Tuesday, 24 December 2013

The great outdoors: getting children back to nature

With Christmas just around the corner it seems like a good time to look at the benefits of persuading children to swap their hi-tech electronic gadgets for the wonders of the great outdoors. The recently-slated Toys 'R' Us television advert that promotes their plastic junk at the expensive of a 'dull and boring' nature field trip only highlights a trend that as the rural population decreases, natural phenomena such as animals, weather and good, clean soil are deemed solely of interest to farmers. Some years ago, a London acquaintance who teaches English at a senior school reported that during a woodland walk - to explore nature poetry rather than nature itself - several of her female teenage students cried due to getting mud on their shoes. Just how distanced are children becoming from the world beyond their front door!
A sense of scale: humans against California redwoods

The last few decades have seen a move away from the outdoor adventures that typified my childhood: catching butterflies; building woodland dens; even exploring a derelict house. Instead, sitting in front of computers, TVs and games consoles has become prevalent, sometimes all at once. Not that this has gone unnoticed, as discussed in Richard Louv's best-selling Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder. Although the phenomenon is common across the developed world, some countries fare better than others. For example, recent reports suggest New Zealand children (feeling a bit smug at this point) spend rather more time outdoors than their Australian, American or British counterparts. However, I'm sure there's room for improvement just about everywhere. There are many reasons behind the stay-at-home trend in addition to the obvious delights of being cosily tucked up with digital devices, but I believe it is more important to explore the effects this is having on our children:
  1. The most obvious problem caused by a shortage of physical activity outdoors - which after all is free, compared to the indoor play centres often used for children's parties - is the lack of opportunity to develop coordination and motor skills beyond the mouse or joystick. Since we've experienced a generation-on-generation increase in the number of calories, sugar and fat in our diet, then clearly there should also be an increased amount of time spent burning this off. Obviously this hasn't happened, and various groups such as the International Association for the Study of Obesity have tracked the post-war growth in overweight children. If you haven't seen any of the resulting graphs, they make for troubled reading...
  2. But it isn't just physical health that is affected. As a species, we are still coming to terms with urban living and the psychological problems of existence in near-identical cuboids in residential estates frequently bereft of greenery. The World Health Organization's definition of health includes mental well-being, which can incorporate the notion that regular playing outdoors confers benefits on children. I don't consider this as just referring to strenuous exercise: exploring the randomness of nature - from building sand castles to snowball fights - as well as the simple joys of experiencing weather at first hand, are also important. As if to confirm the problems that a lack of balance in indoor/outdoor activities can lead to, a work colleague recently informed me that his twenty-year-old son, a business degree student, was reduced to tears when he was unable to log on to his online gaming account for a few days. Oh, for an adequate sense of perspective!
  3. Does the changing emphasis from natural to man-made environments mean are we losing a vital part of our humanity? Or are we seeing a new form of evolution for our species? The differences between nature and artifice are profound, from the seemingly (although only from our viewpoint) haphazardness of the former to the non-messy convenience sought as a given via the latter. Even a basic understanding of processes from food at its source might be useful as an educative tool to engender empathy for a planet we are so rapidly despoiling. It's very easy for children to overlook the natural wonders that still exist in even the most densely populated of nations when they primarily associate the rural environment with the exotic non-developed locales usually favoured by natural history documentary programme makers.

    Viewing nature at second hand is no substitute for - literally - getting your fingers dirty, whether it is planting flowers or foodstuffs, or simply scrabbling over muddy terrain. A 2010 survey conducted in the UK indicated that between one quarter and one half of British children lack basic knowledge concerning familiar native and introduced species such as horse chestnut trees and grey squirrels. Not that I'm convinced an appreciation of the facts might lead to more environmental awareness; after all, how many times has the 'closer to nature' sustainability of pre-industrial societies been shown to be a myth? But considering for example the enormous amount of bought food that is thrown away uneaten (perhaps reaching over 40% in the USA) surely any understanding of the complex cycles within the far from limitless ecosystem may engender some changes in attitude towards reduce, reuse and recycle? As evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once said, we will not fight to save what we do not love.
  4. Further to the last point, knowledge as a safety net might come in handy, should the need arise. There's an old adage that even the most 'civilised' of societies is only nine missed meals away from anarchy, as the citizens of New Orleans learnt all too well in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Considering just how much food manufacturers rely on oil for everything from transport to packaging (did you know North Sea prawns are flown on a 12,000 mile round trip to be cleaned and de-shelled?) it doesn't just have to be a natural disaster to generate such chaos. In October 2011 a leak in the Maui gas pipeline here in New Zealand led for a few days to empty bread shelves nationwide, highlighting the fragility of our infrastructure.

    A 2008 UK report concluded that British food retailers would exhaust their stocks in just three days in the event of a Hurricane Katrina-scale emergency, thus suggesting that those who follow chef and forager Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall or adventurer/survivalist Bear Grylls will be the victors. I'm not suggesting children should be taught to distinguish edible from poisonous fungi but considering the potential dangers of even cultivated food crops (did you know that potatoes turning green may be a sign of the poison solanine?) any knowledge of foraging and food preparation may prove useful as well as fun.
  5. Encouraging children to explore outside is as good a method as any to beget a new generation of biologists, ecologists and their ilk. Ironically, Toys 'R' Us list over 370 items in the science and discovery section of their online catalogue. Indeed, their advert includes several seconds' footage of a boy looking through the eyepiece of small reflecting telescope labelled 'science', although judging by the angle the telescope is pointing into the ground! As I've explored previously, doing practical science seems to be a far better way to introduce young children to the discipline than mere passive viewing or reading. It can also demonstrate that - with several exceptions such as high-energy physics - many of the basic structures of scientific procedure and knowledge are well within the grasp of non-scientists (perceptions are hard to shift: I recently heard a law graduate declare she wasn't sure she would be able to understand this blog, as science is of course 'very difficult'! )

    Each one of the above alone would be reason enough to encourage children to spend more time outside, but taken together they suggest that there is likely to be severe repercussions across many aspects of society if the adults of tomorrow don't get enough fresh air today. It may sound like something out of a Boys' Own Journal from the era of the British Empire, but there's something to be said for the simpler pleasures in life. I know I'd rather go for a forest walk or rock pooling than play Grand Theft Auto 5 any day...

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Newton and Einstein: fundamental problems at the heart of science

As previously discussed, Arthur C. Clarke's First Law is as follows: "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong." Now there have been many examples of prominent scientists who have been proved wrong but don't want to lose their pet idea - think astronomer Fred Hoyle and the Steady State Theory - or bizarrely negated their own hypothesis, such as natural selection's co-discoverer Alfred Russel Wallace and his supernatural explanation of the human mind.

But although with hindsight we can easily mock when pioneers have failed to capitalise on a theory that later proves canonical (assuming any theory except the second law of thermodynamics can ever be said to be the final word in the matter) there are some scientists who have followed profoundly unorthodox paths of thought. In fact, I would go so far as to as say that certain famous figures would find it almost impossible to maintain positions in major research institutes today. This might not matter if these were run-of-the-mill scientists, but I'm talking about two of the key notables of the discipline: Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein.

The public perception of scientists has changed markedly over the past half century, from rational authority figures, via power-mad destroyers, to the uncertainties of today, when the often farcical arguments surrounding climate change have further undermined faith in scientific 'truth'. But the recognition of Newton and Einstein's achievements has never wavered, making them unassailable figures in the history of science. Indeed, if there were ever to be two undisputed champions of physics, or even for all of science - as chosen by contemporary scientists, let alone the public - this contrasting pair is likely to the among the most popular. Yet underneath their profound curiosity and dogged search for truth there are fundamental elements to their personal research that make the offbeat ideas of Wallace, Hoyle & co. appear mildly idiosyncratic.

1) Sir Isaac Newton
While some historians have tried to pass off Newton's non-scientific work as typical of his age, his writings on alchemy, eschatology and the general occult are at least as numerable as those on physics. Some of the more recent examinations of his work have suggested that without these pseudo-scientific studies, Newton would not have gained the mind-set required to generate the scientific corpus he is renowned for. Although he claimed to have no need for hypotheses or 'occult qualities', preferring to examine natural phenomena in order to gain understanding, much of Newton's surviving notes suggest the very opposite. Whether he was using numerology to research the date of the end of the world, or alchemy to search for the Philosopher's Stone, the real Newton was clearly a many-faceted man. This led economist (and owner of some of Newton's papers) John Maynard Keynes to label him "the last of the magicians". Indeed, key aspects of Newton's personality appear entirely in tune with pseudo-science.

It is well known that Newton was a secretive man, given to hiding his discoveries for decades and not wanting to share his theories. Part of this was due to his wish to avoid having to waste time with the less intelligent (i.e. just about everybody else) and partly to his fear of plagiarism, frequently experiencing conflicts with contemporary natural philosophers. To some extent this unwillingness to publish only exacerbated the issue, such as when Leibniz published his version of calculus some years after Newton had completed his unpublicised 'fluxions'.

Today, establishing scientific priority relies upon prompt publication, but Newton's modus operandi was much closer to the technique of the alchemist. Far from being a non-systematic forerunner of chemistry, alchemy was a subjective discipline, couched in metaphor and the lost wisdom of 'ancient' sages (who, after Newton's time, were frequently discovered to be early Medieval or Ptolemaic Egyptian frauds). The purity of the practitioner was deemed fundamental to success and various pseudoscientific 'influences' could prevent repeatability of results.

In addition, such knowledge as could be discovered was only to be shared between a few chosen adepts, not disseminated to a wide audience for further examination and discussion. In personality then, Newton was far more like the pre-Enlightenment alchemist than many of his contemporaries. He believed in a sense of his own destiny: that he had been chosen by God to undertake the sacred duty of decoding now-hidden patterns in the universe and history. When Descartes postulated a 'clockwork universe', Newton opposed it on the grounds that it had no place for a constantly intervening deity. And surprising as it may seem, in that respect he had a lot in common with Einstein.

2) Albert Einstein
Einstein was in many ways a much more down-to-earth (and fully rounded human being) than Newton. Whereas the latter frequently neglected such basic human activities as food and sleep, Einstein indulged in pipe tobacco and playing the violin (shades of Sherlock Holmes, indeed!) However, he was just as much a determined thinker when it came to solving fundamental riddles of nature. A good anecdote, possibly true, tells of how whilst searching for a makeshift tool to straighten a bent paperclip, Einstein came across a box of new paperclips. Yet rather than use one of the new ones per se, he shaped it into the tool required to fix the original paperclip. When questioned, he replied that once had started a task it was difficult for him to curtail it.

But one of the oft-quoted phrases surrounding him is that Einstein would have been better off spending his last two or three decades fishing, rather than pursuing a unified field theory. The reason for this is that despite being a pioneer in the quantum theory of light, he could not accept some of the concepts of quantum mechanics, in particular that it was a fundamental theory based on probability rather than simply a starting point for some underlying aspect of nature as yet unknown.

Even today there are only interpretations of quantum mechanics, not a completely known explanation of what is occurring. However, Einstein considered these as more akin to philosophy rather than science and that following for example the Copenhagen interpretation prevented deeper thought into the true reality. Unfortunately, the majority of physicists got on the quantum mechanics bandwagon, leaving Einstein and a few colleagues to try to find holes in such strange predictions as entanglement, known by Einstein under the unflattering term of "spooky action at a distance".

Although it was only some decades after his death that such phenomena were experimentally proven, Einstein insisted that the non-common sense aspects of quantum mechanics only showed their incompleteness. So what lay at the heart of his fundamental objections to the theory? After all, his creative brilliance had shown itself in his discovery of the mechanism behind Newtonian gravitation, no mean feat for so bizarre a theory. But his glorious originality came at a price: as with many other scientists and natural philosophers, from Johannes Kepler via Newton to James Clerk Maxwell, Einstein sought answers that were aesthetically pleasing. In effect, the desire for truth was driven by a search for beautiful patterns. Like Newton, there is the concept of wanting to understand the mind of God, regardless of how different the two men's concept of a deity was (in Einstein's case, looking for the secrets of the 'old one').

By believing that at the heart of reality there is a beautiful truth, did Einstein hamper his ability to come to terms with such ugly and unsatisfying concepts as the statistical nature of the sub-atomic world? In this respect he seems old-fashioned, even quaint, by the exacting standards required - at least theoretically - in contemporary research institutes. Critical thinking unhampered by aesthetic considerations has long been shown a myth when it comes to scientific insights, but did Einstein take the latter too far in his inability to accept the most important physics developed during the second half of his life? In some respects, his work after the mid-1920s is seemingly as anachronistic as Newton's pseudo-scientific interests.

As a result of even these minimal sketches, it is difficult to believe that Newton would ever have gained an important academic post if he were alive today, whilst Einstein, certainly in the latter half of his life would probably have been relegated to a minor research laboratory at best. So although they may be giants in the scientific pantheon, it is an irony that neither would have gained such acceptance by the establishment had they been alive today. If there's a moral to be drawn here, presumably it is that even great scientists are just as much a product of their time as any other human being, even if they occasionally see further than us intellectual dwarves.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

School sci-tech fairs: saviours of the future?

It's frequently said that a picture is worth a thousand words, but could it be true that hands-on experiments are worth even more when it comes to engaging children in science? As the current Google / iPad / your-designation-of-choice generation is being bombarded from the egg onwards with immense amounts of audio-visual noise, how will they get the opportunity to learn that science can be both rewarding and comprehensible when textbooks seem so dull by comparison with their otherwise digitally-enhanced lives?

The infant school my daughters attend recently held a science and technology exhibition based on the curriculum studied during the last term. An associated open evening (colloquially labelled a 'Sci-tech fair') showed that parents too could delight in simple hands-on demonstrations as well as gain an appreciation of the science that their five- to eleven-year olds practice.

In addition to the experiments, both the long-term projects undertaken over several months and those carried out on the night, the entries for a science-themed photographic competition gave interesting insights into the mentality of pre-teens today. All the submissions included a brief explanatory statement and ranged from reportage to self-organised experimentation. One entry that I can only assume was entirely the child's own work especially caught my eye: a photograph of their pet dog standing in front of half a dozen identically-sized sheets of paper, on each of which was a same-sized mound of the dog's favourite food. The sheets of paper were each a different colour, the hypothesis being whether the dog's choice of food was influenced by the colour it was placed upon.  I say it was probably the child's work since I assume most adults know that dogs do not see as wide a variety of colours as humans, being largely restricted to the blues and yellows. But what a fantastic piece of work from a circa ten year old, nonetheless!

Apart from highlighting the enormous changes in science education - chiefly for the better, in my opinion - since my UK school days in the 1970s and 80s, the exhibition suggested that there is an innate wealth of enthusiasm at least for the practice of science, if not for the underlying theories.  If only more people could have access to such events, perhaps the notion that science largely consists of dry abstractions and higher mathematics would be dispelled. After all, if children in their first year of school can practice scientific methodology, from hypothesis via experimentation to conclusion, it can't be all that difficult, can it?

Each experiment in the sci-tech exhibition was beautifully described, following the structure of an aim or hypothesis, an experimental procedure, and then the results and conclusions; in effect, the fundamentals of the scientific method. Themes varied widely, from wave action to solar power (miniature cells being used to drive fans in scale model houses), animal husbandry to biological growth and decay. One of my favourite experiments involved the use of Mentos (mints, if you don't know the brand) to produce miniature geysers when added to various soft drinks. Much to the children's surprise the least favoured contender of the half dozen tried, Diet Coke, won outright, producing a rush of foam over five metres high. The reasons behind this result can be found on the Science Kids website, from which several of the term's projects were taken. The site looks to be a fantastic resource for both teachers and enthusiastic parents who want to the entire family pursue out-of-school science. I'll no doubt be exploring it in detail over the coming year...

Having dabbled in the world of commercially-available science-themed toys the description of how to make your own volcanic eruption experiment on the Science Kids site led my daughters and I to spend a happy Sunday afternoon creating red and yellow lava flows in the garden, courtesy of some familiar ingredients such as sodium bicarbonate and citric acid. They may not have learnt the exact nature of volcanism, but certainly understood something about creating chemical reactions.

Make your own volcano kit
Have fun making your own miniature volcano!

Although these hands-on procedures are considerably more interesting than the dull-as-dishwater investigations I undertook at senior school, the idea of children's participation in experiments is nothing new. The Royal Institution in London has been holding its annual Christmas Lecture series since 1825, with audience members frequently invited to aid the speaker. Although I've never attended myself, I remember viewing some of the televised lectures, with excited children aiding and abetting in the - at times - explosive demonstrations. The lecturers over the past few decades have included some of the great names in science popularisation, from Sir David Attenborough to Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan to Marcus du Sautoy. Anyone care to bet how long it will be before Brian Cox does a series (if he can find time in his busy media schedule, that is)?

Getting to grips with the scientific method via experimental procedures is a great start for children: it may give them the confidence to think critically and question givens; after all, how many people - even students at top universities - still think the seasons are caused by solar proximity? If that's a bit of a tall order, perhaps hands-on experimenting might help children to appreciate that many scientific concepts are not divorced from everyday experience but with a little knowledge can be seen all around us.

Of course it's far more difficult to maintain interest in science during adolescence, but New Zealand secondary schools aren't left out thanks to the National School Science and Technology Awards and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA)-sponsored regional Science and Technology Fairs. It's one thing to give scholarships to scientifically-gifted - or at least keen - children, but quite another to offer a wider audience the opportunities these programmes offer. All in all, it's most encouraging. I even have the sneaky suspicion that had such inspiration been available when I was at school, I might have eschewed the arts for a career in a scientific discipline - at least one with minimal complex mathematics, that is!

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Going, going, gone: how do you decide which endangered species are worth saving?

My elder daughter recently adopted a Sumatran tiger. Not literally of course, but an Auckland Zoo package bought as a birthday present, with the tiger chosen above the seven other species on offer because - at least according to my daughter's claim - it was the most endangered one. In fact, the estimate for the number of Sumatran tigers left in the wild varies between four hundred and seven hundred individuals, so the lack of accuracy is only countered by the fact that both extremes are so low. With countless other species similarly close to the edge, if not worse off, a key question has arisen in recent years: are some species more worthy of conserving than others?

Presumably the choice on offer in the zoo's Adopt an Animal programme is intended to increase awareness of the plight of these particular animals. But can there be many people at least in the developed world who are not aware of some of the ever-increasing roster of endangered species? Indeed, there are now widespread claims that we may be living through a mass extinction event, the sixth known. Interestingly, it's only been in the last few years that some sort of quantitative definition of a mass extinction has gained popularity over the earlier, somewhat vague ‘one hundred to a thousand times the background rate' designation, with a rapid (at least on a geological timescale) 75% loss of species deemed the minimum number. However, this figure appears somewhat arbitrary, yet is quoted in various general readership articles as the number of species currently headed for extinction! Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has much to say on the subject of fundamentally meaningless statistics: for example, how is 74% so much less worthy of the term ‘mass extinction' than a mere one per cent more? Granted, there may just be too many unknowns for a consensus in expert opinion, but deciding on a one per cent cut-off line for such an event is surely creating a label for its own sake, useful for lazy journalists but little else.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List makes for depressing reading, with around 7000 species listed between the three worst categories: critically endangered; extinct in the wild; and species that have recently become totally extinct. Even worse, it appears to be out of date, if the example of the Yangtze River dolphin is anything to go by. It appears on the first of these lists, as opposed to the third, where most experts agree it should now sit. The fact that no single organisation seems to have enough resources to compile definitive current data doesn't help. After all, if you cannot identify the species most in need, how do governments and agencies decide which ones to save (and, unfortunately, which to doom to near-future extinction)?

The environmental movement of the past half century has long capitalised on photogenic ‘poster' species such as whales, apes and the giant panda, which add a wow factor that has had the side-effect of concentrating much of the funding on them. This has regrettably deprived many less aesthetic species of publicity, and probably in the case of some species such as the Yangtze River dolphin, their existence.

There are strong arguments both for and against the continuation of this policy, although things have recently got slightly better as regards recognition for non-figurehead species. Late last year the BBC television series Dara O Briain's Science Club made a foray into this area with the question - covered at the programme's usual break-neck speed -  are pandas worth all the money spent on them? Palaeontologist Richard Fortey and zoologist Lucy Cooke presented arguments seemingly against the high level of resources accorded the giant panda. Indeed, the latter emphasised the decline of one third of amphibian species worldwide. The time has finally come to appreciate that non-cute species deserve much greater attention than hitherto gained. To this end, the decidedly unpleasing looks of the deep-sea blobfish have recently seen it voted World's Ugliest Animal in a concerted effort to improve awareness of all the species that are least likely to appear on any fundraising poster.

So considering how many species, including plants and fungi, are currently endangered, is it worth spending millions of dollars each year to preserve, say, giant pandas? After all, aren't the latter just a wee bit useless? With a diet that is 99% bamboo and a seeming lack of reproductive drive, couldn't they be viewed as an over-specialised, evolutionary dead end, doomed regardless of loss of habitat and poaching? However, it isn't as simple as that. The popular description isn't completely accurate, with panda libido in captivity seemingly less than in the wild, although admittedly females are apparently only able to conceive for a few days each year. Even so, is it worthwhile to spend millions on captive breeding programmes (involving artificial insemination) for these cute creatures when the money could be split amongst many other species?

Auckland Zoo's adopt an animal scheme

Awww, cute...but is it worth it?

One of the key arguments in favour of figurehead species is that the publicity gained is then disseminated to other species in the same habitat, such as by keeping those environments as free of development as possible.  Preservation of entire ecosystems is a major element to the notion that for purely selfish reasons we should maintain as much biodiversity as possible. This is in order to preserve unique genomes that may one day prove useful in agriculture or as pharmaceuticals. After all, only about 5% of plant species have so far been studied for their medicinal properties, whilst the DNA of many species remains almost entirely unexamined. A good case can be seen with the Pacific yew, a conifer in severe decline that proved to be the source of an important chemotherapy drug. In a similar vein, loss of one species may cause the rise of another that is rather less neutral from a human viewpoint, whether it is an agricultural pest or a dangerous predator such as the aggressive Humboldt squid, which has largely superseded over-fished sharks around the Mexican Pacific coast.

So even without invoking a moral argument, there are plenty of good reasons why preserving as many types of organisms as possible may be important to our future.  Whether this can be achieved most efficiently via publicity-raising poster species is more difficult to ascertain. There are claims that we should support evolutionary-distinct species or those with a definitively viable breeding/cultivatable population, but this is hampered by the lack of detailed information mentioned above. For example, several population bottlenecks in the history of cheetahs have reduced their genetic diversity to such an extent that even a relatively comfortable population size - at least compared to some endangered species - is no guarantee of future salvation. In other words, the minimum viable population for a species is probably unique for each.

In addition, there aren't complete lists of members in each ecosystem for even relatively large creatures: it was only last month that the Olinguito, a Central American omnivorous mammal new to science, was formally described. With this lack of definitive information, it's little wonder there is a multitude of problems concerning even knowing where to begin conservation measures. Of course, spending funds on this sort of research, which has no immediate benefit to endangered species, would presumably take crucial funding away from vital preservation measures in the here and now. But since the research hasn't been done many factors remain little more than guestimates, thus creating a vicious circle as to which species require the most support.

This doesn't of course mean that dedicated ecologists are likely to be swayed from their labours of love by any amount of hard data. Whether the enormous efforts to save those species with miniscule populations is worthwhile in the long run remains to be seen. New Zealand's flightless parrot the kakapo, with less than one hundred breeding individuals left, is a prominent example. There are now so few that almost every bird has been named; but would it have been better to try saving multiple species with more likelihood of long-term survival? It's difficult to attempt objectivity when you are fighting for the survival of creatures that have been anthropomorphised even to the minimum level of naming them. Then again, it's often been the devotion of small groups of committed conservationists that pioneered the techniques now widespread, including the methods for publicising the plight of endangered species.

So it doesn't look like there are any easy answers in what has to be, if it is to succeed, a rapidly developing field. After all, it's only been a century since we stopped wiping out species for fun in the name of sport. Unlike the Higgs Bosun, some of the subjects involved in this area - the species themselves - aren't going to be hanging around for solutions at some indeterminate point in the future. As Gandhi put succinctly: "Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs, but not every man's greed." The problem is knowing where to begin on the mammoth task of fixing a planet-wide ecosystem. All I can say is good luck, because like it or not, we're all participants in this one!

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Birds, bugs and butterflies: attracting nature to your garden

For many years I've tried to attract wildlife to my garden; perhaps there's something extremely relaxing about watching other components of the biosphere go about their business. Even the closest I lived to the heart of London, a largely overgrown garden provided a haven for all sorts of creatures from tiny wrens via boisterous squirrels to the odd, slightly mangy fox. Although I've discussed the behavioural changes seemingly present in urban animals I thought it would be worth exploring the pros and cons of attracting various critters to your garden.

As a child our family supported winter visitors, usually with bread crusts for birds and cow's milk - for some unknown reason - for hedgehogs. I've since learnt that the latter is a very poor choice as hedgehog food, so where the idea came from I don't know. Mind you, much bacon rind is probably too salty for birds, so I wonder how many animals we killed with our kindness! If you want to feed hedgehogs, cat and dog food is apparently among the suitable alternatives. Not that these days we put anything out for the hedgehogs that occasionally appear in our garden, often disappearing behind the wood pile at night when I'm out at the telescope (and startling me with their sudden snuffling). The reason isn't due to being anti-hedgehog, but the food would most likely attract other, less welcome rodents such as rats and mice.

Interestingly, hedgehogs are amongst the survivors brought to New Zealand by acclimatisation societies in the Nineteenth Century, along with many European bird species that also congregate in our garden: sparrows, blackbirds, starlings, song thrushes and various finches. As a side note, it would be interesting to tabulate these against the many imported species that didn't survive their first year in the New Zealand wild, such as robins and emus; clearly, there's some unknown adaption criteria going on here.

One problem I frequently faced in the UK but don't any more is the seemingly inexhaustible ingenuity of squirrels in getting to the content of bird feeders, as described in the post above. However, possums imported from Australia fulfil a similar, if nocturnal role in New Zealand, and are a major pest for numerous reasons. Again, keeping bird food for only birds is a primary consideration. Not that birds don't show cunning when it comes to getting at food: I remember visiting the Zealandia eco-sanctuary near Wellington many years ago and seeing the kaka bush parrot feeding from mini bins opened via foot pedal - that's the parrot's foot, not a human one.

Back to now. So why attract wild animals to your garden? Usually it's a two-way gain - humans watch the antics for minimal expenditure and the fauna get food, shelter or even a bath. It offers children a close up view of nature and the realisation that you don't have to go to zoos and wildlife parks for the experience: nature is all around us. It also introduces them to the diversity of the local biosphere as opposed to just the typical, ‘grand' fauna such as African savannah species or large sharks and rays that are kept in zoos and aquaria. To this end, the UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) organised the Big Wild Sleepout last weekend, the idea being to camp in your own garden or at an organised event in order to hear and possibly even see the nocturnal creatures we don't usually come into contact with. I only tend to be outside at night if I'm at the telescope, and must confess to frequently hearing the unmistakeable cry of the morepork, New Zealand's only native owl, but have yet to see one.

Talking of owls, birds are the obvious favourite to attract to your property, since it's easy for them to get around and escape from predators such as domestic cats. According to the RSPB over half of UK adults have fed garden birds. In recent years organisations have started to take advantage of all this previously unrecorded observational data by encouraging the public to submit sighting reports for collation. These projects range from observing familiar creatures such as butterflies and ladybirds, to tracking the growth of invasive species such as New Zealand stick insects in the UK's South West. The RSPB, which is a veteran of collecting such data, utilised a weekend in January this year for their Big Garden Birdwatch, the world's largest wildlife survey.

Following the State of Nature report released in May this year, it sounds like this sort of project hasn't come a moment too soon. The new assessment was compiled by twenty-five British wildlife organisations including the RSPB and makes for a sobering conclusion. It found that 60% of the 3,148 UK species under assessment have declined over the last half century, with slightly over 10% deemed under threat of extinction in the UK. It's impossible to know if the situation is similar in other nations, but such worrying statistics suggest that any help given by the public to aid biodiversity can only be for the better. But as per the hedgehogs and milk example, what other pitfalls are there to befriending fauna?

It is fairly widely known that common foodstuffs such as salted peanuts and desiccated coconut should not be given to birds, but how many people remember to soak white bread before putting it out so that it doesn't swell inside the animals' stomachs? Although you can buy purpose-made bird seed mixtures it is cheaper - and frequently better - if possible to grow a bird-friendly garden yourself. It depends on what species live locally, but some birds like open lawn for insect feeding, others prefer overgrown areas (the goldfinches in my garden are very keen on the latter) whilst other species prefer fruit or nectar direct from the tree or bush.

Silvereyes eating apple

It isn't just birds either: as a child I remember a buddleia bush that attracted at least four species of butterfly whilst here in New Zealand a swan plant (a type of milkweed) plays host to dozens of monarch butterfly caterpillars over the summer. In addition, praying mantises lay their egg sacks on just about any vertical surface in our garden, masonry or timber, so spring sees a profusion of baby mantises heading for undergrowth. The trick is to keep them away from the swan plant; otherwise the caterpillars tend to disappear in their early stages at the expense of the mantises...

In contrast to planting your own, commercial ready-made food mixtures may have large carbon footprints or be grown in developing nations that could better use the land and effort for growing their own food. In addition, messy eaters will cause seeds to drop onto the ground where sterilised seeds can choke native growth and the non-sterilised ones germinate: we once even had a hemp plant that grew several metres in a month or so from some spilt seed!

Therefore having plants or garden layouts that provide food for birds can be as good as leaving out scraps or purpose-bought food. I suppose the main difference with the latter two is that you can place them where you like for ease of viewing. After all, watching birds eat is the primary attraction. Although you can buy bird feeders I prefer to make my own, with a variety of success rates depending on the design. The most popular to date has proved to be table hung from a cherry tree, with half apples spiked on nails attracting a regular stream of silvereyes. Here in New Zealand you can even feed nectar eaters such as tuis via an old wine bottle containing sugar solution.

Bird nectar feeder

One important issue is when you should feed wildlife. The best time of year is obviously winter, when natural foodstuffs are least available. As a general rule, it's probably best to stop feeding once chicks arrive, so that both they and their parents don't start relying on human support. However, in addition to providing food you can also create habitats suitable for assorted wildlife from mammals to invertebrates. As a boy I made a nesting box for a Cub Scout badge, but it was never inhabited, probably being located in too low and too busy a position for birds to consider safe. Today you can buy all sorts of homes and feeders suitable for different species and climates so there's no shortage of easy options. The RSPB recently started supplying a free guide to building animal homes in your garden, ranging from bird box to hedgehog shelter. I can even claim success with my homemade weta motel (current resident: one female tree weta), although it took some time to gain any inhabitants other than numerous, small cockroaches. Note the weta legs poking out of the hole below!

Weta motel

Most of these are generally great aids to wildlife and observing wildlife, although I find the idea of building small ponds not particularly attractive since any standing water in my gardens usually attracts biting insects to lay their eggs in it. When I lived in East London any empty plant pot that collected rainwater swarmed with wriggling mosquito larvae in next to no time. Not nice!

The one thing about this sort of amateur interaction with biology is that you can do as much or little as you like as quickly or slowly as you like, but you are bound to get some form of success. Having said that, there are still plenty of species I'd like to spot in my garden. I have a large pile of volcanic stone that would look good in a far corner of the back garden as a potential lizard home; friends down the road are lucky enough to have skinks and geckos around their grounds. I'm also ever hopeful of various sections of rotting timber serving as home to peripatus -  a.k.a. velvet worm - an ancient form of life that lies somewhere between worms and arthropods. Although I've definitely seen some small white things that might just possibly be very young ones...

Tree weta

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Nanosilver: the future may be tiny and shiny, but is it safe?

A few years' ago I bought some socks containing nanosilver in the hope of reducing foot odour - or more specifically a lingering smell in shoes - I am not proud. Strangely, moving to a warmer, more humid climate since then has greatly reduced the problem, rather more so than the nanosilver, which was frankly useless. But soon after buying the less-than-super socks I started thinking about just what I had done. After all, you don't usually consider yourself in close proximity to amounts of silver around one billionth or so of a metre in size...

In the case of nanosilver, it has long been recognised as an anti-bacterial agent and fungicide too, hence the sock idea. I've already discussed smart materials elsewhere but felt this particular example deserved a post by itself. So just how efficient was the nanosilver anyway? According to studies in 2008 and 2009, up to one third of the metal is washed out at the first laundering. Hardly a long-term solution then! So what happens to the silver that disappears down the washing machine waste pipe? Could the nanoparticles get into the water supply if not removed in treatment plants, evading capture due to the minuteness of their size? I just had to find out!

It seems that silver-impregnated socks are just the tip of the iceberg, with all sorts of products in recent years taking advantage of its anti-bacterial capability. Everything from washing machines to vacuum cleaners has appeared, some removed from the market, if only a temporary basis, due to growing health concerns. But is the use of nanosilver just a fad, with little scientific evidence to support its alleged efficacy? In 2006 the New Zealand manufacturer Fisher and Paykel announced that there was no point incorporating nanosilver into their washing machines since a 20 degrees Celsius wash cycle using detergent would remove over 99 per cent of bacteria anyway! The same, year, the US Environmental Protection Agency claimed that it would introduce some nanotechnology-related legislation, although there seems to have been limited action in the meantime, to say the least.

Meanwhile other nations carry on regardless and allow if anything a greater than ever range of products with little attempt to investigate either their efficacy or ecological impact. Although found in some genuine anti-bacterial medical products, colloidal silver (that is, 1-1000 nanometre-sized silver particles in solution) is now being aggressively marketed after several decades in the doldrums. Claims for its use range from the mildly optimistic (in, for example, toothbrushes) to obvious quackery (a cure for AIDs, would you believe?) Clearly the manufacturers of alternative medicines have found a new weapon for their arsenals. But since gold is the only inert metal when it comes to ingestion - think gold flakes in vodka - just how safe is silver in any form of consumed product?

Starting with the assumption that there are no known cases of death by 'medicinal' products containing silver it might appear that consumers are just wasting their money, but there are plenty of other issues if you consider the bigger picture. Which in this case is the planetary ecosystem. Firstly, any overuse of household antibacterial agents can reduce children's immunity, although silver-based products are probably small fry compared to the myriad of cleaning sprays, gels and wipes aimed to keeping the family home 'safe from germs'. And since silver cannot differentiate between useful/symbiotic and harmful/disease-causing bacteria, the application is more akin to machine gun fire - with its consequences of 'collateral damage' - than a precision-targeted solution.

Next, the natural variation in the bacterial gene pool can lead to the sort of problems that hospitals are now facing with the likes of the MRSA 'superbug', namely that killing 99.9% of bacteria leaves the remaining 0.1% to form the one hundred per cent of the next, completely immune generation. A perfect example of inadvertent natural selection. Or should that be unintended artificial selection? However you define it, we are now starting to pay the price for thoughtless use (and frequent overuse) of our war against microbes.

Finally, back to my original question as to what happens to the ever-increasing amount of nanosilver washed down the drains from the likes of our socks (and the washing machines themselves). According to recent Swiss research, circa 95% of waste water nanosilver ends up as silver sulphide and is therefore relatively harmless. So need I have worried about where the material was ending up? Well, 5% on a global scale could still be considered a substantial amount, and since sewage sludge can end up being dumped on farm land - 3 to 4 million tonnes per year in the UK alone - could there be residual consequences on the soil bacteria, fungi, earthworms and of course farm produce destined for human consumption? Even a subtle shift in the microbial population could have a profound effect on the ecosystem and therefore the human food chain, if you want to be purely selfish about it.

This latter may sound like unsubstantiated scaremongering, but considering the history of research, often industry-sponsored, that has downplayed or even denied the dangers of nicotine, leaded petrol, DDT and various others, might it be too soon to say that the risk is non-existent? The lack of scientific evidence, combined with the poor efficacy of products such as my impregnated socks, suggest that fashionable capitalism is the primary reason behind much of the use of nanosilver. As we all know, mindlessly following others can lead to all sorts of problems. If there's a lesson here, it’s think before you shop: if you want to buy something small, shiny and made of silver, there are plenty of tried and trusted alternatives!

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Deserving dollars: should mega budget science be funded in an age of austerity?

With the UK narrowly avoiding France's fate of a triple dip recession, I thought I would bite the bullet and examine some of the economics of current science. In a time when numerous nations are feeling severe effects due to the downturn, it is ironic that there are a multitude of science projects with budgets larger than the GDP of some smaller nations. So who funds these ventures and are they value for money, or even worthwhile, in these straitened times? Here are a few examples of current and upcoming projects, with the lesser known the project the more the information supplied:

National Ignition Facility

The world's most powerful laser was designed with a single goal: to generate net energy from nuclear fusion by creating temperatures and pressures similar to those in the cores of stars. However, to state that the NIF has not lived up to expectation would be something of an understatement. According to even the most conservative sources, the original budget of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory project has at the very least doubled if not quadrupled to over US$4 billion, whilst the scheduled operational date came five years overdue.

I first learned of the project some years ago thanks to a friend who knew one of the scientists involved. The vital statistics are astonishing, both for the scale of the facility and the energies involved. But it seems that there may be underlying problems with the technology. Over-reliance on computer simulations and denial of deleterious experimental results on precursor projects, as well as the vested interests of project staffers and the over-confident potential for military advances, have all been suggested as causes for what history may conclude as a white elephant. So perhaps if you are looking for an archetypal example of how non-scientific factors have crippled research, this may well be it.

Unlike all the other projects discussed, the National Ignition Facility is solely funded by one nation, the USA. Of course, it could be argued that four billion dollars is a bargain if the project succeeded, and that it is today's time-precious society that needs to learn patience in order to appreciate the long-term timescales required to overcome the immense technological challenges. Nuclear fusion would presumably solve many of todays - and the foreseeable futures - energy requirements whilst being rather more environmentally friendly than either fossil fuels or fission reactors. The potential rewards are plain for all to see.

However, the problems are deep-rooted, leading to arguments against the development of laser-based fusion per se. Alternative fusion projects such as the Joint European Torus and the $20 billion ITER - see an earlier post on nuclear fusion research for details - use longer-established methods. My verdict in a nutshell: the science was possibly unsound from the start and the money would be better spent elsewhere. Meanwhile, perhaps the facility could get back a small portion of its funding if Star Trek movies continue to hire the NIF as a filming location!

The International Space Station

I remember the late Carl Sagan arguing that the only benefit of the ISS that couldn’t be achieved via cheaper projects such as – during the Space Shuttle era - the European Space Agency’s Spacelab, was research into the deleterious effects on health of long-duration spaceflight. So at $2 billion per year to run is it worthwhile, or but another example of a fundamentally flawed project? After all, as it is the station includes such non-scientific facets as the ultimate tourist destination for multi-millionaires!

Sometimes referred to as a lifeline for American and Russian aerospace industries (or even a way to prevent disaffected scientists in the latter from working for rogue states), I have been unable to offer a persuasive argument as to why the money would not have been better spent elsewhere. It is true that there has been investigation into vaccines for salmonella and MRSA, but after twelve years of permanent crewing on board the station, just how value for money has this research been? After all, similar studies were carried out on Space Shuttle flights in previous few decades, suggesting that the ISS was not vital to these programmes. The Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees has described as it as a 'turkey in the sky', siphoning funds that could have been spent on a plethora of unmanned missions such as interplanetary probes. But as we should be aware, it usually isn't a case that money not spent on one project would automatically become available for projects elsewhere.

On a positive scientific note, the station has played host to the $2 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer - a key contender in the search for dark matter - which would presumably have difficulty finding a long-duration orbital platform elsewhere. But then this is hardly likely to excite those who want immediate, practical benefits from such huge expenditure.

The ISS has no doubt performed well as a test bed for examining the deterioration of the human body due to living in space, if anything seriously weakening the argument for a manned Mars mission in the near future. Perhaps one other area in which the station has excelled has been that of a focal point for promoting science to the public, but surely those who follow in Sagan’s footsteps - the U.K.'s Brian Cox for one - can front television series with a similar goal for the tiniest fraction of the cost?

The Large Hadron Collider

An amazing public-relations success story, considering how far removed the science and technology are from everyday mundanity, the world's largest particle accelerator requires $1 billion per year to operate on top of a construction budget of over $6 billion. With a staff of over 10,000 the facility is currently in the midst of a two-year upgrade, giving plenty of time for its international research community to analyse the results. After all, the Higgs Boson A.K.A. 'God particle' has been found…probably.

So if the results are confirmed, what next? Apparently, the facility can be re-engineered for a wide variety of purposes, varying from immediately pragmatic biomedical research on cancer and radiation exposure to the long-term search for dark matter. This combination of practical benefits with extended fundamental science appears to be as good a compromise as any compared to similar-scale projects. Whether similar research could be carried out by more specialised projects is unknown. Does anyone know?

As for the future of mega-budget schemes, there are various projects in development extending into the next decade. The Southern Hemisphere is playing host to two large international collaborations: the Square Kilometre Array is due to begin construction in eleven nations - excluding its UK headquarters - in 2016, but it will be around eight years before this $2 billion radio telescope array is fully operational. Meanwhile the equally unimaginatively-named European Extremely Large Telescope is planned for a site in Chile, with an even longer construction period and a price tag approaching $1.5 billion. Both projects are being designed for a variety of purposes, from dark matter investigation to searching for small (i.e. Earth-sized) extra-solar planets with biologically-modified atmospheres.

At this point it is pertinent to ask do extremely ambitious science projects have to come with equally impressive price tags? Personally I believe that with a bit more ingenuity a lot of useful research can be undertaken on far smaller budgets. Public participation in distributed computing projects such as Folding@home and Seti@home, in which raw data is processed by home computers, is about as modest an approach as feasible for such large amounts of information.

An example of a long-term project on a comparatively small budget is the US-based Earthscope programme, which collects and analyses data including eminently practical research into seismic detection. With a construction cost of about $200 million and annual budget around a mere $125 million this seems to be a relative bargain for a project that combines wide-scale, theoretical targets with short-term, pragmatic gains. But talking of practical goals, there are other scientific disciplines crying out for a large increase in funding. Will the explosive demise of a meteor above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk back in February act as a wake-up call for more research into locating and deflecting Earth-crossing asteroids and comets? After all, the 2014 NASA budget for asteroid detection projects is barely over the hundred million dollar mark!

I will admit to some unique advantages to enormous projects, such as the bringing together of researchers from the funding nations that may lead to fruitful collaboration. This is presumably due to the sheer number of scientists gathered together for long periods, as opposed to spending just a few days at an international conference or seminar, for instance. Even so, I cannot help but feel that the money for many of the largest scale projects could be bettered used elsewhere, solving some of the immediate problems facing our species and ecosystem.

Unfortunately, the countries involved offer their populations little in the way of voice as to how public money is spent on research. But then considering the appalling state of science education in so many nations, as well as the short shrift that popular culture usually gives to the discipline, perhaps it isn’t so surprising after all. If we want to make mega-budget projects more accountable, we will need to make fundamental changes to the status of science in society. Without increased understanding of the research involved, governments are unlikely to grant us choice.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

What, how and why? Are there 3 stages to science?

Not being philosophically inclined I was recently surprised to find myself constructing an armchair thesis: it had suddenly dawned on me that there might be three, broad phases or stages to the development of scientific ideas. I'm fairly certain I haven't read about anything along similar lines, so let me explain,  safe in the knowledge that if it's a load of fetid dingo's kidneys, it's entirely of my own doing.

Stage 1

Stage one is the 'what' phase: simply stated, it is about naming and categorising natural phenomena, a delineation of cause and effect. In a sense, it is about finding rational explanations for things and events at the expense of superstition and mysticism.  In addition, it utilises the principle of parsimony, otherwise known as Occam's (or Ockham's) Razor: that the simplest explanation is usually correct. 

Although there were a few clear moments of stage one in Ancient Greece - Eratosthenes' attempt to measure the size of the Earth using Euclidean Geometry being a prime example - it seems to have taken off in earnest with Galileo. Although his work is frequently mythologised (I follow the rolling weights rather than dropping objects from the Leaning Tower of Pisa brigade), Galileo most likely devised both actual and thought experiments to test fundamental findings, such as the separate effects of air resistance and gravity.

Of course, Galileo was primarily interested in physics but the other areas of science followed soon after. Systematic biology came to the fore in such practical work as the anatomical investigations of William Harvey - pioneer in the understanding of blood circulation - and the glass bead microscopes of Antony van Leeuwenhoek. The work of the latter, interestingly enough, was largely to understand how small-scale structure in edible substances created flavours.  It's also worth thinking about how this research expanded horizons: after all, no-one had ever seen the miniature marvels such as bacteria. I wonder how difficult the engravers of illustrated volumes found it, working from sketches and verbal descriptions on sights they have never seen themselves? But then again, no-one has ever directly imaged a quark either…

Talking of biology, we shouldn't ignore Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist who started the cataloguing methodology in use today. New Zealand physicist Ernest Rutherford may have disparagingly referred to all branches of science other than physics as mere stamp collecting but apart from the wild inaccuracy of his statement it is seemingly obvious that without various standards of basic definitions there is no bedrock for more sophisticated research.

The repetitive, largely practical aspect of the phase in such disciplines as geology and taxonomy meant that largely untrained amateurs could make major contributions, such as the multitude of Victorian parsons (of whom Charles Darwin was almost a member) who worked on the quantity over quality principle in collecting and cataloguing immense amounts of data. Of course, Darwin went far beyond phase one but his work built on the evaluation of evolutionary ideas (try saying that three times fast) that numerous predecessors had discussed, from the Ancient Greeks to John Ray in the late Seventeenth Century.

This isn't to say that stage one science will be finished any time soon. The Human Genome Project is a good example of a principally descriptive project that generated many surprises, not least that it is proving more difficult than predicted to utilise the results in practical applications. Although in the BBC television series The Kingdom of Plants David Attenborough mentioned that the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew contains 90% of known plant species, there are still plenty of remote regions - not to mention the oceans - yet to yield all their secrets to systematic scientific exploration.  In addition to the biota yet to be described in scientific records, the existing catalogues are in the process of major reorganisation. For example, the multitude of duplicate plant names is currently being addressed by taxonomic experts, having so far led to the finding of 600,000 superfluous designations. It isn't just plants either: a recent example was the announcement that DNA evidence suggests there is probably only a single species of giant squid rather than seven. It may sound tedious and repetitive, but without comprehensive labelling and description of natural elements, it would be impossible to progress to the next stage.

Stage 2

Who was the first person to move beyond cataloguing nature to in-depth analysis? We'll probably never know, but bearing in mind that some of the Ionian philosophers and Alexandrian Greeks performed practical experiments, it may well have been one of them.

By looking to explore why phenomena occur and events unfold the way they do, our species took a step beyond description to evaluation. If art is holding a mirror up to nature, then could the second phase be explained as holding a magnifying glass up to nature, reducing a phenomenon to an approximation, and explaining how that approximation works?

For example, Newton took Galileo and Kepler's astronomical work and ran with it, producing his Law of Universal Gravitation. The ‘how' in this case is the gravitational constant that explained how bodies orbit their common centre of gravity. However, Newton was unable to delineate what caused the force to act across infinite, empty space, a theory that had to wait for stage three.

So different from the smug, self-satisfied attitude of scientists at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the techniques of modern science suggest that there is a feedback cycle in which knowing which questions to ask is at least as important as gaining answers, the adage in this case being ‘good experiments generate new questions'. Having said that, some of the largest and most expensive contemporary experiments such as the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) and Large Hadron Collider (LHC) have each been principally designed to confirm a single hypothesis.

As recent evidence has shown, even some of the fundamentals of the nature, including dark matter and dark energy, are only just being recognised. Therefore science is a long way from recognising all first principles, let alone understanding them. Closer to home, that most complex of known objects, the human brain, still holds a lot of secrets, and probably will continue to do so for some time to come.
Though microelectronics in general and computers in particular have allowed the execution of experiments in such fields as quantum teleportation, considered close to impossible by the finest minds only half a century ago, there are several reasons why computer processing power is getting closer to a theoretical maximum using current manufacturing techniques and materials. Therefore the near future may see a slowing down in the sorts of leading edge experimental science that has been achieved in recent decades. But how much progress has been made in phase three science?

Stage 3

This is more difficult to define than the other two phases and can easily veer into philosophy, a discipline that has a poor press from many professional scientists. Physicist Richard Feynman for example is supposed to have disparaged it as ‘about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds'.  Despite this - and the probability that there as many philosophies of science as there are philosophers -  it's easy to see that the cutting edge of science, particularly theoretical physics, generates as much discussion over its validity as any work of art. If you've read one of the myriad critiques of superstring theory for example, then you will know that it can be viewed as a series of intellectual patterns (accompanied by diabolical equations) that may never be experimentally confirmed. In that case is string theory really just a collection of philosophical hypotheses, unproven by experiment or observation and likely to remain so? The minuteness of the scale (an underwhelming description if ever there was one) makes the prospect of directly recording strings themselves  - as opposed to their effects - highly unlikely.

If that is the case then just where can you draw the line between science and philosophy? Of course one of the fundamental tenets of a valid hypothesis is to make testable predictions that no other hypothesis can account for. But with over a century of theories that increasingly fail to follow common sense  or match everyday experience perhaps this is a sign of approaching maturity in science, as we finally advance beyond the crude limitations of our biological inheritance and its limited senses. Surely one key result of this is that the boundaries between new ideas promulgated by scientists and the thoughts of armchair philosophers will become increasingly blurred? Or is that just fighting talk?

Whereas scientists engaged in phase two investigations seek to find more accurate approximations for phenomena, phase three includes the search for why one theory is thought to be correct over another. A prominent example may help elucidate. Further to Galileo in phase one and Newton in phase two, Einstein's General Relativity, which explains the cause of gravity via the curvature of spacetime, is clearly an example of phase three. Of course, contemporary physicists would argue that Einstein's equations are already known to be lacking finality due to its incompatible with quantum mechanics. Herein lies the rub!

One problem that has caused dissension amongst many scientists is a possibly even more ‘ultimate' question: why is the universe finely tuned enough for life and more than that, intelligent life, to exist? The potential answers cover the entire gamut of human thought, from the conscious design principle supported by some religiously-minded scientists, to the invocation of the laws of probability in a multiverse hypothesis, requiring an immense number of universes all with the different fundamentals (and therefore including a lucky few capable of producing life). But the obvious issue here is that wouldn't Occam's Razor suggest the former is more likely than the latter? As Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees states, this is veering into metaphysical territory, which except for the scientists with religious convictions, is usually an area avoided like the plague. However, it may eventually become possible to run computer models that simulate the creation of multiple universes and so as bizarre as it seems, go some way to creating a workable theory out of something that to most people is still a purely philosophical notion. Talk about counting angels on a pinhead!

I can't say I'm entirely convinced by my own theory of three stages to science, but it's been interesting to see how the history and practice of the discipline can be fitted into it. After all, as stated earlier no-one has ever observed a quark, which in the first days of their formulation were sometimes seen as purely mathematical objects any way. So if you're doubtful I don't blame you, but never say never...

Monday, 1 April 2013

Where's my Thunderbird? Or how Gerry Anderson helped fool the Soviet Union

The death of Thunderbirds creator Gerry Anderson on Boxing Day last year marked the end of an era, at least as far as I'm concerned. Still my all-time favourite children's television programme, Thunderbirds marked the apogee of Anderson's career, a livelihood spent converting technological prognostication into high drama. Following the recent announcement that a new version of the series will be produced here in New Zealand it seemed a good time to examine a bizarre aspect of the show - along with some of its sister series - that only recently came to light. A combination of freshly declassified documents by the U.K.'s Ministry of Defence (M.O.D.) and the publication of highlights from a bundle of letters by Anderson's once-business partner Reg Hill have caused something of a minor sensation amongst the techno-SF cognoscenti.

A cursory look at even a small number of the craft that appear in the various TV shows reveals something extremely curious: most of the designs look far more Warsaw Pact than NATO. To elaborate, let's start with a survey of a few of the vehicles that helped to inspire such enormous affection in Anderson's television shows. For example:
  1. If you examine Thunderbird 3 or the Sun Probe from the same series there is an eerie similarity to various Soviet space rockets of the late 1960s, including the Soyuz and Proton series. Whilst there were some details of these vehicles available in the West at the time, the USSR's ill-fated N1 manned moon rocket remained a secret until spy reconnaissance in 1968. Yet several of Anderson's rockets of the period have rather more than a passing resemblance to the giant failure.
    Gerry Anderson rocket design
    Gerry Anderson rocket design
  2. The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-105 Spiral space plane, which only went as far as atmospheric flight tests, bears a remarkable likeness to the Dove shuttle seen in the Anderson scripted and produced 1969 film Journey to the far side of the Sun. Yet again, the project was unknown in the West (at least outside of security bureaus) until after its cancellation in 1978.
    Gerry Anderson spacecraft design
  3. The Spectrum Cloudbase in the series Captain Scarlet is echoed by the experimental aerial missile platform the Yakovlev VVP-6, although it seems doubtful if the latter ever got off the drawing board.
    Captain Scarlet Cloudbase
  4. There are various jetcopters and helijets making guest appearances in Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, with several similar in design to the Bartini Beriev VVA-14 which first flew in 1972.
    Gerry Anderson helijet design
One resemblance could be put down to chance, but this random selection shows just how uncanny Anderson's teams' designs were in matching real-life Eastern Bloc ventures. The question is how could the Soviet projects have served as the blueprint when no-one in the West knew about them? Remember: these television series were made during the 1960s, when Cold War paranoia severely restricted knowledge in both directions, especially of advanced hardware (always excepting the material that made it to the opposing side via diplomatic baggage). In addition, the Anderson shows often preceded the equivalent Russian design by several years.

Bearing this in mind, the only explanation I can find is what if the reverse was true? Could the Soviet Union have based the development of some of their aircraft, rockets and spacecraft on the fictional designs seen in Gerry Anderson programmes? As absurd as this sounds, the idea begins to make sense when considering some of the more unusual excerpts from Reg Hill's letters.

Hill, who served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, was both a producer and designer on most of Anderson's classic output. His years in the RAF gave Hill a certain amount of first-hand knowledge in aircraft construction and piloting, which proved extremely handy when it came to creating vehicles for the shows (along with the better known crew members Derek Meddings, Brian Johnson and Mike Trim).  Reg Hill's letters cover the period 1959 to 1976 and would seemingly be of little interest to all except the most diehard Fanderson. However, a small number refer to Hill's meetings with mysterious representatives of the British security services, to whom Hill gave the James Bond (or if you prefer, Men in Black) appellations of Messrs A through H. Although the writing is guarded, Reg Hill gives the impression that as of 1964 he was asked to supply these enigmatic men with - of all things - detailed blueprints for some of the production company's fictional craft. As to what purpose Hill thought these requests were intended, he makes no mention. No doubt as an ex-serviceman he understood the need for national security and thus placed patriotism ahead of curiosity.

As someone who's not a fan of conspiracy theories I had difficulty understanding what the references pertained to. After all, the letters could be forgeries or the results of a strange sense of humour. But then a series of M.O.D. documents dating from the same period were made available to journalists in late 2012 under the UK's Freedom of Information Act, subject to all the usual blanked-out details that encumber such material. Luckily, the missing content mostly related to names, places and times, leaving the gist of the events intact. The upshot of reading the documents is that they confirm the narrative supplied in Hill's letters: the British Government paid (token amounts, it has to be said) for copies of blueprints to vehicles that were designed to appear in children's television series. As this point I said to myself, move over X-Files!

When I found out that Reg Hill and Gerry Anderson had formed a short-lived production company in the late 1950s called Pentagon Films I wondered if the outfit's name had given the British Secret Intelligence Service the idea of deliberately leaking aero- and astronautical disinformation to the Eastern Bloc. Or alternatively, MI5/MI6 may have been aware of similarities between the ramp-launching technique of Fireball XL5 (from the 1962 series of the same name) and a never-implemented Soviet scheme for deploying ICBMs. If accepted as genuine, Hill's drawings could have served several purposes, from tying up Soviet design bureaus in analysis of fictional machines to the wasting of countless rubles in technological dead-ends.

It might seem ridiculous that the deception would work, not just once but repeatedly, only it should be remembered that senior scientists and engineers in the Soviet Union frequently attained their status from acute political rather than scientific skills. The best known example of this is Trofim Lysenko, the untrained researcher and Stalinist crony whose pseudo-scientific theories were used in crop production for decades instead of Mendelian genetics. In the field of astronautics, when the rocket and spacecraft 'Chief Designer' Sergei Korolev suddenly died in 1966 the Soviet manned lunar landing programme stalled and never recovered. Ironically, the USSR was its own worst enemy in this field, since many other capable rocket scientists had been killed in Stalinist purges.

In addition, projects were frequently rushed for political purposes: Sputnik 2, which carried the dog Laika on a pioneering if one-way trip into orbit, was designed in less than a month! It is well known that the latest Western technology often found a surreptitious route to Moscow, with Warsaw Pact design bureaus deconstructing the material in order to produce their own versions at rapid speed. A good instance of this was the Tupolev Tu-144, a poor quality reworking of the Concorde supersonic airliner that beat the latter into the air by two months but was then two years behind its Anglo-French rival in entering commercial service. Indeed, there are rumours that the Concorde manufacturers deliberately leaked inaccurate schematics in order to mislead the Tupolev team!

Bearing all this in mind, is it possible the Soviets would repeatedly fall for such seemingly obvious ploys as British (and possibly American) security services' reworked plans of vehicles designed for children's TV shows? Perhaps the speed with which the Russian teams had to work prevented them from realising they had been duped. In general, their aviation technology remained markedly inferior to the West's until the 1980s, as was shown by the shocking revelation in 1976 (thanks to a defecting pilot) that their most advanced - and record-breaking - interceptor largely relied on vacuum tube avionics. By the early 1970s Hill stopped receiving visits from the shadowy intelligence figures, so perhaps the Soviets had at last caught on to the ruse - but of course failed to advertise this in order to avoid embarrassment.

As bizarre as all this sounds, other disinformation strategies employed  in the West were if anything even more elaborate, from creating fake infra-red 'shadows' for advanced spy planes to leaking wildly inaccurate yet plausible designs for stealth aircraft that even made it as far as plastic model kits. By comparison, reworking the Anderson craft and passing them off as new NATO projects seems a relatively easy - and inexpensive - method.

It's often stated that truth is stranger than fiction. So if you consider the foregoing a plausible hypothesis you might want to ponder the real meaning behind the Thunderbirds' famous call-sign F.A.B. or its Captain Scarlet equivalent S.I.G. Personally, my money's on "Fooled All Bolsheviks" and "Soviets Is Gullible".  Or is that just plain daft?

Friday, 15 March 2013

Preaching to the unconverted: or how to convey science to the devout

It's said that charity begins at home. Likewise, a recent conversation I had with a pious Mormon started me thinking: just how do you promote science, both the method and the uncomfortable facts, to someone who has been raised to mistrust the discipline? Of course, there is a (hopefully) very small segment of the human race that will continue to ignore the evidence even after it is presented right in front of them, but stopping to consider those on the front line - such as biology teachers and ‘outed' atheists in the U.S. Bible Belt - how do you present a well-reasoned set of arguments to promote the theory and practice of science? 

It's relatively easy for the likes of Richard Dawkins to argue his case when he has large audiences of professionals or sympathetic listeners, but what is the best approach when endorsing science to a Biblical literalist on a one-to-one basis? The example above involved explaining just how we know the age of the Earth. Not being the first time I've been asked this, I was fully prepared to enlighten on the likes of uranium series dating, but not having to mention the 'D' words (Darwin or Dawkins) made this a relatively easy task. To aid any fans of science who might find themselves in a similar position I've put together a small toolkit of ideas, even if the conversation veers into that ultimate of controversial subjects, the evolution of the human race:
  1. A possible starting point is to be diffident, explaining the limitations of science and dispelling the notion that it isn't the catalogue of sundry facts it is sometimes described as (for example, in Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything). It is difficult but nonetheless profitable to explain the concept that once-accepted elements of scientific knowledge can ostensibly be surpassed by later theories, only to maintain usefulness on a special case basis. A good illustration of this is Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation, which explains the force of gravity but not what creates it. Einstein's General Theory of Relativity provides a solution but Newton's Law is much easier to use, being accurate enough to use even to guide spacecraft. And since General Relativity cannot be combined with quantum mechanics, there is probably another theory waiting to be discovered…somewhere. As British astrophysicist and populariser John Gribbin has often pointed out, elements at the cutting edge of physics are sometimes only describable via metaphor, there not being anything within human experience that can be used as a comparison. Indeed, no-one has ever observed a quark and in the early days of the theory some deemed it just a convenient mathematical model. As for string theory, it's as bizarre as many a creation myth (although you might not want to admit that bit).
  2. Sometimes (as can be seen with Newton and gravity) the 'what' is known whilst the 'why' isn't. Even so, scientists can use the partial theories to extrapolate potential 'truths' or even exploit them via technology. Semi-conductors require quantum mechanics, a theory that no-one really understands. Indeed, no less a figure than Einstein refused to accept many of its implications.  There are many competing interpretations, some clearly more absurd than others, but that doesn't stop it being the most successful scientific theory ever, in terms of the correspondence between the equations and experimental data. So despite the uncertainty - or should that be Uncertainty (that's a pun, for the quantum mechanically-minded) - the theory is a cornerstone of modern physics.
  3. As far as I know, the stereotype of scientists as wild-haired, lab-coated, dispassionate and unemotional beings may stem from the Cold War, when the development of the first civilisation-destroying weapons led many to point their fingers at the inventors rather than their political paymasters. Yet scientists can be as creative as artists. Einstein conducted thought experiments, often aiming for a child-like simplicity, in order to obtain results. The idea that logic alone makes a good scientist is clearly bunkum. Hunches and aesthetics can prove as pivotal as experimental data or equations.
  4. Leading on from this, scientists are just as fallible as the rest of us. Famous examples range from Fred Hoyle's belief in the Steady State theory (and strangely, that the original Archaeopteryx fossils are fakes) through to the British scientific establishment's forty-year failure to recognise that the Piltdown Man finds were crude fakes. However, it isn't always as straightforward as these examples: Einstein's greatest blunder - the cosmological constant - was abandoned after the expansion of the universe was discovered, only for it to reappear in recent years as the result of dark energy. And of course mistakes can prove more useful than finding the correct answer the first time!
  5. There are numerous examples of deeply religious scientists, from Kepler and Newton via Gregor Mendel, the founder of genetics, to the contemporary British particle physicist the Reverend John Polkinghorne. Unlike the good versus evil dichotomy promoted by Hollywood movies, it's rarely a case of us versus them.
  6. Although there are searches for final theories such as the Grand Unified Theory of fundamental forces, one of the current aspects of science that differs profoundly from the attitudes of a century or so ago is that there is the possibility of never finding a final set of solutions. Indeed, a good experiment should generate as many new questions as it answers.
  7. If you feel that you're doing well, you could explain how easy it is to be fooled by non-existent patterns and that our brains aren't really geared up for pure logic. It's quite easy to apparently alter statistics using left- or right-skewed graphs, or to use a logarithmic scale on one axis. In addition, we recognise correlations that just aren't there but we which we would like to think are true. In the case of my Mormon colleague he was entrenched in the notion of UFOs as alien spacecraft! At this point you could even conduct an experiment: make two drawings, one of a constellation and one of evenly-spaced dots, and ask them to identify which one is random. Chances are they will pick the latter. After all, every culture has seen pictures in the random placements of stars in the night sky (or the face of Jesus in a piece of toast).
Constellation vs random dots
Ursa Major (see what you like) vs evenly-spaced dots

So to sum up:
  1. There's a fuzzy line at the cutting edge of physics and no-one understands what most of it means;
  2. We've barely started answering fundamental questions, and there are probably countless more we don't even know to ask yet;
  3. Science doesn't seek to provide comforting truths, only gain objective knowledge, but...
  4. ...due to the way our brains function we can never remove all subjectivity from the method;
  5. No one theory is the last word on a subject;
  6. Prominent scientists easily make mistakes;
  7. And most of all, science is a method for finding out about reality, not a collection of carved-in-stone facts.
So go out there and proselytise. I mean evangelise. Err...spread the word. Pass on the message. You get the picture: good luck!

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

An index of possibilities: is science prognostication today worthwhile or just foolish?

A few evenings ago I saw the International Space Station. It was dusk, and walking home with the family we were looking at Jupiter when a moving bright light almost directly overhead got our attention. Too high for an aircraft, too large for a satellite, a quick check on the Web when we got home confirmed it was the ISS. 370 kilometres above our heads, a one hundred metre long, permanently crewed construction confirmed everything I read in my childhood: we had become a space-borne species. But if so few of the other scientific and technological advances I was supposed to be enjoying in adulthood have come true, has the literature of science prediction in these areas also changed markedly?

It is common to hear nowadays that science is viewed as just one of many equally valid methods of describing reality. So whilst on the one hand most homes in the developed world contain a myriad of up-to-date high technology, many of the users of these items haven't got the faintest idea how they work. Sadly, neither do they particularly have any interest in finding out. It's a scary thought that more and more of the key devices we rely on every day are designed and manufactured by a tiny percentage of specialists in the know; we are forever increasing the ease with which our civilisation could be knocked back to the steam age - if not the stone age.

Since products of such advanced technology are now familiar in the domestic environment and not just in the laboratory, why are there seemingly fewer examples of popular literature praising the ever-improving levels of knowledge and application compared to Arthur C. Clarke's 1962 prophetic classic Profiles of the Future and its less critical imitators that so caught my attention as a child? Is it that the level of familiarity has led to the non-scientist failing to find much interest or inspiration in what is now such an integrated aspect of our lives? With scientific advance today frequently just equated with cutting-edge consumerism we are committing an enormous error, downplaying far more interesting and important aspects of the discipline whilst cutting ourselves off from the very processes by which we can gain genuine knowledge.

Therefore it looks as if there's somewhat of an irony: non-scientists either disregard scientific prognostication as non-practical idealism ("just give me the new iPad, please") and/or consider themselves much more tech savvy than the previous generation (not an unfair observations, if for obvious reasons - my pre-teen children can work with our 4Gb laptop whilst my first computer had a 48Kb RAM). Of course it's not all doom and gloom. Although such as landmark experiments as the New Horizons mission to Pluto has gone largely unnoticed, at least by anyone I know, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and Mars Curiosity rover receive regular attention in popular media.

Perhaps the most regularly-occurring theme in science news articles over the past decade or so has been climate change, but with the various factions and exposé stories confusing the public on an already extremely complex issue, could it be that many people are turning their back on reading postulated technological advances as (a) technology may have greatly contributed to global warming; and (b) they don't want to consider a future that could be extremely bleak unless we ameliorate or solve the problem? The Astronomer Royal and former President of the Royal Society Martin Rees is one of many authors to offer a profoundly pessimistic view of mankind's future. His 2003 book Our Final Hour suggests that either by accident or design, at some point before AD2100 we are likely to initiate a technological catastrophe here on the Earth, and the only way to guarantee our species' survival is to establish colonies elsewhere as soon as possible.

But there are plenty of futurists with the opposite viewpoint to Rees and like-minded authors, including the grandly-titled World Future Society, whose annual Outlook reports are written with the aim of inspiring action towards improving our prospects. Most importantly, by including socio-economic aspects they may fare better than Arthur C. Clarke and his generation, whose space cadet optimism now seems hopelessly naïve.

One way near-future extrapolation may increase accuracy is for specialists to concentrate in their area of expertise. To this end, many scientists and popularisers have concentrated on trendy topics such as nanotechnology, with Ray Kurzweil perhaps the best known example. This isn't to say that there aren't still some generalist techno-prophets still around, but Michio Kaku's work along these lines has proved very mixed as to quality whilst the BBC Futures website is curiously old school, with plenty of articles on macho projects (e.g. military and transport hardware) that are mostly still in the CAD program and will probably remain that way for many years to come.

With so many factors influencing which science and technology projects get pursued, it seems worthwhile to consider whether even a little knowledge of current states and developments might be as useful as in-depth scientific knowledge when it comes to accurate prognostication, with luck instead playing the primary role. One of my favourite examples of art-inspired science is the iPad, released to an eager public in 2010 some twenty-three years after the fictional PADD was first shown on Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) - although ironically the latter is closer in size to non-Apple tablets. In an equally interesting reverse of this, there is now a US$10 million prize on offer for the development of a hand-held Wi-Fi health monitoring and diagnosis device along the lines of the Star Trek tricorder. No doubt Gene Roddenberry would have been pleased that his optimistic ideas are being implemented so rapidly; but then even NASA have at times hired his TNG graphic designer!

I'll admit that even I have made my own modest if inadvertent contribution to science prediction. In an April Fools' post in 2010 I light-heartedly suggested that perhaps sauropod dinosaurs could have used methane emissions as a form of self-defence. Well, not quite, but a British study in the May 2012 edition of Current Biology hypothesises that the climate of the period could have been significantly affected by dino-farts. As they say, truth is always stranger than fiction…