Zen and the Art of Global Maintenance

van-gogh-yin-yangA discussion a while back, over a few beers, with a Buddhist friend about life, the universe, and everything (what else?) got around to the subject of null physics and the notion that the universe may always have existed and may exist for eternity to come.

Sciencebase regulars will know that this concept is covered in a rather bizarre book I mentioned a few posts back entitled How to Discover Our Universe. While there is certainly room for improvement in current cosmological models this notion of an always having existed universe is not to everyone’s taste, at least in terms of conventional Western ideals. Indeed, it positively reeks of pseudoscience in the eyes of many of us raised on the conventional cyclic observation-explanation-prediction rote of modern science.

Anyway, it was almost inevitable that a paper with a Zen, or should I say, Daoist, inclination would land in my inbox. And so completing the circle in drops a paper from Philosopher of Science Anthony Alexander. Alexander is currently Director for Studies and Research at a structural engineering, conservation and urban design consultancy that is apparently pioneering sustainability in the built environment. But, that is not the focus of his paper.

He notes that the physics of the 18th century Western world was fundamental in establishing the basic concepts for the study of economics and our understanding of the fledgling Industrial Revolution. However, industry and physics have moved on, not least as a product of the almost exponentially increasing pace of technological change. It is perhaps this seeming progress and our need to consider a passage through time that many people cannot contemplate a universe without a beginning.

But, before you run to the hills or roll into a potential energy well, this post is not about to go all mystical and misty eyed. There are no implications or allusions to an Ayurvedic notion of quantum mechanics. There is no incense burner on my desk. And while there might be a yoga teacher working on my accounts as I type, there is certainly no ambient crystal and phoenix rising yoga therapy session planned for this evening in a padded room with all-natural oxygen bubbling through gently illuminated vials of dihydrogen monoxide.

Anyway, back to Alexander’s technique… He suggests that 18th century physics has been “comprehensively displaced by progress within Western science. The new larger field of understanding encompasses the complex, the chaotic, unpredictable and the fluid aspects of the real world. Unfortunately, the institutions of the modern world, the industries, the money movers, the pen pushers, remain firmly entrenched in a clockwork Newtonian world view whereas science is all about non-linearity of systems, probability of sub-atomics, and duality of energy and matter. This staid view considers the world to be stable and ordered, and human activity to be somehow fundamentally distinct from nature.

While environmentalism and green economics have the grand aims of redressing the balance it is actually globalisation, according to Alexander, that has raised our awareness of other cultures and their disparate world view that could provide us with the means to reconcile the Newtonian industries with modern physics and systems theory.

Alexander turns to one of his leanings – the martial arts – for inspiration as to how this might happen. The martial arts, kung fu, karate, judo, and their Daoist counterparts, invert the logic of Western combat. Training in the kicks, punches and locks of these various martial arts are aimed not at causing pain or injuring one’s training partner but in providing health benefits to both. A Western perspective might see an arm lock as a route to pain, whereas a practitioner of a particular martial art will see it as a way to build muscular stretch, for instance. Alexander sees parallels between this inverted logic of the martial arts not only with the concepts of modern physics but with the green economics.

The status quo of 20th century Western economics [which persists even now] can be challenged by green economics, [but] does not seek harm to anyone or anyone’s interests. It seeks to promote harmony and longevity – values that are at the heart of common sense, sustainable development and [martial arts] culture, which all parties stand to benefit from.

There really is no mysticism here, we are plunging head-first into global environmental crises. Physics underwent a paradigm shift to shake of Newton’s clockwork universe, perhaps, as Alexander suggests, we should work through his analogy and see green economics as the new paradigm for industry across the globe.

Alexander, A. (2008). Different paths, same mountain: Daoism, ecology and the new paradigm of science. International Journal of Green Economics, 2(2), 153. DOI: 10.1504/IJGE.2008.019997

Intelligent Molecular Design

Alchemist LogoFirst up in The Alchemist this week is a tale of reactions where size really does matter! News of why “non-smokers cough” emerges from the American Chemical Society meeting this month and a new physical process has been revealed by NMR spectroscopy of frozen xenon atoms that could provide a chaotic link in quantum mechanics back to Newton’s era. Biotech news hints at a novel way to flavour your food and Japanese chemists have made a gel that undulates like intestinal muscle. Finally, this week’s award goes to my good friend AP de Silva of Queen’s University Belfast for his highly intelligent work in the development of market-leading sensor technology and intelligent molecules.

You can grab the complete headlines and abstracts in the latest issue of The Alchemist on ChemWeb.

Overton Overturned

A century-old rule used throughout the pharma industry may have been overturned by new research in the UK. Researchers at the University of Warwick have demonstrated that drug transport rates across cell membranes may be hundreds of times slower than are predicted by Overton’s Rule, which could have serious implications for developing and testing new drugs.

Put simply, Overton’s Rule says that the more lipophilic a compound is, the faster it will enter a cell. The Rule was first outlined in the 1890s by Ernst Overton of the University of Zürich. He quantified the rule to allow biochemists and others to predict how fast the membrane crossing would take place. One of the key parameters in his equation is K, lipophilicity. Bigger K, faster transport.

For over a century, medicinal chemists have used this relationship to shape their studies and clinical trials.

Now, a confocal microscopy study used in conjunction with an ultramicroelectrode led by Patrick Unwin has allowed the team to follow every step of the membrane-crossing process. The results are stunning. While the test compounds (acids) did diffuse across a lipid membrane, they did so at rates that were diametrically opposed to those prediction by Overton’s Rule. The researchers studied four acids (acetic, butanoic, valeric, and hexanoic) that had increasingly larger “acyl” (or carbon) chains. The longer the carbon chain, the easier the chemical dissolves in lipids and, therefore, according to Overton, the faster they should diffuse across a lipid membrane.

The Warwick work showed instead that the most lipophilic molecules were actually transported the slowest.

REFERENCE: Proc Natl Acad Sci: Quantitative visualization of passive transport across bilayer lipid membranes

Boris Johnson, Fop or Geneticist?

boris johnsonFor Scousers, Londoners, fans of BBC’s Have I Got News for You satirical news quiz, and especially to everyone who watched this Beijing to London Olympic handover this week the name Boris Johnson likely drums up an image of some blonde, floppy haired, bedraggled and totally confused Tory toff, who just happens to be Mayor of London.

Well, it turns out that he has quite an interesting ancestry of which he was almost totally unaware until another BBC TV show (Who Do You Think You Are?, which is all about family history and genealogy of the rich and famous) helped him dig deep into the roots of his family tree. First off, not only was his great grandfather, Ali Kemal an outspoken journalist turned politician (like Johnson) who was apparently lynched by the state in the founding years of modern Turkey but his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was King George II of England (illegitimately due to a “wrong-side-of-the-sheets liaison between Johnson’s great grandmother and a descendant of George II. Such ancestry means Johnson is related to all the royal families of Europe.

How’s that for a bit of name dropping? Of course, there are probably tens of thousands of people who have illegitimate links to European royals, but it’s an interesting find nevertheless.

However, for those who think Johnson is nothing more than a blithering fop, it was his final words in this episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” that were most poignant to lineage, heredity and most of all genetics, which is why I thought they warranted a holiday mention. I just hope they were spontaneous and unscripted.

We’re all just great, our genes just pulse down the lines. We’re not the ultimate expression of our genes. We’re the temporary custodians of these things. We don’t really know where they’ve come from, where they’re going, and the whole process is incredibly democratic.

You can view a segment from the show here, unfortunately, the closing quote is not included in this Youtube segment.

UPDATE: Following on from Mr Johnson’s genetic insights, I see there’s a paper in this week’s Nature from Cornell researchers that says: “One day soon, you may be able to pinpoint the geographic origins of your ancestors based on analysis of your DNA. The researchers describe the use of DNA to predict the geographic origins of individuals from a sample of Europeans, often within a few hundred kilometres of where they were born.”

Novembre, J et al (2008). Genes mirror geography within Europe Nature

Developing World Nuclear Revolution

nuclear-powerNot being one to shy away from controversy (viz. my MMR and vaccination item, the intelligent Dawkins debate post and the recent flurry of global warming items, including one entitled Climate change debunked), I thought I’d dive headlong into the muddy ethical, economic, and engineering puddle that is nuclear power.

However, I am wearing a buoyancy aid, a nose-clip, ear-plugs, and protective goggles in the form of a peer-reviewed review from the International Journal of Global Energy Issues (2008, 30, 393-412), rather than skinny dipping.

In that paper, John Cleveland of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in Vienna, points out that currently nuclear power produces around 15 percent of the electricity we use worldwide. This time last year, there were 438 nuclear power plants providing more than 370 Gigawatts with 31 new units under construction looking to add 24 GW to that total, although with a few being decommissioned in the meantime.

Cleveland explains that several countries are planning to either introduce nuclear energy or expand their nuclear generation capacity, and that most of the new plants will be of evolutionary, rather than innovative design. They will incorporate improvements over existing electricity generating nuclear plant designs achieved through small to moderate modifications, with a strong emphasis on maintaining proven design features to minimize technological risks. Cleveland suggests that in the longer term, innovative new designs will help to promote a new era of nuclear power.

He argues that the increasing demand for power both in the industrialized and developing world, together with nuclear power’s positive attributes, provide a solid rationale for expanding nuclear power sources:

  • Nuclear power’s lengthening experience and good performance. The industry now has more than 12,000 reactor years of experience, and the global average nuclear plant availability during 2006 reached 83%
  • Growing energy needs. All forecasts project increases. The strategies are country dependent, but usually involve a mix of energy sources
  • Interest in advanced applications of nuclear energy, such as seawater desalination, steam for heavy oil recovery and heat and electricity for hydrogen production
  • Environmental concerns and constraints. The Kyoto Protocol has been in force since February 2006, and for many countries (most OECD countries, Russia, the Baltic nations and some countries of the Former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe) emissions limits are imposed
  • Security of energy supply is a national priority in essentially every country
  • Nuclear power is economically competitive and provides stability of electricity price.

He adds that nuclear power faces significant challenges, nevertheless, including the continuing need to sustain a high level of safety assurance, implementing high-level waste disposal, and strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime.

Success in these areas will provide a sound basis for establishing nuclear power as a sustainable energy source.

Evolutionary nuclear plants that utilise the best of current systems are already being built in several countries, and, adds Cleveland, are likely to be the primary choice for the next decade or two. Innovative, nuclear plants, are a different matter. In general they will require a new design paradigm, construction and testing of a prototype, and then a pilot plant before commercialisation, and so may not be implemented until about the second quarter of this century.

Several innovative designs are being developed for the Small- to Medium-Size Reactor (SMR) range and could find their introduction into the increasingly power hungry developing nations, as well as in some cases into industrialized countries. In developing countries, boosting self-reliance, keeping costs down, and enhancing local work force participation and participation of the domestic industry could be important factors for the governments of those nations to pursue.

Scientific Stereotype

Scientific stereotype

UPDATE: June, 2010

I recently learned of the FNAL “Drawings of scientists” project, which shows “Before and After” pictures of scientists after school students visited Fermilab. The image below is probably one of the most telling, but there are many others in a similar vein. Perhaps the solution to the problem is simply to arrange for all school students to have the opportunity to visit a real laboratory with real scientists of various flavours.

The wacky characters that introduce kids to science may be doing more harm than good. Reinforcing the white-man-in-a-lab-coat or mad-scientist stereotype could diminish not only children’s interest in science, but also the diversity of future scientific workplaces.

The Web is littered with “Ask a Scientist” sites aimed at getting children “into” science. Some of these sites do provide useful resources for youngsters curious about things such as “Why is the sky blue?”, “Why do men have nipples?“, and “How can I best extrapolate a Hurter-Driffield curve in my experiments on photographic material transmission densities?”

OK, I made that last one up. But the critical feature of many of these sites is the personification of the so-called expert with names like Ask a Boffin, “Find Out Why with Dr. Calculus,” Ask a Mad Scientist, or some such. Almost invariably, a cartoon character will be a stumpy guy in a white coat, with wild gray hair, waving a test tube around or wielding a clipboard. And, on the whole, he will be white. I was personally involved in one such “expert questions” site several years ago, and to my chagrin, the editor called the site “Ask the Egghead” – and created just such a character in the form of Professor Hypothesis.

What does this say about the common adult perception of how children perceive scientists? Well, for a start, it reinforces the classic stereotype of scientists as absent-minded professor cliche, generally messing around with chemicals or constantly scribbling notes in lab books and, almost certainly, white and male.

While grandiose efforts to promote high-quality science education abound, and public understanding of science (PUS) initiatives are high on the agendas of learned societies everywhere, these could be doomed from the outset by ingrained views we gain as children about what scientists do, what they look like, and who they are.

A fairly formal assay of children’s views of scientists was undertaken recently by a team at Leicester University in England and Australia’s Curtin University of Technology. Although the results have not yet been published, based on preliminary analysis the main conclusion from the research is that children think of scientists as boring white men with glasses, beards, and strange hair. According to lead researcher Tina Jarvis, director of Leicester’s School of Education, many children say they do not want to be a scientist because scientists never have fun!

Jarvis and colleagues, along with Lionie Rennie of Curtin, studied the responses of more than 4,000 children in Britain and Australia over the last eight years and concluded that the stereotypes persist, at least among six- to eight-year-olds. Worryingly, children of Asian and African-Caribbean descent generally held the same opinion as their white peers. Most children’s sketches of scientists endowed them with a white, male face and the usual eccentric hair. Boys, Jarvis says, never drew women, and girls did so only very occasionally. While there may well be a minority of scientists who fit the category, it indicates a very narrow view of scientists, one that is so very often reinforced through TV programs and cartoons, comic books, and comments from nonscientist parents and other adults. We then wonder why so many girls and non-white children find it very difficult to envision themselves as future scientists.

Elizabeth Moss, a Cambridge, England mother of two young children, believes there is a simple explanation for these results: “From age 2 or 3 to 5, children have such vivid imaginations, but then they go to school and are made to feel that they should think and act like everyone else and they seem to lose their individual imaginations, and draw what is expected of them.”

Alan Gray is 13 and in eighth grade in Ontario, Canada. “Recently, in our science class, we were asked to draw a picture of a scientist,” he reports. “When we handed it in, our teacher got what she expected: mostly all of us had drawn men with white lab coats and tubes with liquids in them.” He does not think the class was pandering to a greater stereotype, though. “If you asked us to draw popular kids, we’d draw them with makeup and nice clothes and big houses. If you asked us to draw farmers, we’d draw men with overalls, baseball caps, and straw in their mouths.”

Marilyn Fleer, associate professor of education at the University of Canberra in Australia, notes, “Although there are still stereotypical responses given when children are asked to draw a scientist, if you interview them they will qualify their work by saying they had to draw it that way, so that you know what it is.”

“This is an interesting area,” says Christine Khwaja, who teaches primary school teachers at Middlesex University in London. But she also asks whether children draw scientists as boffins because that is what they think scientists are really like, or because that is what they think they are expected to draw? “There seems to be very little in the national curriculum on the nature of science, who does it, and why,” she adds. She suggests, “A discussion around these areas might make children think more widely about who is a scientist and what scientists actually do.” She even suggests that there are many jobs, from hairdresser to zookeeper, in which science is important and that children’s image of scientists might be helped by raising awareness of these.

West Coast scientist and teacher Monique DeRuggiero says she much prefers jeans to lab coats, although she still keeps a well-decorated lab coat for messy labs and is not concerned by revelations of children perceiving scientists as stereotypes. “I do not see a problem with children drawing pictures of scientists as men in white coats; we do need to know what children’s perceptions are before we can change them.” She emphasizes the point that once you know what children expect, you can then teach them the reality by exposing them to examples of real scientists, showing them pictures, movies, stories of all types of scientists in all types of work. Getting real scientists to visit the school or taking a class trip to a lab can also help eradicate misconceptions.

Jupadhye Upadhye, a computer programmer with an Indian software company based in Singapore, blames comic books with characters like Inspector Gadget and stories that are littered with scientist stereotypes: Professor Calculus, Captain Nemo, Frankenstein, “Doc” Brown in the movie Back to the Future – even legendary quirky scientists such as Newton, and especially Einstein. “All of these add to the image,” she says. “Moreover, everyone likes to build myths and interesting characteristics around scientific personalities, to set them aside as somehow different from the rest of us.”

“It is important to challenge children in their thinking, and the adults who work with them,” believes Kate Banfield, who manages a preschool daycare center in West Yorkshire. If the children are portraying scientists as white middle-aged men in lab coats, she says, you need to offer them an alternative experience. Invite non-white or female scientists from local labs to talk about their work; find books and stories about scientists who are women or ethnic minorities. However, the most important strategy for breaking down stereotypes is to raise children’s awareness of what they are and how they are perpetuated. Encourage them to question assumptions and confront stereotypes.

The SCICentre (National Centre for Initial Teacher Training in Primary School Science) at Leicester University, of which Jarvis is director, produces materials to educate parents and educators about science, scientists, and technology. The latest booklet, entitled Helping Primary Children Understand Science and Technology, seeks to improve children’s ideas of scientists by getting them involved in activities such as role playing, discussions, and reading and writing about science. The booklet is illustrated with photographs of a diverse range of scientists at work with the aim of broadening views, presumably of both children and educators.

But Martin Counihan of the University of Southampton worries that children don’t think very much about scientists at all these days, compared with a couple of decades ago. “What image do children have of other rare breeds such as, say, theologians? Or historians?” he asks. “And insofar as children do think about scientists, their image is probably colored much more by the biosciences than previously.”

With the focus in school curricula on numeracy and literacy, especially in the U.K., there is little room for science. Yet Jarvis believes there is no reason why science cannot be incorporated into these two key areas and indeed enhance them. She believes that if children do not learn to love science before they are eleven, then the scientific part of their secondary education is essentially lost on them.

Fleer has looked into how technology education for young children has changed through the years. There’s been an increase in resource development to support technology teaching in schools, she says, but only a limited amount of research has been done in the three-to-eight-year-old age group to assess the effects. Although most parents are familiar with the seemingly innate scientific curiosity of their offspring, Fleer’s pilot study revealed that children as young as three years can engage in oral and visual planning as part of the process of making things, such as model giraffes and butterflies, from different materials.

Greg Degeyter is a meteorologist from Mississippi State University who has made several school appearances. “The students seemed genuinely interested in what was being said. Any well-presented information seems to strike their imagination and make them interested in the subject,” he says. He does not feel that the children expected someone in a white lab coat, but then accedes that most of their experiences with a meteorologist includes someone in a dress coat and tie, and suggests that is what they expect. “In general,” he adds, “I do think that children are intimidated by science. Perhaps not the younger ones but as they get older.” As for stereotypes seen by younger children, “It probably is true for scientists in general,” he suggests, “Most children seem to think of a doctor as someone who studies science, and he is in white garb.” He asks whether it is a bad thing. “Children think of scientists as smart, albeit a bit weird (as shown by the hair), and dedicated to the profession. If anything should be done it is to have more interaction between the scientific community and the public.”

Toby Bankson, a ninth grader in Mountlake Terrace, Washington, believes the stereotype may actually have some benefits. “It may be one of the things that turns a young child’s eyes toward science in the first place,” she says. “In a video show at school, for instance, would kids watch a ‘normal’ scientist for even 15 minutes?” she asks. Which is why shows like Bill Nye: The Science Guy and Beakman’s World are so popular and get children to pay attention willingly to information about science. “With everything else a kid could watch these days, that’s a small miracle!” adds Bankson.

Stereotypes persist in all walks of life, but in the realm of science, where public trust has become frazzled by the seeming autocracy of those guys with crazy hair wearing lab coats and wielding chemicals, perhaps it’s time to say goodbye to Professor Hypothesis and his cronies, and introduce children to some real scientists.

This feature article originally appeared under the title, Uncool boffins, all – children’s stereotypes of scientists – in my Adapt or Die column in the sunk HMSBeagle on the scuppered BioMedNet, it was reprinted here 2001-05-21 but hopefully its sentiments are worthy of repeating today if only to nudge the Null Physics item down to #2 ;-)

How to Discover Our Universe

Our Undiscovered UniverseApparently, scientific thought needs rekindling, seemingly it has run out of kindle and needs a new flame if it is to burn brighter. In steps Terence Witt with the concept of null physics. Witt has now self-published a hefty tome by the name of Our Undiscovered Universe.

According to the press blurb that came with my review copy of the book, he’s a visiting scientist at Florida Institute of Technology. Now, I can find FIT on the web, but I cannot find Witt at FIT. Anyway, he puts forward a not entirely original, idea that modern physics requires a paradigm shift back to common sense thinking and a logical reconnection between observation and theory.

There is, Witt says, a disconnect between the two in our current Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe. In Our Undiscovered Universe, Witt puts forward the hypothesis that the universe is static and not expanding, and rouses various equations to explain away the red shift of distant cosmic objects and concepts such as dark matter and dark energy.

Perhaps there are almost as many loopholes in modern physics as there are wormholes and maybe it is possible to tangle up any scientific model with enough string to fill a universe. But, Witt’s is too comfortable a conclusion, that the universe does not rely on any unknowable precursors in the untestable past and will not grow old, collapse or die, but is an unimaginably large cosmic engine. Moreover, his null hypothesis suggests that “our universe actually is, the only thing it could possibly be: the internal structure of nothingness.”

So, you might ask, what is Witt’s evidence for this concept? He explains that evidence of the Null Axiom is everywhere:

  • Matter and antimatter are always created in equal, yet opposite amounts whose electrical sum is zero
  • Positive and negative electric fields sum to a neutral universe with zero net electrical charge
  • Energy is conserved in all interactions; the magnitude of the universe’s energy has zero change
  • Space is a collection of points, little bits of nothingness itself, which embodies a geometric zero – Null
  • Charge must be conserved in particle interactions; the sum of the difference between charges is zero
  • Momentum is conserved, so the universe’s net momentum remains constant at zero

I put a few questions to Witt on behalf of Sciencebase readers just on the off-chance that a paradigm shift really is pending. First off, I asked him to describe null physics briefly.

Null physics is a bottom-up theory built upon the solution to the ontological dilemma: why does the universe exist [instead of nothing]? The solution – that our universe is composed of nothing – leads directly to the four-dimensional geometry of which energy and space are composed. Null physics is the study and quantification of this geometry and its larger ramifications. In contrast to modern physics’ top-down, heuristic approach, which uses measurements and mathematical symmetries to build models that conform to empirical reality, null physics derives empirical reality, such as the magnitude of unit elementary charge and the range and strength of the strong force, through calculations applied to the topology of a fully known underlying geometry.

I put it to Witt that because his theory is a blend of philosophy and science, that might be a double-edged sword?

Not at all. What we currently call physics originally began as natural philosophy. Physics replaced natural philosophy because it provided an accurate mathematical description of the macroscopic scale of the physical world. This set the stage for untold advances in engineering and technology, but many of the foundational questions that natural philosophy confronted, such as why the universe exists and why matter is composed of discrete particles, were lost in this transition, leaving us with empty mathematical models. Null physics is the best of both worlds, fusing a deep understanding of physical reality (as geometry) with empirical validation. The geometry used in Null physics is derived using logic and reasoning similar to that employed by natural philosophy, but has no philosophical component in its final geometric formulation.

Of course, there are other theories around that suggest the universe did not begin with the Big Bang, I asked Witt, what makes his stand out among them?

Sweeping unification and empirical validation. Unlike other non-Big Bang theories, null cosmology is falsifiable, provides testable predictions, and gives a full accounting of the many nuanced properties of the intergalactic redshift and CMB. It also, unlike any cosmology before it (including the Big Bang), provides a logical reason for the universe’s existence and a clear framework that unifies a wide variety of known galactic properties with the large-scale universe. And in keeping with true scientific progress, the unification provided by null cosmology illuminates a number of currently unknown galactic properties, such as the vortical motion of a galaxy’s disk material.

Finally, I was still curious about the philosophical implications and asked about what this theory can tell us of our place in the universe.

It tells us everything about our place in the universe. It tells us why and how we exist on a finite scale that, because of space’s intrinsic symmetry, must exist precisely midway between infinite largeness and smallness. It tells us that the universe is, through causality and sheer size, large enough to contain its own history. In fact the universe must contain its own history, because each and every moment of our lives is integral to ultra-large-scale structure. Perhaps most importantly, null physics demonstrates that our existence is neither accident nor design – it is inevitable.

Witt’s theory also closes the door on a designer. If the universe has always existed and always will exist, then how could a creator have any role to play at all? I suspect that an atheist agenda might underlie many of the static universe theories that are springing up at regular intervals, but they could be simply replacing unsubstantiated nonsense with another form of unsubstantiated nonsense. It’s just not good enough to ask, why are we here? And to answer, because we’re here!

Compare and Compare Alike

Back in June 2001, I reviewed an intriguing site that allows you to compare “stuff”. At the time, the review focused on how the site could be used to find out in how many research papers archived by PubMed two words or phrases coincided. I spent hours entering various terms hoping to turn up some revelationary insights about the nature of biomedical research, but to no avail.

I assumed the site would have become a WWW cobweb by now, but no! compare-stuff is alive and kicking and has just been relaunched with a much funkier interface and a whole new attitude. And as of fairly recently, the site now has a great blog associated with it in which site creator Bob compares some bizarre stuff such as pollution levels versus torture and human rights abuses in various capital cities. Check out the correlation that emerges when these various parameters are locked on to the current Olympic city. It makes for very interesting reading.

Since the dawn of the search engine age people have been playing around with the page total data they return. Comparing the totals for “Company X sucks” and “Company Y sucks”, for example, is an obvious thing to try. Two surviving examples of websites which make this easy for you are SpellWeb and Google Fight, in case you missed them the first time around.

compare-stuff took this a stage further with a highly effective enhancement: normalisation. This means that a comparison of “Goliath Inc” with “David and Associates” is not biased in favour of David or Goliath.

Compare-stuff with its new, cleaner interface now takes this normalisation factor to the logical extreme and allows you to carry out a trend analysis and so follow the relative importance of any word or phrase. For example, “washed my hair”, with respect to a series of related words or phrases, for example “Monday”, “Tuesday”, “Wednesday”…”Sunday”. The site retrieves all the search totals (via Yahoo’s web services), does the calculations and presents you with a pretty graph of the result (the example below also includes “washed my car” for comparison).

Both peak at the weekend but hair washing’s peak is broader and includes Friday, as you might expect. It’s a bit like doing some expensive market research for free, and the cool thing is that you can follow the trends of things that might be difficult to ask in an official survey, for example:

You can analyse trends on other timescales (months, years, time of day, public holidays), or across selected non-time concepts (countries, cities, actors). Here are a few more examples:

Which day of the week do people tidy their desk/garage?

At what age are men most likely to get promoted/fired?

Which popular holiday island is best for yoga or line dancing?:

Which 2008 US presidential candidate is most confident?

Which day is best for Science and Nature?

As you can see, compare-stuff provides some fascinating sociological insights into how the world works. It’s not perfect though. Its creator, Bob MacCallum, is at pains to point out that it can easily produce unexpected results. The algorithm doesn’t know when words have multiple meanings or when their meaning depends on context. A trivial example would be comparing the trends of “ruby” and “diamond” vs. day of the week.

The result shows a big peak for “ruby” on “Tuesday”, not because people like to wear, buy or write about rubies on Tuesday, but because of the numerous references to the song “Ruby Tuesday” of course.

However, since accurate computer algorithms for natural language processing are still a long way off, MacCallum feels that a crude approach like this is better than nothing, particularly when used with caution. Help is at hand though, the pink and purple links below the plot take you to the web search results, where you can check that your search terms are found in the desired context; in the top 10 or 20 hits that is. On the whole it does seem to work, and promises to be an interesting, fast and cheap preliminary research tool for a wide range of interest areas.

With summer well under way, Independence Day well passed, and thoughts of Thanksgiving and Christmas coming to the fore already (at least in US shops), I did a comparison on the site of E coli versus salmonella for various US holidays. You can view the results live here, as well as tweaking the parameters to compare your own terms.

Originally posted June 4, 2007, updated August 19, 2008

Red-hot Alchemist

Chilli PeppersIn my ChemWeb column, The Alchemist, this week:

Van Gogh was two-timing his canvas, the Alchemist learns this week, thanks to novel X-ray studies of a seemingly innocuous piece called Patch of Grass, which hides a woman’s face beneath its green and peasant landscape.

Professional wine tasters and vintners with a penchant for pepping up their plonk should have something new to worry about thanks to the development of an electronic tongue for detecting adulterated wines and those labeled with the wrong vintage.

In biochemistry, sex and sleep turn out to be inextricably entangled, at least in the world of the lab technician’s favorite nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans.

Traditional Chinese Medicine is heavily marketed despite a lack of clinical evidence of efficacy of many of the remedies. However, The Alchemist hears of a traditional remedy for allergy that, toxic components removed, could work to prevent life-threatening peanut allergy.

The world of red hot chili peppers wouldn’t be so hot if it were not for nibbling insects and a fungus that infects the chilis.

Finally, a million-dollar grant to get the blood pumping will for the next five years fund research into how the brain controls blood pressure and could eventually lead to new treatments for hypertension and cut deaths from cardiovascular disease.

Sexy Worms, an E-Tongue, and Kita Running

Spectroscopynow.comHere is a sneak preview of the various science news items I have scheduled to appear on August 15 over on SpectroscopyNOW.com

Stay young and beautiful – NMR spectroscopy has been used uncovered the secret of eternal youth and the ability to attract sexual partners almost at whim. The results suggest it all hinges on a novel group of pheromones. Unfortunately, before you head for the local pharmacy to stock up, these are pheromones of the lab-technician’s favourite worm, the nematode Caenorhabditis elegans, so they are likely to have no effect whatsoever on human behaviour or longevity.

Electronic wine tasting – The wine buff’s palate is a complicated multisensory organ as anyone who knows their Bordeaux from their Beaujolais knows. Now, researchers have taken a step towards an artificial nose based on a system amenable to multivariate analysis. The system integrates a multisensor to test wine and grape juice samples for adulteration or vintage fraud.

The Kita runners – Protein folding is one of the great conundrums of the twenty-first century. How exactly does a linear string of amino acids “know” into what three-dimensional cross-linked structure to fold itself? Moreover, how might molecular biologists predict this folding from first principles and how might the misfolding seen in prionic diseases, Alzheimer’s and other disorders be prevented or even reversed? A new clue about the folding of proteins comes from studies with a novel technique known as kinetic terahertz absorption spectroscopy (KITA).

Green and peasant landscape – There’s also a bonus item on science in art. Post-impressionist artist was rich beyond his wildest dreams but only posthumously. He may have chopped off part of one ear, but he had double vision. At least that’s the idea that emerges from new X-ray studies of one his more mundane paintings – Patch of Grass – which reveals a portrait of a peasant woman beneath.