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An Inventory of the Invisible

11 Nov

When you come to think of it, so much of the important stuff in life is invisible. Time. Gravity. Thoughts. The human genome. Atoms. Energy. Electricity. The past. The future.

In this animated TEDTalk from 2009, comedy writer and TV producer John Lloyd gives a guided tour around everything that’s impossible to see. It’s well worth 9 minutes of your time, being as witty and stuffed full of quirky facts as you’d expect from the man who’s behind the endlessly brilliant TV show QI.

“We can see matter, but we can’t see what’s the matter.”


Superhero Science: Tomorrow’s caped crusaders

6 Jun

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for

Everyone loves a good Hollywood ending. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as seeing a masked hero finally dispatch an evil villain. But aren’t flying men with super-strength a bit passé? Maybe it’s time for some new, cutting-edge superheroes…

Introducing… Corner Woman, Neutrino-man and Camo-Kid (credit: Dave Gray for Guru magazine)

Science and superheroes have a surprisingly intimate history. Pick any of the well-known protagonists from the Marvel or DC comic books and the chances are you’ll be able to trace their history back to science.

Spider-Man, for instance, came into existence when geeky high school student Peter Parker was bitten by a (radioactive) spider during a science demonstration. Some superheroes were even fully-fledged scientists before freak accidents gave them their powers – Bruce Banner (the Incredible Hulk) and Reed Richards (Mister Fantastic from the Fantastic Four) are two examples.

The X-Men, whose superpowers developed from mutations, were undoubtedly inspired by the theory of evolution. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that anyone in the real world is going to start growing claws out of their hands, but mutations are known to play an important role in natural selection, in which a random mutation, if beneficial, can eventually become a new characteristic of a species.

Even Superman – “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound” – is not quite as unscientific as you might think. In 2007, Dr Chris Stanley at London’s Natural History Museum discovered a mineral with the chemical formula ‘sodium lithium boron silicate hydroxide’. He soon realised that this composition was remarkably similar to the description of a rock containing Kryptonite in the 2006 film Superman Returns. The real mineral, however, is white, powdery and harmless – quite unlike the green, radioactive material that blights Superman throughout his adventures.

Superman plays with himself (credit: JC Hancock)

Clearly, then, there’s a fair amount of science in the world of superheroes. But what type of superhero, I wondered, could be born from today’s cutting-edge scientific research? I decided to browse through some of the recent science news stories and create three science-inspired superheroes of my own. This trio probably won’t be gracing a Marvel comic or Hollywood blockbuster anytime soon, but I hope you’ll take them into your heart anyway.

Continue reading

Sword Swallowers, Belly Buttons and Flatulent Fish: the Ig Nobel prizes

9 Dec

In a world where high-speed neutrinos and melting ice caps hog the limelight, it’s sometimes nice to pay tribute to the sillier side of science. Because for every Einstein there’s a physicist trying to understand why toast always lands butter-side down; for every Darwin, a biologist who studies fish farts.

Once a year, scientists come together to honour the unsung heroes of science, awarding ‘Ig Nobel’ prizes to achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think”. A parody of the Nobel Prizes, these awards celebrate science that is eccentric, bizarre, or just downright ridiculous ­– studies “that cannot, or should not, be reproduced”.

The Ig Nobel awards – making people laugh, and then making them think (credit: Improbable Research)

I’ve been wanting to write a blog post about the Ig Nobels for a while. So, here it is at last – a rundown of my all-time favourite prizewinners. Happy holidays! Continue reading

Relatively Funny

25 Sep

So neutrinos have suddenly become the enfants terribles of particle physics, with scientists in Italy reporting that these tiny particles can travel faster than the speed of light.

xkcd's take on the neutrino discovery

There’s been a lot of talk on the blogosphere about this discovery, its potential implications for Einstein’s theory of relativity, and whether or not the results will stand up to the scrutiny of the particle physics community. But alongside the head scratching, cautious excitement, and inevitable talk of time travel, there have also been gazillions of neutrino jokes whizzing around. Here are some of the picks (caution: you may laugh before you read these).

“We don’t allow faster-than-light neutrinos in here,” said the bartender. A neutrino walks into a bar.

Hipsters liked neutrinos before they arrived.

Want to hear a joke about neutrinos? It’d probably go straight through you. 

“Knock, Knock”
“Who’s there?”

(or…Knock, Knock. Who’s th – neutrino! – ere?)

To get to the other side. Why did the neutrino cross the road?


A limerick by Telescoper.

Do neutrinos go faster than light?
Some physicists think that they might.
In the cold light of day,
I am sorry to say,
The story is probably shite.


And a relativity-themed one by James Ph. Kotsybar.

A young lady known simply as Bright,
who could travel at speeds fast as light,
said: “While I’m never late,
I’m concerned that my weight
goes to infinite mass, though I’m slight.”


A musical ode to the neutrino by Andrew Pontzen, courtesy of Geek Pop.


Proof that a poodle-haired Swedish guitarist actually foresaw this discovery way back in 1988: “Faster Than the Speed of Light“.


Anyway, that’s enough geeky humour for now…I think I may spontaneously combust.

On Men and How They Should Dance

14 Sep

It’s a common scenario. You’re at a wedding reception, the speeches are over, and a DJ starts doing his thing in the corner of the room, obscured behind a wall of tacky disco lights.

Before long, the complimentary champagne begins to work its magic on the revellers. A mildly inebriated Auntie Valerie is the first to wander onto the dancefloor, deciding that a slightly dented reputation is a small price to pay for having a good time. Uncle Bob is next to follow, loosening his tie and rolling up his sleeves as soon as he hears the opening strains of “Y.M.C.A.”.

Meanwhile, the best man – let’s call him Dave – has his eye on one of the bridesmaids, Emily. Hugging his warm pint of Carlsberg, Dave watches Emily as she glides across the dancefloor like a swan on roller skates. Feeling ever more tipsy, he puts down his beer and shuffles towards her.

Suddenly, “Y.M.C.A.” gives way to the drum/bass intro of “Billie Jean”. Dave spots his chance. Moving deftly through the throng of exhausted dancers, he positions himself opposite Emily and begins to engage in a mating ritual worthy of any bird of paradise. Completely oblivious to the onlooking crowd, Dave bends his torso from side to side like a man possessed, simultaneously shaking his head to the beat whilst performing an elaborate twisting routine with his right knee.

Dave's dance moves delighted and shocked in equal measure (credit: dpphotography)

The ritual seems to have worked: 30 minutes later both he and Emily are locked in a romantic embrace, gently swaying to “Lady in Red” amidst a sea of teary-eyed couples.

Dave’s secret? He’s familiar with a recent article in Biology Letters which shows that certain dance moves are more likely to ignite the passions of a woman.

Nick Neave and colleagues at Northumbria University used motion-capture technology to record the movements of 19 men dancing to a basic drum beat. Each dancer was then mapped onto a computer-generated avatar, and 37 heterosexual women were asked to rate the avatars on their dancing prowess.

Examples of the motion-capture avatars, showing (a) a static pose and (b) a dance move (credit: N. Neave et al.)

By correlating the women’s ratings with the avatars’ movements, the scientists were able to come up with a recipe for successful boogieing. The three factors that most contributed to high dance scores were ‘neck internal/external rotation variability’ (head shaking), ‘trunk adduction/abduction variability’ (sideways bending) and ‘right knee internal/external rotation speed’ (twisting speed).

These movements, claims the study, may provide signals of a man’s suitability as a sexual partner by indicating his physical strength, health or genetic quality.

According to Neave et al., dance in humans “…is a set of intentional, rhythmic, culturally influenced, non-verbal body movements that are considered to be an important aspect of sexuality and courtship attraction”.

This links us to, amongst other animals, Pronghorn mammals, hummingbirds, and fiddler crabs, all of whom perform courtship displays in order to entice prospective partners.

So, guys, if you want to woo on the dancefloor, try dancing like this instead of like this!

Further reading: Neave N, McCarty K, Freynik J, Caplan N, Hönekopp J, & Fink B (2011). Male dance moves that catch a woman’s eye. Biology letters, 7 (2), 221-4 PMID: 20826469

What happens when two chatbots talk?

30 Aug

Answer: a very surreal conversation that involves religion, unicorns, and a fair bit of bickering.

The sexual tension is palpable…

Another reason for Brits to worry about global warming…

14 Aug

…and a whole new meaning for the term ‘member state of the European Union’.

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