Have you seen this boson?

BBC News: ‘Magnetic electricity’ discovered.

Researchers have discovered a magnetic equivalent to electricity: single magnetic charges that can behave and interact like electrical ones. The work is the first to make use of the magnetic monopoles that exist in special crystals known as spin ice. Writing in Nature journal, a team showed that monopoles gather to form a "magnetic current" like electricity. The phenomenon, dubbed "magnetricity", could be used in magnetic storage or in computing. Magnetic monopoles were first predicted to exist over a century ago, as a perfect analogue to electric charges. Although there are protons and electrons with net positive and negative electric charges, there were no particles in existence which carry magnetic charges. Rather, every magnet has a "north" and "south" pole.

There are four forces in the universe: strong, weak, electromagnetic, and gravitation, in descending order of strength. Compared to the strong and weak forces, electromagnetic and gravity are puny. The strong force holds gluons and quarks together to make fundamental particles like electrons and protons, overpowering any electromagnetic repulsion that would push them apart. The weak force is responsible for radioactive beta decay, where an atom kicks out an electron or a positron.

So far there’s been no "force carrier" for the magnetic force. The electronic force uses charged particles or photons, the strong and weak forces toss around gluons and bosons, we’re still looking for a gravitational force carrier (the mythical graviton is probably hiding out on a beach in Malibu with the Higgs boson sipping mojitos). But now there seems to be a magnetic force carrier, leaving gravitation the odd one out of the Big Four.

(The Higgs boson is one of the things the Large Hadron Collider is looking for, and it is supposed to be responsible for giving mass to particles that have mass ("does this boson make my arse look big?"). The graviton is a massless particle that makes gravity work, and it’s supposedly impossible to detect with current equipment. Doesn’t stop people trying to make better equipment.)

2009 Ig Nobel Prizes

You have to love the Ig Nobel prizes! And wonder "what were they thinking" when these people got grant money to study…

Veterinary Medicine

Catherine Douglas and Peter Rowlinson of Newcastle University, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK, for showing that cows who have names give more milk than cows that are nameless.

Reference: "Exploring Stock Managers’ Perceptions of the Human-Animal Relationship on Dairy Farms and an Association with Milk Production," Catherine Bertenshaw [Douglas] and Peter Rowlinson, Anthrozoos, vol. 22, no. 1, March 2009, pp. 59-69.

Peace Prize

Stephan Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael Thali and Beat Kneubuehl of the University of Bern, Switzerland, for determining — by experiment — whether it is better to be smashed over the head with a full bottle of beer or with an empty bottle.

Reference: "Are Full or Empty Beer Bottles Sturdier and Does Their Fracture-Threshold Suffice to Break the Human Skull?" Stephan A. Bolliger, Steffen Ross, Lars Oesterhelweg, Michael J. Thali and Beat P. Kneubuehl, Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, vol. 16, no. 3, April 2009, pp. 138-42.


The directors, executives, and auditors of four Icelandic banks — Kaupthing Bank, Landsbanki, Glitnir Bank, and Central Bank of Iceland — for demonstrating that tiny banks can be rapidly transformed into huge banks, and vice versa — and for demonstrating that similar things can be done to an entire national economy.


Javier Morales, Miguel Apátiga, and Victor M. Castaño of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, for creating diamonds from liquid — specifically from tequila.

Reference: "Growth of Diamond Films from Tequila," Javier Morales, Miguel Apatiga and Victor M. Castano, 2008, arXiv:0806.1485.


Donald L. Unger, of Thousand Oaks, California, USA, for investigating a possible cause of arthritis of the fingers, by diligently cracking the knuckles of his left hand — but never cracking the knuckles of his right hand — every day for more than sixty (60) years.

Reference: "Does Knuckle Cracking Lead to Arthritis of the Fingers?", Donald L. Unger, Arthritis and Rheumatism, vol. 41, no. 5, 1998, pp. 949-50.


Katherine K. Whitcome of the University of Cincinnati, USA, Daniel E. Lieberman of Harvard University, USA, and Liza J. Shapiro of the University of Texas, USA, for analytically determining why pregnant women don’t tip over.

Reference: "Fetal Load and the Evolution of Lumbar Lordosis in Bipedal Hominins," Katherine K. Whitcome, Liza J. Shapiro & Daniel E. Lieberman, Nature, vol. 450, 1075-1078 (December 13, 2007).


Ireland’s police service (An Garda Siochana), for writing and presenting more than fifty traffic tickets to the most frequent driving offender in the country — Prawo Jazdy — whose name in Polish means "Driving License".

Public Health

Elena N. Bodnar, Raphael C. Lee, and Sandra Marijan of Chicago, Illinois, USA, for inventing a brassiere that, in an emergency, can be quickly converted into a pair of protective face masks, one for the brassiere wearer and one to be given to some needy bystander.

Reference: U.S. patent # 7255627, granted August 14, 2007 for a "Garment Device Convertible to One or More Facemasks."


Gideon Gono, governor of Zimbabwe’s Reserve Bank, for giving people a simple, everyday way to cope with a wide range of numbers — from very small to very big — by having his bank print bank notes with denominations ranging from one cent ($.01) to one hundred trillion dollars ($100,000,000,000,000).

Reference: "Zimbabwe’s Casino Economy — Extraordinary Measures for Extraordinary Challenges," Gideon Gono, ZPH Publishers, Harare, 2008, ISBN 978-079-743-679-4.


Fumiaki Taguchi, Song Guofu, and Zhang Guanglei of Kitasato University Graduate School of Medical Sciences in Sagamihara, Japan, for demonstrating that kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90% in mass by using bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas.

Reference: "Microbial Treatment of Kitchen Refuse With Enzyme-Producing Thermophilic Bacteria From Giant Panda Feces," Fumiaki Taguchia, Song Guofua, and Zhang Guanglei, Seibutsu-kogaku Kaishi, vol. 79, no 12, 2001, pp. 463-9

Mathematics vs. the Zombies

Wired: Mathematical Model for Surviving a Zombie Attack.

It is possible to successfully fend off a zombie attack, according to Canadian mathematicians. The key is to "hit hard and hit often." Oh yes, somebody actually did a study on mathematics of a hypothetical zombie attack, and published it in a book on infectious disease. So, while we still don’t know what to do if a deadly asteroid takes aim at Earth, an unlikely but technically possible situation, we now know what to do in case of a zombie attack.

Having spent a fair amount of time mixing science with beer in the wee hours while trying to finish a thesis, I’m guessing that at some point, a graduate student who had spent far too many hours tweaking a mathematical model of infectious disease in the basement of a Canadian university said something like this: "What would happen if we made it so they could come back to life?"

You can read the full paper, When Zombies Attack!: Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection. (PDF file) for yourself, the mathematics paints a grim picture for human survival. From the paper’s conclusion:

In summary, a zombie outbreak is likely to lead to the collapse of civilisation, unless it is dealt with quickly. While aggressive quarantine may contain the epidemic, or a cure may lead to coexistence of humans and zombies, the most effective way to contain the rise of the undead is to hit hard and hit often. As seen in the movies, it is imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly, or else we are all in a great deal of trouble.

One of the sources for the paper is Max Brooks, author of World War Z, which is one of my favourite books (though not the best one to read in the waiting room just before surgery). My maths can’t quite keep up with all of the equations, but I get the general idea. Unless you wipe out the zombies fast, and the zombie event doesn’t last long enough to affect normal birth/death ratios, humans will be wiped out. Even if you do manage to get rid of them, the population will be greatly reduced.

Updating the Three Laws

(I wanted my 1400th post to be on a geeky science subject, so here it is!)

How do you program regret, guilt, or remorse? How do you build a conscience? Read this article in Wired: Robo-Ethicists Want to Revamp Asimov’s 3 Laws

Two years ago, a military robot used in the South African army killed nine soldiers after a malfunction. Earlier this year, a Swedish factory was fined after a robot machine injured one of the workers (though part of the blame was assigned to the worker). Robots have been found guilty of other smaller offenses such as an incorrectly responding to a request. So how do you prevent problems like this from happening? Stop making psychopathic robots, say robot experts.

"If you build artificial intelligence but don’t think about its moral sense or create a conscious sense that feels regret for doing something wrong, then technically it is a psychopath," says Josh Hall, a scientist who wrote the book "Beyond AI: Creating the Conscience of a Machine".

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, laid out in the short story Runaround are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The story Liar! introduced a subtler definition of harm, with a telepathic robot unable to tell people anything except what they wanted to hear, for fear of harming them. Later stories included a Zeroth law: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. The Zeroth law supercedes the First law, allowing a robot to sacrifice humans for the good of humanity, creating a horrible grey area where a robot could decide to turn humans into mindless sheep for the continuation of the species. The research paper linked in the article is an interesting read and part 5 deals with Asimov’s Three Laws.

Alternative fuels

Wired: Power your car with pee

A scientist at Ohio University has developed a catalyst capable of extracting hydrogen from urine. That’s right. Urine. Now you can fill one tank while draining another.

Gerardine Botte claims the device uses significantly less energy than is needed to extract hydrogen from water and says it could power hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the near future. Her electrolyzer uses a nickel-based electrode to extract hydrogen from urea (NH2)2CO, the main component in urine. Hydrogen is less tightly bound to the nitrogen in urea than to the oxygen in water, so the electrolyzer needs just 0.37 volts across the cell to oxidize the urea, according to Botte. That’s less than half the amount of energy in an AA battery and considerably less than the 1.23 volts needed to split water.

In all the hoopla about hydrogen-powered fuel cells, it’s rare to find an article that includes the energy cost of generating the hydrogen. Hydrogen requires electricity, and if your zero-emissions car is ultimately powered by an emissions-spewing coal-fired power station, there’s no net reduction in carbon emissions. The article mentions hooking up the electrolyzer to a rooftop solar panel for better renewable energy usage.

I’d love to drive a vehicle that reduced dependence on imported oil, but emissions calculations that ignore the fuel cost are just pushing the pollution off on something else that may be a worse polluter than the humble petrol engine. Botte’s electrolyzer is the first decent hydrogen solution I’ve seen. This was mentioned in the Columbus Dispatch over a year ago, Wired is a little late to the party.


Wired is somewhat muddled on their units, 0.37v is less than 1.23v but that’s not an energy measurement because it’s missing the current part. Volts x amps = watts, which IS an energy measurement. Assuming they used the same current, then yes, that’s a drop in overall energy required to create hydrogen.)

The historic influenza panda mix

There have been four flu pandemics so far, named for their country of origin:

  • 1889 Russian flu, estimated one million deaths, possible H3 strain
  • 1918 Spanish flu, estimated 20 to 100 million deaths, H1N1 strain
  • 1957 Asian flu, estimated one million deaths, H2N2 strain
  • 1968 Hong Kong flu, estimated one million deaths, H3N2 strain

BBC News: The mother of all flu pandemics.

Viral strains take their name from the various different types of two important proteins on their surface. Their initials are H for haemaglutanin, and N for neuraminidase. The haemaglutanin molecule protrudes from the surface of the virus as spikes, and enables it to lock on to receptors on the surface of cells. Neuraminidase allows the virus to be released from infected cells and infect new ones.

"There are 16 Hs and 9 Ns, but as far as we know, only H1,2,3 and only N1 and N2 have ever made it into a human virus," says Dr Morens.

In theory, that means we only have six variants of flu to fight. Dr Morens said "In the category of Influenza A, which is the category of virus that has caused all human epidemics and pandemics, every virus circulated since 1918 has been a descendent of this virus in one way or another." Swine flu is a previously unknown H1N1 strain which I think ought to be named Mexican flu. The avian flu scare of 2006-2008 was an H5N1 flu.

Kakapo chicks!

BBC News: Big brood of rotund rare parrots. The New Zealand kakapo are breeding!

One of the world’s rarest birds, New Zealand’s kakapo, is now not quite so rare thanks to the arrival of 34 kakapo chicks. Those chicks, born over the past few months, take the world population of the flightless nocturnal parrot (Strigops habroptilus) to 125. In 1995, kakapo numbers had dwindled to just 51.

The kakapo is the worlds heaviest parrot, it is flightless and nocturnal. The average life expectancy for a kakapo is 95 years and they are vulnerable to introduced predators including cats, rats, and stoats.

Most of this crop of chicks are being hand-reared by conservationists, and Kakapo Recovery Programme officials have named every known bird. One of their favourite foods is rimu fruit, which only appears every three to five years and can trigger breeding. (My Majacraft Rose spinning wheel is made from rimu wood, which is a warm orange colour.)

Laser Fusion experiment

BBC News: Giant laser experiment powers up.

The US has finished constructing a huge physics experiment aimed at recreating conditions at the heart of our Sun. The US National Ignition Facility is designed to demonstrate the feasibility of nuclear fusion, a process that could offer abundant clean energy. The lab will kick-start the reaction by focusing 192 giant laser beams on a tiny pellet of hydrogen fuel. To work, it must show that more energy can be extracted from the process than is required to initiate it.

Professor Mike Dunne, who leads a European venture that is also pursuing nuclear fusion with lasers, told BBC News that if NIF was successful, it would be a "seismic event ". "It would mark the transition for laser fusion from ‘physics’ to ‘engineering reality’, " he said. The California-based NIF is the largest experimental science facility in the US and contains the world’s most powerful laser. It has taken 12 years to build.

If this works, the lasers shove hydrogen isotopes together, making them into helium and getting energy out. Fission works by splitting a big atom into smaller ones and using the heat to boil water to turn a turbine, but you have radioactive by-products and it’s a chore to deal with the waste. Fusion is clean, the by-product is clean, deuterium is readily available (unlike uranium 235), if this works, you have clean energy.

The hard part of these experiments is getting more energy out than you put in, because it takes a lot of energy to initiate fusion. At the heart of the Sun, the intense gravitational field helps the fusion take place at ‘cooler’ temperatures, on Earth, cooler being a relative term. We need to make the fuel much hotter than the Sun to compensate for the lowered gravity. Think about that, hotter than the Sun.

Knitting preserves memory

BBC News: Knitting ‘can delay’ memory loss.

Engaging in a hobby like reading a book, making a patchwork quilt or even playing computer games can delay the onset of dementia, a US study suggests. Watching TV however does not count – and indeed spending significant periods of time in front of the box may speed up memory loss, researchers found. Nearly 200 people aged 70 to 89 with mild memory problems were compared with a group who had no impairment. The findings are to be presented to an American Academy of Neurology meeting.

The researchers from the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota asked the volunteers about their daily activities within the past year and how mentally active they had been between the age of 50 to 65. Those who had during middle age been busy reading, playing games or engaging in craft hobbies like patchworking or knitting were found to have a 40% reduced risk of memory impairment.

TV really does rot the brain! A complex piece of lace knitting can be a mental workout, but even a basic scarf requires some skill, there’s gauge calculations, pattern repeats, yarn requirements, and that weird way your fingers seem to do the work on their own without conscious intervention.

Jet Engine

BBC News: How to build a star on Earth.

Nuclear fusion is nature’s power source. From the Sun to the most distant stars, the energy that lights up the Universe is released by sticking hydrogen nuclei together to make helium. Since hydrogen is the most abundant element in the Universe, it seems sensible to ask whether we might endeavour to do the same and power ourselves out of our serious energy crisis by building stars on Earth. The problem of course is that stars are big and hot; the Sun is the size of a million Earths, and burns six hundred million tonnes of hydrogen fuel every second. The temperature at its core is 15 million degrees, and this is barely enough to allow fusion to take place at anything other than a snail’s pace.

Despite the obvious difficulties, however, the UK has hosted a working nuclear fusion reactor in Oxfordshire for the last three decades. Jet, the Joint European Torus, routinely heats a cocktail of different forms of hydrogen known as deuterium and tritium to well over one hundred million degrees and initiates nuclear fusion at a rate far in excess of that in the centre of the Sun.

The University of Surrey has an industrial year program, where students complete two years of their degree, then spend a year working in their field, then return to finish off the degree. My year was spent at the National Grid Company, Tom’s was spent at Jet. Fusion requires serious magnetic containment and brutal temperatures so hot you strip the electrons off the atoms, leaving a plasma whirling around the toroid reactor. The reactor is shaped like a donut, but more precisely circular.