Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Easy fixes: simple corrections of some popular scientific misconceptions

A few months' ago I finally saw the film 'Gravity', courtesy of a friend with a home theatre system. Amongst the numerous technical errors - many pointed out on Twitter by Neil deGrasse Tyson - was one that I hadn't seen mentioned. This was how rapidly Sandra Bullock's character acclimatised to the several space stations and spacecraft immediately after removing her EVA suit helmet. As far as I am aware, the former have nitrogen-oxygen atmospheres whilst the suits are oxygen-only, necessitating several hours of acclimatisation.

I may of course be wrong on this, and of course dramatic tension would be pretty much destroyed if such delays had to be woven into the plot, but it got me thinking that there are some huge fundamental errors propagated in non-scientific circles. Therefore my Christmas/Hanukkah/holiday season present is a very brief, easy -on-the-brain round-up of a few of the more obvious examples.

  1. The Earth is perfect sphere.
    Nope, technically I think the term is 'oblate spheroid'. Basically, a planet's spin squashes the mass so that the polar diameter is less than the equatorial diameter. Earth is only about 0.3% flatter in polar axis but if you look at a photograph of Saturn you can see a very obvious squashing.

  2. Continental drift is the same thing as plate-tectonics.
    As a child I often read that these two were interchangeable, but this is not so. The former is the hypothesis that landmasses have moved over time whilst the latter is the mechanism now accepted to account for this, with the Earth's crust floating over the liquid mantle in large segments or plates.

    Geologist Alfred Wegener suggested the former in 1912 but is was largely pooh-poohed until the latter was discovered by ocean floor spreading half a century later. As Carl Sagan often said, "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence".

  3. A local increase in cold, wet weather proves that global warming is a fallacy.
    Unfortunately, chaose theory shows that even the minutest of initial changes can cause major differences of outcome, hence weather forecasting being far from an exact science.

    However, there is another evidence for the validity of this theory, fossil fuel lobbyists and religious fundamentalists aside. I haven't read anything to verify this, but off the top of my head I would suggest that if the warm water that currently travels north-east across the Atlantic from the Gulf of Mexico (and prevents north-western Europe from having cold Canadian eastern seaboard winters), then glacial meltwater may divert this warm, denser seawater. And then the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish coast may face as frosty a winter as the UK mainland!

  4. Evolution and natural selection are the same thing.
    Despite Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species having been published in 1859, this mistake is as popular as ever. Evolution is simply the notion that a population within a parent species can slowly differentiate to become a daughter species, but until Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace independently arrived at natural selection, there really wasn't a hypothesis for the mechanism.

    This isn't to say that there weren't attempts to provide one, it's just that none of them fit the facts quite as well as the elegant simplicity of natural selection. Of course today's technology, from DNA analysis to CAT scans of fossils, provides a lot more evidence than was available in the mid-Nineteenth Century. Gregor Mendel's breeding programmes were the start of genetics research that led to the modern evolutionary synthesis that has natural selection at its core.

  5. And finally…freefall vs zero gravity.
    Even orbiting astronauts have been known to say that they are in zero gravity when they are most definitely not. The issue is due to the equivalence of gravity and acceleration, an idea which was worked on by luminaries such as Galileo, Newton and Einstein. If you find yourself in low Earth orbit - as all post-Apollo astronauts are - then clearly you are still bound by our planet's gravity.

    After all, the Moon is approximately 1800 times further away from the Earth than the International Space Station (ISS), but it is kept in orbit by the Earth's pull (okay, so there is the combined Earth-Moon gravitational field, but I'm keeping this simple). By falling around the Earth at a certain speed, objects such as the ISS maintain a freefalling trajectory: too slow and the orbit would decay, causing the station to spiral inwards to a fiery end, whilst too fast would cause it to fly off into deep space.

    You can experience freefall yourself via such delights as an out-of-control plummeting elevator or a trip in an arc-flying astronaut training aircraft A.K.A. 'Vomit Comet'. I'm not sure I'd recommend either! Confusingly, there's also microgravity and weightlessness, but as it is almost Christmas we'll save that for another day.
There are no doubt numerous other, equally fundamental errors out there, which only goes to show that we could do with much better science education in our schools and media. After all, no-one would make so many similar magnitude mistakes regarding the humanities, would they? Or, like the writer H.L. Mencken, would I be better off appreciating that "nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the (American) public"? I hope not!

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Consumer complexity: engineering the public out of understanding

Last weekend my car stopped working. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then an hour of internet research is probably worse. Convinced it was either the transmission or gearing, it turned out to be lack of petrol, the fuel gauge and warning light having simultaneously failed. At this point - breathing a sigh of relief that I wasn't facing an enormous repair bill so soon after an annual service - I realised that my knowledge of cars is extremely limited, despite having driven them for almost thirty years.

Obviously I'm far from being unique in this respect. In years past New Zealanders in particular were renowned for maintaining old cars long after other developed nations had scrapped them, with Australians referring to their neighbour as the place where Morris Minors went to die. However, anti-corrosion legislation put an end to such ‘canny Kiwi' tinkering so the country has presumably lost this resourcefulness when it comes to keeping ancient vehicles on the road.

Of course cars just aren't built to last any more: modern vehicles continue to be ever more fuel efficient and built of lightweight materials, but I doubt few will last as long as the classic cars still running after half a century or more. Built-in obsolescence is partly to blame, but the sophistication of today's designs means that their repair and maintenance is becoming ever more difficult without a complete workshop and diagnostic computer. As a teenager I learnt how to change my car's spark plugs but have since been told this should now only be undertaken by professionals as the tolerances required cannot be achieved by hand!

It isn't just motor vehicles that are affected by ever increasing complexity: high-tech consumer gadgets, especially those with integrated circuits (which let's face it, is most of them these days) are seemingly built to prevent tampering or repairs by the end user. Yet this is a fairly recent phenomenon. In my grandparents' generation the most sophisticated item in their house was likely to be a radio that used vacuum tube technology, but a cheaper alternative was available in the form of a do-it-yourself galena or pyrite crystal radio. Even children - Arthur C. Clarke amongst them - were able to build these self-powered devices, which worked rather well except for the fact that they had no speaker and so the user had to listen via headphones. It might seem unlikely that such as device was easy to construct until you remember that pioneer aircraft were built by bicycle manufacturers!

In contrast, the most advanced technological item my parents would have had until their twenties - when television sets started to become affordable - would have been a mass-produced transistor radio. Compared to the valve-infested sideboard gramophone, simple problems such as loose wires in these radios could be repaired with basic tools such as small screwdrivers, needle-nose pliers and a low wattage soldering iron. Whilst requiring a bit of skill and some understanding of wiring, such repairs were still within the range of many consumers.

Today, my experience suggests that the expendable consumerism that first became overt in the late 1960's is a key mind set in developed nations, with do-it-yourself work on gadgetry largely absent. In fact, it is frequently cheaper to buy a replacement item than to have it repaired or purchase the tools in order to attempt those repairs yourself. The speed with which newer models are released is such that it may even prove impossible to source a replacement part only a few years after the item has been purchased. This inevitably increases our distance from the inner workings of the ever more numerous high-tech consumer gadgets we now surround ourselves with. Surely it is a great irony that despite our ability to operate all of them, the vast majority of users have little idea of the fundamentals of the technologies involved?

My own experience with attempting to fix consumer electronics is rather limited, but I can see that manufacturers are deliberately trying to prevent this by using techniques such as hiding screw heads and using one-way pins, ensuring that any attempt to dismantle an item will snap parts within the casing. Additionally, the more sophisticated the technology, the more sensitive it seems to be. An example from a rather different sphere of activity comes from 1976, when a defecting Soviet Air Force pilot delivered a state-of-the-art fighter jet into the hands of Western intelligence. The MiG-25 ‘Foxbat' was discovered to be using valve-based rather than solid-state avionics, yet despite its primitive appearance the electronics were both extremely powerful and able to withstand immense physical stress, which is obviously of great importance in such aircraft.

Back to household gadgetry, I've seen an old cathode ray tube television repaired after water was accidentally tipped down the back of it, whilst flat screen computer monitors that were inadvertently cleaned with water - not by me, I hasten to add - were sent straight to the scrap heap. That isn't to say that there aren't a few brave souls who post internet videos on how to disassemble devices such as iPads in order to fix hardware issues, but I think you would either have to be very confident or quite rich before attempting such repairs. There are also websites dedicated to technology hackers, who enhance, customise or otherwise amend consumer gadgets beyond their out-of-the-box capabilities. Again, I don't have the confidence for this sort of thing, especially since there are hidden dangers: a digital camera for example contains a flash capacitor that can store - and deliver to the unwary - a charge of several hundred volts. Ouch!

So the next time someone declares their bewilderment with the ever-widening array of consumer gadgetry, or bores you with a piece of New Age nonsense, you should remember although we are surrounded with some extremely sophisticated devices, various causes have conspired to remove insight into their inner workings. Our consumerist age is geared towards acceptance of such items whilst limiting our involvement to that of end user. And of course I haven't even mentioned the ultimate fundamentals behind all this integrated circuitry, quantum electrodynamics...