Saturday, October 14

Junkscience.com is one of my favourite, yet only occasionally-visited, website. It talks about Junk Science.

The other day I was chatting with a few friends in university about the apparent danger of mobile phone radiation. I immediately scoffed, claiming that if it was dangerous, then all the heavy users of mobiles would already be showing a statistically higher rate of cancer development. Which, in the absence of any conclusive studies, they do not. As far as I'm concerned, you can have all the conjecture and hand-waving you want, but I won't be convinced until I see a statistically significant result.

This, of course, was challenged. One person said, 'Yeah, but microwaves are dangerous, right? You wouldn't want to stick your head in one of them.'

At that point, my facial expression changed to mimic the one I developed at dinner today when I took a huge bite of a steak pie and realised that those indistinct brown bits were not meat, but mushrooms.

(Indiana Jones voice) "I hate mushrooms." (/IJV)

I refrained because someone else began to relate a story she heard about a surgeon who used his mobile 'loads' and subsequently developed a cancer in the brain at the exact spot where he used his mobile. After the cancer was removed (must have been benign) said surgeon then pleaded with all the public that they shouldn't use mobiles.

This is a prime example of Junk Science. People know that mobile phones use 'some kind of radio-wave or micro-wave communication'. This is termed 'radiation' - and as we know, All Radiation Is Bad. Microwave ovens use microwaves, and just look at what happens when you stick something in one of those! It gets all hot and mushy (but it's not as tasty as putting something in a proper oven. Anyway...)

The point is, people don't know much about science but they think they know what's bad for them. People know lots of media buzzwords and trends as well.

Funny thing is, people also love mobiles so much that they're never going to give them up. And this whole thing will become a moot point when we get wireless headset mics for our mobiles in a couple of years anyhow.

7:27 PM | permalink | discuss

Friday, October 13

I have several bones to pick today. First off is, yet again, the Soil Association in the UK (you know, the GM-hating luddites? Hey, who said I was biased?). Scientists in the USA have developed a maize plant that has a barrier to 'jumping genes', so that it can't pick up foreign genes from other plants, including genetically modified plants. This would allow farmers to grow this maize alongside GM crops and rest easily knowing that they would remain GM-free. The novel thing is, though, that this maize plant was developed by cross-breeding, not by any so-called 'magic' genetic modification.

Of course, the Soil Association isn't willing to give an inch. I quote:

"It would also place an unfair burden on organic, GM-free-farmers who would not only be forced to plant one of the few maize varieties containing this new trait but also become guinea pigs in a genetic experiment."

Genetic experiment? I'm sorry? Sure, it's a genetic experiment, but in that case, all life on Earth is a result of genetic experimentation, or at least, all modern crops are. When they use the horribly pejorative term 'genetic experiment', they're not trying to do anything but to scare off people who don't really understand the biology behind jumping genes and genetic modification. Preying on the uninformed is possibly the most despicable, self-serving thing I've ever seen.

What with all this excitement over the hundredth shuttle launch, I took a trip over to the International Space Station webpage and clicked through all the assembly missions watching, with an uncharacteristic glow, the growth of the ISS from the small two-bit wonder that it is now into a fully fledged flying object.

An uncharacteristic glow, because when you get down to it, the ISS is a complete waste of money. Well, not quite complete. I don't doubt that they'll get some science done and they'll learned a lot, but it's certainly not enough to justify the $20/40/60 billion price tag or however much it'll cost to build. I don't like to say that because as a space advocate I feel obligated to support the ISS as a part of the overall space movement. In the talks I make, I point out protein crystallisation, zero-G health experience and orbital construction as valuable returns on the ISS investment.

It's just not enough.

The sad fact is that it could've been much different. (Warning - I may have told this story here before, but if I did, it was quite a while ago)

Many years ago, NASA asked two competing groups to come up with plans for the ISS. One group came up with the international modular space station that we know now, and the other group came up with a single-piece space station that would either be launched in a modified Space Shuttle (Shuttle-C; C is for 'cargo') or some heavy-lift launcher. These proposals were sent off to a few prestigious peer groups for evalutation and unsurprisingly, the single-piece plan came out on top since it was:

a) Cheaper
b) Less likely to fail
c) Quicker
d) Easier to build

Also unsurprisingly, NASA chose the ISS we have now, because:

a) It'd give the Russians something to do besides build more nukes
b) They like putting things together
c) It's international

So, political reasons, basically. Which is why we have the piece of crap in orbit that we do now. However, there isn't much to be done about it and complaining won't help. Who knows, perhaps the ISS will make money as a space hotel? I'm not joking - NASA intends to ultimately privatise (or semi-privatise, or whatever) at least part of the ISS so that commercial operators could send up a hotel module. Granted, it's about as likely as Project Orion* taking off, but there you go. And despite what I say, when it gets finished I can't promise that I won't feel proud of it, even if the damned Yanks did make it. (Where did I hear all of this stuff? I'm sure I read it in a reputable book - Robert Zubrin probably wrote it, like as not).

*Continuing on the space theme, I've been trawling around a few space messageboards and newsgroups. The main recurring topic of conversation goes something like this:

"According to my calculations, we could launch 20,000 people into orbit and construct a space station at L5 for $400 billion - this is perfectly feasible due to Project Orion and yabba wabba splurge." (that's where I stop listening)

This sort of uninformed blue-skying irritates me intensely. No way are you going to get funding for $400 billion to launch a few thousand people into space, even if you think that you can make money via solar power systems beaming energy back to Earth (spend $400 billion on fusion and I'll bet you won't have any energy problems for a long while). This complete dismissal of reality and politicals is incredible. I heard someone claiming that 'For only a few trillion we could send 25,000 people on a grand tour of the Solar System.' A few trillion. Oh dear.

Then there's the whole Project Orion guff that is still being espoused by old, dried-up 'space wackos'. Project Orion is a spacecraft that, not to put it too bluntly, is powered by launching nukes out of its backside and flying up into orbit on the explosions. Sure, you can launch it in the ocean and you can try and reduce the 'radioactive exhaust' as much as you can, but the fact is - you're blowing up nukes and if you think that Project Orion will ever be constructed, you're forgetting a few key things:

1) Greenpeace
2) The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty
3) You're not allowed to carry nukes in space
4) Even I, a confirmed space wacko, will blanch at the thought of all that radioactive contamination. I can already see the crazed mobs approaching...

9:18 PM | permalink | discuss

Thursday, October 12

Sorry I haven't updated for a while, but I've been laid low by Freshers' Flu over the last couple of days (get hundreds of people from across the UK, stick them in a stuffy lecture room for an hour and just wait for the fun to begin...). Luckily, I'm starting to recover now, so a few things:

Lectures have been going very well, I'm learning a surprisingly large amount of interesting information. Such as:

What do you think the most toxic substance in the world is? There are the old goodies, like anthrax, VX and all that crap. But, as usual, nature has lead the way with the toxin of Clostridium bolutinum. 1mg of this toxin will kill ten million guinea pigs (and before someone says it, no, they didn't kill ten million guinea pigs, they probably did a LD50 test - and I don't want to go into that at the moment). As an example, if you filled a moderated large size tank, maybe one or two cubic metres, then you could kill every living organism on Earth. Nice.

Here's a good article about toxic substances and Clostridium bolutinum.

Also, there was a lecture that struck close to my heart in my Evolution and Behaviour course - the guy was talking about the Cambrian explosion, re-running evolution and convergent evolution in the form of eyes. He then spent 5 minutes chatting about what alien life might look life on other planets, and why he believed it'd mostly be in the form of primitive organisms. Straight after that lecture was someone who brought up a slide of ALH84001, the Meteorite from Mars.

So, everything is very good. Apart from the fact that I'm still a little ill.

Final notes: For some reason, Vavatch gets more hits when it's not updated than when it is. Also, there may be a new feature coming online that'll allow you to comment to any posts I've made. More on that later...

11:47 PM | permalink | discuss

Monday, October 9

Can't write for long as I've got to get some sleep soon, but here are a few links that have caught my eye:

Towards the bottom of this Salon article, an analysts predicts depressedly that if Bill Clinton were allowed to run for President again for a third time, he'd get in easily. "The stupid thing is that he would deserve it, and so would we."

I find it depressing when I hear about ambitious, well-funded and sponsored semi-youth projects like Nation1 that completely fail to take off. Granted, I don't really like what they wanted to do, probably because it didn't make any sense (some wishy-washy talk about an online nation for kids or some such), but they deserve to at least get the website off the ground. Ah well. These things happen.

(I call it semi-youth because, while it very well may have been conceived by kids, it certainly ain't being run by kids, no matter why they say. Not even kids could run a site this badly. At least, I hope not)

Americans think it's OK to cheat.

10:28 PM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, October 8

So I'm finally settled in at home in college, with a sparkling new and shockingly fast internet connection. Here's the first shot of me in my room:

What's Cambridge like? Well, after the first week full of Freshers' events which are, like as not, cheesy 80's music 'bops' (their word, not mine), it's finally possible to get a bit of perspective. The workload is high, and unlike some of my friends at other universities, I'm learning a lot. Incredibly, most of the lectures are interesting and I haven't fallen asleep once yet - this is even more impressive when you consider that I have three lectures on Saturday mornings, one of which is at 9am.

I likened my Evolution and Behaviour lectures to have an interesting biology science book read out to you with slides and videos, and calling it work. Certainly it'll get harder, but for the moment it's great and I'm looking forward to meeting the lecturers who, I'm told, will play their guitars along to songs about cell biology.

There was a classic Cambridge moment a couple of days back in between lectures when I sat down on a low wall watching the tourists go past (there are always tourists. They pay 1.50 each to get into my college). The sun streamed down from a sky with only a few wisps of cloud in it and there was a gentle wind going past - English weather at its best.

I spotted a great article about the Space Shuttle on BBC News Online - I get the feeling that the correspondent has read a lot of Baxter...

6:24 PM | permalink | discuss