Nuclear reactors and soft X-rays

Science links for this week, including my latest news in Materials Today

  • Self-powered sensors: Biomaterials – Piezoelectric arrays could provide the power for a lab-on-a-chip device
  • Pushing droplets around: Surface science – Pushing droplets around a surface
  • A safe reaction: Nuclear – Self-healing materials could make nuclear power plants safer
  • Atheist sex – So…which students are having the most sex?
  • Imaging cells with soft X-rays – Soft X-rays can be focused on cells without using a lens so that intact biological samples can be analysed

Lifelong learning is about connecting people

Individuals now have the autonomy to make their own learning choices and in recent years there has been an emphasis on the ‘self made learner’, especially in adult education and ongoing professional development. As such, online communities and other so-called web 2.0 tools have come to the fore as potentially useful for educators and students alike to become connected more effectively, without time pressures or location mattering as much as it once did.

However, there is also a trendy notion that any web space becomes inherently a ‘learning environment’ simply by virtue of it being labelled as such. This is certainly not the case. Web 2.0 tools, are just that, tools. They can only craft something useful if passionate people work with them and are committed to sharing personal narratives that encourage others, this is applicable whichever educational camp one is in, educator or educated.

Nevertheless, the web is helping bring about a conversational and practical tone as described in the ‘original communities of practice’ concept outlined in the 1990s by educational researchers. For example, is a case in point.

‘Learning within a wider community is now a possibility for those interested in pursuing their learning path in a personalised and networked way,’ explains teacher trainer Cristina Costa of the University of Salford, UK. ‘ The web provides a platform for learning, but the learning environment is decidedly dependent on the interrelationships established amongst individuals.’

Lifelong learning can gain from the humanised approach it brings, something that is often lost in traditional teaching environments where a lecture regurgitates course material on to a chalk board and students ‘download’ it with a pen into a paper notebook. Now, the technology is becoming invisible as more and more people become familiar and comfortable with using the tools, whether forum, micro-blog or social media hub. Moreover, to reiterate, web 2.0 is about providing tools that essentially do just one thing: make connections between people. ‘The effectiveness of the web lies on the opportunities it offers people to emerge as knowledge producers rather than information collectors,’ says Costa.

Research Blogging Icon Cristina Costa (2010). Lifelong learning in Web 2.0 environments Int. J. Technology Enhanced Learning, 2 (3), 275-284; DOI:10.1504/IJTEL.2010.033582

Hubble enhanced, open science, bogus research

These are a few of the science stories that caught my eye this past week:

  • Hubble’s 20th anniversary treat – A stupendous image of a distant region of space, colour enhanced (of course) but amazing nevertheless.
  • Draft White Paper – Researcher identifiers – How about a "SciID", like OpenID or a DOI but for identifying individual researchers? A barcode tattoo would get you into conferences you'd paid for too…or maybe not…
  • Norway: brainwashed science on TV creates storm – The Norwegians have taken science to heart
  • Researchers “Addicted” to Bogus Internet Studies – Spurious studies published on the internet that reveal just how addicted we are to research into internet addiction reveal that internet addictions studies are addictive…
  • Is chemistry incompatible with web 2.0? – Looks to me like the question should be what can chemists do next to build on web 2.0 for the science?
  • Storing carbon dioxide in cement – My first article in Technology Review for many years discusses the possibility of making green concrete, a material that rather than releasing CO2 into the atmosphere would lead to a net reduction by absorbing the greenhouse gas throughout the material's life cycle.

Online students and virtual supervisors

The numbers of international students taking on graduate degrees is on the increase, partly due to the advent of rapid communication and information tools and partly due to the recognition that globalisation is taking over the world. Hah!

Supervisors I’ve spoken to over the years have always seen the mix of cultures in their laboratories as being an entirely positive aspect of their science. But, apparently, the social research literature is littered with issues surrounding attrition, motivation, and supervision among those students studying online and being supervised remotely.

Learning and teaching styles can differ greatly and lead to problems where neither student nor teacher is necessarily gaining what they need from the relationship. Kenneth David Strang, himself an international researcher based at APPC IM Research, in Long Island, New York, USA, and the University of Technology, in Sydney, Australia, hopes to address the emergent problems. He has now created a model for assessing and improving supervision of international postgraduate students taking part in online college classes.

‘The internet has extended the reach of postgraduate education to international candidates around the world,’ explains Strang, ‘Global international enrolments exceeded 1.5 million in 2002, (according to a UNESCO study in 2003), growing to approximately 2.2 million in 2005 and are anticipated to hit 3.7 million by 2025.’ It’s debatable whether postgraduate education, and in particular, PhD studies, have increased in a relative sense, but ICT has certainly globalised many disciplines in the way Strang describes.

Professors must strive to understand international student learning styles and work to appease them, while international students themselves might struggle to comprehend their supervisor’s style and so must work harder to cope with the demands of their degree. In terms of economics it is important to address these issues as graduate degrees are expensive with long durations and student satisfaction is an important measure of success in market economic terms. In the US, half of graduate students drop out before they get their PhD, and similar statistics are seen in Australia and the UK.

Research regarding student satisfaction has previously focused on face-to-face supervision, but Strang suggests that the shift in delivery to the online mode ‘will not magically transform poor supervision or confusing structure into better quality.’ Indeed, Strang asks whether a student can be blamed for failure due to incompetence or lack of motivation if teaching style is more to blame. After all, even the brightest students, who start out with commitment and enthusiasm, can become disappointed when they fail to cope well.

Current models that attempt to address the problems are complicated by the fact that there can be almost as many learning styles as there are students, which makes it almost impossible for supervisors to customise their teaching style and materials to cope. Moreover, professors may simply not recognise the gap between learning and teaching. Strang also points out that learning styles are similar to personalities with respect to their persistence since they usually do not change significantly, as compared with culture which can dramatically change in different situations.

‘My model proposes that students have hidden expectations, desires, and wants, which are not easily measureable,’ Strang says. ‘This is common place in marketing and psychology. For example, when a person asks you what you really want to do on your day off: what will you say? Do you even know yourself until the day off begins? Ok, now think about asking that question to people all around the world, from Japan, China, India, etc. Would you expect some pretty far-out replies? Likely. This is the sort of complex educational psychology I am dealing with in my research.’

‘I feel this research is pushing our thinking far beyond current educational psychology models that deal only with particular dimensions of the learning process,’ Strang told me. ‘My model deals with many aspects [of learning] and it has also been tested with international students.’ He points out that given that we are going online more and more and becoming increasingly virtual in our communications (in terms of business as well as education) he suggests that it is time we got realistic in our testing of models, by incorporating culture into research designs and teaching approaches. ‘Gone are the days when everyone applies the USA model of doing things – now the world is building on those models, and feeding back the results so everyone around the world can benefit – and learn more,’ he says.

Strang’s model is quite new and he admits it is therefore unproven. He is on the leading edge of integrating culture with learning styles, and especially in terms of testing this outside of the USA, where most educational theories were originally developed, and continue to be developed. He uses more powerful statistics than were previously available and also addresses the issue of online learning that simply did not exist when those models were first wrought.

Research Blogging IconKenneth David Strang (2010). Improving supervision of cross-cultural postgraduate university students Int. J. Learning and Change, 4 (2), 181-202

Alchemist, catching electrons, homeopathic fail

This week’s Alchemist chemistry news and more…

  • Catching electrons in the act – Scientists are getting close to being able to study chemical reactions and complex materials with individual attosecond pulses of laser light (that's a quintillionth of a second). Here's how Berkeley scientists are doing it…
  • Alchemical happenings from around the web – The Alchemist could not fail to mention the nuclear highlight of the year as an international team fills the gap between elements 116 and 118 in the periodic table with a stupendous "transmutation" of berkelium bombarded with calcium ions into just six atoms of ununseptium. In biochemistry, we learn how flies can taste water and muse on the possibility of other animals, including ourselves, having a similar sense. We hear about a terminal improvement to photovoltaic solar cells and how to scrub colloidal coal. The Alchemist also digs up the history of polymer chemistry that has for the last two decades helped reduce the production of counterfeit money. Finally, a national award goes to a high school chemistry teacher who practices CPR on his students every lesson.
  • Spain produces solar energy at night – Solar energy fraud is on the increase, where subsidies paid to generating companies for using solar power are being abused by running diesel generators at night and also charging a premium to consumers for the "green" power!
  • Homeopathy – a FAIL since 1835 – Homeopathy is a fantasy and we have known this since at least 1835 when it first failed proper scientific randomized controlled trials.

Smoking cadmium and benchtop X-rays

Latest science news including this week’s round up from my SpectroscopyNOW column:

  • Smoking out cadmium problem – A statistical analysis of spectroscopic data is helping scientists home in on the problem of decreased fruit and vegetable consumption being associated with an elevated concentration of cadmium in the blood of male smokers.
  • Short, sharp outburst – A new approach to generating ultra-short, high-density electron pulses for the production of advanced X-ray sources has been developed. The approach could lead to a bench-top X-ray synchrotron for materials science, pharmaceutical research and nanotechnology research.
  • Metabolic obesity – Evidence from NMR spectroscopic studies of individual metabolic profiles would suggest that the way our bodies digest and process nutrients in the food we eat is different for every person and could ultimately affect overweight and obesity problems.
  • Heavy metal and hardened arteries – The way in which arterial plaques form, atherogenesis, is not yet completely understood despite a significant number of research studies in this area. Now, a study using rabbits on a high-fat diet (HFD) has investigated the effects of changes in the concentrations of heavy metalsin several tissues using spectroscopy.
  • Electronic ‘nose’ can predict pleasantness of novel odours – Our sense of smell may not be as subjective as we thought, as scientists develop an electronic nose that can distinguish between pleasant and unpleasant odours.
  • Scientists embrace openness – "Everybody makes mistakes. And if you don't expose your raw data, nobody will find your mistakes." –Jean-Claude Bradley [no relation]

Young children see the moon illusion

Why does the full moon seem bigger when it’s near the horizon than when it’s high in the sky? The moon illusion, which also applies to the perception of the size of the sun in the sky, has intrigued artists and puzzled psychologists for many years.

The moon illusion refers to the fact that the sun and moon appear (to most people) to be a lot bigger when low on the horizon than when they are above us in the sky. Regardless of their position in the sky, however, the full moon and the sun both subtend an angle of about 0.5 degrees. There is no weird atmospheric refraction-magnification effect taking place.

That said, there is a slight variation in the angle subtended by the moon depending on its actual distance from the earth, and atmospheric refraction makes the moon’s image slightly smaller in its vertical axis when close to the horizon, giving it an oval appearance. These physical effects reduce the image size of the low moon by about 10%, and certainly cannot account for the perceived enlargement of about 150%.

To span the sky in a standard landscape photograph (35 mm lens in a conventional 35 mm camera) requires 100 full moons touching in a row. However, artists of all ages often represent a low-lying moon as being a lot bigger and sunrises and sunsets commonly show the sun as spanning a much bigger portion of a landscape than it actually does.

Examples of gross distortions of the sun or moon’s size in art can be found in Vincent van Gogh’s Sower with Setting Sun (ten times too big), Honore Daumier’s The Bluestocking (four times), Samuel Palmer’s Coming from Evening Church (five times), Ernest Briggs’ The Northern Twilight — Returning from the Fishing (four times).

There are many explanations of the moon illusion, but none are entirely satisfactory. Among them is the notion that we perceive the sky as a flattened dome so that the horizon is from our internal perspective farther away than the zenith above, and so an object lying near the horizon appears bigger because it is scaled for distance. Think of it this way, scattered clouds across the sky give the odd impression of a gently curving sky as we look above us and then towards the horizon. It’s perhaps all about cues to distance, which in a sky are few and far between.

The problem with this explanation is that, given that perception, the moon should appear bigger but farther at the horizon, but to most people it doesn’t – it appears bigger and closer. Experiments show that the apparent enlargement of the moon’s diameter varies between about 1.3 and 1.8, with 1.5 being typical of most people’s perception.

Helen Ross of the Department of Psychology, at the University of Stirling, Scotland, and Adele Cowie have tested children aged 4 to 12 years and adults aged about 21 years by asking them to draw the apparent size of the moon on a photocopy of a landscape, both near the horizon and high in the sky. The mean ratio of the low to high moons was 1.57, and the size of the illusion did not vary significantly with age. “The illusion, like size-constancy in the near distance, is well established by age 4,” the authors say. Indeed, the illusion is present in full strength in young children, so cannot depend on perceptual skills that develop later in life, Ross says.

Writing in the International Journal of Arts and Technology, Ross and Cowie
explain this perceptual paradox:

At near distances, spatial perception is governed by non- pictorial cues such as motion parallax, convergence, accommodation and stereopsis; at far distances, it is governed by pictorial cues such as image size, linear perspective and texture gradients. At near distances, constancy is automatic and it is very hard to distinguish between angular size (retinal image size) and true object size. At far distances constancy is imperfect, and distant objects appear small; but with experience we can learn to estimate the true size of objects, by taking account of distance and other cues.

The authors suggest that the moon illusion may be similar to those geometrical illusions that show no clear age trends, and to size-constancy at near distances. Both effects are observed in young children, and this would imply that the moon illusion is caused by low-level automatic processes in the brain rather than by some sophisticated mental acrobatics that allow us to scale for distance, a function that improves with age. “If observers [of all ages] are not scaling the moon by its apparent distance, but by other factors, then the apparent distance is irrelevant,” the authors say. The sight of the terrain is the most important factor. It may be that size is scaled in relation to other sizes in the scene, or perhaps the terrain is a cue to orientation.

Experiments show that tilting one’s head or bending over and looking at the moon through one’s legs reduces the illusion. Our perception changes depending on the angle at which we look at something relative to the local terrain. It seems there really is no single satisfactory answer to the illusion, but instead it is caused by a combination of factors.

One final thought for fans of the new moon, as opposed to the full moon. When the new moon is “cradling the old moon in its arms” one can see the sun’s light faintly reflected from the earth, earthshine, on the region of the moon that is facing away from the sun itself and so otherwise dark. The partial disc of the moon illuminated by earthshine appears slightly smaller than the extrapolated circle of the moon’s “arms” would suggest it should be. This is not entirely apparent in a photograph but is easily seen with the naked eye. This shows how yet another factor, brightness, affects the apparent size of the moon.

Research Blogging IconHelen E. Ross, & Adele Cowie (2010). The moon illusion in children’s drawings Int. J. Arts and Technology, 3 (2/3), 275-287

Eye disease, combat robots, and a battery boost

Latest round-up of science news, including my Intute physical sciences news column.

  • ETROP Study MNR – Treatment strategy confirmed for childhood eye disease
  • Reviewing peer review – Scientific peer review has many problems and no one seems to know how to address them
  • Bots High – A documentary on high school combat robots
  • The slow rise of The Andes – Chemical analysis suggests that the Andes mountain range rose much more gradually than scientists previously thought.
  • New battery-boosting recipe – Researchers have combined the advantages of lithium metal with the longevity of lithium ion by developing a new type of lithium-metal-free battery that holds charge better and will not "age" as quickly as conventional rechargeables.
  • Interplanetary storm – A meteoric storm raged over the Earth 13,000 years ago as thousands of pieces of rock each the size of the Tunguska comet rained down over the course of an hour. The end result was a dramatic cooling of the planet, according to astronomer Bill Napier of the Cardiff University Astrobiology Centre.
  • Fly’s identity – That most famous of scientific insects Drosophila melanogaster could be getting a name change to Sophophora melanogaster because it's not actually a dark-bellied dew-lover but a dark-bellied bearer of wisdom

How Many Licks?

The idea of carrying out a Fermi estimate sounds like something that only nuclear physicists would be able to do with any degree of success, but a Fermi estimate, or Fermi problem, is nothing more than an approach to estimating numbers that cannot be counted. For instance, how many grains of sand on a beach? How many Jelly Beans in a bag? And, how many licks will it take to finish off that lollypop?

University of Michigan post-doctoral researcher Aaron Santos shows you how to “estimate damn near anything”. Every day we make simple estimations of all kinds of things, about time, distance, numbers, probabilities, Santos offers you the tools to make the most of the estimation skills most of us have the mental faculty to undertake.

Fermi problems? Nothing more than an informed estimate, an educated guess, a back-of-an-envelope calculation, a thumbnail sketch, a guesstimate. With these tools you could work out whether escaping from prison with nothing more than a spoon is possible, how big a book would a print out of the entire internet be, and even how many people are having an orgasm right now. Definitely a puzzle book with a difference and one that could prove useful in many ways. It’s on Amazon here.

Also on my desk at the moment:

Curious Folks Ask – Sherry Seethaler – 162 real answers to quesstions about amazing inventions, fascinating products, and medical mysteries, such as why is glue sticky? Is one horsepower really equal to the power of a lone horse? Why does the flu change every year?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot – As good as any detective novel this book highlights the complexities of scientific research whilst showing the human side. The historical background is fascinating and shows how the ethical approach to research has improved. It continues the debate on whether we should give up tissue to forward scientific research freely or whether we should be rewarded. [Review by PAB]

Second Nature – The Inner Lives of Animals, by Jonathan Balcombe who explains that despite centuries, if not millennia of self-centred humanity, people are not the only animals that matter.

The Ape of Sorrows – From stranger to destroyer, the inside story of humans by Maurice Rowden. If Balcombe argues that the inner lives of other animals make them our equals, then it is the inner turmoil we call the human condition that does still set us apart from other species and that our having lost our original habitat thousands of years ago has left us tragically committed to our own destruction. Nevertheless, Rowden offers humanity an escape if only we could stop piling on our sorrows and settle into the habitat in which we find our species today.

Shrimp – The endless quest for pink gold by Jack and Anne Rudloe is an unusual book to say the least, focusing as it does on an important but often ignored human food source. As a Brit, it is always incongruous to see the word shrimp juxtaposed with what so obviously is a prawn. But, hey that’s transatlantic translation for you. Shrimp is essentially about prawns, the people who love to eat them, the fisherman who catch them and the aquaculturists who raise them in unimaginable numbers. Actually, those numbers are not quite unimaginable, just figure out a Fermi estimate and you could get an idea.

Finally, Breathrough by Jon Queijo describes the ten greatest discoveries in medicine that have saved millions of lives and changed the way we view our world. From vaccines and X-rays to DNA and antibiotics, the petty bickering, the dumb luck, the humour…and the science.

The Open Laboratory 2009

The self-proclaimed “best in science writing on blogs” brings us once again a wide range of posts from the great and the good of the scientific blogosphere. The project was started with Bora Zivkovic (Blog Around the Clock) who recognised that science blogs were taking on a more and more relevant role in the sharing of research results. Without wishing to get into the debates and arguments that often emerges when non-scientist or non-specialist journalists write about science or when the average scientist turns pop , most of us can recognise that there are in essence good writers and there are not so good writers.

In this year’s Open Lab Scicurious (Neurotopia) takes over the helm of the print publication with a fantastic cover design by Glendon Mellow (Flying Trilobite) and technical editing by Blake Stacey (Science After Sunclipse).

You might wonder what benefit there can possibly be to compiling a bunch of blog posts and printing them months after they appear in the blogosphere. Science blogs are bringing research out into the wider public domain in a more timely manner than ever before and doing it with skill and precision (in the majority of cases). So, a printed compilation of 50 science blog posts from 2009 provides another way to showcase how the world of science writing is evolving.

The blogs represented are written by scientists, science students, science writers and science journalists. Some of them are deadly earnest. Others more light-hearted. Some are seriously interesting. All are fascinating in their own way and many fields of science are covered within the pages of The Open Laboratory 2009. Is Sciencebase represented? I’d like to think it would stand a chance of being selected had it been submitted, but no, it’s not in there. Some of you may see that as a bonus. You can grab a copy either way via Lulu.

I have a nice pile of books on my desk that have been given the once over. Watch out for a round-up of those including How Many Licks, Shrimp, and Second Nature. Grab the Sciencebase news feed or follow our Facebook page to keep up with the latest on the site without having to check back.