba with no nervous system:

Sand grain house of Difflugia coronata

Some further information from Mike Hansell's book Built By Animals (Amazon US and UK):

How does this single-celled creature build such an elegant house? Well, we don't really know. The only information we have at the moment is a description of what we can observe. An individual Difflugia flows around, carrying its case with it. While doing this, it not only engulfs food particles but also tiny sand grains that accumulate inside the amoeba as a large ball. When the time to reproduce arrives, the nucleus of the amoeba replicates its DNA to create two complete nuclei. The cytoplasm (the body material) then begins to divide, one nucleus going into each half, to form two independent organisms. One of these will inherit the existing house, but the other takes the ball of stones in its cytoplasm. As the two organisms are created, these stones move to the surface and arrange themselves as a new house.

That last sentence may sound pretty unsatisfactory. It is like a magic trick that leaves you wanting to know how it was done rather than simply enjoying the moment, but we simply don't have the information.

Funny thing is, I'm sure both IDers and Darwinists would see this organism as being supportive of their worldview.

Tesseract Love

I love these things...there's something about them that I relate to the "self-transforming" aspects of another strange space. Watch as a four-dimensional object cuts through our limited three-dimensional perception:


Admit it. You can’t take your eyes off this object. This is a tesseract and as such is a 4 dimensional shape. Wait, though. We only live in three dimensions, don’t we? So although this object is beautiful, hypnotising almost – what on earth is it and what is it doing here, confounding our lovely three dimensions with its impertinent fourth? Strictly speaking, what you can see above is a two dimensional projection of a three dimensional simulation of a four dimensional tesseract, that’s what

...Think of the space with which you are familiar. Put simply; think of the ways in which you can move. There is left to right, forwards and backwards. Finally there is up and down. Three ways, three dimensions. You can pinpoint your location by working out your coordinates in those three directions.

...When you go to the fourth dimension (cue Twilight Zone music) you have another direction. That direction is (wait for it) at right angles to each and every one of the three original directions. If your head just exploded, don’t worry. That is quite a normal reaction. Just take it from me that the math works.

Tesseract 101 at Kuriositas.

Previously on TDG:

Volcano Anniversary

30 years ago, Mount St. Helens erupted with catastrophic results, killing 57 people. The event was caught on camera, and the famous images are awe-inspiring...mother nature at her most violent:

There are a number of excellent features around the web commemorating the disaster. Boston.com's "The Big Picture" has a wonderful photo-essay showing the effects of the volcano, both then and now (I didn't realize that 1000s of fallen trees still float in nearby Spirit Lake). National Geographic - who documented the event in their magazine - have an article on their website as well as a heart-breaking video story. The Oregonian has a photo story on Harry R. Truman, the folk hero of Mount St. Helens. And for a really detailed look at the topic, make sure you check out the Nova documentary (sadly, complete video is restricted for non-US viewers).

Eyjafjallajökull has recently put us on notice that we're fairly insignificant compared to the natural processes of our planet, but Mount St. Helens walked right up to us and slapped us in the face.

Misty-Eyed Gorillas

Conservationist Damian Aspinall raised Kwibi, a lowland gorilla, at Howletts Wild Animal Park in England. When Kwibi was five, he was released into the forests of Gabon, West Africa as part of program to re-introduce gorillas back into the wild. Five years later, Aspinall went in search of Kwibi, now 10-years-old, and much bigger, stronger and unpredictable. Here's what happened:

An interesting insight into memory and emotion in our primate cousins.

Climate Change Conspiracy Controversy

I've been getting a lot of contact from readers asking why TDG isn't covering the 'Climategate' story, in which email messages from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit were hacked and released via the Internet. Firstly, I have to note that the story was covered in Kat's news briefs on Monday (a little hard to find perhaps, due to the amount of links). Secondly, the reason I don't mention the GW controversy much myself, is because I don't know what to think about it - I haven't done enough reading and research on the matter to really hold a valued opinion (and sadly, I'd apply that to 99% of the people currently going purple in the face on forums across the internet). So I'd prefer not to comment much when I feel rather uninformed (or at times, misinformed) on the matter.

What does interest me though is how this controversy mirrors so many other scientific debates, with individuals trapped in their own reality tunnel and reacting accordingly. So for some, the email leak is evidence of a worldwide conspiracy. To others it just shows that data and conclusions are being fudged. Alternatively, some seem to view it as a case of 'nothing to see here', and then I've even see some blogs pronouncing that a full viewing of the emails demonstrates how 'Global Warming Denialists' are wrong. And here lies my difficulty in making sense of it all - I have hardly read an essay, or seen a graph, in which I have not seen some manipulation of the reader (that includes both GW and anti-GW arguments) into accepting the author's particular reality tunnel.

Regardless of the truth of the matter, I do take issue with the way in which those challenging the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) theory are ostracized as 'Denialists'. The term itself is insulting (echoing Holocaust Denial), and squeezes everyone from some clueless idiot claiming a lizard conspiray to highly-qualified scientists mainly questioning the 'anthropogenic' aspect into one category to be dismissed as 'denying' Global Warming (very similar to the debate over the paranormal). While I understand the emotive nature of the debate (ie. "we need to stop arguing and act now to ensure our children's future!"), I also think it is a very dangerous thing to stifle debate on any issue. Given that much of TDG's ethos is about challenging orthodox knowledge, I therefore am more than open to hearing (intelligent) arguments against the AGW theory. Note, however - I care very little for people starting from their preconceived view and matching the data to their arguments, despite it's popularity.

So my interest in 'Climategate' is probably a little different to most - what fascinates me is the insight into how the scientific debate is taking place. When you can look at emails in which the peer review process seems more akin to turf wars then you get a better understanding of the skepticism we all should have towards any pronouncements of scientific concensus (n.b. 'skepticism', not 'blanket denial of').

Hyping the Missing Link

Been meaning to discuss this all week, but I've been real short on time. Last week I was a little bemused when the announcement of the discovery of Darwinius masillae (also known simply as 'Ida') sprang forth suddenly and overwhelmingly, fully-formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. Usually news on this level is either preceded by plenty of whispers and leaks, or otherwise is released and then builds into a snowball. But the 'missing link' news hit full force, with proclamations that the discovery would "change everything", that the fossil was the "mising link" in primate evolution and so on. Unbelievably, even Google modified its logo in celebration of the announcement. Then, when I saw that the History Channel already had a documentary on DVD and a book devoted to the discovery, ready for purchasing, I really became suspicious.

But then, I'm a goofy anti-science guy, so it's to be expected that I'd see a conspiracy here. So it was gratifying that other, more scientific types, also smelt a rat. Carl Zimmer, on his science blog 'The Loom', looked at the timeline of the release of information, with all roads leading to a PR event rather than a scientific announcement. P.Z.Myers then took umbrage at the hype and the P.R. control of the event (although, to be fair, P.Z. takes umbrage at seemingly everything). And Brian Switek than listed why the discovery was overblown (although still spectacular).

There's little of this criticism in the mass media though, and it would seem the iconic imagery of the Ida fossil has now burned itself into the public consciousness as the 'missing link'. I think though that most of that is down to some smart PR, rather than any conspiracy to bend people's minds. I still am wondering though why Google made the logo change...