Thursday, 27 November 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: Resources are running out

Fresh Water’s a vital resource
So you take all you’re needing, of course.
So your neighbour has none
So he takes up his gun
And the shortfall is resolved by force.
An Opinion Article in the New Scientist by Petros Sekeris starts with the paragraph
THERE is a growing feeling that resources vital to sustain human life, such as fresh water, land and fossil fuels, are being used too fast to ensure our long-term presence on the planet. It seems obvious that nations should cooperate on this problem, and yet successful cross-border solutions and agreements are hard to find. Why don't we act for the common good more often?
The  problem of water shortages due to over-exploitation are well known  - just Google "water shortages" to fing examples from all over the world. There are of course other shortages - food is an obvious one which will be exacerbated by climate changes - which could also reduce the effective living space due to sea level rises - or increased temperatures in an around some dessert areas.
 
Some raw materials have very uneven distribution around the world - with it being high on the list, but some rare materials, essential in some modern electrical devices, are in short supply and only available in a small number of countries.
 
Petros has been using gaming models to explore what happens when two societies both want a scarce resource, using model which can involve violence. This model suggests that as supplies start to become short the "safe" solution - that both sides work together to optimise the resource - is unlikely to happen. Hoarding what you can grab is a more likely strategy - ending up in violence.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: The Speed of Light

If you measure the speed of the light
From a source, whether feeble or bright,
Whether photon or wave,
Out in space, in a cave,
It’s the same, be it morning or night.


However you measure it, the speed of light in a vacuum is exactly 299,792,458 metres per second. It doesn’t make any difference if you think of light as a string of particles called photons, or as a wave.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Limericks & An Interruption to Normal Services

The dove saw the hawk as a threat
But its plans to escape were upset
When a window it hit
So I wrote this obit
And the hawk ate a feathered bagette

This morning I was interrupted by a large thump on our sitting room window, and I realized at once that a bird must have flown into it at speed. However I wasn't the first to get to the Collared Dove ...which had almost certainly flown into the window trying to escape from the Sparrow Hawk!

However this is a good opportunity to explain why I missed this week's Wednesday Limerick and why posts of all kinds may be a bit erratic at least until Christmas.

I am not expecting to go as dramatically as the collared dove but my wife and I have reached an age where parts are beginning to wear out and we need to think about our future living requirements. These will almost certainly include a ground floor bedroom with en-suite facilities. We prefer to remain in the small town where we have lived for the last 50 years and having looked at property availability the most sensible option would be to convert our integral garage to provide the extra space we need. However the garage is currently full almost to the roof with junk accumulated over the years - so we have set ourselves the target of downsizing the clutter ...

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: Computers and Cosmic Rays

A transistor is just a fast switch
A computer has millions and which
If they fail to work right
Your plans they will blight
But the experts just say "It’s a glitch."


The very first computers used large valves as electrical switches and these often failed. The coming of the first transistors greatly improved reliability, and integrated circuits involving millions of transistors on a single chip has reduced that possibility of a single transistor failing when being used to almost nothing.

But not entirely. Individual transistors in an integrated chip are now so small that they can be affected by alpha-particles caused by radioactive decay in other components - and by the even more energetic cosmic rays - which becomes important in computers which are to be sent into space.

Where appropriate self-checking and redundant circuits can be used to minimise the possibility of the system becoming non-functional. 

If you are interested in the technical side you can find a detailed history and explanation at How Cosmic Rays cause Computer Downtime (pdf).

However for the average users with a pc, laptop or android system, 99.99% percent of gitches are going to be due to software bugs, malicious viruses, or good old human error.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: Comet Siding Spring

The comet was named Siding Spring
It came as if thrown from a sling
From the distant Oort cloud
Passing Mars as it ploughed
Round the Sun, then it left with a swing.



The Comet Siding Spring, which originated in the Oort Cloud, passed close to Mars on 19th October and while it was photographed from the Mars Opportunity Rover and Mars Renaissance Orbiter (above) we will probably have to wait for the most interesting findings until a conference to be held in December. In the mean time the best places to find the latest news is on Wikipedia under the comet's official name C/2013 A1.

The Computer that was born in a Tea Shop



An excellent video of the origin of commercial computers in the UK.

I started work on a Leo Computer (see Working with Leo III at SMBP 1965-7) and the basic ideas behind CODIL arose when I was looking at ways to upgrade from the batch system provided by the Leo to an early interactive system.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: Political Climate Deniers

In New York a great crowd in the city
Said that more climate change was a pity
While some congressmen fools,
Just as stubborn as mules,
Formed a "climate deniers" committee.

The most important box, in which we are all trapped, is the planet on which we live - and climate change is a very serious long term threat. I first got seriously interested in the subject in 1990 (see Global Warming - To Australia in a Box) and every year I get more worried as the signs of change become more and more obvious, and so little is being done.
This weeks limerick was inspired by Donald Prothero's article Signs of Hope—and Despair—on Climate Change which starts with the news that a quarter of a million people demonstrated on the streets of New York urging that action was needed at the United Nations level. Clearly a lot of people are worried - but is it too late to avoid very dramatic changes that will effect us all?

His article goes onto despair about the many scientifically illiterate politicians who sit on the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. If you have missed out on the kinds of nonsense arguments they are using to try and push climate change issues into the long grass you should read DOnald's article - and realise that as long as the public (everywhere and not just the USA) continues to vote for eloquent fools there is no hope of appropriate action being taken.

However there was one other interesting bit of news from the USA which may be a good sign. The Pentagon has issued a report 2014 Climate Change - Adaptation Road Map (pdf) which takes a serious look at the way that climate change could affect the U.S. military policy. IN addition to obvious matters (such as rising sea levels affecting coastal installations) it considers the potentially serious destabilization effects on governmens and economies around the world and suggests that climate change could be a "threat multiplier" which could make make increased terrorism more likely. While I do not support all aspects of US military policies I am delighted that a major organisation in the US is beginning to realise that the most important medium term threat is social disintegration of the most effected countries.

Climate change gives us all cause to fret
And the future look grim, I would bet.
There'll be more CO2,
With the seas rising too,
And so hot we’ll all end in a sweat.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Rural Relaxation: Where have all the people gone?

The Cafe in Wendover Woods
The countryside changes with the seasons and with the weather, and the trees seem very different when seen on a dark and misty day which drains the colour out of the scenery so that even the pale pastel shades of the table parasols jump out at you. I took this earlier today, after a visit to Stoke Mandeville Hospital where I am thankful that with their help I can still enjoy such a view, even if today I enjoyed it from inside The Cafe in the Woods while having my lunch. If it had not been for hospital's help I would now be permanently viewing everything through a thick mist. Now with cataracts removed from both eyes, and the glaucoma in the left eye  now well under control, I still enjoy the countryside, come rain or shine, well into retirement.

And I mustn't forget that I can now hear the singing of the birds in the trees (except that today they were keeping very quiet) thanks to hearing aids provided by the hospital - and there are several other departments who over the years have helped to make my old age more bearable. 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Killer whales learn to "talk" to Dolphins

Orcas - AKA Killer Whales
In land mammals, such as humans, it is very expensive to have a large brain but this is not the case with the whales which live in the sea. Their braain has a similar density to sea water so they don't have to worry about its weight. And while a large and busy brain consumes energy - which could be a problem for early humans living in warm climates, the whales live in cold water and need to keep warm. And what better way to generate the heat generated as a byproduct of thinking.

In addition living in the ocean means that sound is a good way of communication, especially in social groups which hunt together. This means that it should surprise no-one if orcas and dolphins use sound to communicate and this could be considered a kind of language which could have a far longer evolutionary history than our own. The recent press release by the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America is therefore very interesting. The research shows that Orcas held in captivity with bottle-nosed dolphins modify their calls as if they had learnt the dolphin communication language.

As people are trying to learn to understand and speak "dolphin" (What is going on in an animal's brain?) does this mean that, in the animal linguistic field, Orcas are better than humans?

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick - The Language Enigma

The Tower of Babel
We use our intelligent brain
To speak phrases – both bright and mundane
Are we really so clever
That despite all endeavour
Its real workings we’ll never explain.


When I started this blog I drew attention to the black hole in brain research and have referred to the subject on various occasions since. Now a paper How Could Language Have Evolved published at the end of August by Johan J. Bolhuis, Ian Tattersall, Noam Chomsky and Robert C. Berwick which demonstrates that, at least as far as the origins of language are concerned, they agree that there is a significant problem. Their abstract begins:

The evolution of the faculty of language largely remains an enigma. In this essay, we ask why. Language's evolutionary analysis is complicated because it has no equivalent in any nonhuman species. There is also no consensus regarding the essential nature of the language “phenotype.” 

My views on the subject suggest that they have been busy digging a very deep hole in the wrong place.  I am just getting things back together after a month's holiday entertaining a visitor from Australia but hope to have a post describing where they should have been digging by the end of the week.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

How Humans invented Natural Language and why Animals don’t have it

Each species will balanced the use of resources between activities such as feeding, breeding, avoiding predators, and learning how to optimise these resources by using the brain. There are many different evolutionary strategies. For instance some fish lay millions of eggs while humans have small numbers of young and use their brain to maximise the survival of each youngster. However we can be certain that no animal evolves an organ bigger than it needs, and if conditions change an organ will shrink if it is bigger than necessary. This will apply to every organ and function and no species will not evolve a brain bigger than it needs.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Is Civilization making us (and our leaders) stupid?


I was most interested to see the article in The Atlantic with the title Is Goole making Students stupid? It suggests that the use of modern computer aids means that people are not having to be as imaginative as they would otherwise be . This would make their behaviour less intelligent when faced with unexpected and difficult problems.

But perhap the problem is far deeper that that, as there is some evidence that the human brain may have got smaller over the last few tens of thousands of years and I suspect that this is due to the similar effects cause by the whole process of civilization.

When all humans lived in small hunter-gatherer groups everyone needed to learn a whole raft of skills to keep themselves, and their family group, alive and well. However people started to develop specilist skills and trade so that for example, a skilled maker of early metal tools of bronze or later iron would not have to learn to hunt because he could get the food he needed by trading. As civilization advanced more and more people have become specialist, to the point where everyone has some very specialised skills (which depend on a stable society to be useful) and few general survival skills. The overall effect is, of course, that the collective knowledge and intelligence of society has increased enormously but, particularly on the most highly developed countries, everyone is dependant on the skills of thousands of other people simply to survive. Using all one's brain to lean to survive is no longer important and we have plenty of "spare capacity" to enjoy activities which have no real survival value - such as enjoying the works of Shakespeare or Mendelson, or even writing blogs.

This could have an evolutionary toll as there is no loner any evolutionary pressure to weed out people with minor disadvantageous brain mutations, and there would be a tendency for the brain's capacity to shrink very slowly over the generation because it is now "more powerful"  than is necessary to simply survive in a modern civilized society. After all the world population has exploded because the natural thinning out pressures of "evolution in the raw" no longer apply. We are likely to become even more dependent on "climbing on the shoulders of giants" and ever less able to look outside the establishment boxes set by our society mores and our leaders dictats.

So as civilization advances its members become more "domesticated" and more prone to practice "follow my leader" behaviours. But in the long run society can only survive if we have leaders with enough imagination and intelligence to tackle any challenges that may emerge - such as the effects of climate change. If we look at our current leaders and prospective leaders (I am particularly thinking of the coming UK general election) we see only unimaginative self interest and unintelligent short-termism. With our choice being restricted to such uninspiring prospective leaders the future looks bleak indeed.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Rural Relaxation

Clouds over the Marsh at  College Lake
For various reasons I have not done many things I had planned to do during September - including posting to this blog. I need to relax - and using these pictures as wallpaper is helpful - although taking a break and walking round the Nature Reserve is even better.
Reeds on the water's edge at College Lake
click on pictures for larger images

Friday, 26 September 2014

The Brains of The Great Apes

Mother Chimp showing infant how to break open nuts

The BBC Iplayer is currently showing a program on the brains of the great apes.The summary says "Chris Packham explores the evolution of the great ape's brain to reveal how different parts have been adapted over time by its anatomy, ingenuity and sociability." In practice it says little about the brain except to say that different aspects, such as the development of the hand, has meant that there has been enlargement of the relevant areas of the brain. However there are some excellent wild like photographs illustrating the advanced features of ape behaviours, and I fouind the discussion about the differences between Bono-boos and Chimpanzees particularly interesting. The section on chimpanzees "teaching" their young to crack open nuts showed, in my opinion, how inefficient the chimp teaching techniques are - as it takes 10 years for the young chimp to develop the skill by simply copying the mother.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: MK17 - In memory of those who died

The large plane was flying so high
And no passenger wanted to die 
But a Russian made missile 
With a warhead so fissile 
Brought them tumbling dead from the sky.

Yesterday a preliminary report was published about the fate of the Malaysian Airline's plane MK17 over Ukraine. This revealled that the plane crashed because something exploded close to the plane, and whatever it was shattered into many small pieces which penetrated the front end of the plane, including the cockpit area, at high speed. 
Holes punched in the floor of the cockpit by the explosion
The report carefully avoids saying what exploded just outside the plane at 10,000 metres above the ground but everyone knows that the only realistic possibility is that it was a Russian BUK missile fired in anger from the ground. The missile is designed to violently shatter into fast-moving fragments and there were people on the ground who believed that the way to settle disagreements is to kill your fellow men. Undoubtedly whoever fired the missile had not intended to kill 298 completely innocent people who had nothing to do with the dispute in a country which many of the victims may not have known even existed. But while the deaths may have been a tragic accident there is no escaping the fact that those who fired the missile had meant to kill.

Of course science and technology made this particular incident possible. It could not have happened if we had not discovered how to transport people in metal tubes miles above the surface of the earth. Rockets, and explosives, and the diagnostic tools that helped the investigators discover what happened are all modern inventions. It is at times like this that we must all remember that science is morally neutral and that it is man's brain, motivated by a tendency to hate others with radically different views, which is the real cause of all the death and destruction we see in the world about us.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: Ethyl Acetate

Ethyl acetate has a nice taste
And pear drops are with it well laced.
This allows us to savour
Its chemical flavour
As into our mouths they are placed.


Just a limerick, without a discussion of the background science this week, as various other activities are keeping me from spending so much time at the keyboard.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Rural Relaxation: The Twist at College Lake


The Seat at the Top of The Twist
When I want some exercise and a breath of country air well away from a computer key board (and with the mobile phone switched off) I frequently go to College Lake. The place has many different habitats and I have been taking photographs of the Reserve for 9 years - recording the changing seasons - and the improvement made by BBOWT, who run the reserve. 

I have decided that at the end of each month my "Rural Relaxation" post will concentrate on one feature of the reserve and include pictures taken at a range of dates. 

This month I visit The Twist, a winding path with a seat at the top, giving good views across the Lake. There is also a seat at the bottom (at present) which is currently the only place in the Reserve where you can stand really close to the water of the Lake. I say  "at present" because only three months ago the water was covering the path in front of the seat, while the other seat near the Octagon hide is already under water. 

For more pictures and descriptive text CLICK HERE

The Twist and nearby features of the College Lake Nature Reserve
Posted in Memory of Graham Atkins

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Limitations of Conventional Programming Languages


Under the heading Trends in Programming Dr Geoffrey Sharman, chair of the British Computer Society Advanced Programming Specialist Group, sums up the current trends in programming and developing applications. He writes:
    Overall, programming languages have been relatively stable for several decades. Almost all modern languages are derived originally from Algol and, more directly, from C.
    While there continues to be development of existing languages such as C++ and Java, and of new languages such as Python, Ruby and Groovy, these are recognisable as incremental improvements on an existing paradigm, rather than new paradigms, and therefore exploit widely available programming skills. Notable exceptions are COBOL and FORTRAN, which are firmly established in particular industries, but also stable providing that skills are maintained.
    Similarly, programming tools such as compilers, interpreters and debuggers have improved over many years. The introduction of integrated development environments (IDEs) just over a decade ago provided a significant increase in programming productivity, which continues to be improved year on year.
    No other technologies are in sight that might offer significant productivity increases and, therefore, current attention is focussed on ‘agile’ development methodologies, which seek to offer shortened development cycles and increased confidence in the outcomes of development projects. 
    For the most part, these methods are based on iterative development techniques in which a subset of function can be demonstrated early in a development project and then reviewed against user needs, and enhanced or refined as the project progresses. The success of these techniques is based primarily on refining specifications rather than the development process itself. In other words, answering the question ‘am I developing the right thing?’ rather than ‘am I developing the thing right?’ ... ...

Basically little has really changed since I retired in 1988. The real problem, which has not been tackled relates to the fact that modern computers are black boxes. If a user is running a black box system of any kind they have a serious (and in some cases catastrophic) problem when something goes wrong, because they do not know what has gone wrong or how to correct it. This means that every effort has to be made to ensure that the black box always works correctly - and the more complex the task the harder it is to pre-define and implement every possibility. The article suggests that what are now needed are not better programming languages but better ways of specifying the task and ensuring that the program does what the task requires.

No one appears to have realised that the fundamental problem results in having a black box. What is really needed is a white box system where the user can work with symbiotically with the automated system. Of course things can still go wrong but now the user can see what is wrong and take appropriate remedial actions. As CODIL is a preliminary attempt to build a white box computer I decided to write the following letter in reply to Dr. Sherman's article.
     As a long retired Fellow of the Society I read about the comparative lack of progress during the years since my retirement, and I am not really very surprised. The conventional rule based programming approach lacks the flexibility of the human mind and has problems with the messier aspects of the real world. An analogy with the railways of Victorian times illustrates the problem. Both railway lines and programs need to be planned in advance and only when they have been built can “fare-paying customers” (goods/passengers in the case of trains, data for programs) use the systems. Both are prone to considerable disruption if faults occur in key places, and both are unable to cater for low volume non-standard “journeys” (which do not justify the up-front building costs) and unpredictable real world events. Many bigger and more successful computer systems work because people are more flexible and change their behaviour when offered a limited but very much cheaper service – moving to live in houses built near railway stations in late Victorian times, and using hole-in-the-wall banking today.
     However there are many problems where there are very hard to fully pre-define requirements and where low volume and unpredictable requirements cannot be ignored, We still read of projects in such areas running into trouble. Medical records are a good example. They involve active participation of many people to gather the data, which relates to the real life problems of many people who each have an assortment of medical issues. At the same time medical advances lead to changes in our understanding of the diseases, new ways of monitoring the patients, new drugs and medical experiments, and problems such as the development of drug resistance.
     I have recently been looking back into the relevant computing history. Many of the early experimental programming languages got squeezed out in the rush to develop better conventional programming tools and one of the “lost” languages seems of particular interest in this context. CODIL (COntext Dependent Information Language) was conceived as the symbolic assembly language of a radically new human-friendly “white box” computer architecture, as an alternative to the human-unfriendly Von Neumann “black box” computer. The research was triggered by a study of the 1967 sales accounting package of one of the biggest commercial computer users, Shell Mex & BP, at a time when many of the sales contracts had been drawn up in pre-computer days. The initial research work into CODIL was financially supported by the LEO pioneers, David Caminer and John Pinkerton, but was axed when the old LEO research labs were closed and ICL was formed. A short talk on the first preliminary research was given to the Advanced Programming Group 45 years ago, and several papers were later published in the Computer Journal describing work with a simulator, as no hardware was ever built.
     A re-examination of the CODIL project papers suggests that the real reason for its failure was that the research concentrated on looking into the possibility of producing a competitive computer package and failed to do any essential unrushed blue sky research into why it worked!
    My current assessment is that the CODIL approach represented an alternative mathematical model of information processing to the “Universal Machine” approach of the conventional stored program computer. Instead of a top down rule based approach which uses numbers to represent instructions, addresses and data, within a precisely defined mathematical framework, CODIL takes a bottom up approach using recursive sets rather than numbers as the basic storage unit and makes no formal distinction between program and data. It uses associative addressing and automatically compares patterns to find and fill up “gaps” in incomplete patterns. It appears that the approach could be implemented on a simple neural network and work done 40 or more years ago may prove to be relevant to understanding how the brain works.
     Of course further examination may show that the CODIL approach is not the answer to building complex human-friendly open-ended systems but its very existence could indicate that there are other interesting research gems which were lost in the mad rat race in the early days of computing to capitalise on the market potential of this new invention. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: Buckminsterfullerene

Buckmasterfullerene
A bucky-ball has to be seen
It's called buckminster (dash) fullerene
It is like a football
It's a cage, that's not all
It traps atoms in ways unforeseen.



When I studied Chemistry at university there were three known forms of the element carbon, diamond, graphite and amorphous carbon (such as charcoal). I became very interested in carbon atoms which contained unsaturated hexagonal rings and ended up doing a Ph.D. linking theoretical calculations with their measured properties. It was over 25 years later, in 1985, that the first "Buckyballs" were discovered.
Buckmasterfullerene (chemical formula C60) consists of a sphere of 60 carbon atoms arranged as 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons forming a truncated icosahedron. The pattern is same as the leather faces on an association football and the name was given because an architect Buckminster Fuller designed buildings with spherical domes called geodesic domes. It opens up an exciting new field of carbon chemistry including materials with very interesting properties. Metal atoms can be trapped inside the cage, and bucky-balls laced with potassium are superconductors up to a temperature of 18 degrees Kelvin. In addition the discovery has lead to many other fullerenes being discovered - the most important being nanotubes which can be likened to sheets of graphite being rolled up into a tube.

Note about the limerick below the fold.  

Health, diet and the understanding of what science can do.

A good old fashioned English Breakfast
The Independent newspaper today has an article The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition? which seemed very relevant to me at the moment for family reasons.

Earlier this I was given a very robust talking to by the nurse at my doctor's surgery and as I result I have already lost 7 kg by reducing portion sizes, eating more fruit and vegetables, and cutting out between the meals nibbles. I am taking the need for a daily walk more seriously, and spend an hour a week in our local swimming pool. I am well on track to achieve  my target of 10 kg lost by Christmas, with further losses in the New Year. However my current eating habits may need further  modification when I hear the result of a blood test next week.

Over the bank holiday weekend I had planned several further posts on this blog but was distracted by a urgent phone call - as a close relative was rushed to hospital four days ago with a heart attack. Fortunately it was more of a sharp warning and after an angioplasty the signs are good - but he is even more overweight than I was and one of the matters he will have to address is his weight. We have already had some discussions about what the doctors might recommend.

And so to the newspaper article, its statement that saturated fats do not cause heart disease, and the discussion of why the earlier research was wrong. The article suggests that Our fear of saturated fats began in the 1950s when Ancel Keys, a pathologist at the University of Minnesota, first proposed that they raised cholesterol and therefore caused heart disease. It then goes on to review the findings of Ronald M Krauss when he reviewed the literature on the subject and was able to show that the evidence of a link is inconclusive. The story sounds plausible and he may be right.

The problem is knowing what one can believe. There must be many possible links, some strong, some weak, between the food we eat and our health and in theory science can look for and measure the effects. I know enough about science to know that in theory I could look into the literature in detail and assess the reliability of the information for myself. I could but I don't have the time or motivation to do so. I also realise the very real difficulties of carrying out long term dietary research over several decades in a way that will return statistically significant results. My father was, for a time, a tobacconist and can remember the years it took to get people to accept that smoking could damage your health.

However I have noted that the article is linked to a publication of a book, and there are many different books on the market, articles in magazines and on web sites, and programmes on television which give conflicting advice. Most would claim they are backed by science and a very significant number have commercial interests which could influence their objectivity. 

All this must influence what people think about science. Every one has to eat to live and is interested, in the short term at least, in their health. Good science has difficulties in providing reliable predictions about long term effects of diet - and there is much pseudo-science, such as homeopathy, which has no scientific foundations. This gives Joe Public the impression that science is unreliable, and the lack of understanding could well encourage people to take up issues which have no sound basis. 

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick - Comet 67P


There’s a comet named 6 7 P
That Rosetta has wanted to see
And it looks like a duck
Though with plenty of luck
They’ll find water among the debris

Comets are astronomical objects consisting of a mixture of rocks, dust, water ice and frozen gases which orbit the sun in an extended orbit. When they approach the sun they heat up and some of the water and frozen gases evaporate, releasing some of the dust. The escaping material  is blown by the solar wind (caused by plasma escaping from the sun) to form a tail which can sometimes be visible to the naked eye - although the central rocky body is too small to see. Every time it comes close to the sun it loses more material and may break up into fragments. Meteor showers can be associated with some comets - representing small fragment which have become detached and spread out along the orbit over millions of years.

In recent years robotic space craft have approached and photographed comets and at the present time the spacecraft Rosetta is in orbit round the comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. (Sorry for the long name - and the fact that I didn't include the full name in my limerick - but comets are named after their discoverers.) It has proved to be most interesting in that it is anything but spherical - and its shape has been likened to that of a rubber duck. Before 1959 it didn't approach the sun closer than about 400 million kilometers but a "close" approach to the planet Jupiter altered its orbit so that it now comes to within 190 million kilometers. Obviously the closer it comes the hotter it gets and the more material it looses each orbit. Some of the smoothest areas appear to be in the "neck" and if the comet consists of two large rocky masses cemented together with water ice it may not be that far from splitting into two. 

There will be much more active research over the next couple of years, with much more detailed photographs plus other scientific measurements of the material escaping from the surface. In addition there will be an attempt to land a probe and sample the surface. I will be following the discoveries with interest and I note that the Wikipedia page is being kept well up-to-date - the last amendment being yesterday.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Do Chimps have a bigger Short Term Memory than we do?



In thinking about the brain's internal language one of the interesting features relates to the size of our short term memory, and the number of thoughts we can handle at any one time. This video suggests that chimps may be better equiped in this area than we are!

Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Wiring of the Human Brain

A bird’s-eye view of nerve fibres in a normal, healthy adult human brain. The back of the brain is on the left of the image and the left side of the brain is at the top of the image. 
I am impressed with what can be done using MRI Scans.
Picture and more information from the Welcome Trust Blog

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Last month I criticised Jeff Hawkes book because he used the term "invariant" when discussing human memory. I pointed out.
Since when has the world been invariant? And even if it was our memories change continually with time, and my memory of my mother when I was six would not have been the same as my memory of her forty years later, or my memory of her 15 years after her death at the age of 90. One of the well-known limitations of the human mind is that long term memory is not a reliable record of what happened.
If you want to know how unreliable our memory can be watch the above lecture by Elizabeth Loftus.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: Helium

They say one degree Kelvin is cold
Liquid Helium’s quite uncontrolled
When put in a jar
It’s behaviour’s bizarre
It climbs out – that’s a sight to behold


Helium is a most interesting element. It is the lightest of the chemically inert noble gases and the second commonest element in the universe. It was first discovered because of its spectrum in sunlight – which is why it is called Helium – after the Greek word for the sun ἥλιος (helios). The nucleus, the alpha particle, is also a product of radioactive decay.

It has the lowest boiling point of any substance (4.22 degrees Kelvin) and it is still a liquid at absolute zero, although a solid can be formed at high pressure. Below 2.1768 degrees Kelvin it become superfluid. This is a strange property where a thin film spreads out over all surfaces connected to the liquid and the liquid flows through the film from higher to lower levels. In the diagram the film covers all surfaces of the sealed container and from the outer to the inner bowl until the levels are equal. If the container was not sealed the liquid helium would escape.

In fact there are two isotopes of helium, He4 (2 protons and 2 neutrons) – as described, and He3 (2 protons and 1 neutron) which does not become superfluid until a much lower temperature. These strange properties are hard to understand without some knowledge of quantum physics and the meaning of words like "Boson" and "Fermion" – but should you want to know more the articles on Wikipedia are well written.

For more about the background to these Wednesday Science Limericks, and this one in particular, see below the fold.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Rural Relaxation - Whirlwind at College Lake


On Sunday we had a bit of a storm at Tring but once it had passed I decided to got to College Lake for a walk and cup of coffee - but couldn't get there as the road was closed because power lines had been brought down near the bridge over the canal at Bulbourne. So on Monday I went to see what had happened.
OK I was a day too late to photograph the whirlwind but had come from the west and cut a gap (see above) in the tall poplar trees that border the Canal.  Between those trees and the smaller ones closer to the water there is a small hay meadow and the second photograph shows broken branches that were lifted by the wind and drop in the meadow. Other branches could be seen on the track leading back to the Visitors Centre.


The whirlwind swept across the lake, a visitor's photograph showing the water whipped up by the island on the right in the first photograph. It then crossed out of the reserve and brought down a tree in Northfield Road, about quarter of a mile away.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Brain and the Evolution of Human Intelligence (Comments Please)

I am currently drafting a paper on the Evolution of Human Intelligence which will bring together three interacting models, each representing different levels of activity and abstraction. The jumping off model I am calling the “Brainwave Model” which looks at simple decisions at the human short term memory level. Above this is an “Intelligent Pattern Recognition Model” which examines the relevant CODIL research and its relevance to culture, natural language and intelligence – and in effect defined the brain’s “Symbolic Language”. Below the Brainwave Model” there is the “Ideal Brain Model” (early draft to be rewritten) which looks at what the neurons need to be able to do in order to support the two higher models. The paper will continue looking at the evolution of the brain and human intelligence, using the models as a guide, starting with the requirements of a simple animal and looking at how the brain’s power increases as culture evolves.

Draft Section: The "Brainwave Model

The Brainwave Model forms a short term memory bridge which links the complex high level mental activities which we associate with human intelligence, with electrical and chemical activities at the neuron level, and the objects in the real world we are thinking about.  It is best described by a simple example.

Imagine the brain as a sea of interconnected neurons and into this sea we drop pebbles of information. This creates ripples of activity which spread out across the sea, and eventually die away. For instance our eyes see a rabbit and result in a “rabbit” ripple becoming active. This process could well involve many hundreds or thousands of neurons becoming active as the ripple develops and this activity can only pass between neurons which are linked. Each ripple can be considered as an active thought in the short term memory and at this level of modelling we are not interested in the fine detail within a wave of activity.

At the same time the body becomes hungry and a “food” ripple becomes active. The two ripples spread and meet and combine to generate a new brainwave – “rabbit pie”. At the point at which they coalesce there will be a neuron which is linked in such a way that it can be activated by either the “rabbit”, the “food” or “rabbit pie” ripples. What has happened at the thought/concept level could be represented as:
rabbit, food à rabbit pie

We can generalize this to model the human short term memory. At any one time there are a maximum number of ripples (about seven) which can be active at any one time. Each ripple can be given a concept name, which for convenience in this text will be shown in bold brown font. Where two or more ripples intersect there will be a neuron (or a group of neurons) which can be activated by the relevant concept and this can “take a decision” by activating a new ripple.

Of course it is important to realise that a concept name, such as rabbit, is not a precisely defined entity as the ripple through the neurons would be different depending on the colour of the rabbit, or whether it was a real rabbit or a rabbit in a children’s story book. It may well be that in some situations the sight of a wild rabbit, or a carcase in a butcher’s shop will trigger the rabbit pie decision, while the sight of a domesticated rabbit, or a picture of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit will not. At the same time the strength of the food concept will vary depending on how hungry you are. Other minor factors might affect whether you imagine the pie to be topped with short crust or puff pastry – or whether instead you think of rabbit stew. Such differences are an essential features of how the brain works.

The brain is a dynamic learning (and forgetting) system which is not concerned with any externally defined global models. In a relation such as
rabbit, food à rabbit pie
the “meaning” of rabbit is defined only by the ripples active at the time the rabbit pie decision is made. As part of the brain’s learning process the mental activity involved will have a feedback effect which could modify the way the activated neurons are linked – so the meaning of rabbit could be slightly different the next time a similar rabbit is seen in a similar situation.

When we come to the exchange of information between people using natural language we need to agree stable long term concept names for objects, such as rabbits, but our individual brains will associate the concept rabbit with different memories which will develop over time. Later in the paper, when I look at CODIL as a model of brain activity, the same situation arises. CODIL was conceived as a practical working tool which did what its human user wanted – and by default items (the equivalent of concepts) have to be stable – although options were built in to allow CODIL to dynamically alter its behaviour over time.

Before moving on to discuss higher level models of brain activities it is necessary to understand how this simple brainwave model provides a basis for further research. The brain contains billions of neurons, and each neuron has direct (and indirect) links to many other neurons. This would represent a massive array involving tremendous computer power if one tried to look at the problem globally. The wave of activity associated with the current thoughts (concepts) in our short term memory act as an filter on the vast array selecting a minute number of entries – and in some cases none at all. When considering how the brain processes higher level “intelligent” ideas all neurons and links can be ignored apart from the tiny number which are activated in the current context.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Should we be teaching Primary School Children to Program Computers?

Of course we live in a world where computers are playing a very important part of everyday civilized life so it is important that children have some understanding of them.  But does that mean that that every child should be able to program them? Might it be just as important to teach them what is happening at the electronics level? Or to use word processing tools? Or graphic art packages? It is important to realise how fast technology is changing and existing I.T. style jobs may have become redundant within their lifetime. I am not going to enter this debate but to ask a far more profound question:

Should we teach children to “think like machines” or should we build machines that “think like people”?
Or is it already too late?

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The "Filter Problem" in locating relevant research in the on-line records

 DrugMonkey posted the following question under the title "There is no filter problem in science"
It is your job as a scientist to read the literature, keep abreast of findings of interest and integrate this knowledge with your own work.
We have amazing tools for doing so that were not available in times past, everything gets fantastically better all the time.
If you are a PI you even have minions to help you! And colleagues! And manuscripts and grants to review which catch you up.
So I ask you, people who spout off about the "filter" problem.....
What IS the nature of this problem? How does it affect your working day?
I have posted the following comment in reply:

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: POST

At Westminster you'll find a POST
Which in science is deeply engrossed
For our average M.P.
Knows no science you see
And the right facts are what they need most

You never know what you will discover when you are on the web. I often submit a limerick or two in a weekly limerick competition - and this week the first line had to end with post. Perhaps because I went to Dartington I like to think outside the box and find a slant that others will miss.

So I decided to see what organisations are referred to as P.O.S.T. and came up with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. This  body provides in-house advice on current issues parliamentarians, few of whom have any significant training in science. I probed further and discovered that the organisation publishes what are called POST Notes which are available online. There are far too many to assess them all but I decided to look at a few that interest me. They are normally 4 pages long - and explain the issues without suggesting policy decisions.


My reaction is that POST is providing good support information to our Members of Parliament on science matters - but whether they actually read  it is another matter. If I have reason to write to my M.P. on any science related issue I will be checking the list of POST Notes to remind him which one he should read.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

How to avoid being placed in a Prison Box

(Reuters) - Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone has offered to make a $100 million (59 million pounds) payment to end his trial on bribery charges, a district court in Munich said on Tuesday, with state prosecutors saying they would accept his offer.
Judge Peter Noll asked Ecclestone if he could make the $100 million payment within a week. Ecclestone's defence attorney Sven Thomas answered "that's do-able".

The judge said the court would adjourn for four hours until 1 p.m. (12 p.m. BST) to consider whether to accept the deal. [The deal was accepted]

Of course the deal would mean that there is no formal admission of guilt in the case, which involved channelling $44 million to jailed BayernLB banker Gerhard Gribkowsky to smooth the sale of a major stake in the business by the bank to private equity fund CVC, which became the largest shareholder in Formula One in 2006
Shall I just say that I consider that any court system which is prepared to accept bribes to cancel court cases involving bribery is a corrupt court. 

Why you should stop believing in Evolution

The Week as an excellent article entitled Why you should stop believing in Evolution which I really enjoyed. And so will you.

It points out that evolution is like gravity or the fact that the world is round - it is out there and it is just an essential part of nature. Really the only question is whether you understand it or you don't.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Rural Relaxation - Graham Atkins

Graham Atkins at Book Signing
Many of my "Rural Relaxation" walks are around College Lake, a nature reserve only a few miles from where I live. It was created out of a huge chalk pit, associated with the Pitstone Cement Works, because Graham Aktins, a lorry driver who worked for the company, persuaded the management that when the quarrying finished  the site could become a wonderful home for wild life. The Site is now managed by the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT), Graham having retired a few years ago.

Graham on College Lake Buggy
Recently a small sign has appeared at College Lake, under a picture of Graham, reporting he died at the end of June. This picture was taken the last time I saw him, in September last year when he was at College Lake when the Castle Hide was rededicated to George Goddard (the former quarry manager who supported Graham's work). In addition Graham signed copies of his wonderful book Creating a Nature Reserve. He was not well at the time and used one of the electric buggies to go to Castle Hide - and we must all be pleased that he was able to leave a written record of how College Lake came about, so that visitors can understand his foresight and achievement. It also provides important guidelines for anyone else planning to establish a nature reserve ona brown field site.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Wednesday Science Limerick: Smallpox

We had thought we were safe from smallpox
And that samples were safe behind locks
But a store had some vials
Left over from trials
Insecure and just placed in a box.

Edward Jenner (1749–1823)
Smallpox was a very serious contagious disease which was estimated to kill 400,000 Europeans a year in the latter part of the 18th century. It had been observed that dairymaids, who had had cow pox appeared to be immune from smallpox and Edward Jenner discovered by using cow pox it was possible to be protected against the disease by vaccination.  Following a worldwide campaign the World Health Organisation finally declared that smallpox had been eradicated in December 1979. It is the only infectious disease where this has happened.