mirrorshard: (Terrella)
2014-12-03 11:41 pm

December Days: Art & science

I had a choice of two icons for this post, both very appropriate in different ways. One is one of Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks, and of course he's seen as the embodiment of the crossover between the two. The other, which is of course at the top of this post, is a terrella - a spherical magnet, a little Earth - used by William Gilberd in his research into magnetism. They're both my own photography, and being in the presence of these artifacts - in the V&A and the Science Museum respectively - was a wonderful feeling.

Part of the reason I decided not to use the da Vinci icon was because the need for a crossover at all is a modern illusion. Art, as in artisan and artificial, has only recently acquired the airy & impractical ivory tower connotations it has today. In previous centuries, the artist was a tradesman, or at best a professional, on a conceptual level with a plasterer or a chemist rather than with a prince of the Church or of the counting-house, and their labours were devoted towards distinct objects rather than concepts or creations.
As so often happens... )
mirrorshard: (Terrella)
2011-03-14 12:26 am

Science & Religion

Someone else on Twitter, asserting that science & religion are opposites as though it were too obvious to deserve explanation.

Really, why do people keep doing this?

Given the sheer number of religious scientists... "most of them" wouldn't be an exaggeration, in fact... saying that science and religion are inherently opposed basically means saying that Galileo, Gilberd, Newton, Hooke, Boyle, Darwin, Eddington, Einstein, and Burnell were stupid or deluded, rather than holding particular views about the nature of the universe that they had considered thoroughly and were eminently qualified to hold. (And that's just the Christians I could list off the top of my head. Islamic science was staggeringly accomplished.)

There's a quotation from Burnell in particular that I want to share:
"I find that Quakerism and research science fit together very, very well. In Quakerism you're expected to develop your own understanding of God from your experience in the world. There isn't a creed, there isn't a dogma. There's an understanding but nothing as formal as a dogma or creed and this idea that you develop your own understanding also means that you keep redeveloping your understanding as you get more experience, and it seems to me that's very like what goes on in "the scientific method." You have a model, of a star, its an understanding, and you develop that model in the light of experiments and observations, and so in both you're expected to evolve your thinking. Nothing is static, nothing is final, everything is held provisionally."

I really ought to remember not to argue with atheists unless they actually demonstrate that they have some knowledge of religions—and by "religions" I don't mean white Protestant Christianity. Any attempt to assert facts about "religion" as a whole generally brands them as a clueless Dawkins cultist, unlike any of the sensible atheists I know & like.

Do any of you lovely people know of a short, easy-to-understand resource online for educating people about different denominations' & religions' attitudes to truths & the natural world?

(Comments are open & encouraged. I reserve the right to moderate or friends-lock if things get heated. I do not mind being disagreed with, but be civil, and especially to other commenters.)
mirrorshard: (Default)
2010-02-14 02:59 pm
Entry tags:

Scientific advisors, policy, & independence

This Guardian article by Sarah Boseley talks about new government proposals to ensure that official advisors and ministers "agree on a position", and why scientists aren't having any of it.

To add to it: it's a one-way relationship. Science informs policy, not the other way around. Trying to do it both ways risks getting into a feedback loop, where the scientists end up telling the ministers something very close to what they already know, and confirming their prejudices.

Insisting on agreement also makes the Minister look both weak and dishonest - if he has the courage of his convictions, he shouldn't be afraid to disagree. It's not as though all scientists agree with one another, and they're rarely afraid to say so.

Besides... they're advisors. If you always agree with your advisors, people will start wondering whether you actually do anything yourself - or whether there's any point in them, and if they're being brave enough.
mirrorshard: (Default)
2010-02-11 08:37 pm
Entry tags:

GM Crops & global food security

What the problem is

In a nutshell: people are starving. They can't feed themselves, for two basic reasons: incentives for others to prevent them, and lack of infrastructure. The incentives are easier to address, so I'll talk about that first.

To us, starvation is a tragedy. To others, it's a business opportunity. There is a strong strand of thought that views poverty and inequity as good things; they provide the motivation for improvement, and a motor for economic growth. This is a naïve view at best, so I'm not going to waste time refuting it here.
As far as infrastructure goes – well, let's think about what's needed to eat well )
mirrorshard: (Default)
2009-10-18 11:55 pm
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Guardian, Trafigura, Carter-Ruck, &c.

So there's been a huge mess on; you probably all know about it by now. Bunch of unethical corporate cowboys, gang of lawyers, Byzantine (not to say Kafkaesque) legal proceedings obsessed with letter rather than spirit, left-wing newspaper fighting back by sticking to the letter of Parliamentary procedure and making the spirit do triple reverse somersaults.

Not my field, so I'm not going to comment further on that, but I have just read the Minton Report (PDF link) and have some comments to make about the chemistry involved.

Most of them are unrepeatable, but can be summarized as "they did WHAT? WHY? What the BLOODY HELL did they think they were doing?"

In short, they found a nice-looking process to refine their partially treated crude, decided that using an actual chemical plant and some sensible procedures was too much like work, churned all the stuff together in the hold of a ship, and then slung in some more caustic soda for good measure, presumably on the age-old pharmaceutical principle of "well, if a little bit is good for you, a lot must be much better, right?"[1]. After that, they separated out the bit they wanted[2] and threw away the rest.

"The rest" in this case consisted of a total of about 285 metric tons of foul water, naphtha, caustic soda, and mercaptans. Mercaptans, also known as thiols, are the foulest-smelling substances known to humanity. One afternoon at Cranfield, I accidentally let about 10 cc of a harmless mercaptan loose from the fume cupboard (I'd been working with them too long, and couldn't smell them any more) and the entire School of Engineering spontaneously evacuated itself. It took me half an hour and a lot of waving the MSDS around to convince the builders working on the outside of the building that it was safe to go back to work.

When I say "harmless", I mean that it wasn't toxic, and that in those concentrations all it did was smell bad - we didn't get anyone choking and coughing, vomiting, or crying uncontrollably. That was mostly because it was a nice clear summer's day, with a good strong breeze, and it dispersed quickly. Most mercaptans will do all that, and are poisonous too; the ones released at Abidjan were. Oh, and there's another problem, too; when exposed to acid, mercaptans turn into hydrogen sulphide. H2S isn't just the smell of rotten eggs; it's corrosive and highly toxic. UK Occupational Health guidelines allow exposure to 10 parts per million H2S for 15 minutes. If the concentration goes over above about 20 ppm, it stops being possible to smell it, which means you breathe a lot more of it. The Minton report goes into a lot of detail on the dangers of these compounds, and the only other thing I'll highlight from there is that the waste dump is extremely environmentally damaging as well as toxic. Burning and salting the fields does not even make the list in comparison.

And they dumped this crap right there. If you're keen on the letter of regulations, it's possible to make an argument that what they did was not illegal yet; on the other hand, that's missing the point rather. It's also possible (and wearisomely inevitable) to make the eternal "That was the blokes we hired - nuffink to do with us, guv" argument, but I do hope none of my readers will insult our collective intelligence by doing that.

Trafigura have stated in several places since then that standard handling and disposal practices were followed. This is what we technically call "an outright lie". It may be standard if you happen to be a cowboy with neither common sense nor empathy; it may be possible to argue that that sort of slapdash unconcern comes as standard in the business; it does nobody any credit to do so.

[1] It isn't. It made the reaction less efficient and more wasteful, and made it produce a much higher proportion of more toxic volatiles in the waste.
[2] Which still contained plenty of mercaptans. This procedure doesn't even get more than half of them out.
mirrorshard: (Default)
2009-07-13 10:48 pm

Visualizing the All

Which of these two pictures best represents the way the human race understands existence? Black stands for what we know, white stands for what we don't know.

NB: These are intended to be viewed on a white background. So any overall squareness you may see in the second picture is purely an artifact of the medium.

[Poll #1429355]
mirrorshard: (Portrait)
2009-04-15 01:27 pm

Eastercon report

It turns out that the best thing for my (usually rather unpleasant) travel sickness is milkshake. McDonald's thick milkshakes particularly, but others will do, and "Primo Coffee" (if I'm remembering the name right - found one at a random service station) does one which is rather tastier. Five hours on a coach is still not fun, but at least I met a couple of other London fans on the way up.

The Midland Hotel is lovely - delightful Victorian interiors, comfortable quiet rooms, friendly staff, and very functional showers. Not staying in the con hotel was a bit of a pain, but on the plus side it meant I got a decent amount of sleep and could get up in the mornings. The Midland coffee, incidentally, is shite, but the breakfast is otherwise v. good.
Friday - recreating history, and larping )Saturday )Sunday - paperblogging a steampunk panel )Monday - upcoming book rec, realistic fantasy, trithemy )
mirrorshard: (Sabalom Glitz)
2009-04-15 11:56 am

Eastercon report

It turns out that the best thing for my (usually rather unpleasant) travel sickness is milkshake. McDonald's thick milkshakes particularly, but others will do, and "Primo Coffee" (if I'm remembering the name right - found one at a random service station) does one which is rather tastier. Five hours on a coach is still not fun, but at least I met a couple of other London fans on the way up.

The Midland Hotel is lovely - delightful Victorian interiors, comfortable quiet rooms, friendly staff, and very functional showers. Not staying in the con hotel was a bit of a pain, but on the plus side it meant I got a decent amount of sleep and could get up in the mornings. The Midland coffee, incidentally, is shite, but the breakfast is otherwise v. good.
Friday - recreating history, and larping )Saturday )Sunday - paperblogging a steampunk panel )Monday - upcoming book rec, realistic fantasy, trithemy )
mirrorshard: (Terrella)
2009-03-25 05:25 pm
Entry tags:

Ada Lovelace Day: Katharine Burr Blodgett

I don't have time to do a proper post in honour of Ada Lovelace Day (celebrating female scientists) but I wanted to link to the Wikipedia article about her.

Inventor of the colour gauge for measuring film thicknesses, of the Langmuir-Blodgett film (and the trough to deposit them), and of invisible glass.

Oh, and see here for Agnes Pockels' contribution. Irving Langmuir got a Nobel Prize for building on the work she began as an independent scientist.
mirrorshard: (Terrella)
2008-12-28 01:55 am
Entry tags:

Neurochem, diet, & depressive symptoms

The amino acid tyrosine, which is found in "high protein" foods, gets metabolised to dopamine, which acts to produce (nor)epinephrine. The technical term for that is adrenergic (producing adrenaline) - this ties in with something I found a while back about possible variants of (pseudo)hypoglycaemia, ie. showing the symptoms of hypoglycaemia (which amount to "adrenaline has eaten all your blood glucose and is rampaging about looking for something else tasty") without a noticeable blood glucose drop.

Dopamine is easily oxidized, so foods high in antioxidants are a good idea. The classic quick-and-easy option for that is green tea.

Usual symptoms of low dopamine levels are lethargy and sluggishness - dopamine is what makes the brain light up, basically. This is of course a vast oversimplification.

Phenylalanine also produces dopamine - it's found in nuts, seeds, pulses, and fish. And in diet Coke, but it's not worth my drinking that.

The amino acid tryptophan is metabolised to serotonin in the presence of vitamins B1, B3, and B6.

Leptin potentiates the satiety response, which is one of the things that disappears quite quickly when blood glucose drop symptoms hit.

(Notes from Hemat's Orthomolecularism - check on this one)
Insomnia correlates with hypoglycaemia.
Specific against hypoglycaemia: vitamin C/chromium/Zn. Glycerine is not recognised by the pancreas as a sugar. Fructose uses the same metabolic pathways, but may raise triglyceride levels (WTF?) Thiamine/pantothenic acid for sleep.
mirrorshard: (Rose Theatre)
2008-11-10 04:49 pm

The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes

The Royal Society have alerted me to The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes - a "dark Enlightenment comedy". It's on at Wilton's Music Hall (near Aldgate) from 12th November to 6th December - there's an audio described performance on the 6th of December, but no closed-caption or signed performances.

Anyone interested in joining me to see this? Tickets are £20, £15 concession.

The Royal Society have an event on the 24th of November all about this play, with the author (Adriano Shaplin) in conversation with Simon Schaffer. I'm elsewhere that day, sadly, or I'd so be there.
mirrorshard: (Lammas print)
2008-09-15 09:55 pm
Entry tags:

Faith, certainty, and reason

This is something I've had percolating for awhile, sparked off originally by a reader's letter in the Metro, which was (of course) batshit insane. It argued, as far as I can recall, that scientists were right in being more certain and dogmatic than religious leaders. (It isn't a matter of right or wrong; it's down to understanding where certainty comes from and why being certain about anything complicated makes you look like an idiot.)

Since then, I've had a few conversations which have brought new viewpoints to it, most of which ended up with an agreement that the axiom mismatch meant we weren't getting anywhere.
cut for length )
mirrorshard: (Terrella)
2008-04-02 01:59 pm
Entry tags:

CERN hates freedom!

A couple of retired nuclear safety officers are suing CERN in a Hawaiian district court, claiming that the possibility of producing small black holes or clumps of strange matter are all too real and may destroy the Earth in pursuit of scientific knowledge. How I wish this was an April Fool story, but it's all too real.

Really, this kind of fuckwittery is ridiculous. In order to be scared of nano-black-holes, you need to believe that Hawking radiation isn't going to happen - otherwise, any black hole with less mass than the Earth will evaporate within a second or so. And these experiments take place, for fairly obvious reasons, in hard vacuum.

Something similar goes for strange matter - it can't eat and convert normal matter, at least without being specifically made to.
mirrorshard: (Terrella)
2007-12-29 04:26 pm
Entry tags:

Third-generation solar cells now in mass production

Via the Guardian, Nanosolar have started mass-producing flexible thin-film photovoltaic panels. Apparently, these ones have several major advantages over the first- and third-generation solar cells:

  • Flexibility means they're easier to put up and much less likely to shatter and break
  • They don't use any silicon in their manufacture, which is a big plus for the environment - it's a horribly messy process
  • The energy output is substantially higher
  • It's possible to produce them in a continuous process, rather than delicate labour-intensive plate-by-plate.
  • Because these guys have developed a proprietary ink dispersion for the CIGS (copper-indium-gallium-selenide) semiconductor, it can be printed directly rather than having to control four different atomic deposition sprays at once.

On the other hand, it still requires substantial amounts of the four metals involved, two of which are highly toxic and teratogenic, and Nanosolar are being extremely close-mouthed about the ink's adhesion to their aluminium substrate and overall lifetime. If it needs a glass or polymer cover plate, that'll reduce the conversion efficiency by quite a bit, and that (and/or a rigid sub-substrate) will up the price of installation units too. I really wouldn't bet on water resistance without, especially given the possibilities of indium and selenium compounds getting into the water table.
mirrorshard: (Terrella)
2007-12-28 08:07 pm
Entry tags:

Nuclear power in the UK

A couple of articles, from the Observer and the Guardian, caught my eye. Then they proceeded to induce alternating fits of incredulous laughter and steam coming out of the ears.
Read more... )
mirrorshard: (Terrella)
2007-07-08 07:46 pm
Entry tags:

Various & assorted

Bear with me while I brain-dump. Lots of things happened to blog.

Royal Society, with herrings and shiny things )
Who stole the mutton? )
party, & home the long way )
minutiae, vanities, &c. )
mirrorshard: (Default)
2007-06-25 01:41 am
Entry tags:

Large-scale engineering projects

Oh, dear. People are still talking about space elevators? The state of science teaching these days... (sparked off by comments to this post by Charlie Stross)

why not )
a better idea )
mirrorshard: (Terrella)
2007-02-10 07:19 pm
Entry tags:

Flock of Dodos

I went to UCL yesterday evening, in the delightful company of [livejournal.com profile] midnightmelody, [livejournal.com profile] thalassius, and [livejournal.com profile] fu_manchu12, to see the UK premiere of Randy Olson's documentary. We met up with a not entirely unexpected [livejournal.com profile] owlfish there, and went for a pleasant dinner and discussion. The film purports to be about the Intelligent Design flap in the US, but the real subject is science communication, and the asymmetry between the sides.
Read more... )
mirrorshard: (The Book of Rainbows)
2006-09-14 08:34 pm

Philosophical Transactions, Vol. 1 (1665/6)

The Royal Society have thrown their archives open to world + dog online, as The Register says. They're available here. [Edited: This offer is only open till December 2006, so getcher history of science while you can.]

This is, pretty much, the entire history of science in the UK for hundreds of years.

I can't hope to pick the best for you, but here's a small sample of interesting things I found looking through.

From Volume 1, 1665-1666: )
mirrorshard: (Default)
2006-02-09 01:41 am
Entry tags:

Royal Society minutes


Missing minutes from the earliest days of the Royal Society, written in Robert Hooke's own hand.

The notes describe in detail some of the most astounding and outlandish scientific thinking from meetings of the society between 1661 to 1682. There is the very earliest work with microscopes, confirming the first sightings of sperm and micro-organisms. There is correspondence with Sir Isaac Newton and Sir Christopher Wren over the nature of gravity, with the latter's proposal to fire bullets into the air to see where they might drop. And there is a page that lays to rest the bitter controversy over who designed the watch that would eventually lead to the first measurements of longitude.

Words cannot describe how exciting this is. Except possibly SQUEEEEEEE.