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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Weather and Romance.

Yay! The clouds have started rolling in and it's finally raining again. I've just about had it with 30-degree (Celsius of course) nights.

Here's the current satellite photo with puffy white clouds, updated daily. Singapore is on the lower right of the picture.

Ah rain, it makes everything cool again. Though it's true that rain is slightly depressing, I prefer it to sweltering, mind-numbing heat. Those of you readers who live in colder climes may long for summer weather, but trust me there are only so many T-shirt-sticks-to-your-body days that one can endure.

Besides it's real hip to be slightly depressed nowadays. It's called emo.

Or maybe not.

Still, I think that cooler temperatures are a pre-requisite for romance. It's hard to be in a mood for love when your brain (fresh!) is cooking steadily in the sun. How many great poets have emerged from the tropics, my friend. How many.

Ahem. *Clears throat*

The air is hot, it sure does suck,
the wind it burns oh what the fuck.

I wish for rain, so cool and free,
to put me out of my misery.

A crystal drop, romance divine,
so I'll stop sweating like a swine.

And when it rains I'll jump for joy,
Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy.

A True Monsterpiece.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Crazy Airports.

Two of my favorite airports of all time.

The old Kai Tak International at Hong Kong. The direct approach path of aircraft is blocked by a hill (the "checkerboard" hill), so these big jets have to make a steep turn to their right to avoid the hill before they are lined up properly. Just before landing, they have to fly low over cluttered housing and a four-lane highway.

Utterly mad.

I sat through two of these landings myself, once in '92 (United Airlines) and once in '97 (Cathay Pacific).

Quite an experience.

You start high up in the air, just below puffy white clouds when suddenly the jumbo makes an insane right turn (like 45 degrees man!) and once it straightens out, residential buildings zip by at eye level and you can immediately see the airport.

Then you land in like 2 seconds.

Too bad this is history now.

Here is another classic airport, Princess Juliana International at St. Maarten, in the Caribbean. The relatively short runway is located right next to the beach, and St. Maarten is a popular resort island that attracts loads of tourists.

The result: big jumbos fly at insanely low heights over naked beach-goers.


I gotta to go there someday me.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Fresh Coat of Paintz!

Fresh Brainz has just moved to Blogger Beta and now has a new refreshing look.

Hope this colour scheme is easy on your eyes!

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The World In His Palm.

One more addition to the list of successful grad school dropouts - Jeff Hawkins, the inventor of the Palm Pilot.

Trained in Cornell as an electronic engineer, he joined Intel for a few years and found the environment there stifling. He then moved on to GRiD systems where he did important work on mobile computing technology.

While at GRiD he became deeply interested in the human brain, and so he put his career on hold and enrolled as a PhD student at the Department of Biophysics in UC Berkeley. Though he came up with an original thesis proposal, it was rejected because no professor in the department was doing research in that area.

Dejected, Hawkins asked himself:

"What am I going to do with all this knowledge? Here I am a young guy, I decided I wasn't going to pursue an academic career, it was just impossible. It was like, painful: going and being a graduate student after having a real career."

He decided to return to GRiD and work on computers:

"To become famous enough and wealthy enough to really promote and sponsor significant research in neurobiology and theoretical neurobiology."

Sounds like someone I know.

Anyway he then focused his energy on developing a handheld computer, inventing the proof-of-principle GRiDPAD, and the unpopular Zoomer, before hitting paydirt with the phenomenal Palm Pilot.

So what did he do with his immense riches? Buy a tropical island and sip Pina Coladas on the beach forever?


He founded the Redwood Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience, so that others can continue to work towards his dream of understanding the brain from an information theory point of view.

Ah well, once a geek...

You can hear more about his life from the man himself.

STVP Educators Corner - Jeff Hawkins.

Cool dude.
Funny Bud Light Adverts.

I don't know how much alcohol content American beers have, so I can't endorse them, but these are really funny radio commercials.

Check them out at this site:

Bud Light: Real Men of Genius

Here are three of my favorites:

Mr. Really Loud Cell Phone Talker Guy

Mr. Silent Killer Gas Passer

Mr. Department Store Mannequin Dresser Upper

Absofuckinglutely hilarious.
Ode To Pluto.

Found this strange comic strip about random bunnies.


Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Bitter Fight For The Top.

Everyone knows who Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay is. This story is not about them, or the Ninth British Expedition of 1953.

It is about the Swiss teams and how they nearly put the first men on the summit of Mount Everest in 1952. Instead they became the second best.

Not by lack of courage, effort or ingenuity, mind you.

From 1921 to 1952, Everest had been the sole preserve of the British. Eight expeditions were led up this unwelcoming behemoth, where the air is dangerously thin, the terrain painfully rugged and the weather wildy unpredictable.

Their height record then was 8573 metres set by Edward Norton in 1924, and despite the immense efforts of the British, this record would hold for 28 years until the arrival of the Swiss.

In 1952, the Nepalese government finally allowed the Swiss to launch an expedition into Everest. The first Swiss expedition, led by Edouard Wyss-Dunant was also the first to attempt the Western Cwn approach (identified by the British in 1951). They were confronted with a difficult terrain obstacle at Khumbu icefall, but were able to surmount it with effort and ingenuity.

Although not in their initial plan, embolded with their good progress the team decided to send a four man ascent party to climb the summit. This included Raymond Lambert, Tenzing Norgay, Rene Aubert and Leon Flory. Raymond Lambert was a veteran climber with far more mountaineering experience than Edmund Hillary. He was also a good friend of Tenzing Norgay.

By the time they set up camp at 8400 metres, difficulties started to stack up. Short of water, with no sleeping bags and using malfunctioning oxygen sets, Lambert and Norgay struggled up the mountain by sheer grit and reached the height of 8611 metres.

A new world record.

So determined to reach the summit was Lambert that he joined the second Swiss expedition in autumn 1952 for another try. Unfortunately by this time of the year the weather conditions on Everest was so bad that they couldn't even reach their own record height. Low temperatures and strong winds combine to become icy blades of air that forced them to turn back.

The Swiss were defeated and the British were relieved.

News of the Ninth British Expedition loomed large and a resigned Lambert met with British team leader John Hunt to share his experiences. He also encouraged his friend Norgay to join the British team as they had a good chance of reaching the summit.

Then on 29th May 1953, the summit was conquered.

The British team had become the best.

After a few years of intensive planning, the Swiss came back with the larger and better equipped Everest/Lhotse expedition in spring 1956.

This time the weather finally smiled on them.

On 23rd May 1956, Jurg Marmet and Ernst Schmied became the third and fourth men to stand on the summit of Everest.

The Swiss team had become second best.

Book Reference

Gillman, Peter, ed. Everest: Eighty years of triumph and tragedy. London: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Stories Of The Second Best.

In Singapore there is a well known social attitude called Kiasu (from Hokkien - Kiah Soo, Chinese - 怕输). It literally means "scared to lose", and it refers an excessively competitive attitude at the expense of basic social graces like courtesy and respect for others.

This is not a behavior unique to Singaporeans, a similar attitude in the West is "keeping up with the Joneses", though in Singapore it is common to hear people brandishing the concept of kiasuism as if it were a matter of national pride.

I don't like either attitude.

But what I especially hate about kiasuism is the fear of being second best. The Western equivalent is "why settle for second best?" Truly kiasu individuals consider the second best to be on par with losers.

First off, I must state that the second best don't usually "settle" to be second best. In terms of skill, effort and persistence, they are often equal (sometimes better!) than the best.

Why aren't they the best then?

Because there is only one "best" position.

You can work your darnest to become super good. But in fiercely competitive fields, you cannot choose to be the best.

It chooses you.

To illustrate the meaning of this, and to highlight their epic struggles, I will be posting a regular feature of stories on the men and women who tried their utmost, but yet were unable to become household names by just a hair's breadth.

I tell their stories because I believe they deserve to be better known.

Stay tuned for the first essay coming your way - The Quest for Mount Everest!
It's Always About You You You... What About Me? What About My Needs?

I just came across this blog with an interesting idea of how to quantify success.

Check it out here.

Essentially, to this author success is the ratio of the things you want to do versus the things you have to do. If this fraction is more than one, you're in successville.

I think it stresses the importance of viewing success as an ongoing process, rather than a dead-stop kind of end product.

Which is good.

However it does have an obvious problem.

*hint: the title of this post*

I just have to quote this from Futurama:

Fry: Why would a robot need to drink?

Bender: I don't need to drink, I can quit any time I want.
Look-alike Contest.

It's not enough that I am an evil clone of a has-been balladeer. Now that I've gone for a haircut, AH says that I look like Kim Jong Il.

No I don't.

Oh Pluto!

It's official: the International Astronomical Union has voted in Prague to demote Pluto to a lesser rank of "dwarf planet". The remaining eight will be officially "planets", or "classical planets" according to some media reports.

Here is the result.

To me that's a tad pity since I am so used to the idea of Pluto as a planet. Although I knew about its out of wack musical - chairs - with - Neptune orbit even as a kid. However, I support the IAU decision to make the definition of a planet more systematic. It's not consistent to leave Pluto as a planet while similar sized bodies like Ceres and UB313 get left out.

In addition, if every Pluto-sized body becomes a new planet, then kids in school may have to learn a ton of names (53 and increasing!) which would so totally kill any tinsy bit of interest they might have in astronomy.

Still, dwarf planet or whatever, that doesn't diminish my fascination with Pluto. I am still following the New Horizons mission closely. Earlier this year astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope discovered two additional moons orbiting Pluto, bringing the total number to three.

Pluto hasn't given up all of its secrets yet, so be prepared to be surprised when New Horizons arrives. It is likely to uncover a treasure trove of scientific data.

I often say to younglings "I'm so old that when I was a kid, there was a West Germany and a East Germany."

Now I can add "When I was a kid, Pluto was a planet!"

Sunday, August 20, 2006

BS Theory.

No, this is not a rant. BS is the initials of a fellow researcher who thought of this idea.


At Fresh Brainz, we understand the value of thinking outside the box. Thus, it is with great pleasure that I introduce an original idea by Mr. BS to you - published first here!

His idea is called "Knowledge Diffusion/Absorption Theory".

Let me give you a bit of background.

One day, Mr. BS was talking to a couple of attractive young female attachment students. He noted that a new library (coincidentally named the SB Library) had just opened in a nearby research institute and he was encouraging the ladies to go visit the library.

Not to read books. But to nap surrounded by books.

How does this work?

Knowledge Diffusion/Absorption Theory (henceforth abbreviated to K-DAT) states that knowledge flows from a region of high concentration (the books) to a region of low concentration (my brain).

A library, being a central depository of books, contains a very high concentration of knowledge. Just by standing in the library, you can already become smarter even if you don't actually read anything.

However, the rate of knowledge absorption is usually very low. To improve absorption, it is better to take a nap, since the human brain is at its most relaxed and receptive when asleep.

Concentration of knowledge is not determined by the type of knowledge the books contain. Just the volume of knowledge. As such "General Relativity" has the about the same knowledge concentration as a stack of gossip magazines like "Dirty Sexual Habits of Movie Stars!", as long as they have the same amount of printed material.

But K-DAT predicts that it is easier to learn from a stack of magazines than from a heavy physics book. Despite having the same knowledge concentration.


Turns out that a difficult book is harder to absorb into a sleeping brain directly. You need to have some background knowledge obtained by usual reading, in order to enhance the absorption rate of technical, boring knowledge. In comparison, simpler books and magazines get soaked up effortlessly.

Thus, Mr. BS encourages everyone to visit a library for naps, or to stuff their beds with books before sleeping.

Although a large number of books will have a high knowledge concentration, remember not to overdo it! Having too many books under your bed may result in uncomfortable sleep. Which is counterproductive since that reduces your absorption rate drastically.

True be told, I am rather reluctant to share this interesting idea with you guys, because Mr. BS told me that if his idea wins the Nobel Prize, I only get to share his fame and not his prize money.

What a crappy deal.

Nevertheless, I believe it is important that I share his idea with everyone who wishes to improve their knowledge using books.

Because I love you guys.

I also encourage anyone else with a truly original idea to contribute to Fresh Brainz and be subject to the peer review that it rightly deserves.

So now... let the peer review process begin!
Cool Photos For You.

I just took these two photos recently.


Pink sunset. I caught this when returning home from my lab. The sun had already set and these clouds lit up bright pink for only about two minutes before fading out to grayish-blue.

This is the Merlion tower at Sentosa, a popular tourist island. I managed to catch the green lasers shining out of its eyes, which happens during a water fountain show. The lasers were actually pointed towards the ground a few hundred metres behind me.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Dr. Photo.

Here is a gallery containing modified photos of newsworthy events at CNET news.

Pictures that lie.

Good or bad? Right or wrong?

You decide.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Feng Shui Science.

Today, I was searching for an online edition of a newspaper when I came across this.

Feng Shui (风水) literally means Wind Water, and is the art of ancient Chinese geomancy. I'm not an expert on it, so for those of you who are not familiar with Feng Shui here are two introductory articles on it.

Wikipedia on Feng Shui

Weeno on Feng Shui

The Feng Shui practitioner in this newspaper article claims that Feng Shui is a science.

No it isn't.

Of course, at Fresh Brainz I should spare you an exhaustive point-by-point rebuttal of his claims.

Except I won't.

Not by a long shot.

His quotes are in bold.

- You have to believe in feng shui, so it's not science. Wait a minute - you also have to believe in your doctor before you go and see him or her. You also have to believe in your lawyer before you appoint him to defend you in a case. Does that mean that the entire body of science is not valid if you don't believe your doctor's diagnosis? Of course not.

Wow. Where to start.

First of all, doctors and lawyers are not scientists.

Next, science is not about belief. You can only have good confidence in your pet idea after you have supporting evidence for it, not before.

And I don't understand the fourth sentence at all. If the patient does not believe her doctor's diagnosis, that's her own opinion. Why would that invalidate the entire body of science?

Maybe he means that a single wrong diagnosis does not invalidate all of medical science.

Or that Feng Shui is valid even if you don't believe in it - which would contradict his first sentence.

- When people exhort that feng shui is not a science or is not scientific, the problem is that they may not understand what science is to begin with. The word "science" comes from Latin word scientia, which means knowledge. According to Wikipedia, science can be defined simply as "any systematic field of study or the knowledge gained from it".

Actually Wikipedia has three definitions of science.

1. Any knowledge or trained skill, especially when attained by verifiable means. (broadest sense)
2. Any systematic field of study or knowledge gained from such study.
3. System of acquiring knowledge based on empiricism, experimentation and methodological naturalism, as well as to the organized body of knowledge humans have gained by such research. (restricted sense)

The words I highlighted in bold present obvious problems if you consider Feng Shui to be a science. Which is not mentioned in his selective quote.

- What about empirical evidence? This has been accumulating since the Tang Dynasty! Ancient classics contain not only descriptions of landform and the principles of Qi, but drawings of mountains and water as well.

Wait a sec. Feng Shui proposes that features in the landscape, or the arrangement of furniture, can produce direct effects on the health and wealth of people. The empirical evidence required is not the landscape feature itself, but how these specific features affect people. Is there a predictable and systematic effect on people?

- Many people also point out that it is hard to accept feng shui as a science because it is not possible to measure Qi. Again, that is a flawed perception. Before Michael Faraday (1831-79), electricity and magnetic forces couldn't be measured. Does that mean that until Faraday's time, electricity and magnetic forces did not exist?

People have known about the existence of electricity (lightning, static sparks) and magnets since antiquity. They can see the direct effects of both.

A streak across the sky. A scorched tree. Magnets stick to ferrous metals. Suspended magnets orientate north-south.

If you say Qi exists, show me its direct effects. Doesn't have to be precisely measurable.

As for Michael Faraday, he didn't discover the existence of electricity and magnetic forces. You can read about his contributions to electromagnetism and electrochemistry here.

- The Chinese already had devices to measure Qi: the Solar and Lunar calendar, the Luo Pan and observation skills - using one's eyes to study the environment. Of course, nowadays some of us use Google Earth.

If Qi is a type of energy, how does one use a calender (a record of time) to measure it?

The Luo Pan is a Feng Shui compass with a magnet at its heart. Is Qi magnetism? It can't be because we know so much about magnetism and how little it affects the human body (imagine the magnetic field strength of an MRI, for example).

If Qi can be seen using observation skills, why can't it be measured like anything else that can be seen directly?

- So who says that Qi is not measurable? It is simply that Qi is not measurable through the devices or means in which people assume are used to measure everything in this universe, from gases to insects. You don't use a stethoscope to measure blood pressure after all, right?

Fine. When you measure Qi, what units do you use? How do you make multiple measurements to confirm that value of Qi? How do you determine the measurement error bar due to instrument/technique? If Qi fluctuates during the day is there a predictable pattern to it?

- It is the subtle elements that come with experience and application of knowledge in different cases. Even in the purest science, the Queen of Science, Mathematics, there is beauty and aesthetics!

Mathematics is not science.

- Classical Feng Shui and the Chinese Five Arts were always recognised as metaphysical subjects by the Chinese - in other words, scientific practices with philosophical existential issues to it.

Metaphysics is not a branch of science. Here is the Wikipedia definition:

Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the nature of the world.

And no, philosophy is not a branch of science either.

- Now I am a feng shui practitioner and trainer. I'm not a philosopher and I'm certainly not an expert on metaphysics or sciences. My goal in this article has been to give you an inkling of how I have arrive at my conclusion of feng shui as a scientific practice.

To claim that feng shui is a science, you need not be an expert, but must know enough about science to form a cogent argument for your assertion. This basic knowledge is absent here.

- For the longest time, people believed feng shui was about superstition, cultural beliefs (symbols and trinkets) or religion. Fewer and fewer people think that today. Just like thousands of years ago, people thought the world was flat.

This is an inappropriate analogy. Mr. Yap stated that Feng Shui already existed in the Tang Dynasty (618-907AD) more than 1000 years ago. To return to the "classic" state of knowledge at that time is tantamount to reverting to a flat earth view.

- People may not be convinced that feng shui is a science or scientific practice, but if they open their minds to the possibility, just like Galileo opened minds to the possibility that the earth was round, I have done my job!


Galileo made many contributions to science, but the one thing he did not do was demonstrate that the earth is round. People long before his time already knew that.

Say Eratosthenes.

As for that bit about opening minds, I think a good way to do that is to make fewer glaring mistakes in your article. Just a suggestion.

This is an article from a major newspaper.

Written by the CEO of a large Feng Shui school.

I... I think I'll go lie down for a while, my head hurts.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Why Do Extremists Exist?

When you read the news on terrorism and war these days, the term "extremist" appears often.

Sounds nasty. A man on the edge. Anything can happen.

But do these "extremists" consider themselves extreme in any way? Most of them appear to live very normal, quiet lives. Just like you and me.

Except one difference.


Don't get it?

I'll let an old uncle explain it himself.

Paracelsus ("Father" of Toxicology) :

Poison is in everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.

The popular short version of his quote is "The dose makes the poison". There can be too much of a good thing. Even drinking too much water can kill people.

No, I'm not kidding.

For any substance, there is an effective dose range where it has the maximum beneficial effect to a person. Too low and it has no measurable benefits. Too high and there is no further increase in benefits. Instead the substance starts to become toxic and the side effects kick in.

Of course different substances have different dose-response curves. A tiny amount of some drugs can produce very strong effects. Also some drugs have a very narrow margin of safety; there is only a fine line between helpful and harmful.

You say, "oh well, moderation in everything then."

No. "Moderation" is a meaningless term. The best dose of a substance is not always at the middle point between no effect and lethal effect.

This is what I mean.

In this example, the effective dose (blue) and toxic dose (purple) curves have a distance separating them. This is called the margin of safety. Here, you can have a relatively high dose that has beneficial effects for 90% of the population (ED90) while having toxic effects for less than 10% of the population (TD10).

Now imagine another drug that has a narrower margin of safety. The blue and purple curves come closer together, let's say the purple curve starts at rising at ED50 instead of ED90. You can see that you would recommend a lower dose in order to reduce the toxic effects of the drug, but then it also has beneficial effects for less people.

So it's not about "moderation".

You say, "well, thanks for an introductory course on pharmacology, geek. What has this got to do with anything?"

My point is that extremists arise when people don't see a dose-response in what they do. They believe that if a little something is good for you, then truckloads of that stuff will still be good. In fact, the further you push it, the better it gets. Way way way better!

Like this.

Or *gasp* even this!

If they believe that their actions can only have increasing beneficial effects, like an open ended curve that goes towards infinity, then how can they possibly be "extreme"?

Since nothing they do can ever be toxic, no thoughts or actions can ever be too extreme.

That's how they are different from you and me.

Many of you will point out that extremism has many other root causes. The real world is far more complex. Inability (or refusal) to see dose-response relationships may only be a minor player in all this.

I definitely agree.

However, I hope that people at least have a chance to know what dose-response is about. If they choose to disregard it, then well, at least we tried.

Thus I strongly suggest that people be educated about this simple, important idea as early in their lives as possible. Currently, toxicology is only available as the college level, which means most people, including would-be extremists, are not aware of this concept at all.

If this idea is taught in primary schools, I'll bet you that there will be fewer extremists in the world today.

EDIT: After a lengthy discussion in an online forum, I realized that there are a number of notable exceptions to the effective dose range idea. Sometimes in history, excessive violence does produce good results with minimal backlash. In addition, there is also the problem of standardizing and quantifying a "toxic effect" on populations, which nobody may agree upon.

Suffice to say I now understand that teaching dose-response will not reduce extremists by much. I still hope that it can be taught earlier, if only to let kids understand why they shouldn't eat candy everyday.

And why they should leave their parents' medicines well alone.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Library Book Sale + Super Hot Babe.

Yesterday I read in the papers that the National Library Board is having a book sale today and tomorrow. Every year the National library clears out tonnes of old books to make way for new ones. These old books are sold to the public for a nominal $2 per book.

This could be quite a bargain. So I woke up early this morning and spent one whole hour on the subway (MRT) just to get to the exhibition hall where the book sale is.

When I finally got there, this is what greeted me.

A massive line-up has already formed outside the exhibition hall. The entrance is on the left of the photo. The line actually continued for some 30-40 metres to the right of this photo.

I think this photo shows two things.

One - Singaporeans love books. Just look at the number of people who like reading! Of course reading lots of books doesn't necessarily make you wiser. Just like eating lots of stuff doesn't necessarily make you healthier. But to be smart, the bottomline is that you must read something.

I doubt if Americans are that enthusiastic about book sales. Hah!

Two - they like queuing up. In fact, if the line is really long then people assume that the stuff must be worth queuing for. Something circular about this reasoning.

Doesn't work for me though. I hate lines.

It appears that the exhibition hall must be fully packed. When I saw this sign I realized that I would be at least one hour away from entering the hall, but that's not the only waiting time. What about the crowd inside? Or the line-up for the cashiers? Madness!

I decided to give this a miss.

Instead I will go to the Central Library and borrow some books. That'll work.

So I went back into MRT station and suddenly...


Here's my sketch of her. She was leaning back against the granite seat, looking rather bored. She has short hair and was wearing a white top. Now I have seen many hot babes in my life before, but she is the hottest babe I've ever seen. I didn't take any photos because, why, that just wouldn't be polite. My drawing isn't that great I know, but trust me - she is the Queen of Hotness.

I gave her my blog URL, so I am hoping that she will read this blog. Keep your eyes on the comments line - she might just turn up someday. Woo hoo!

So then I took the train to the Central Library to check out some books. The National Library Building was opened in July last year. I think it is a well-designed building, with emphasis on vertical expanse. It also has fast glass elevators which I often use as a free thrill ride.

"Storey 16. Going down."

Woosh! Watch me turn green!

Eventually I picked up two books, on mountain climbing and on science fiction. I need to read more so that I can write more interesting stuff for you, my friends.
Relax By The Poolside.

At Fresh Brainz, we take on the big mysteries of the Universe.

Like - where does the Sun go at night?

It turns out that good ol' Sol actually chills out at the rooftop swimming pool of a building near my research institute. Dude!

*Fizzle* Ahhh!

Now you know why the Sun always looks so bright and cheery in the morning.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Science Myths - From Your Teacher.

We live in a world that is overloaded with information. Just check out your local library or bookstore to get an idea of just how much stuff is out there. For young kids just starting out in primary school, they have no way of discerning accurate information from noise and misinformation yet. We need teachers to organize and simplify this information to guide them along on their educational journey.

But what happens if the teachers themselves have a poor grasp of the concepts? Outdated information? Or completely wrong information?

This is important because what we learn at an early age will shape our thinking as an adult. For many people, it becomes so entrenched that they will reject new knowledge that comes their way. Even if what they were originally taught was utterly wrong.

Here are three websites that address this issue for science education.

Bad Science

"Science Myths" in K-6 Textbooks and Popular culture

Recurring Science Misconceptions in K-6 Textbooks

Did you find anything there that your teacher taught wrong? *wink*

My personal peeve is how flight is usually taught to people. Most are taught about lift using wing shape and Bernoulli Effect, but this has been often misunderstood. I think it's much better to explain lift using Newton's Third Law.

It is more inclusive. Explains why airplanes can fly upside down.

Also explains why paper darts, kites, frisbees and bats can fly.

For a more detailed explanation, check out this cool NASA website with interactive demos.

Theories of Lift

Here's another interesting page that examines some glaring mistakes of science and engineering in pop culture.

Whoops! Blunders and Mistakes of Science and Engineering

If you want to impress others about your technical prowess with cool graphics, best check that your design is both cool AND correct.
Ah, the Majesty of Nature!

I just saw two sets of incredible photos from Bad Astronomy. I'll share it with you guys here.

The first set of photos show the Moon occulting three outer planets - Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These are three separate, very rare events. Occultations can have scientific uses, but for the casual observer these are interesting because you have two celestial bodies that appear close together and can then compare their apparent sizes directly in a single photo. Phil put up the Mars photo to emphasize his point that Mars can never appear to be as large as the Moon does from Earth.

I would also like to use these photos to illustrate just how far away the planets are. Although some of them may be gas giants, their immense distances make their gravitational influence (inverse square law!) on the Earth very small. No matter what kind of special alignment happens, their total gravitational influence can never come close to the Moon or the Sun.

So ignore any email about planets aligning in a straight line and causing some kind of catastrophe on Earth. Because it can't happen.

Here's Mars with its (south?) polar ice cap slightly obscured by the Moon.

Jupiter, with two equatorial cloud bands that are easily visible in the smallest (60mm) telescopes. Note how oval the planet looks; gas giants tend to look fat around their equators.

And Saturn, what a gem of a planet! Always a delight to see in small telescopes. The rings start to become visible at about 30X and become more distinct with increasing power. Remember that for telescopes, useful magnification depends on aperture. The guideline for maximum useful magnification is [2 X aperture(mm)]. A 60mm telescope gives you 120X magnification at best. Any higher and you're just turning a small blur into a big blur.

The second set of photos is impressive in an entirely different *cough* way.

Guess why this bicycle looks like its covered in some silky stuff?

Because of this teeming mass of caterpillars. Click on the above pictures for even more gory photos. If you can read Swedish, please tell me what is going on with these crazy bugs.

Oh sorry, were you eating?

Monday, August 07, 2006

Life Is Too Long.

"Yeah right," you say. "I'm certainly not in such a hurry to die."

Me neither. Let me explain what I mean.

I see that many people are attracted by spectacular success stories, of self-made billionaires for example. Success is much like climbing a mountain, they say. You need to read lots of motivational books, apply what you have learnt and work very hard to reach it.

I agree that success is like a high mountain.

Oh boy, you have no idea how superb this analogy is.

When you start off at base camp, you see a massive crowd. The higher you go, the fewer people you see. The view gets better but the air gets thinner. Some people return to camp, some stay at altitude and rest a while. Most never make it to the peak.

Suppose you are one of the rare few to actually reach the peak. The view is awesome! You take a moment to enjoy the triumphant feeling. Maybe take a few photos.

Then what?

No one can live on the peak forever. It's tough at the top. Even if you just want to stay a while, I hope you've brought enough oxygen and food supplies. And be prepared to put up a fight because everyone else wants to be there too.

Leaving the peak is not an easy task either. At this height, the climb downhill is steep and treacherous. One missed step and you might plummet all the way to the bottom.

Life is too long, because success is fleeting.

A single win doesn't necessarily give you a free ride for the rest of your life.

Not to mention the term "success" is ill-defined to begin with. For example, is a reclusive billionaire suffering from a debilitating mental disorder and severely addicted to a number of prescription drugs "successful"? Who is keeping points?

You may think, "these are the words of a loser."

Firstly, just because I am a loser doesn't mean I am wrong.

Secondly, I'm not sure what's up, but there has been a string of spectacular failures reported in the papers lately. About a month ago I read about the once super-rich "People's Park King" who passed away penniless. Just yesterday it was reported that the once multi-million-dollar construction giant Wan Soon has now become so broke that its founder had his house and car repossessed by banks. Many construction workers are still owed months in wages.

And just in case you think that is merely confined to the construction industry, let me show you that scientists are not immune to shocking falls. William Anderson was a world-renowned geneticist who was runner-up for Time's Man of the Year in 1995. Now he is convicted for child sex abuse.

Sometimes failure strikes because the person is at fault. Sometimes it's a multitude of reasons. Sometimes its pure dumb luck.

Who knows?

What we do know for sure - success is always temporary.

Even if you are only interested in achieving success, it is always informative to learn more about failure. Just so it doesn't sneak up on you unawares. Here are two interesting articles on this:

Failure Is a Key to Understanding Success

How Failure Breeds Success

Personally I think that all this constant talk about success nowadays is not just annoying, it can actually be bad for your mental health. Check out this superb article.

Willy Loman Syndrome

Of course, if you are as twisted as I am, you'd find failure itself to be a fascinating subject. Here are whole books on it.

The Logic of Failure

Born Losers: A History of Failure in America

I'll end this post with a quote from an editorial review of "Born Losers":

We understand the human side of failure far more keenly than we did a couple of centuries ago, but we still fear it and still believe -- against all the evidence -- that somehow we can and will escape it.

Go on. Let out that little evil laugh you mean bastard.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Theory of Everything? Or Snake Oil?

Just yesterday, an attachment student in our institute showed me a book that he was reading. He seemed quite convinced by it.

The title of this book is: The Final Theory - Rethinking Our Scientific Legacy. Written by Mark McCutcheon.

Sounds important. It even has its own website.

The student told me that the author of this book claimed to have proven Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein to be wrong.

Now that may sound real impressive, but to us science geeks this isn't news. Geniuses they may be, Newton and Einstein weren't always right, of course.

Newtonian mechanics cannot be applied to fast objects approaching the speed of light. You need Einstein's Special Relativity for that.

Einstein has no explanation for the probabilistic behavior of tiny sub-atomic particles. You need Quantum Mechanics (work of Heisenberg, Schroedinger and others) for that.

Every scientist contributes one piece of the puzzle to constitute our current view of the Universe. Science is always a work in progess. So there is nothing special about a scientist being correct in some areas and wrong in others.

To my shock, the author claims that they are all fundamentally wrong!

What? Only this author is correct? Only he has the Theory of Everything?

I smell a rat.

Here's an exerpt from the first chapter of his book, provided free at his website.

Therefore, as it stands today, our current body of scientific knowledge is not merely lacking some answers, but is actually a fatally flawed " theory of everything."

And guess who holds the key? Surprise surprise.

It is suggested that the new theory presented in the following chapters does not merely provide an entirely alternate way of viewing our universe, but that it is the only one to meet the criteria of the Theory of Everything for which science has been searching for centuries.

I love the third person voice. It sounds so... impartial.

Now that's a massive claim. What is the basis of his Theory of Everything?

Actually it's also called the Expansion "Theory" (more correctly a hypothesis). This is to take Einstein's equivalence principle literally.

In a nutshell, he claims that gravity appears to exist because matter is expanding in an accelerating rate. When you leap off a building, you don't fall towards the Earth; the Earth is actually expanding upwards to meet you. You don't notice this expansion because everything else in the Universe, including you and any type of measuring instrument, is also expanding at the same rate.

A rather curious idea, but not a novel one. I remember that Scott Adams (who draws Dilbert cartoons) had this idea years before.

So it's old, but more importantly, it's wrong.

How does Expansion theory explain why things bend or change their shape due to gravity? Or pendulums? Or orbital motion? Is there a difference in the gravity-like effects when comparing two bodies of equal size but different density?

Will a donut expand and fill its hole?

It has numerous other internal problems.

I won't do a blow-by-blow rebuttal of his book since I didn't read the whole thing and I am not a physicist.

Besides this is not that "sort" of blog. We only do fluff.

So if you really want to know all the icky details, here are a few interesting links to read.

Expansion Theory point-by-point analysis

Physics Forums discussion

Advanced Physics Forums discussion

Hypography Science Forum discussion (Warning: Lots of stuff!)

Discussing "The Final Theory" with Mark McCutcheon

Conclusion? Definitely snake oil.

Yet snake oil that sells quite well in Amazon. I think this reflects the poor effectiveness of science communication to the general public. Or that people just prefer a good read with a bold claim, whether it is scientifically accurate or not.

Now excuse me as I go start on my magnus opus refuting everyone in biology including such dolts as Fleming, Darwin, Pasteur, Ramon y Cajal, Watson, Crick, Dawkins and Jim Davis.

Fuck talking cats.
Back to the 80's!

An update to the topic of college dropouts. Guess who else is a Stanford dropout who made it big?

This guy.

What do you mean you don't know who he is?

He is Fei Xiang (费翔) Taiwanese-American Heart-throb Extraordinaire! The "Takeshi Kaneshiro" of the early 1980's. Girls would so die just to have a chance to fuck him.

Of course things have changed quite a bit in 20 years.

Now he looks like this. Not exactly a rich, frumpy old man yet.

But soon.

When you read my blog, you may think that I grew up listening to Michael Jackson and Madonna. The truth is that I spent my pre-teen years listening only to popular Mandarin hits from 费翔, 刘文正 and 凤飞飞. I was exposed to American pop culture many years later.

Here are three of my favorite 费翔 songs from that time.

读你 (Reading You)

午夜星河 (Midnight Galaxy)*

吻别 (Kiss Me Goodbye)

Ah, hearing these "classic" songs again brings me back to the good ol' eighties when everyone was pure and honest, life was simpler, and I was repeatedly beaten with a thick wooden ruler by my teachers for talking in class.

Wait a sec, something is not right with this picture.

*Insider joke for A.H. - Did you notice that one part of this song sounds like the theme from Red Dwarf? "Fun fun fun in the sun sun sun..." Ha ha ha!