Friday, 30 December 2016

Review of "Universal : A guide to the Cosmos" by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

Just finished reading Universal : A guide to the Cosmos by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw and thought it might be worth sharing a few thoughts about this very interesting book.

Universal aims to take the reader on a journey that shows how, from very simple beginnings, we can use observations of the world around us to answer surprisingly big questions such as "How much does the earth weigh?" and "How far away are stars?

To take one example, Universal mentions the experiment performed by Lord Rayleigh to give an upper limit to the size of an atom. NSB had a try at it and you can too - all you need is some cooking oil, a paperclip, a ruler and a bowl of water.

The oil drop NSB used to estimate the maximum size of an atom

Equally simply, if given a suitable landmark off the coast and using a little geometry [developed by Al-Biruni], one can hazard a guess as to the size of the earth - something that the book describes using the geography of from Ogmore-on-Sea.

NSB, living far from the coast, had a bash at replicating the experiment using suitable seaside photographs on the Internet, specifically this image of Keros taken from Koufonissia.

Universal goes on to look at the distance to the stars and the size of the universe, taking time to gently explain to the reader how data was corroborated at each step

Indeed, if you are an amateur astronomer with a small telescope in your garden and some photographic equipment; and make an assumption or two; you can show that the universe is expanding, and at what approximate rate!

NGC 4414, about 60million light years away
(The Hubble Heritage Team)

An important point that Universal makes is explaining how science works and how our confidence in measurements is strengthened when they can be determined via different techniques - for example, there is confidence in the age of the solar system being ~4.6billion years because estimates of the age of the sun (using knowledge about nuclear fusion and the heat received by the earth) and estimates of the age of the earth (using knowledge about radioactive decay in rocks) both give values around this figure. As the book comments:
"It is easy to cook up a scenario, however fanciful, that casts doubt on some measurement or other. But it is usually extremely difficult to argue for a radical change in one area without making large parts of the whole interlinked [scientific] edifice inconsistent"

The book also mentions the words of Richard Feynman:
"In general, we look for a new law by the following process: First we guess it; then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right; then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is — if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong.”

Another point that is made is how hard, and for how long, people have worked to obtain key pieces of information, such as the distance from the Earth to the Sun.

Towards the end of the book, having taken the reader on an incredible journey through space, time (and space-time), Cosmos ponders why the universe is the way it is, so finely tuned to allow the formation of suns, planets, water and us. The book also explores theoretical possibilities such as that of the "multiverse"

Universal : A Guide to the Cosmos

Related NSB Stuff:
Fee- An Autobiography
Curiosity, Twitter and the British Connection
Interview with Prof Aragon-Salamanca
Interview with Prof Chris Lintott
Some background to the Space Shuttle
Lecture by Chris Lintott on 2011 Astronomy highlights

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Making Science Public in 2016

NSB is a fan of the "Making Science Public" blog at the University of Nottingham and thought it might be nice to highlight some of the articles that have particularly caught NSB's attention over the last year...

Antibiotic resitance
January saw a post that talked about the hot topic of antibiotic resistance. It turns out that this is far from a new concern, with Alexander Fleming voicing concerns in 1945, and by 1969 there were calls for restictions to be placed on the use of antibiotics in animal feed.

The Trough of Disappointment
February was the month that NSB learnt about the Hype Cycle and the Trough of Disappointment.

The Hype Curve

The Impact Agenda
A guest post by Prof John Holmwood warned of dangers with the "Impact Agenda", commenting that:
"Where an earlier tenet of research policy.... was that there should be no public funding of research for private beneficiaries, that has been inverted such that there should be no public funding unless there is a direct, identifiable user."

Scientific Authority
March saw a post about the relationship between scientists, politicians and the public - with a number of interesting links, including a Demos article that described how badly the relationship between these groups fell apart in the wake of the BSE fiasco in the early 1990's.

John Gummer - A cautionary tale.

Another reference was to an article by David Demeritt who commmented that :

“The proper response to public doubts is not to increase the public’s technical knowledge about and therefore belief in the scientific facts of global warming. Rather, it should be to increase public understanding of and therefore trust in the social process through which those facts are scientifically determined. Science does not offer the final word, and its public authority should not be based on the myth that it does, because such an understanding of science ignores the ongoing process of organized skepticism that is, in fact, the secret of its epistemic success.Instead scientific knowledge should be presented more conditionally as the best that we can do for the moment. Though perhaps less authoritative, such a reflexive understanding of science in the making provides an answer to the climate skeptics and their attempts to refute global warming as merely a social construction.”

Also worth looking at this related paper on public perception of risk.

Crowdfunding Science
NSB had no idea there were crowdfunding sites for science projects, but it seems they are indeed a thing - see here

Worth mentioning, however, that another way to support science is to donate to research charities

Some comments on the "Post-Truth" world we now seem to live in, including this comment by Alice Bell :
“We pool our resources to allow a few people to cut themselves off and become experts in particular subjects. We do this so that they might feed back their knowledge and we can, collectively, try to make a better world.”

Related Content
Communicating Risks of Earthquakes
Rick Borchelt on Science Communication
What would the Public want?

Image Sources
Hype Cycle, Burger

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The difference between NUMBERS and RATES

Was talking to No3 Son recently about a piece of science homework in which he had to chart and comment on 2012-2014 cancer statistics. The data was a great example of how the NUMBER of cases can give a very different picture to the RATE of cases. Looking at the NUMBERS chart (red) one might think that 70-79 is where the biggest danger lies - but this may be misleading as the graph shows the number of cases not the rate (e.g. per 100,000 people). Using 2011 census data from Wikipedia, one can work out the RATE of cases per 100,000 people (blue chart). It is clearly different and now you can see that the older you are the more chance you have of getting cancer.

2012-2014 Cancer Data


Cancer RATES