Boiling sun, alchemist, freewill

  • The boiling Sun – In case you woke up today feeling important…there's a rather humbling picture that shows the scale of a plume of gas erupting from the surface of the Sun that would literally engulf the whole planet. More to the point, you could fit the Earth into the sun a million times over…and the sun isn't even a particularly big star and it's just one of billions in our galaxy and there are billions of galaxies in the "known" universe. The universe itself may simply be a tiny bubble in a even more unimaginable froth of universes…still pretty picture isn't it?
  • Alchemist for 27th October on ChemWeb.com – In this week's issue theoretical work opens up entirely new chemical vistas hinting at the chemistry of elements beyond atomic number 118 up to 172. In environmental chemistry, a new protocol for assessing a common ingredient of personal-care products could allow the risks associated with their use to be determined more accurately than before. An inexpensive support for platinum could make electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen economically viable, while waste products from wood processing offer an alternative feedstock for liquid fuels. In the medicinal world, details of a natural joint lubricant are revealed that could eventually improve prevention and treatment of joint disease. Finally, two major diseases of the developing world revolve around a single enzyme and new funding could help in the fight against these diseases.
  • Free Will is NOT An Illusion | Brain Blogger – If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice. Nice expose of misinterpretation of freeewill tests since 1980s could mean we really do have a choice.
  • Toxic colour test – A new lab-on-a-chip sensor array that is little bigger than a business card can detect toxic industrial chemicals at low cost and at low concentrations.

When is yawning contagious?

When is yawning contagious? – Apparently, yawns are most contagious at 7:30 pm. But, why? No one knows for sure even why we yawn, let alone why we yawn after seeing someone else yawn or even simply after seeing someone pretend to yawn. (If it were a change in air pressure or CO2 levels in the room, you wouldn’t expect that to happen). More to the point lots of animals yawn, babies yawn, we do yawn when we’re tired, but we also yawn after a good night’s sleep. It’s a puzzle, a mystery, a paradox, and a conundrum. Now, think about your mouth opening, your arms stretching above your head, your head thrown back…did you yawn?

Six sexy science books

Six sexy science books at least one or two of which would make perfect holiday gifts for the science geek, nerd, dweeb, or dork in your life. Remember Science is Vital and so are books.

  • Science: The Definitive Guide by Piers Bizony – As a kid, I devoured books like this, you probably did too, it is a big, bold, and eyecatching introduction to chemistry, physics, geology, biology and cosmology. Each section has a big-fonted title and a lively opener followed by more in-depth exploration. But, these days, having authored and co-authored several of the genre myself, I find each new one sadly lacking. Yes, they give you a nice taste of science, but they're never definitive, there's always some topic that has been overlooked, some niche that is not covered in quite enough depth. Casual readers are unlikely to have the shelf heigh to accommodate this thin book of large area and although it pains me to admit it (given my writing history with these kinds of publications) it is likely only to be bought as a gift for a beloved great niece or nephew and will genuinely inspire few to delve deeper into the world of science despite the quality of the writing and the pretty, but old-fashioned illustrations and format.
  • Cooking for Geeks by Jeff Potter – The geek is on the rise, we are fast approaching the dork apocalypse so now is the time to have a decent meal. More than just a cookbook, Cooking for Geeks takes yours and my nerdish curiosity to new levels of domesticity offering discovery, inspiration, and invention in the kitchen. You can find out, why medium-rare steak is so popular and why we bake some things at 175 and others at 190 Celsius? You can also learn why overclocking your oven to 540 Celsius could cook that urgent midnight pizza much faster than conventional approaches. Author and cooking geek Jeff Potter gives you the insights and offers a unique take on recipes — from the sweet (a "mean" chocolate chip cookie) to the savoury (duck confit sugo).
  • The Princeton Guide to Ecolog by Simon A. Levin et al. – "The Princeton Guide to Ecology" is a concise, authoritative one-volume reference to the field's major subjects and key concepts. Edited by eminent ecologist Simon Levin, with contributions from an international team of leading ecologists, the book contains more than ninety clear, accurate, and up-to-date articles on the most important topics within seven major areas: autecology, population ecology, communities and ecosystems, landscapes and the biosphere, conservation biology, ecosystem services, and biosphere management. Complete with more than 200 illustrations (including sixteen pages in color), a glossary of key terms, a chronology of milestones in the field, suggestions for further reading on each topic, and an index, this is an essential volume for undergraduate and graduate students, research ecologists, scientists in related fields, policymakers, and anyone else with a serious interest in ecology.
  • The Youth Pill: Scientists at the Brink of an Anti-Aging Revolution by David Stipp – An elixir of eternal youth was high on the alchemist's protochemical agenda. But, the promise of a longer, healthier life is still at the heart of multibillion dollar industries from pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, to nutrition and aesthetic surgery. The notion of a youth pill has captivated humans for centuries but until recently those pills have encapsulated nothing but snake oil. In The Youth Pill, David Stipp explores the history of 'slow aging', which has been plagued by fits and starts that led to dead ends, not to mention countless hoaxes and shows that scientists may now be much closer to a solution than you think. Quite odd then that Aubrey de Grey one of the leading proponents in this field gets a one-off mention page 247 merely as the editor of a scientific journal.
  • Coral Reefs in the Microbial Seas by Forest Rohwer, Merry Youle and illustrated by Derek Vosten – The demise of many coral communities in the oceans and the threat to the rest are among the most disturbing changes to our planet, which makes it all the more important that we learn as much as we can about them. Rohwer and Youle give you the chance of a coral education and tell their tale of fishing, nutrients, bacteria, viruses and climate change on "nature's most wondrous constructs" in a manner that is accessible to all.
  • Curious World of Bugs by Daniel Marlos – If you've ever searched online to try and identify that creepy-crawly in your bathroom you've probably visited the WhatsThatBug.com site. Curious World of Bugs gives you a hardcover version of the site from its creator, illustrated with vintage drawings reminiscent of old biology guides. This compact compendium of mini beasts offers you a glimpse into the world of infestations and fascinations. Some are strange and mysterious, others are even cute, all are endlessly intriguing.

Progress or PR

Progress or PR? – SciDev.net recently published a “guide” for journalists on separating real progress from PR hype surrounding clinical trials. It’s a well-written and quite timely piece given the backlash against medical reporting in recent years. Unfortunately, this kind of advice is only ever taken by those already heeding it, they’re preaching to the converted in other words. No matter how hard such efforts try there is no way to prevent sensationalist, tabloid “news” papers from splashing their scurrilous headlines proclaiming the lethality of some entity or the wondrous benefits of a wonder drug. The journalists who write such items certainly know the difference between progress and PR and they milk it for all its worth to fulfil their editorial agendas regardless of whether or not the facts support their case. For excellent examples of the art check out the Mail and the Express, I don’t think either paper very often lets the facts get in the way of a good story (allegedly).

Scientists dodge Osborne’s axe

Scientists dodge Osborne’s axe – The Science is Vital campaign has turned UK Chancellor George Osborne who recognised at the 11th hour that the £4.6 billion science budget should be maintained over the next four years. He accepted that research will be key to long-term economic growth. More to the point though his initial suggestion of cutting funding to non-A/A* scientists wouldn't have saved much at all anyway as the A/A* science apparently accounts for 95% of funding. Nevertheless, the science base can today breathe a sci of relief (pardon the pun).

This was set to appear on the day of the announcements but seems to have got stuck in the blog queue. Apologies.

GERD’s dirty little secret

GERD’s dirty little secret – When omeprazole's patent expired AstraZeneca launched the optically pure version esomeprazole, which is apparently four times as active and gave them a new patent and a corner of the acid reflux market. Bizarrely, both forms of the drug (pro-drug in fact) are converted to the same chemical in the body and so you could get the same efficacy level as esomeprazole simply by taking more of the original omeprazole, which of course is now available as a much cheaper generic since the AZ patent expired. Another opportunity for NHS or health insurance savings?

Science news

Yet more science:

  • Antibiotics and budgets – Seven days. That’s the usual length of an antibiotic scrip – 3 pills a day for a week – 21 pills. But would 20 pills be okay? Would that eradicate the bacterial infection just the same? That’s a 5% saving. What about 19 pills? 18? Fifteen even? The savings on health budgets and insurance could be enormous. There is no science underpinning the usual 7-day prescription for antibiotics, it’s just a nice number, a magic number you might say, based solely on the 7-day week. The annual spend on antibiotics amounts to millions, 5, 7, 10% of millions is a lot of money…
  • Blood pressure chart – BP-chart is a rather useful online spreadsheet for keeping track of your blood pressure readings whether you’re home monitoring or simply keeping track of the doctor’s readings. If you’re reviewing your medication, then accurate records are essential and this site allows you to plot graphs or display a table of readings. It also shows you the proportion of your readings that are healthy, pre-hypertension, or in the high blood pressure region.
  • Gliese glides away – Earth 2.0 may be nothing more than an astronomical mirage. Probably just as well we didn’t have that space ship on the launchpad…
  • Sciencebase science legacy archive – Before I started using WordPress, I coded my site pretty much by hand, and from its origins in 1995 built up quite a large archive of science feature articles, news items, and interviews with scientists – 457+ to be less than precise – this is a sitemap of all those legacy pages that lie outside the normal Sciencebase blog structure for your browsing “pleasure”.
  • Detonation, that’s the name of the game – Nitroglycerine Detonation Filmed in Slo-Mo – Explosions: How We Shook the World, Preview – BBC Four

String, energy, and cats

It was inevitable that the “Dummies” series of books would get around to String Theory for Dummies. Intriguingly, it’s written by the physics guide at About.com, Andrew Zimmerman Jones (with Daniel Robbins). The Dummies guide explains the basic concepts of what the cover refers to as the controversial theory, how it builds on known principles, its physical implications and how there are several different viewpoints on string theory.

In case you didn’t know string theory hopes to be a theory of everything and hinges on the notion that particles and energy are fundamentally string-like vibrations and membranes (referred to chirpily in the jargon of the theory as branes) in a multidimensional spacetime most of whose dimensions we cannot observe because they are wrapped up small and tight. It’s just possible that if string theory ever finds itself in a position of being able to predict anything observable (in the way that quantum theory and relativity theory most certainly do), then we might be on to something. We might even be able to explain dark matter and the subject of our next book dark energy.

Physicist Luca Amendol and cosmologist Shinki Tsujikawa writing in Dark Energy – Theory and Observations, attempt to explain the basics of this mysterious “force” that pervades the universe and is causing an apparent acceleration of the expansion of the universe that the conventional Big Bang model cannot sustain. It’s as if there’s something acting against the force of gravity that would sensibly be otherwise slowing the expansion.

If you fancy delving into the cosmological constant, quintessence, k-essence, perfect fluid models and modified gravity, than Amendol and Tsujikawa have it all. It’s heavy on the references and heavy on the mathematical formulae, it’s no Dummies’ guide, in other words. But, considering it discusses, as does String Theory for Dummies, a concept that may or may not exist at all, it does not make for light reading.

In total contrast, Stuart Clark’s The Big Questions – The Universe is more squarely aimed at the non-specialist reader. Clark confronts the usual big questions of science and philosophy but gives his answers a refreshingly sharp edge: What is the universe? How old is the universe? What is a black hole? And, inevitably what is dark energy? Clark also discusses the possibility of extraterrestrial life, the origin of life on earth, and whether or not there are so-called parallel or alternative universes.

I’ve never been a fan of graphic novels, but JP MvEvoy and Oscar Zarate offer a valiant effort in bringing the form to non-fiction and specifically quantum theory in Introducing Quantum Theory – a graphic guide. Apparently, although quantum theory is notoriously difficult to grasp, it is explained in this book with patience, wit and clarity. To my eye though, I cannot see how it is made any clearer by cartoons of Schrodinger and Einstein regardless of how well drawn they are. That said, it is possible that teenage comic fans attempting to get to grips with the far reaches of the physics curriculum may find some inspiration.

Finally, Michael Byers’ novel Percival’s Planet is a novel of ambition and obsessions centred on the race to discover (the planet) Pluto in 1930. The trouble with a novel as opposed to a history is discerning, which bits are fact and which bits are fiction. An issue that worried critics of Michael Crichton and Dan Brown alike.

Blue skies science, pie in the sky?

Lucy Marcus is the Founder and CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting, Ltd, a company that endeavours to foster sustainable success for funding organisations. She is non-executive chair of the Mobius Life Sciences Fund and chair of the audit committee for BioCity Nottingham. As the Science is Vital campaign steps up a gear and British scientists brace themselves for funding cut announcements from government, Lucy Marcus talked to 雷竞技官网 about the downside to science spending cuts.

You have quite a broad range of current positions, what 2-3 word phrase would you use to describe yourself professionally speaking?

Hard to put into 2-3 words. I am the CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting, a non-executive director, and chair of Mobius Life Sciences.

How did you become involved with the Mobius Life Sciences Fund?

For the past 10 years I’ve run a company that structures and restructures venture funds and private equity funds, Marcus Venture Consulting. When I met the team from BioCity they asked me to join the board and help them develop the Mobius Life Sciences Fund. I was attracted to it because it was an opportunity to help build a life sciences fund that fills the ever increasing gap in investing in early stage life science businesses. I was impressed that they recognised a need for a strong and capable venture fund in the earliest stages of life science investment.

We are yet to hear what the cuts will actually entail, what is it you object to at this stage?

The recommendation from the UK government that science research should “abandon work that is “neither commercially useful nor theoretically outstanding” as part of the UK’s austerity drive. As the chair of the Mobius Life Sciences Fund, an early-stage life sciences investment fund, I believe strongly that investment in blue skies research remains essential and cannot be consigned to the scrapheap to meet short-term cost-cutting measures as that would risk long-term economic stability.

Even the kind of industry-based research that generates short-term benefits needs blue skies thinking to begin with.

Secondly, serendipity often brings about the most results with the most impact. Research into foundational problems need time and investment and will generate a multiplicity outcomes. Industrial research usually focuses on a particular problem and finds singular answers often of immediate commercial value.

Thirdly, blue skies research is uncertain but also underpins the kind of industry research driven by more short-term considerations, not investing in blue skies research runs the risk of destroying the very foundations on which research for short-term benefits relies.

Apparently, the cut-off is going to be A*/A science research, but as the top layers account for 96% of public funding cash, removing the B/C/D is going to have little effect on the actual budget? Cuts have to be made but how can we persuade the government to use the statistics properly?

If blue skies research is the way to our future as individuals, nations, and planet, then how shall we fund it? Private commercial entities can act as gatekeepers of commercialisation because they are driven by a profit motivation. Prior work has to be carried out before reaching the commercial stage. It is the integrity of that work that must be maintained, and that cannot be maintained but with continued investment in blue skies research.

We must not abdicate our future to those profit motivations, as not all scientific discovery can be immediately quantified in its commercial value. The heated debate generated by Lord Browne and now Vince Cable would seem to indicate that it is either government-funded or not funded at all. But this is a false dichotomy. In the past, blue skies research was funded from a range of different sources-large corporates, governments, charitable trusts, all three in partnership with universities and dedicated research centres, VCs and angel investors. All of these now face serious constraints on their budgets individually, and there is a clear temptation to point the finger at each other when it comes to living up to what is a collective responsibility (and ethical obligation to future generations) for supporting blue skies research.

Some would say that blue skies is really pie in the sky? Why is it so important to encourage blue skies science? Blue skies implies a future potential for wealth creation, but most fundamental science will never be a moneyspinner? That’s not its aim.

Part of what makes investment into blue skies research less attractive is that even where it yields results that have short-term potential for commercialisation, an environment in which scientists and entrepreneurs can translate such results into commercially viable propositions is often missing.

Therefore, identifying and nurturing scientific talent and helping them to commercialise their findings requires recognising the opportunities that are generated by results of basic research and creating an environment in which these opportunities can come to fruition and make a lasting impact that is commercially viable. This is possible with relatively few financial resources, and offers an opportunity for early-stage investment funds: they pick up where blue skies research leaves off but ahead of commercial verification. They thus need to bring together experts who understand the science behind the idea and can judge its potential and venture capitalists who have the business acumen to vet business plans, fund them, and guide their implementation. By taking a lasting and active interest in the success of the entrepreneurs such early-stage investment funds support, they also provide them with the credibility needed for later-stage investments by larger venture funds, thus performing the vital function of a feeder fund and contributing to the long-term success of their initial investments.

Early-stage investment funds do not in themselves resolve the problem of who invests in blue skies research, but they can make it a more promising and less daunting venture by helping to contribute to a faster and more reliable idea-to-market process.

How does blue skies funding encourage long-term economic stability?

Late last year, the Higher Education Funding Council for England announced that it would change its methodology for allocating public funding for academic research from 2013, requiring 25% of the assessment of whether or not to fund a project to be based on whether the researcher can demonstrate a contribution to the economy or society. This could put a stranglehold on blue skies research, as more often than not, some of the biggest scientific breakthroughs come once research has been done and only then is an application found. At the same time, other traditional sources of funding for basic research are also drying up. Large pharmaceutical companies are suffering from tighter financial straits and many are depending on outsourcing discovery research or waiting for it to be done by small firms that they can then acquire and merge into their own operations. In January, AstraZeneca said it would close its Loughborough R&D centre with the loss of 1200 jobs and closure of key areas of research, including respiratory diseases. While organisations such as the Wellcome Trust and other charity-funded pure research councils, will continue to provide money for wider avenues of discovery, it will be on a much smaller scale.

Venture capital continues to play a significant role in providing early-stage funding to promising discoveries. When the viability of a biomedical or clean technology invention is clearly established, financing is available to support it. And with most industrialised countries facing steep public deficits in the aftermath of the financial crisis, their governments have to reassess budgets and make difficult choices about where to direct scarce research funds. Yet what are the potentially unintended consequences if there is no money to channel into the first link of the discovery chain?

There is some science (the kind that wins IgNobel awards that is fun, but where does such research (e.g. investigating how men dance, recently in the news) fit into the overall picture of science and economic stability?

Often there is serious research behind the “fun findings” that are shared to attract media attention. Human behaviour, biology, chemistry, etc. It is hard to know where the breakthroughs will come from, so we need to allow a certain amount of leeway.

Many inventions and discoveries are the result of circuitous blue-skies research, a field of discovery that is increasingly under threat in the UK as scare research budgets and tight public finances combine to skew funding streams towards research with a clearly applicable social and economic impact.

Blue skies research, areas of inquiry for which concrete applications are not immediately obvious, is an essential part of discovery. The internet was originally created as a means for scientists to communicate, while echocardiograms had their origins in First World War experiments using ultrasonic waves to detect submarines. A host of inventions, from cures to crippling diseases to the use of technology to solve problems such as the need for clean energy have developed serendipitously from broader, or more whimsical scientific investigations, resulting in findings that likely changed the world and, in some cases, saved lives.

There is a major element of short-termism, but cuts have to be made and the previous government had similar plans? What would you cut instead?

A 2008 article in the Journal of Biomedical Discovery and Collaboration, based on interviews with scientists, warned that a more narrowly focused research assessment regime causes scientists to choose safe topics over more speculative ones in an effort to get funding. The article also suggests that greater restrictions on funding would cause scientists to stay firmly within their specialisations, reducing the scope for broader, more interdisciplinary investigations.

There is a difference between explicitly abandoning support for blue skies research and recognising its extinction as a fait accompli after the fact. Clearly we need to be having a public debate now about whether we as a country value blue skies research enough to fund it. This will involve better communication to the public about the importance of blue skies research and, more importantly, communication of the awareness that if early-stage research doesn’t get funding now, there may be fewer potential life-saving or sea-changing discoveries down the line.

Part of this public conversation will also involve thinking about new ways of funding discovery research, or perhaps reimagining the roles of existing sources. The patronage system for artists and scientists associated with the Renaissance no longer exists, but perhaps there is scope for a new model of angel network more relevant to our era. One area that deserves reassessment is venture capital, which has traditionally played an important role in later stages of the funding cycle. While the primary motivation of venture funds is to make money for investors, it is reasonable to ask if those funds that have chosen to invest in areas such as clean technology, biotechnology and medical technology have an obligation to help scientists take a strong idea and help bring it to fruition in a concrete and marketable way. Now that a lot of the research big pharmaceutical firms were doing is being devolved and dispersed, these questions fall more squarely on the shoulders of those who fill the funding gap.

  • Science is Vital in the UK
  • Vince Cable’s science speech praised by Lord Sainsbury
  • Vince Cable’s science spending cuts: How harsh will they be?
  • Science funding: Grey-sky thinking
  • Cuts ‘threaten vital research’
  • Cable to signal ‘cuts to science’

Science is vital

More news that proves science is vital:

  • Is your dog a "bowl half full" kind of dog" – Dogs are either optimists or pessimists, according to a new study that helps explain why some dogs are less than calm when you leave them alone. They see the bowl as half empty rather than half full. Analyse, that! Woof!
  • Assigning an IP to your vital signs – Ever wanted your body to have its own IP address just like your laptop or smartphone? New technology assigns IP address to each of your organs, reports back to your Android phone. It sounds like a spoof but a Body Area Network (BAN), as opposed to a LAN, could be the future for monitoring health status remotely.
  • Hefty physicist weighs in on climategate – Slams ClimateGate scientists, calls anthropogenic climate change a pseudoscientific fraud, and resigns from American Physical Society
  • A plague on us all – Yersinia pestis bacteria clearly identified as the cause of the big plague epidemic of the Middle Ages.
  • Reflecting on reflexology and other "SCAMs" – dly, no one seems to have tested reflexology as an intervention for foot pain, a common complaint…
  • The many faces of red sludge – Bauxite refining to alumina is vile process producing twice the tonnage of red sludge waste than aluminium released by the process. This waste product hit the news this week as millions of gallons of the stuff spilled out from a refinery across West Hungary. Chemists are, however, looking for ways to make use of the red sludge.