Tag Archives: science

Richard Dawkins interview

24 Sep

It’s not every day you get to meet Richard Dawkins. In August, I visited the great man at his Oxford home to interview him for BBC Focus magazine. Topics of conversation included his 40-year run of books (beginning with The Selfish Gene in 1976), the evidence for evolution, the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, and the public reaction to The God Delusion (anyone who’s not seen this video of Dawkins reading out some of his hate mail should remedy that now).

You can read my interview in the October 2015 issue of BBC Focus:

dawkinsinterview

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Newton’s Apple: Fact or Fiction?

6 Jun

We all know the story. A young Isaac Newton is sitting in his garden when – plonk! – an apple falls onto his head. As the scientist rubs his sore scalp, an idea enters his mind – could the same force that brought the apple plummeting to the ground also explain the motions of the Moon and the planets? In that instant the theory of gravity is born! At least that’s how the story goes. But did this cranial collision ever really happen?

Is Newton's apple just a maggot-infested myth? (credit: dreamiurg)

Is Newton’s apple just a maggot-infested myth? (credit: dreamiurg)

Newton’s famous apple incident is an event that – if true – pretty much kick-started modern science. By inspiring Newton’s theory of gravity, it laid the foundations upon which countless great minds have built their ideas. But did Newton really develop his theory after seeing a cascading apple? Or is the whole tale just a maggotinfested myth that’s been passed down through the years? I decided to find out.

The case for the fruity legend

Probably the most obvious place to look for evidence would be Isaac Newton’s own journals and notebooks. But alas, Newton never mentioned the apple in any of his writings. Instead, we must turn to a man named John Conduitt, who wrote about the incident some 60 years later. Conduitt, a politician by trade, was Newton’s assistant at the Royal Mint and the husband of Newton’s beloved half-niece, Catherine Barton.

In his Draft account of Newton’s life at Cambridge, Conduitt describes a fresh-faced, 23-year-old Isaac Newton returning to his mother’s Lincolnshire home in 1666 – not because he missed his mum’s cooking, but because the plague had forced Cambridge University to shut down. There, Conduitt wrote, “whilst he was musing in a garden it came into his thought that the same power of gravity (which made an apple fall from the tree to the ground) was not limited to a certain distance from the Earth but must extend much farther than was usually thought…”

So Conduitt may not describe Newton taking an apple to the head, nor even that the scientist actually observed the falling fruit, but he at least makes a pretty strong reference to it.

Woolsthorpe Manor - Newton's Lincolnshire birthplace (credit: David Ireland)

Woolsthorpe Manor – Newton’s Lincolnshire birthplace (credit: David Ireland)

Around the same time, the French philosopher Voltaire was also helping to perpetuate the fruity legend. In An Essay Upon the Civil Wars of France (1727), he wrote: “Sir Isaac Newton walking in his gardens, had the first thought of his system of gravitation, upon seeing an apple falling from a tree.” Voltaire probably heard the story from Catherine Barton, whom he described as Newton’s “very charming niece”, when he visited England in the 1720s.

But the strongest evidence for Newton’s apple comes from another of Sir Isaacs’s close friends, an antiquarian called William Stukeley. In 1752, a quarter of a century after Newton’s death, Stukeley published his Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life. Truth be told, it’s a rather drab and long-winded account of the scientist’s life (though we do find out what the great scientist had for breakfast: “an infusion of orange peel in boiling water”, apparently, “with bread & butter” functional yet tangy). But there on page 15, in a beautifully handwritten script, is an anecdote that waters the mouth more than a freshly-baked apple pie…

William Stukeley's handwritten apple anecdote

William Stukeley’s handwritten apple anecdote

One spring day in April 1726, Stukeley visited an 83-year-old Newton in Kensington, London – at that time situated in the countryside. The two men spent the day together, profiting from the fresh air and chatting on into the evening.

“After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, and drank thea [sic] under the shade of some apple trees…,” recalled Stukeley. “Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. ‘Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,’ thought he to himself, occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. ‘Why should it not go sideways or upwards but constantly to the Earth’s centre?’”

So, while drinking this cup of ‘thea’ in the dusky evening light, an elderly Sir Isaac actually recounted the falling apple story to his friend Stukeley. The famous apple! From the horse’s mouth!

A mouldy tale?

But can we really trust Stukeley? After all, he was a very good friend of Newton and may have been tempted to mythologise the scientist. As Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation, writes: “biographers, certainly in 1720, are not objective reporters running around checking facts. They are often fans of their subjects, as Stukeley was of Newton.”

And why would Newton have waited 60 years before sharing the story with someone? One explanation may be that he saw a falling apple in his youth and gradually embellished the story over time. It’s easy to see why it’d be such an attractive tale: a simple visual metaphor for his “Eureka!” moment; a humorous way to explain how gravity works. And then there’s the fact that Newton was deeply interested in religion, so the nod to the Garden of Eden’s forbidden fruit might have appealed to him.

But even if Newton did observe a tumbling apple in 1666, it’s highly unlikely that he developed his theory of gravity right there on the spot. At some point, though – and this is what fits in nicely with the apple story – he came to realise that the same force which governs the acceleration of objects towards the ground also reaches far out into space. It wasn’t until 1687, some 20 years after the alleged apple incident, that Newton published his universal law of gravitation, showing that the orbits of the planets around the Sun – and the Moon around the Earth – could be explained by the bodies’ mutual gravitational attraction.

The Moon's orbit - beautifully explained by Newton's law of universal gravitation (credit: wvs)

The Moon’s orbit – beautifully explained by Newton’s law of universal gravitation (credit: wvs)

One thing we can be sure of is that the apple never struck Newton on the head. That detail was added by a later writer, Isaac D’Israeli, who evidently had a penchant for slapstick comedy. But that hasn’t stopped the story from entering popular consciousness. Woolsthorpe Manor, Isaac Newton’s birthplace and the home he returned to in 1666, has since become something of a pilgrimage site for starry-eyed physicists. In the house’s garden, visible from Newton’s old bedroom window, is said to be the very apple tree that the young scientist sat under nearly 350 years ago.

The apple tree under which Newton is said to have sat. The tree was reportedly re-rooted after a storm toppled it in 1816 (credit: dexter_mixwith)

As for the apple itself, the tree at Woolsthorpe Manor produces a rare variety of green cooking apple known as ‘Flower of Kent’, which has been described as mealy, sharp, and quite flavourless. So if Newton really did see one fall to the ground, he probably didn’t enjoy eating it.

Ultimately, perhaps we’ll never know the full truth behind Newton’s apple. Maybe we should trust those anecdotes provided by his friends. Maybe, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. After all, Newton went on to develop his theory of gravity in the end, apple or not. One thing’s for sure though – we should be glad that it was Newton sitting under that tree. Anyone else would have required a whole barrel full of fruit…

This blog post is based on an article published in the June/July 2013 edition of Guru magazine… download the magazine for free here!

Recent writings…

9 Feb

Some of the recent writing shenanigans that I’ve been getting up to…

  • I’ve written an article for the ever-brilliant (and now Wellcome Trust-funded) Guru magazine about the science of dancing. Guru is well worth a look if you haven’t checked it out yet… plenty of thought-provoking articles to get your teeth into (and it’s free to download as well). The February/March issue is out now.

Science of dancing

  • The March 2013 issue of BBC Focus magazine features my interview with Silas Beane, a theoretical physicist who thinks he’s found a way to test the idea that we’re all living inside a Matrix-style simulation. Mind-bending stuff…

Living in a simulation?

  • I’ve also been finding time to write a few short pieces of fiction, including “Little Death” (the story of a trainee Grim Reaper), a poem about history called “Hitler was a Milkmaid” and some other bits and bobs.

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.”

Book review: Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?

2 Oct

To be fair, this book could have been given any number of equally provocative titles. Why do we have pubes? Why do some people fall in love with horses? What’s in a fetish? Because, as well as the eponymous love organ, Why is The Penis… covers an ambitious array of eyebrow-raising topics: bestiality, cannibalism, self-gratification… and that’s just for starters. The Cloudspotter’s Guide this is not.

Why Is the Penis… is a collection of essays about some of the more bizarre, dirty, and downright disturbing aspects of human nature. It’s the second book by the American writer and psychologist Jesse Bering and, true to the title, it spends a fair bit of time explaining how the penis obtained its peculiar physique. It also looks at the science behind semen (is it good to swallow?), the testicles (why do they hang in such an apparently vulnerable fashion?), and female ejaculate (what is it exactly?).

Jesse Bering – science writer and psychologist

But that’s just the light stuff. Elsewhere, Bering turns his attention to the taboos that most science writers would usually brush beneath the carpet. He explores the psychology behind sexual fetishes, delves into the history of cannibalism, investigates why humans are such prolific masturbators, and tries to understand why some people love animals. No, not just love them, I mean really love them.

In the hands of someone else, this might all have been rather trashy and gratuitous. Happily, though, Bering’s take on these controversial topics is refreshingly non-judgmental. Rather than sensationalising the subjects, he approaches them as a clear-headed psychologist; his rational, considered explanations make even the most bizarre behaviour seem strangely – almost disconcertingly – normal.

There are also some unexpected moments of poignancy scattered throughout the book. In one section, Bering addresses the issue of suicide and gives a harrowing insight into the mind of someone who’s contemplating ending their life. In another, the author describes going to a funeral parlour with his dying mother to make arrangements for her funeral. Disillusioned with the slick, commercialised ‘business of death’, Bering beautifully outlines his vision for an alternative burial tradition in which people are laid to rest underneath their favourite tree:

“Two massive walnut trees growing side by side with interlocking branches seem somehow more than mere trees when we learn that they’re actually growing upon what was once a husband and wife who lived centuries before.”

Bering is a brilliant writer with a bright, engaging style, and it’s this that holds Why Is the Penis… – otherwise just a collection of individual essays – together. The essays are grouped into themes, but there’s no overarching narrative – my one minor quibble. On the upside, though, this means that the book can be dipped into at any time, with each essay acting as a stand-alone chunk of text.

Going back to the book’s title, it’s perhaps a good job that Bering went with the one he did. After all, if he’d named his collection after one of the more provocative essays – ‘Podophilia for Prudes’, let’s say – Why Is the Penis… might have had a lot more difficulty infiltrating your local library or bookshop. And that would have been a big shame. So go and track it down – you’ll never look at your nether regions in the same way again.

This review first appeared in the October 2012 edition of Guru magazine, alongside an interview with Jesse Bering. Download the magazine for free here.

Songs of Science #7: Saint-Saëns

10 Sep

Camille Saint-Saëns was a French late-Romantic composer who’s probably best known for his The Carnival of the Animals suite – a lively musical journey through the natural world. Most of the suite’s 14 movements are inspired by a particular animal. “Tortoises”, for example, sees the strings play the can-can music (“Galop infernal”) infuriatingly sloooowly; “The Elephant” has a double bass playing a lumbering, comical melody; and “The cuckoo in the depths of the woods” features a clarinet mimicking the Common Cuckoo’s famous call.

One of my favourite movements is “Fossils”. I’m not sure what kind of fossils Saint-Saëns was imagining when he wrote it, but the clickety-clackety xylophone makes me think of dancing skeletons. The addictive melody still sounds as fresh and vibrant today as it must have done when it was first written in 1886. Listen out for the short snippet of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” – this may have been Saint-Saëns making a joke about those musical ‘fossils’ which we always dig up generation after generation.

“The Swan” is probably the most famous movement in The Carnival of The Animals, featuring a romantic cello solo floating gracefully over a surface of tinkling pianos. It’s nice, but a little on the melodramatic side for me. I prefer one of the other aquatic movements: the magical “Aquarium”. You might recognise this one – it’s been used in several films, as well as inspiring the soundtracks of countless others. It’s a beautiful piece of music, and it whisks me off to cloud cuckoo land every time I hear it.

Watch a virtuoso performance of the Carnival of the Animals suite on YouTube here.
For more of my ‘Songs of Science’ posts click here!

Operation Doorstep or: How to Nuke a Family of Mannequins

29 Aug

For me, there’s something profoundly creepy about mannequins. It might be those soulless, I’m-going-to-kill-you-in-your-sleep eyes. Or those smiling, impossibly unwrinkled faces. Or it might just be a side effect of my early childhood visit to a wax museum on the Isle of Wight, which still haunts me this very day. (It was like someone had purposefully set out to create the weirdest museum on Earth, complete with a terrifying Chamber of Horrors, several inexplicably naked female figures, and a truly nightmarish taxidermy collection of winged monkeys, two-headed lambs, and cats dressed as Victorians – I kid you not.)

But I digress. Mannequins. What could be worse than a mannequin? Well a whole blimmin’ community of them for starters. And on 17 March 1953, several families of these glassy-eyed dummies gathered together deep within the Nevada desert for a rather unusual occasion. They were about to experience the full force of a nuclear attack.

A mannequin mother and children await the nuclear attack

This strange mannequin community was the brainchild of the US Federal Civil Defense Administration (FCDA). Close by was a 15-kiloton nuclear weapon (‘Annie’) that was about to be detonated – the latest in a series of tests carried out by the US Atomic Energy Commission. The location – the Nevada Test Site – had been used for nuclear testing many times before, but this test was different. ‘Operation Doorstep’ was its official name, and it was designed to show what would happen if a nuclear bomb hit a typical American suburb.

About 1km from the explosion, the FCDA built a simple wooden-frame house with two storeys and a basement, kitting it out with government surplus furniture. An identical house was built further away, at a distance of nearly 2.5km from ground zero, and mannequins were placed in the rooms and basements of both houses. Several bomb shelters were also scattered around the site, as well as a selection of vehicles of various shapes and sizes.

Mannequins wait in one of the basement shelters

“This car will go thru the atomic blast”

More than 600 people watched the test, which exploded with around the same energy as the bomb that had been dropped on Hiroshima 8 years earlier.

The ‘Annie’ nuclear explosion (top) is watched by bedazzled onlookers (bottom)

Unsurprisingly, the house nearest the explosion collapsed in dramatic fashion: the ground floor was completely demolished, the first floor collapsed, and the roof was ripped off. The house further away, on the other hand, stood firm, though its doors, windows and interior were badly damaged. The best protection was provided by the bomb shelters dotted around the test site, which sustained hardly any damage even when located just a few hundred metres from the blast.

The explosion lights up the nearest house (top), which is heated by the thermal radiation and torn apart by the subsequent blast wave. The elapsed time between the first and last photos is less than 2.5 seconds

And the mannequins? They had mixed fortunes. Those in the top two floors of the house closest to the explosion were buried under debris and didn’t stand much of a chance. The mannequins in the more distant house suffered a weaker shock, though many of them were injured by debris. “Heads of the mannequins were generally pockmarked and clothing was cut by flying glass,” notes an FCDA booklet published after the test. “Some … had evidence of more serious injury, such as holes the size of a quarter.” The mannequins in the basements of the two houses fared better, coming through the blast unmoved and unharmed.

A silent dinner party in house #2 is rudely interrupted

The living room is turned into a disaster area

Judging from these photos, Operation Doorstep was a pretty vivid demonstration of the devastating power of nuclear weapons. However, it’s somewhat debatable whether blowing up a dummy village can tell us much about the real-life effects of a nuclear bomb. Even if they survived the initial blast, someone this close to ground zero would likely be affected by radiation sickness, either from the initial radiation or from the radioactive material that drifted to the ground after the explosion (the nuclear fallout).

Luckily for mannequins, though, they don’t need to worry about the long-term effects of radiation. This means that they’d probably last longer than us during a nuclear holocaust – maybe that’s what they’re all smiling about…

Photos courtesy of the National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office. Click here for a peek inside the now-closed Brading Waxworks  – probably the weirdest museum on Earth.
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