Monday, 31 December 2007

'Tis the Season for Hangovers

Hangovers have been around as long as man started having benders. Hangover cures have been around since man woke up from the first bender. Cures passed down & around by family and friends. Cures we've likely tried. One of us got smart and starting selling them.

The first hangover over-the-counter (OTC) I remember seeing in the market was Chaser® plus, which says it provides “Freedom from Hangovers®”. Bayer® joined the fight against hangovers by offering Alka-Setzer® Morning Relief.

Hmmmm….can you really chase away a hangover? Plop-plop, fizz-fizz your way out of one? Hangovers cures - ‘tis the season to question them.

William Loeffler of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review tackled hangover cures in today’s Tribune-Review. Chaser® and other OTCs were the topic of Mike McGinley’s “Ohh Lang Syne: Anyone got an aspirin?” piece in this morning’s Times Leader. Canada’s National Post got into the hangover mix with Joanne Sasvari’s advice for avoiding hangovers.

Avoiding hangovers is the best we can do. There is no such thing as a hangover cure. Why? Scientists don’t even know what a hangover is. Common sense tells me that if we don’t know what it is and exactly how it works, we haven't cured it. We don’t know exactly what a hangover is, but we do know it's a multi-symptom condition. Headache, nausea, dry mouth….what we've done is treated each symptom with our homemade “cures” and OTCs.

Chaser® plus outlines their multi-symptom scheme right on the box....
Cinchona for throbbing head & noise sensitivity
Lobelia for nausea, dizziness, and headache
Nux vom for headache & light sensitivity
Quercus gland for dry mouth & throat
Ranunc bulb for headache & fatigue
Zincum met (Zinc) for fatigue, headache, and nausea

What is this stuff? Does it work? Take a look at the links above. Some of those ingredients are remedies from way back for all types of ailments. Does it all work for hangovers? The makers of Chaser® say so. But they also say…

(1) You must follow the directions! Yeah, those words on the back of the box. In my reading of the directions, seems like you’ve got take the pills along for your night it just me, or would it look pretty weird to be poppin' pills saddled up to the bar?

(2) “Chaser® plus does not prevent intoxication and is not intended to treat or prevent the consequences of excessive alcohol consumption. It will not help you pass a sobriety test. Please drink responsibly. Never drink and drive. Chaser Plus is not intended for people under the legal drinking age.” ~ I thought one of the “consequences of excessive alcohol consumption” was a hangover…

(3) From the FAQ section of the above website:

Q: Will Chaser® Plus work no matter how much I drink? A: No. Chaser Plus is designed for the moderate social drinker. We recommend that you drink in moderation. Never drink and drive. Consult a physician if you believe you may have a dependency on alcohol.
Moderate social drinker? “Meaning what?” you ask. My quick look around the literature said about 2 drinks a day. Ok, I’m confused…the directions give guidelines for “after 4 to 6 drinks”…that doesn’t sound like a “moderate social drinker” to me… And no, by “drink” they do not mean a pint glass full of tequila.

“But Raychelle, does it work?!?!” you ask. Ah, if only it were that easy… if only I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt I wouldn’t get sued by Living Essentials, makers of Chaser® plus.

The makers of Alka-Setzer® Morning Relief take a bit of a different track. Forget the night of; this product is for the morning after. From the Alka-Setzer® Morning Relief website…“For many people it can take no more than a late night with one or two drinks to cause minor aches and pains with fatigue or drowsiness the next morning.”

Seems like Bayer® is a bit more on track so far, but what’s in it? Caffeine (65mg) and aspirin (500mg) with citrus flavor in quick dissolving tablets -pretty simple compared to Chaser® plus.

From perusing the Morning Relief website, I’d say Bayer is an expert on covering their own a@*. They don’t claim to “cure” or prevent hangovers, just treat the most common symptoms - headache and fatigue. I like it better, not because I’ve tried it (I haven’t), but because Morning Relief doesn’t contain ingredients I’d need a botany degree to have heard of.

“But Raychelle, does it work?!?!” you ask. Ditto my earlier response. Morning Relief is about the same as drinking a cup of coffee and taking one capsule of Bayer® Extra Strength aspirin in regards to active ingredients.

Look, the best way to prevent a hangover is to not drink. Yeah, right. Lots of us will continue to enjoy our cocktails. All we can do is tone down our drinking and treat any symptoms that come with having too good a night.

Sunday, 30 December 2007

Hush please, some respect

We deal mainly with silly science here, but I'd like to draw attention to something slightly more sombre today.

Some respect please, for it seems physics is on its death bed.

Due to an £80M funding deficit, physics departments all over the UK are losing researchers, and hope. Please join Rosie Walton and her 700-strong Facebook army in the fight to save physics.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

More Science Horror-Stories.

Following on from the Horror-movie post from Raychelle yesterday, I have spotted a potential real-life horror story.

Evidence "A": A Giant Rat is found in the Jungles of New Guinea. The thing is frankly terrifying, as big as a dog, and you certainly wouldn't want to get bitten by it. But, it lives in a jungle on the other side of the world, and we shouldn't be that scared by it...

Or should we? Apparently, the rats in the UK are growing in numbers as well. Now, combine these two pieces of information and draw them to their ludicrously sensationalist logical conclusion, and we have the recipe for a real-life horror story: "Attack of the Killer Rats". Or maybe "The Pied Piper Revisited".


I suspect that at this moment, Hollywood will be pouncing on this as a story, and the Government will be making their contingency plans, but just remember, you heard it here first.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Kernel of truth in I Am Legend

Let’s face it, the hungry undead are nearly guaranteed horror movie success. We’re been making flesh eating zombie movies for decades. The only thing that has changed is how the zombies come to be. In the cold war era, we blamed every mutant, zombie, and giant insect on nuclear waste. But when the wall came down, Hollywood came up with a new way to unleash the undead. Enter stage left: the human engineered virus.

Mankind took a major hit in 28 Days Later and again in 28 Weeks Later (and again if you count Shaun of the Dead). But in those movies, a “who was dumb enough to make this?” virus gets loose and surprise! Humans go hungry zombie. Not surprising really, so the virus-makes-zombie thing was re-vamped. Taking a page from the 1997 flick Mimic, in which a good cure goes bad, Hollywood’s new virus is first savior then devil. Introducing Hollywood’s version of I Am Legend.

Here’s the low down straight from the movie theater. A scientist (nice cameo by Emma Thompson) informs the world she’s cured cancer using an engineered virus. “And here is where things go horribly wrong,” I mumbled mid scene. And boy do they go wrong in Legend. Pandemic scale wrong with the engineered virus going rogue, wiping out most of the world’s population, turning some into mutant UV sensitive cannibals, with a few people naturally immune (like Will Smith’s character, Neville).

What made Legend chilling to us science dorks in the audience was the kernel of truth in the movie’s science. Scientists really are pitting virus versus cancer. Think Alien vs. Predator in a test tube. Some examples: Mayo Clinic researchers used altered measles and shrew viruses to battle cancer, University of Newcastle researchers set an altered flu virus loose on breast cancer, and Penn State researchers killed many types of cancer with adeno-associated virus type 2.

In the real world, science is having some success attacking cancer with viruses, but we’re a long way from setting altered viruses loose in cancer patients worldwide. In movies, we do it and it always goes wrong. In the real world, could it go Legend wrong? This was the topic of our post-movie conversation.

The biochemist of the bunch brought up a very good point. The entire zombie-by-infection thing requires massive cellular changes. “No human could survive that,” said biochemist. The chemists, including myself, along with the group’s only non-scientist agreed whole heartedly. We all felt better knowing that in the real world, we’d all just drop dead rather than becoming undead cannibals.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Faith in the non-science community

I can often be found spouting such things as, 'the public just don't appreciate how important science is to them,' but while doing a bit of research for the Null book I ended up reading about Time Magazine's 'Person of the Century.' Now that's what I call a title. Forget Prof Einstein, how about Einstein - Person of the Century. But the thing that really struck me were the 'runners up', Mohandas Gandhi, Franklin Roosevelt...

Apparently the choice caused quite a stir back at the turn of the Millennium. Many people took it to mean science had beat religion and politics to the post of importance, and maybe in the 20th century it's true. It's just nice to know that people (even if it's only the Time editorial team) realise how important science really is.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Boy with a banana phone

Two seemingly unrelated things:

On my way to work this morning, I passed a small boy acting out a wonderful piece of theatre. He had obviously seen his mother, who was hurrying along ahead of him, having a conversation on her mobile phone and decided to mimic her, albeit with a slightly different piece of equipment - a banana. Holding the banana phone to his ear, I heard him chatting away quite happily, "Yes, I know. It's too cold. I'll slip on the ice." Clearly though, he had misheard his mother when her conversation started to heat up. "Toot, toot! I'll toot on your face!" No, I've no idea what he thought he was saying either.

A little further along my route, I found myself - as I quite often do - involuntarily humming a sort of tune. (I say "sort of" because it rarely resembles anything that anyone would refer to as music). When I thought about it I realised that it was in response to my mulling over something embarrassing I had done the day before - mad as it sounds, this seems to be the way my brain copes with "thought blushes". I quickly turned around to make sure there was no one within earshot, then, having assured myself I hadn't been heard, went on my merry way.

Two seemingly unrelated things, but, in a way, related. Two examples of the odd things we say or do when we don't think anyone is paying attention. And does anybody else do that musical brain blush thing, or is it just me? Wait, am I going mad?

Friday, 7 December 2007

Wikipedia. Now with added legitimacy?

So, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, has decided that it is now good enough for students to use as a proper academic resource, and that any educational institutions that refuse students use of the site are "bad educators". The thrust of his argument seems to be that whilst "academics" are probably better off doing their own research, wikipedia is now good enough that and he sees no problem with students using it.

Quite apart from the fact that, being a founder of the site, his views need to be taken with a large pinch of salt, there are problems with this, the chief one being that wikipedia, for all it's fancy systems of review, for all the volunteers who check things, can still be changed by anybody... ANYBODY...

In any case, no lecturer is going to ban students from looking at wikipedia, it's the idea of citing it as an authoritative source that's the problem. You can use it to tell you what the correct answer is likely to be, but then you go and check this answer from a source that can't be changed, either as a "hilarious" prank, or as a great way of catching out unwary students. A lecturer of mine once told me that he (subtly but importantly, he was quick to add) vandalised the relevant wikipedia page for an essay he set for final year students, to se which ones weren't researching properly (several, it turned out, apparently). According to him, this was 2 years ago, and the mistake has not been rectified*.

In short, the wikipedia man might say that wikipedia is good enough, but the people that actually have to do academic referencing, (i.e. lecturers) are pretty certain not to agree.

(* I should point out here that I do not cite wikipedia in my references, nor do I change entries for fun.)

Friday, 30 November 2007

The fountain of youth... for mice...

Yes, it's the holy grail of skincare, and scientists have managed it. Well, in mice, at least. They have managed to reverse the effects of age on the skin, giving two year old mice the skin that would be the envy of all of the younger (and presumably more youthful and pretty looking) mice in the cage.

The way they have managed it is to block the effects of a particular protein, NF-kappa-B. This is all well and good, but as the scientists stress, the problem is that NF-kappa-B is a rather important protein in lots of cellular processes, and blocking it for any length of time doesn't seem like a particularly good idea.

Interesting, yes. Likely to end up in Boots any time soon, no.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Swastika shaved on dog - cats wanted for questioning

It's was reported today that a German man is helping the police after a dog had a swastika shaved into its fur. Unconfirmed reports say that the police are looking for three cats with known neo-nazi leanings recently sighted near the Bavarian town of Straubing.

When asked about the incident, the dog, a 3 year old retriever called Goldberg, is quoted as having said "Woof, woof". Chief detective Dieter Flashmann later described his comments as "unhelpful". He added that the public should not attempt to approach any cats, as it would make them stupid.

Friday, 23 November 2007

Stem cells: My favourite kind...

I will admit that I have been looking for an excuse to use that picture for a while, and now I have the chance. Stem cells are something of a hot potato in the science world. They are “un-differentiated” cells, capable (given the right cocktail of chemicals) of turning into any different cell type. As such, they could be used to grow organs in the laboratory for research and eventually produce transplant tissues to help in currently incurable diseases like Motor Neurone Disease.

Up until now, however, these stem cells have only been available from embryos, sparking an ethical debate as to whether it’s right to destroy an unborn (human) life in order to potentially treat others in the future. It’s an ethical grey area, and has led to massive restrictions on the work that can be carried out.

Recent research, however, has found a way of creating these stem cells from adult skin cell samples. This completely removes the need to destroy any embryos, and therefore would close down any ethical debate, opening the field of research up much wider. The scientist Ian Wilmut, responsible for cloning Dolly the sheep, has seen so much promise in the new technique that he has abandoned his work on embryos to concentrate on this method instead.

Personally, I have no ethical problem with the use of human embryos for research, especially if it means that debilitating diseases stand a chance of being cured, but if this allows the work to progress faster, and allows the scientists to get on with their research rather than legal wrangling, then it’s a fantastic thing in my book.

Image: Where Are The Dogs

Ball pits

If, per chance, you were hoping to turn your bedroom into a ball pit, Randall Munroe (of XKCD fame) has created a calculator that will tell you exactly what it would cost you to do so. You'll need to have a good idea of the area you want to cover, the depth you would like to achieve and your desired 'packing efficiency'. The calculator will also tell you exactly how many balls you will need.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Writing a book

You know what? Writing a book ain't half as easy as it seems. In my head, "writing a book" conjures up all manner of wonderful images - me in a quaint little cottage by the fire with a quill, me sitting at a snazzy laptop in front of a window looking down on New York, Sarah Jessica Parker style - none of which turn out to be true. Our office is more like a car crash in a nuclear war these days.

Undeterred (sort of) by our first venture into the literary quagmire that is writing a science book, we're marching on through. Somehow or other, there will be 1,000 articles in the hands of the publisher by January. But I think we can forget Christmas this year.

If anyone's interested - and you'd bloody better be else what the hell are we torturing ourselves for - it's called the Little Black Book of Science and it's out next year. Available from yours truly. Although not actually me personally, but the Null. Plug over - you can go back to your lives now.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Homeopathy. An interesting article.

I was doing some reading today, and I came upon this magnificent article. It's rather long, so I suggest getting some tea and biscuits at the ready, but it's a really well written article, and explains in simple terms the problem of homeopathy. In short, it's a non-scientific and potentially dangerous area of pseudo-science quackery, that is unfortunately given far too much credence in the modern world.

I am not against alternative medicine in ALL it's forms (some of which are talked about here), and in particular, some things like acupuncture HAVE been shown to be effective, particularly against back pain. BUT, homeopathy really does make me very angry indeed.

The real kicker for me is the prize offered by the James Randi Institute. If ANYBODY could prove, under scientific conditions, that homeopathy (or any supernatural phenomenon) really did work, then they would win a million dollars. The prize has never been successfully claimed.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

On this day...

A missive from Jas Singh:

On this day:

Sir William Herschel – was born I guess.

But was he a “Sir” on this day in 1738.

His birth seems to have upset the ecosystem: The winter of 1734 was the warmest for a hundred years, and 1732 and 1736 were probably the two best years of the century overall. Suddenly, in the autumn of 1738, the weather started to degenerate. There followed 28 disastrous months in which three successive and widespread bad harvests brought the worst famine of the century.

So there you have it.

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

More Asteroids... or... um... not.

Another space-rock story, this time without the... um... space rock.

If you were wondering, panicking even, about the asteroid that seemed on course for a very near miss, then don’t be. The Minor Planet Center at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, which deals with these kind of things, issued a potential near-miss warning, after spotting the object, catchily-named “2007 VN84”, heading scarily close to Earth.

However, it was noticed that the location, speed, and direction of the object closely matched (in fact, exactly matched) a spacecraft, Rosetta, sent up in 2004 to chase a Comet and gather data. Cue some red faces in the astronomy lab.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t too concerned anyway. If an asteroid’s going to hit earth, there’s pretty much nothing we can do about it anyway, and if I’m going to be splatted by one, I’d rather be blissfully ignorant about it.

Monday, 12 November 2007

Studies of the Bleedin' Useless

Forget Studies of the Bleedin' Obvious. We should do Studies of the Flippin' Pointless. There's some stuff that comes out that really just makes you think, "Do I really care?" Today, for example:

1 in 5 Britons sleep with new people when they go on holiday

Yes, thank you for that delightful insight into the sex lives of a fifth of the nation. Did I really need to know that? Am I going to be enlightened by this piece of information? Am I supposed to be shocked and appalled? Because I'm not. As far as I'm concerned, it's just another excuse to get "sex" into the the title of a press release.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Brainbows: Colouring-in for scientists.

Have you ever wondered what it would look like if you were to colour-in all of your brain cells individually? No? Well, now you needn't bother. Scientists at Harvard University have found a way of injecting cells with a variety of fluorescent labels, and can stain them up to 90 different colours.

The brain, being composed of roughly a hundred billion neurons (brain cells) all packed in rather densely, is somewhat tricky to study, but by labelling cells like this, scientists can examine the connections in the brain, and therefore help understand how it works.

Or so they claim. I have another theory. Growing tired of serious academic study, the scientists have simply come up with a more technologically advanced version of colouring-in, and are now spending their days just making pretty patterns out of slices of brain, to send home for their mum to stick on the fridge. No matter how "grown-up" you get, colouring in is still the most fun thing in the world.

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Wrinkly Facebook

We do love our Facebook don't we? And as it turns out, "we" isn't just the young'uns, it's the silver surfing community as well. They've got their own community site, Saga Zone. Imagine: a whole wide world of pensioners doddering around on discussion groups like "You know you were born in the 20s when..." and "If this group gets to 500,000 my daughter will name her child Frankenstein".

Sunday, 28 October 2007

Space rock: Cheap at twice the price.

So, if you are in New York, or can get there for this afternoon, and you also happen to be filthy stinking rich, then you can bid for some space rock. Apparently, it's a selection of the various meteorites that periodically strike the earth. With the smallest of them weighing just under a gram, it's unlikely that they are the famous dinosaur-extinction one. But apparently, one killed a cow in Venezuela in 1972.

At first, when I saw this, I thought that it was a bit strange, and that space-rock should be in museums being studied and what-not. But then, when all's said and done, it is only a lump of rock, and (apart from a magnificent "under the hammer" pun...) it's really fairly difficult to get all that excited about.

I won't be buying any space rock, partly because I'm poor, but partly because you could just find any old bit of rock, and pretend: "Yeah, it's a space rock *wink-wink*, bounced off a dinosaur as well, this one".

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Comedy Homos

Whilst looking for some funny named animals I came across Homo diluvii testis.

Whilst the proximity of the words Homo and testis made me snigger ever so slightly I was more taken with the story behind the fossil.

Discovered in 1735 the bones were thought to be the remains of a man who had witnessed Noah's Flood (and presumably a smug looking Noah drifting off into the distance in his ark). In fact the name Homo diluvii testis means the man who witnessed the flood.

It wasn't until the great French palaeontologist Georges L.Ch.F.D. Cuvier (middle names Léopold Chrétien Frédéric Dagobert) took a look at the specimen in 1812 did anyone realise that it wasn't actually a man at all. It was a salamander. Oops!

The species is now known as Andrias scheuchzeri. Andrias means "man-image", a relic of the original misinterpretation.

The fossil is still on display in Teylers Museum, Haarlem, the Netherlands.

It's also interesting that it was given a Latin name 18 years before Linnaeus pronounced the idea - I'm not sure what's going on there, but will look into it.

Monday, 22 October 2007

Bacteria and you.

So, I was doing a bit of research for a project, and came across a couple of cracking facts. The sort of strange-but-true stuff that the Null feeds on. They both concern Probiotics, those "friendly bacteria" you hear about in those Yogurt drinks. In fact, I'd definitely recommend going to the Yakult site and having a look at the TV advert on that page....

Back? Well done. But of course that pretty (and almost entirely empty!) computer graphic of the gut really doesn't do justice to the VAST quantities of bacteria we have in us. It's estimated to be something like 100,000,000,000,000 little bacteria swimming about inside us. To put that (admittedly unimaginably vast) number into context, it's about ten times the number of cells that actually make up our body.

Even more amazing than that, in a "not-very-amazing-and-I-was-actually-going-to-have-some-dinner -but-I've-been-put-right-off-it" sort of way, bacteria actually make up roughly 60% of the weight of the average human poo. Rest assured, largely quite harmless, and rather good for us, actually. In fact, recently it's been found that that's what the appendix does for us, helps to restore these bacteria if they become disrupted. It's one to tick off the "useless" list.

I'm off for a yogurt... Mmmm... microbial....

Armpit Height

Loved Hayley's article this week - Little'uns are life's losers. At 5ft2 I was a bit shocked to find that the study claims I am a life loser. I mean there are the usual problems, getting arm-pitted at gigs, trousers never fitting, seeing up people's nostrils when you really don't want to... But there are advantages too, being able to shimmey infront of people at the bar, never banging our heads on things and being able to buying kid's sized socks (they are cheaper you know!)

Just a note to all you giants out there who are heartily laughing at your higher quality of life, just remember, our feet don't stick out the end of our beds and after all Kylie is a midget and thats good enough for me! If anybody needs some further support about their condition, click here.

Friday, 19 October 2007

James Watson proves his point

Here's a quote from James Watson a few years ago:

"One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid."

Isn't it nice of him to prove his own point with his recent narrow-minded, dull and stupid comments. Good one fella - three in one!

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Swearing: now with added science.

So, apparently, swearing is no longer just good fun, (and entirely necessary, when your computer has just lost all of your music/essay/high scores on solitaire), but can actually be a major benefit to workplace morale. Researchers have found it not only enables them to express their feelings (damn, this computer is rather poor!), but improves solidarity between workers (damn, all our computers are rather poor!), and helps develop social relationships (your computer is rubbish too?; fancy a coffee?)

There are some helpful tips given by the researchers, however. Swearing in front of customers is a major no-no, and swearing at your boss or senior management is also apparently a bad idea, if you aren’t planning on getting fired any time soon.

I’ll give it a go.

“Scientology!”… Hmmm… “Creationism!”… getting warmer… “Holy test-tubes, Batman!”…

Maybe I need to get out of the lab and learn some proper swearing, before it starts to work…

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Don't let the tabloids near science!

While looking for papers and articles for my huge review article on millimetre waves I came across an article written by the Sun newspaper. Now don't get the wrong impression, normally I wouldn't be caught glancing at someone else's copy over their shoulder on the train but the article caught my eye.

Mm-waves have applications in security imaging and have been tested in airports for looking for guns/knives etc, however the images they obtain don't exactly leave much to the imagination in terms of your shape under your clothes. Anyway, the Sun (a terrible British tabloid might I add) reported on this technology. Deeming it like x-ray glasses that showed your private bits. First of all, scientists aren't going round the UK ionising the British public, mm-waves are harmless. And secondly they aren't exactly glasses, it's a huge machine that is not portable. I just hate the way that the general public are getting wrong info through the media and now are paranoid about another thing that they need not be. Although the question of privacy is one that scientists are having to deal with.

Also in my research (ahem) I found another article by the Sun about Hugh Grant who was in St Andrews for the golf and photographed with lots of girls, erm, being attentive. In any case, they reported it as St Andrews, Edinburgh. WE ARE 80 MILES AWAY!!!!!!

(And now I am trying to find the article to link the Sun, the crafty buggers, have hidden it from me, but here is something similar and worse in a way as the images are obviously faked....)

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Oh joy - what geekery!

I love it. Thanks to Solange Mateo Montalcini in Oxford for letting us know about 'Made with Molecules', a website that sells jewellery designed in the shape of molecules. You can get a dopamine necklace (see pic), some serotonin cufflinks, or - my personal favourite - neurotransmitter earrings. I feel I may be ascending to new heights of geekdom...

And actually, it reminds me a bit of the music made from molecules madness back in May. They should club together and form some sort of geek emporium based on molecular structures. Perhaps they could sell some of those cuddly ebola viruses as well.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Basil of the Magic Mirror

This is not Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, this is real. Someone has patented a magic mirror inhabited by a craggy-faced butler called Basil. Boffins at Theme Addicts Inc claim he can give you "real-time information about people walking up your driveway, entering the yard, standing at your front door, or anything else your current home security system is set to monitor".

More crazy patents.

Image: tatlin

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Microwaves madness

They're coming for me, I know it. Wherever I turn there's another new innovation designed purely to make me feel guilty about what I'm eating. Whether it's little coloured wheels on food at Sainsbury's (which are usually a dismal disc of red, screaming out that my favourite snack is a heart attack waiting to pounce) or a mobile phone which checks my diet (strange, but true - click for story).

And now these god-forsaken, good-for-nothing, do-gooder scientists have been at it again - they've produced a microwave that can assess the fat content of what you're cooking. No doubt if I try to cook something too unhealthy it'll be programmed to dump it in the bin, give me a clip round the ear and prepare a wholesome lentil casserole instead. Bah humbug.

Still if you like that kind of thin you can read about it here. But I wouldn't - you'll only get depressed.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Mayan Multiplication

I’d like to share with you a wonderful piece of knowledge I picked up at an informal lecture on realism in science given by Dr Chris Hooley at St Andrews. While arguing for anti-realism he gave an example of a time when a method worked and yet was so fundamentally wrong.

The Mayans were an ancient civilisation who used a very odd technique for doing long multiplication which, amazingly, worked. They also believed that even numbers were evil because their symmetry was too perfect to be ‘of this world’.

Let's take two random numbers to multiply

246 x 666

Their method was to half one of the numbers and double the other over and over, like so


They did not have a concept of fractions and so rounded to the nearest number when they came across halves. As they believed that even numbers were evil they ignored the lines with even numbers on the left leaving us with


And amazingly if we add the numbers on the right we get 163836 which is indeed the value of 246 x 666. Try it at home!

The argument was that even though we can use a method over and over again, and it might always give us the answer it does not mean that the method holds any truth. As shown here by crossing out the ‘evil’ numbers the Mayans found a novel way to multiply. It's odd to think that everything we ‘know’ could just be the same as the Mayans, just simply ways of doing things that don’t actually tell us the truth about our world...

Image: Sanja Gjenero

Monday, 17 September 2007

You're no friend of mine

Despite the plethora of social network sites available to one and all on the tinternet, there have been rumblings this week amongst the blogging community that we don't actually have many new friends as a result. It seems face to face verbal combat is still the best way of making new acquaintances.

I find that all rather disappointing - firstly, because I don't get out much and secondly, because that means that it's unlikely that Tatiana from Latvia really wanted to be my friend after all. I'm merely being used for numerical embellishment.

Am I the only one to have been violated in such a manner? Maybe we should set up a group (and become friends).

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

Food testing chicken poisoned

When a Chinese man started vomiting blood after having drank a small amount of bottled water his family got suspicious - had he been poisoned?

Rather than just pour the water away they decided to investigate. Unable, at short notice, to get their hands on any chemical sampling machines, they used a chicken.

The fowl gratefully slaked its thirst before keeling over in a crumpled, and decidedly dead, heap.

Across China scandals abound about dodgy and dangerous produce, made on the cheap with little regard for safety. However, they are under-reported in the West and will remain so until one of these shipments makes its way in our supermarkets - only then might we start wondering about the other costs of our cheap society.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Le Voyage dans la Lune

105 years ago this very day, the film from which this iconic image comes was released, quite possibly to the tune of champagne glasses tinkling and, if we let our imaginations run away with us a little, can can dancers high kicking. Because what is widely considered to be the first film of the science fiction genre came from - you've guessed it - France.

A Trip to the Moon's visual effects were ahead of its time but the Méliès brothers' representation of future space exploration will draw at least a twitch of a smile from today's viewer. While six entrepid astronauts prepare to propel themselves skywards using a giant cannon, a flock of hat waving sailor girls flutter around in daring pantie-sized shorts.

It's worth a watch.

Image: W

Monday, 13 August 2007

All kinds of hot

Well it's been a shitty summer so far has it not? I went out into what should have been a beautiful summer's night last night to watch for shooting stars - it pee-ed down.

And it's not just me the cold's been affecting. It's been seeping into the conscious of inventors the world over. Take this radiator for example - keep warm with the coolest household appliance I've seen for a long time - although at just under £7000 a pop it won't leave much money to burn a hole in your pocket.

On a completely different tack, scientists have come up with a new, cheap and effective way to measure the hotness of chillies. It involves spectography, computers and clever algorithms. There was me thinking it just had to involve some chillies and some drunk students, but what do I know?

Saturday, 4 August 2007

You suk

It seems the scientist who became famous for faking his own research may turn out to be a hero after all. South Korean Woo Suk Hwang claimed to have extracted the world's first stem cells from a cloned embryo. I've got no idea what that means personally, but more learned scientists the world over were whoopin' and a wailin' - until, that is, they realised he'd made the whole lot up.

BUT WAIT - analysis now reveals he may have inadvertently produced stem cells from human eggs alone and now the whoopin' has started all over again.

They say cheats never prosper.

Maybe Sean Connery had it right all along, never say never.

Friday, 13 July 2007


I'd just like to give the new Harry Potter film a bit of a big-up.

I have to say, I am, firstly, highly cynical about films that get a lot of hype, and secondly, generally never as impressed by a film as by a book on which it has been based. BUT. There's no denying, they've made a damn good job of this one.

Despite being seating in some kind of insane tropical style heat (Vue) until 1am in the morning, I don't think I've enjoyed a film so much in a long time. Dark, chilling and some great exchanges between Ron and Hermione, plus we get to see Helen Bonham-Carter doing what she does best, i.e. acting like a loon, as Bellatrix.

Anyway, go see it. And just to say that here at Null we're all wetting our pants at the prospect of the new book.

Image: Wiki

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Is it okay to laugh at button phobics?

Maybe this is un-PC but whilst doing some research for Phunny Phobias I came across a huge repository of information about people with button phobias - there were too many to copy and paste here, so here's just one...

"I have feared buttons as long as I could remember. At first only my family knew, because I thought people would think I was crazy if they knew, now I tell people openly. I don't touch them, because it would be like touching a cockroach. If I touch one by mistake, I would wash my hands for about 30 mins.. I get really disgusted when people have them in their mouth, how nasty is that.

My sister use to chase me around the house with a button, and I would run out the house screaming. But, it feels really good to know there are others, and it is a normal fear. If it has a name please let me know."

Please tell me I'm allowed to split my sides laughing at this.

For the rest, go to the Unusual Phobias site.

Image: Andy Heyward

Monday, 11 June 2007

Enter the geek games

While we're on the subject of Cheltenham Science Festival, we made some friends there on Friday - the Sodarace Team. Man, these guys are good. They've started an online competition to create virtual racing robots. Highly addictive and wonderfully geeky.

Enter here.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Cheltenham Science Festival

If anyone is scratching around for something to do over the next few days - or indeed, feeling the need to drop everything and do something far more exciting - check out the Cheltenham Science Festival. It's on from today until Saturday. We'll be there in force on Thursday, so look out for us doing our festival thang...

Download the programme here.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Bad weather for ducks

Null's Dr Duck won't be happy when he hears this one...

Bird experts in the US are getting twitchy about the rapid growth of wind power. So many turbines are going up in the South and Mexico that they're worried duck populations, as well as bats, are going to get clobbered.

It's all very well saying 'save the birds', don't put up the wind turbines, but you have to figure out what's going to kill more - ruddy great poles or climate change... These poor little quacks are going to suffer either way.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Bizarre emails

One of the things I like about being affiliated to a biology department is that, every now and then, the strangest of emails lands in my inbox:

Subject: Urgent. Missing blood.

Dear All,

Recently we ordered 200 ml of defibrinated horse blood. Apparently this order has been taken collected from stores. If anyone has this by mistake could they please let us know as soon as possible.

Many thanks, James.

Why would you steal defibrinated horse blood?

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Doggie stroller

I do like Gizmodo, not as much as the Null of course, but they do have some quality stuff.

Quality stuff

Willy wonky

When I was just a wee bairn I had rubber ducks in the bath tub and as a kid I would get taken to feed the real thing in the local park; I've even studied them at university, but I never knew there was such mystery surrounding a duck's nether regions. There's a penis arms race going on.

Despite 97% of birds having no phallus at all, ducks have evolved complicated genitals in an attempt to maximise genetic transfer. In species such as mallard, 40% of all copulations are forced and therefore females have evolved corkscrew oviducts with numerous deadends to maximise their chances of chosing the paternity of their offspring. The male phallus is shaped counter clockwise to the female which adds a whole new twist to proceedings - quite literally.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Ceiling height affects your head

Ceiling height isn't something I lose sleep over. At 5'1" my head is too far away from the ceiling for it to be of any great concern.

But clearly it's actually a much bigger issue in the scientific world than I could have imagined. The Journal of Consumer Research is publishing a paper in August entitled "The Influence of Ceiling Height".

The suggestion is that retailers should consider their ceilings in relation to customers' states of mind on point of sale. High ceilings encourage free, abstract thinking; low ceilings are more conducive to detail specific thought.

Well I don't buy it. Some scientist somewhere must have got over excited after a session with his fengi (or whatever you call someone who practices feng shui).

See what you think anyhow.

Monday, 23 April 2007

Biofuel? Bio-bunkum

I've been saying for a while that if someone tells you that using biofuel is a good way to save the planet, you should look at them sympathetically in the eye and then slap them across the face. Hard. Twice.

These people reckon it's a good idea to start growing even more crops in a world where land space is becoming ever more pressured with every new baby we pop out.

"But it's the most practical way to reduce our carbon emissions", they bleat. But where's that land going to come from huh? Oh yeah - those rainforests are just hanging about not doing much - they'll make great biofuel cropland... for about five years. And what a great way to reduce CO2 emissions that is - cut down the greatest terrestrial carbon sinks we have.

Well geniuses, hopefully the death knell for biofuel might have been rung - because it doesn't even reduce CO2. It increases them.

So start practising those sympathetic looks and maybe your right hook. You're bound to need them.

Friday, 20 April 2007

Daiquiris all round

For anyone who despairs of getting it right when it comes to healthy eating - look no further than your local cocktail bar.

Apparently adding alcohol to strawberries and blackberries increases their antioxidant properties, meaning they mop up more of those nasty free radicals that cause disease and aging.

And whilst various detractors may point out that alcohol consumption itself isn't too great for the body, every little helps I say.

If you need me I'll be catching up on my 5-a-day... hic!

Thursday, 19 April 2007

News in Brief

Odd science snippets from around the world:

In Japan it is common place to have toilets with fitted bidets, blow driers, air purifiers and seat warming functions. Sounds impressive, but 26 have recently gone up in smoke and three have even caught fire. Not exactly sitting pretty now are they?

A truck containing pet rabbits recently closed the M1 motorway in Budapest when 5000 of the animals escaped on to the road. Surprisingly though, hardly any did a runner, most just sat munching grass - it's the simple pleasures in life.

Eating chocolate gives you a bigger high than kissing your partner; apparently it gives a longer lasting buzz and has the same effect on both sexes. I wonder what happens if you eat chocolate off your partner? Buzzzzzzzzzzzzz!

There is a rumour in Pakistan that a virus on mobile phones is killing people and many of the country's 56 million mobile phone users have been duped by this prank. Some reports even suggest that 20 people have already died. Beware the text message.

has created artificial snow in Tibet for the first time after warnings of melting glaciers and drought. What next then? Lightning at the flick of a switch; rain at the press of a button; better still, remote control clouds.

Sunday, 15 April 2007

How to build a DeLorean

If anyone fancies having a go, I've discovered this handy guide - available online for free - which explains exactly how to do it. Hmm, good luck with that. This is just the door mechanism, but you can check out the DeLorean Motor Company's online store for parts and more ridiculous diagrams. Eat your heart out Marty McFly.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

Frog torture

Hello all! I like this idea of an online party. I reckon like there will be a lot less mess and vomit to clean up than after a real party, but I could well be wrong.

If you're the kind of folks who find videos of frogs in tupperware tubs amusing (and lets face it, who isn't?!), there is a story on the New Scientist website entitled 'Friction helps frogs stick to ceilings'. The investigator, Jon Barnes, from the University of Glasgow (no relation to the 90s Liverpool striker/one-time rapping sensation) placed frogs in a relvolving transparent container to measure the amount of friction between their toes and the glass plate.

It seems that unlike geckos, who use a velcro-esque mode of adhesion, tree frogs prefer the sellotape method, and adopt a stance like Spider-Man. Confused? Take a look for yourselves here.

Image: Leon Brooks

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Henry McHenry and the Lower Limbs

Henry McHenry! What a name, I thought when I stumbled across it whilst browsing the infinitely inferior pages of Science.

Henry McHenry is in fact a well renowned "lower limb expert". If I had a name as good as that I'd be starting a band, but each to their own.

But that's beside the point.

Henry, it seems, has recently been in the news commenting on our old friend, Homo floresiensis. If you remember, the original archaeological dispute related to the size of this "hobbit's" head.

Now the argument is about the shape of the little guy's wrists. Using his lower limb expertise, McHenry claims to have proven beyond doubt that Homo floresiensis constitutes a separate species to modern humans. Others disagree.

Hopefully more silly names to follow in the continuing saga of the oddly shaped dead guy.

Of course, I would say check out Science for further details, where aptly named Ann Gibbons presents her version of the story. However, due to the extortionate cost of subscription, you probably won't be able to.

Image: Reuters/Ho/Peter Schouten/National Geographic Society

Welcome to Null bloggers

It falls to me to kick off the finest blog ever to hit the Internet. So here it is. Welcome Null bloggers - this is the place you can kick back, relax and let your thoughts run amok through the hayfields of your mind.

Such an occasion deserves a cutesy picture don't you think? So do I!