Subscribe to Feed            Add to your Favourites

“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!

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Unitary Violence

The most curious question about humanity is not why people can somehow unite into groups of millions but yet still have deadly conflicts between groups - it is why people cannot unite into groups of millions without deadly conflicts between groups.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Perils Of Being Moderate

It's common shorthand these days, especially for mainstream new agencies, to label people who don't have strong opinions as "moderates".

I think this is a misnomer that confuses the vast majority of the people who are simply apathetic and don't care either way, with individuals who have deeply considered the topic and genuinely hold a moderate stand.

And the way that "moderate" is used also gives a false impression of safety - I mean, if a person holds such a reasonable stand, embraced by the majority and buffered away from all those "extremists" in society, who would ever want to attack her?

A good question.

On the 7th of April, Chinese Paralympic fencer Jin Jing (金晶), who was one of the Olympic torchbearers during the relay in Paris, was attacked by pro-Tibet protestors attempting to wrestle the torch away from her.

Her steadfast protection of the Olympic torch against the unruly demonstrators initially turned her into a celebrated hero in China. In addition, many Chinese citizens were enraged by the incident and blamed the French government for allowing it to happen.

As the sentiments continued to rise, numerous Chinese citizens decided to boycott the French retailer Carrefour as a show of anger towards France.

Jin Jing appealed to the crowds to be prudent in handling calls to boycott Carrefour. She felt that the first victims of such a boycott are likely to be the many Chinese employees at Carrefour.

This is a clearly a moderate stand, coming from the victim of the attack herself.

The response?

Many Chinese netizens immediately called her a traitor and launched a barrage of personal insults at her. The respect and admiration for her quickly transformed into frenzied rage against her.

Jin Jing is not the only person to be facing fierce attacks for her moderate stand. Grace Wang (Wang Qianyuan 王千源), a student at Duke University who tried to encourage dialogue between pro-Tibet protesters and pro-China protestors, was also branded as a traitor.

Her predicament is even worse - she needs police protection at Duke, and her family in China had to go into hiding because they received death threats.

It's not easy to be a moderate, because you can end up being shot by both sides.

Sometimes the most vicious attacks may actually come from "your side".

There are many tragic examples in history.

On 4th November 1995, Yitzhak Rabin, the first native-born Prime Minister of Israel, was assassinated.

He was shot, not by a Palestinian, but by a right-wing Orthodox Jew.

Rabin had been deeply involved in the Middle East peace process, resulting in the Oslo Accords in 1993. For his efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.

However, many right-wing Israelis considered him to be a traitor for giving away land that rightfully belongs to Israel. The Oslo Accords caused deep divisions in Israeli society, ultimately culminating in the fatal shooting.

Prominent individuals often get singled out as targets for extremists of both sides, but sometimes there is no safety in numbers.

Even a large group of people can become victims.

During the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, Hutu militia groups planned a large-scale murder of the Tutsi minority in their country. However, the first people to be targeted in the mass killings were in fact a number of moderate Hutu politicians.

Members of their "own side".

They were silenced because they could help stem the fever pitch of anti-Tutsi sentiments that had rapidly escalated in Rwanda. Without their voices of reason, the Hutu militia could then play up the pent-up emotions of huge crowds of Hutus and incite them to violence.

Thousands of Hutus, along with about 800,000 Tutsis, perished during the genocide.

So you can see that being "moderate" is not some lazy, default state that people lapse into when they don't give a shit about anything.

I would argue that very few people have the courage to maintain a moderate stand when huge adversarial groups of people face off against each other. When you are neither "us" nor "them", you become "them" to both sides. Dichotomies, even false dichotomies, have immense social power.

Much easier to adopt an extreme stand and enjoy the absolute solidarity and power that it provides.

There aren't many genuine moderates in society, but without them, peace is very difficult to achieve.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Photos of Spaceship Earth

NASA's Crew Earth Observations Team has a collection of photos of the Earth taken from the International Space Station.

They have recently released their Top Ten photos, complete with text descriptions and audio commentaries.

Check them out, they're puurrrdy!

Friday, April 25, 2008


A very strange letter to the Straits Times today, so bizarre that it is most likely some form of satire:

Can Singaporeans be as patriotic?

I COULD not help but feel the patriotism of Chinese citizens here in China as many marched in protest against recent foreign intervention in events leading up to the Beijing Olympics.

News reports showed many Chinese taking up flags and protesting against foreign outlets, especially the French superstore Carrefour, in response to the aborted torch relay in Paris.

But the protests were peaceful and non-confrontational. I could feel the protestors' nationalistic fervour.

Their patriotism puts me to shame. I feel that I would never take to the streets to protect and honour my country's name at the risk of my own personal safety. What if there was a riot and I was trampled to death? There are too many risks involved in taking part in a demonstration.

The moments when I do feel patriotic are during National Day when the President stands to attention as our national anthem is being sung.

I fear that many Singaporeans will leave the country if there really is an impending confrontation with another country.

Will we stand up and defend Singapore? Do we fear for our own personal safety and that of our families and flee the country at the first whiff of danger?

The feeling I get from the Chinese here is that they are willing to die to defend their country.

We have much to learn from them.

Gilbert Goh
Hubei, China

A straight reading of this letter indicates that Mr. Goh is impressed with the nationalistic spirit displayed by Chinese protesters and hopes that Singaporeans will learn from them.

However, there are two main clues suggesting that there is a satirical twist in this letter.

First, check out this paragraph:

Their patriotism puts me to shame. I feel that I would never take to the streets to protect and honour my country's name at the risk of my own personal safety. What if there was a riot and I was trampled to death? There are too many risks involved in taking part in a demonstration.


Why would anyone's display of patriotism put someone else to "shame"? To take one example, Singaporean supporters of sports teams also show strong displays of national pride complete with flags and loud cheering during international events.

Perhaps Mr. Goh believes that patriotism is some kind of dickfight where the country with the most impressive display, the most supporters, biggest flags and loudest cheering becomes the winner. Then the other countries can only lower their heads in "shame".

Also, since Mr. Goh admits that he will never take part in a street demonstration, citing "risks" to his personal safety, how can he turn around and question the courage of other Singaporeans? He seems to be expecting others to do what he would personally never do.

Which bring us this to the second clue:

I fear that many Singaporeans will leave the country if there really is an impending confrontation with another country. Will we stand up and defend Singapore? Do we fear for our own personal safety and that of our families and flee the country at the first whiff of danger?

Note that Mr. Goh is now based in Hubei, China, which means that he himself has left Singapore. Perhaps he smelt a whiff of danger?

It is extremely unlikely that someone would have so little introspective ability to miss the hypocrisy of this stand.

It is extremely extremely unlikely that someone could believe that a person who left his own country suddenly has the moral high ground to teach patriotism to Singaporeans who stayed in Singapore trying to make things better.

More likely Mr. Goh has crafted his letter as a satirical device lampooning Singaporeans who are too timid to take a stand, always waiting for somebody else to take the initiative, and always complaining that nothing ever changes while not personally willing to make any changes.

So my short response to his letter (in an equally satirical, jokey vein):

Fuck you.

You think that just because you are now making peanuts by quitting to China means you can use your elite uncaring face to teach us how to eat mee siam mai hum then brush it aside and say just move on because what to do it happened you better show accountability and not be complacent by explaining what you mean or else we'll fix you when you come back.

Lim Peh,

Lim Leng Hiong

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Seven Rolls Of Toilet Paper

On the 27th of February, Mas Selamat Kastari, a leader of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah (JI), escaped from the Whitley Road Detention Centre. The full report of this incident was presented by Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Mr. Wong Kan Seng in Parliament yesterday.

You can click the links below for more details about the report:

His window of opportunity (Today Online)

DPM gives full account of Mas Selamat's escape (Straits Times)

The report focused on the human and physical lapses that gave Mas Selamat the opportunity to escape. DPM Wong said that he was shocked and disappointed when first informed of this and added that "all the more when the mistakes have turned out to be so simple as to appear silly and incredible."

As a science blog, Fresh Brainz will not go into the social and political aspects of this news. There are mainstream media sources and numerous socio-political blogs that will discuss those issues at length.

Instead, we would like to examine one mysterious detail about the escape process.



What's so special about a toilet paper roll?

A pack of seven toilet paper rolls was discovered on the ground outside the toilet window that Mas Selamat escaped from.

It is thought that the toilet paper pack was used to break his landing when he let go of the water pipe outside the toilet.

That is quite plausible; however, it raises two curious questions.

Why was Mas Selamat carrying a large pack of toilet paper on his way to a family visit? Note that he was blindfolded before being led to the Family Visitation Block.

If the packet was already present in the toilet, why was it placed in a urinal cubicle? Observe that there are only urinals in that part of the toilet, no sitting or squating WC at all (click here to view the timeline, photo of the urinal cubicle and schematic of the toilet floorplan) .

Rather odd for a blindfolded person to hang on to a large pack of toilet paper, and then carry it into a urinal cubicle while being completely unnoticed by the guards.

Fresh Brainz speculates that the pack of toilet paper might have been thrown outside the toilet at an earlier time - not only to break the escapee's fall, but as a method to test the level of survelliance outside the toilet.

Whether that is possible or not, the overall escape process demonstrates Mas Selamat's incredible determination and ingenuity, and underscores the importance of finding him soon.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Counterintuitive Science: The Ultimate Woman Is A Man

Just watched an old episode of House M.D. entitled "Skin Deep" last night, and it was about a bizarre condition that totally blows common sense out of the water.

The patient, Alex, is a uber hot teenage supermodel babe, the physical epitome of feminine beauty. She was suffering from a number of weird symptoms, such as double vision, sudden aggression, short-term memory loss and muscle spasms.

After a few wrong turns, Dr. House makes an astonishing diagnosis.

The young lady has cancer - in her left testicle.


It turns out that Alex has complete androgen insensitivity syndrome or CAIS (inaccurately called "male pseudohermaphroditism" in the show) - an uncommon (but by no means rare) condition that has an incidence of approximately 1 in 20,000 live births.

This means that genetically speaking, she has XY sex chromosomes - like a man.

Unlike ordinary men though, mutations in the androgen receptor gene in her genome (in the X-chromosome) has caused all the cells in her body to be insensitive to the male hormone testosterone. Thus, during embryonic development, male primary sexual characteristics do not develop. A penis does not form and the testes remain in the abdomen instead of descending into the scrotum.

However, the testes are still producing Mullerian inhibiting hormone (MIH), which inhibits the complete development of the uterus, fallopian tubes and cervix.

As such, individuals with CAIS have female physical characteristics, but have no periods and are infertile.

The incredible consequence of total androgen insensitivity is that CAIS women are likely to appear more sexually attractive due to enhanced female features such as a lush head of hair, long legs, well-developed breasts and clear skin.

In contrast, XX women are actually quite sensitive to testosterone (also produced directly and indirectly by the ovaries and adrenal glands) which plays a secondary role during their physical and behavioural development from infancy through puberty.

Thus, a XY woman may appear more "womanly" than a XX woman, leading Dr. House to quip that "the ultimate woman is a man."

Despite the inaccuracies and over-dramatization (the depiction of a CAIS woman and House's callous treatment of her in this episode drew the ire of a specialist in the field), I think this show highlights some interesting questions about sex and gender identity.

Does genetics determine your gender identity? Is gender something that fits into two distinct categories, or more of a continuum along a spectrum?

When a XY man falls in love with a XY woman (easy to imagine why), is he a homosexual?

If you're a guy, and the love of your life turns out to be a XY woman...

Will you stop loving her?

Would you like to know more?
- About
Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome
- Original research article about AIS:
Differential gene-expression patterns in genital fibroblasts of normal males and 46,XY females with androgen insensitivity syndrome (Holterhus et al. 2003)
- About the actress who played Alex: Cameron Richardson

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Health Advisory: Bisphenol A

An important news article in the Straits Times yesterday.

The United States National Toxicology Program (NTP) has published a report on the health effects of Bisphenol A (BPA) , an ingredient of polycarbonate plastics, which is commonly used to make plastic bottles.

The full report is 68 pages long and written mainly in technical language, so as part of Fresh Brainz public service, we have summarized important facts and key findings here:

1. What is BPA?

Bisphenol A is a chemical (C15H16O2) that is used in large quantities to make polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins.

Polycarbonate plastics are commonly used to make drink bottles.

Other applications include CDs, impact-resistant safety equipment and medical devices.

2. How to tell if something is made of polycarbonate plastic?

Polycarbonate plastics are typically clear and hard and marked with the recycle symbol "7" or may contain the letters "PC" near the recycle symbol.

3. How do people get in contact with BPA?

The primary source of exposure to BPA for most people is through the diet.

BPA can migrate into food from food and beverage containers with internal epoxy resin coatings and from consumer products made of polycarbonate plastic such as baby bottles, tableware, food containers, and water bottles.

The degree that BPA migrates depends more on temperature of the liquid than the age of the container.

Hot liquids transfer more BPA than cold liquids.

4. Why is there cause for concern about BPA?

BPA has a molecular structure that allows it to mimic the female hormone estrogen - thus it has a potential biological effect.

In animal studies, high doses of BPA have adverse effects on the survival and growth of lab rodents.

What is of greater concern is that lower doses of BPA (similar to human exposure levels) have a variety of developmental effects in young lab animals.

These include behavioural changes, precancerous lesions in the prostate and mammary glands, altered prostate and urinary tract development and early onset of puberty in female mice.

While there is currently limited evidence for the adverse effects of BPA on the development of lab animals, the possibility that BPA can also alter human development cannot be ruled out.

5. What are the key conclusions?

A. The NTP concurs with the conclusion of the CERHR Expert Panel on Bisphenol A that there is some concern for neural and behavioral effects in fetuses, infants, and children at current human exposures. The NTP also has some concern for bisphenol A exposure in these populations based on effects in the prostate gland, mammary gland, and an earlier age for puberty in females.

B. The NTP has negligible concern that exposure of pregnant women to bisphenol A will result in fetal or neonatal mortality, birth defects or reduced birth weight and growth in their offspring.

C. The NTP concurs with the conclusion of the CERHR Expert Panel on Bisphenol A that there is negligible concern that exposure to bisphenol A causes reproductive effects in non-occupationally exposed adults and minimal concern for workers exposed to higher levels in occupational settings.

6. What does this mean for me? (Fresh Brainz opinion)

Infants and children should avoid using food and beverage containers made from polycarbonate plastics.

Adults, including pregnant women, are unlikely to be affected by BPA.

However, to be extra cautious, people should avoid using polycarbonate containers for hot food and drinks.

7. What are governments doing about this?

United States government - No official change in policy yet.

Canadian government - Health Canada will soon make an official announcement to designate BPA as a dangerous substance.

*Update (20 Apr 2008): Health Canada has announced a 60-day public comment period on whether to ban the importation, sale and advertising of polycarbonate baby bottles which contain Bisphenol A.

Would you like to know more?
Original draft report by NTP (PDF file)

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Longest Beaver Dam In The World

Ecologist Jean Thie, Executive Director of the Canadian Institute of Geomatics, has found a 850m long beaver dam in northern Alberta.

He discovered it while scanning Google Earth images for signs of climate change. Based on older aerial photos, the massive beaver dam did not exist in 1975 but had almost reached its current size by 1990.

Beavers are one of the few species that leave a footprint on Earth that is visible by satellite.

Stand aside, Alien Cephalopod/Reptoid Overlords.

All hail the Beavers!

Would you like to know more?
- Official website (Ecoinformatics International Inc.) with a KMZ link to Google Earth

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Evolution Or Revolution Part II

In the previous post I focused mainly on new ideas in technology and industry, but it is also easy to find examples in science where there is no inherent distinction between evolutionary ideas and revolutionary ideas.

The curious thing is that many scientific ideas which we consider revolutionary today attracted so little attention when they were first proposed:

Theory of Universal Gravitation (1687)
Direct influences: Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Christaan Huygens
Originator(s): Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke (?)
Initial response: Priority disputes with Hooke, cool reception by Newton's peers for incompatibility with aether and his refusal to speculate on the basic nature of gravity.

Theory of Natural Selection (1859)
Direct influences: Erasmus Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Thomas Malthus, James Hutton
Originator(s): Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace
Initial response: Little initial reaction from academia when theory was presented (President of the Linnean Society remarked in May 1859 that the year had not been marked by any revolutionary discoveries), widespread public interest and controversy when the book was published.

Theory of Relativity (Special Relativity 1905, General Relativity 1915)
Direct influences: Hendrik Lorentz, Henri Poincaré, James Clerk Maxwell
Originator(s): Albert Einstein, Henri Poincaré (?)
Initial response: Publication of special relativity was largely unnoticed by physicists and incomprehensible to the public. Einstein himself considered his discovery of the photoelectric effect to be more "revolutionary". He received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921 for his work on the photoelectric effect.

DNA double-helix (1953)
Direct influences: Colin MacLeod, Maclyn McCarty, Alfred Hershey, Martha Chase, Erwin Chargaff, Linus Pauling (?)
Originator(s): Rosalind Franklin, James D. Watson, Francis Crick, Maurice Wilkins
Initial response: Practically no response. Watson noted that in the first 5 years there were only about 5 references to the original Nature article.

I doubt there is any reliable way to determine if any particular new idea will make a big splash or not. A prudent strategy is simply to produce lots of new ideas and test them out.

I believe that most of the new ideas today which will become important in the future will be "small" (not requiring industrial-scale resources) ideas, not because these have an inherently better chance of success, but simply because there will be many more small ideas, due to the limited resources and time of the individuals who create them.

In addition, a free marketplace of small ideas will help cross-pollinate each other and amplify their potential effect. Together, a large collection of "incremental improvements" may suddenly achieve an emergent effect that is much larger than the sum of its parts.

Here, I'll let Carl Sagan illustrate this for you. He says it much better than I can.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Evolution Or Revolution?

The reality is that the “Aha” moments of industrial creation are preceded by critical moments far less heralded. Behind and beside every big-name inventor are typically lots of others whom history forgot, or never knew. And it’s unusual that an innovation is created in a vacuum (including the vacuum, which itself claims several progenitors).

- Matt Richtel (
Edison ...Wasn’t He the Guy Who Invented Everything?)

About two weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with a fellow grad student, which I thought I ought to share with you here since it's a lot of fun.

But before I delve into the details, let me first make a big assumption about people in general:

Nobody aims to become a footnote in history.

(although most of us won't even get that...)

I think we can all agree on this.

This is especially so for innovators such as scientists, inventors and artists - people who aim to make a significant impact on the world with their new ideas.

The important question here is: can we predict what sort of new ideas will make a massive impact?

In other words, is there any difference between evolutionary ideas and revolutionary ideas?

Let's go into the conversation!

During lunch, my friend postulated that people who produce the truly original ideas tend to end up benefiting less from their innovations than the people who later work on refining such ideas.

He gave the example of Henry Ford, who invented the motor car, and noticed that today manufacturers that apply incremental improvements to the original car design, such as Toyota, are reaping far more profits than Henry Ford ever did.

I noted that Henry Ford did not actually invent the motor car - what he invented was the assembly line production method. The motor car was invented decades earlier by a number of independent European inventors.

However, his basic point remains plausible. Those early tinkerers probably did not earn much recognition or money from their pioneering efforts, and certainly nowhere as much as Toyota does today.

Still, I did not agree with his view because of two main reasons:

1. Firstly, it's not fair to compare individual innovators with giant corporations.

Some early innovators who spark off a new industry or a new field of knowledge will become well rewarded for their efforts. It's a small beginning, but at the individual level, they will already be better off than their contemporaries.

Many years later, huge corporations may arise from their basic idea. By that time, a company employee may develop an "incremental change" that results in billion-dollar profits for the organization. However, depending on how the profit-sharing is negotiated, that individual employee may not receive a significantly larger reward than the original inventor.

2. Secondly (and more importantly), I doubt there is any inherent difference between an original idea and an incremental improvement to begin with.

I don't believe you can tell beforehand which specific idea will hit the big time.

Most (maybe all) new ideas are integrated, reconfigured or inspired by pre-existing ideas.

Eventually as time passes, a few of these will be considered "revolutionary". This is mainly decided by environmental factors such as success at the academic arena or the market. What is initially an "incremental change" can later be deemed a "truly original idea" and vice versa, depending on its social impact.

But my friend protested that surely there is a distinction between original ideas and incremental changes.

Isn't it obvious, take for example a cell phone, that the invention of the product itself is more fundamental than any modifications done to it?

Let me reformulate his question into two clearer aspects:

Is the invention of physical products more likely to be considered original/revolutionary?

Intuitively it makes sense that the invention of a physical product itself would be more revolutionary than changes in its characteristics, function or application.

However, there are numerous counterexamples in history.

Once again, the motor car is such a case. When motor cars were first invented, they were hand-assembled by the tinkerers themselves in cottage industries. As a result they were produced in small quantities, were extremely expensive and often unreliable and unsafe.

Only a few rich, brave souls were willing to try this new form of transportation.

Henry Ford's invention of the assembly line can be simply considered as an "incremental improvement" to the way that motor cars are built. But due to this more efficient and standardized production method, the quality of their products rose in consistency and dropped in price.

The result is that even his factory workers could afford to buy the motor car for themselves. This had such a revolutionary social impact that today many people still mistakenly attribute the invention of the motor car to Henry Ford.

Similarly, in the case of the cell phone, the original Motorola "brick" was an amalgamation of pre-existing technologies in an expensive, bulky package.

Is it a truly original invention? Telephones already exist, as do walkie-talkies and other forms of wireless communications.

Later efforts of innovators (from Motorola, Nokia and other companies) would be crucial to modify this rich man's toy into a more practical and affordable tool, thus improving the market potential of the product.

However it is ultimately up to the market and society to evaluate whether a product is revolutionary, or simply a kind of incremental improvement to an existing idea.

In the example of the cell phone, the social impact was so huge that the invention is often considered as a revolutionary change in personal communications.

This cannot be foretold ahead of time.

Not convinced?

Here, let me show you another portable product that was emerging during the same time period as the cell phone.

Would you consider the pocket TV to be a revolutionary product?

Is something that is technically more difficult more likely to be considered original/revolutionary?

In many cases, creating the first version of a physical product is technically, or even conceptually more difficult than making changes on it later.

But does that make it more "original" than later innovations?

Take for example, the invention of the transistor, arguably one of the most important inventions of the 20th century. It was also one of the most technically difficult, requiring intense efforts of brilliant physicists, chemists and engineers to develop.

Yet today very few people know (or care about) who invented the transistor.

In contrast, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't know the inventor of the first personal computer.

"Steve Jobs, right?"

Not really.

What I'm saying is, whether an idea is considered original or not doesn't depend on its technical difficulty.

You can think of a personal computer simply as an incremental improvement to the corporate minicomputers of their era. Most of the basic parts are still there, except that they are smaller, less powerful and cheaper.

You can also think of the internet simply as an incremental improvement to computers. After all, the internet is merely a glorified assembly of computers, cables and software, none of which are totally new inventions.

However, I think you would agree that the advent of the personal computer and the internet are revolutionary advances in technology, no less original or important than the transistor that made them possible.

That reminds me of something else...

I can't resist slipping in an illustration from evolutionary developmental biology.

Recently, I read a book entitled "The Evolution of Developmental Pathways".

In his book, writer Adam Wilkins made a curious original insight. Evo-devo is focused on finding differences in the developmental pathways of different organisms. But one of the main causes for the emergence of this new field was the realization that animals share many common developmental components at the molecular level.

For example the discovery of the Hox gene family demonstrated that the genes involved in creating the body shape of the animal are highly conserved from flies to human beings, with only minor differences across species.

This suggests that small changes at the DNA level (incremental change) can result in visibly significant changes to the overall shape of the animal (revolutionary effect), without the need for new genetic circuits (technical difficulty).

Heh, that was definitely an over-extended analogy, but it's something fun to think about.


So, is there any compelling reason to be an innovator?

After all, it seems like there is no reliable way of predicting if your efforts will eventually pay off, no matter if the idea seems revolutionary or not.

Still, I doubt it's an accident that the most innovative nations in the world are also the ones with a huge social and economic impact on the rest of the world.

Perhaps it's impossible to know the outcome of any single, specific idea.

But a society that is constantly generating novel ideas and values originality and creativity stands a better chance of reaping the benefits of those few good ideas that succeed big time.

You are thinking: "Yeah whatever. I don't need to have any sort of new ideas in order to succeed big time. All I need is to get an MBA and climb up the Toyota corporate ladder until I reach the top. Then I'll just sit in my office and watch you innovators rake in the billions for me while I impress everyone with my friendly smile."


You just won the internets.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Basic Fact Checking

An interesting letter in the Straits Times forum today:


French creator of liposuction joins in

I REFER to Senior Writer Dr Andy Ho's article, 'Key issue is patient safety, not partisan interests' (March 26). Dr Ho attributes the invention of liposuction to Dr Giorgio Fischer, a gynaecologist in 1977, adding that if it were not for him, plastic surgeons would not have liposuction at their disposal. This is incorrect. I am the inventor of liposuction. I published my first paper in 1977.

Dr Giorgio Fischer invented a device called a planotome and his technique was called 'Fischer's method for re-section of excessive cellulites fat (riding breeches deformity)'. His procedure was in no way remotely similar to liposuction as we know it today.

Dr Fischer neither called his procedure liposuction nor did he claim to be its inventor. In the same year, 1977, I invented a device that created little trauma because there was no cutting involved.

I also introduced the concept of infiltrating the tissues with a solution beforehand to create a fluid disruption of the fat cells and called my technique 'liposuction''. This technique has gained widespread acceptance and is now a plastic surgeon's essential tool.

In France, we used to have no regulations as to which doctor could practise aesthetic surgery. This led to disaster. We reported more than 65 deaths from liposuction by non-plastic surgeons. Legislation was enacted last year to restrict liposuction to plastic surgeons as it is a technique unique to our training.

Dr Ho adds that 60 per cent of general practitioners and some anaesthetists, gynaecologists and kidney specialists perform some form of aesthetic medicine, as if there were nothing wrong with this. None of these doctors has aesthetic surgery and medicine as part of his core training and I would suggest that this should raise concerns for patient safety.

Yves Gerard Illouz
Associate Professor,
Department of Plastic Surgery, Saint Louis Hospital, Paris

Forum note: Prof Illouz also lists his credentials as an expert in the Paris Court of Appeal and as visiting professor of the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons

A good science writer should be careful with the facts.

Nobody is an expert in everything; when unsure it's a good practice to check with the practitioners within the field.

If despite due precautions an error was inadvertently made, and when directly confronted with the facts like in the letter above, the writer should quickly apologise for the mistake and ideally provide an indication of how that error could have occurred.

To make a basic factual error (in fact a "Wikipedia-level" error) and remain silent about it, and to make unsupported assumptions and groundless insinuations, weakens the original article considerably and casts serious doubts on the credibility of the writer on the subject of interest.

Would you like to know more?

About the aesthetic medicine debate
Key issue is patient safety, not partisan interests (Original article by Dr. Andy Ho)
It's about protecting patients, not turf (Letter to ST forum by Dr. Colin Tham)

About liposuction
Wikipedia article on Liposuction
History of Liposuction

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lungless Frog

A team of Singapore and Indonesian scientists, led by Dr. David Bickford at the NUS, has discovered a species of frog that has no lungs.

The frog, named Barbourula kalimantanensis, was found at two mountain rivers in Kalimantan last August. It breathes exclusively through its skin.

Scientists postulate that lungs first emerged in fish, possibly as an auxiliary breathing structure, approximately 400 million years ago.

This primitive lung later diverged into the swim bladder in fish, and the characteristic two-lobed lung present in almost all land vertebrates.

Land vertebrates that have lost their lungs are extremely rare - only two groups of salamanders and a single species of caecilians do not have lungs.

Would you like to know more?
The Biodiversity Crew @ NUS
- The frog which loses its lungs (NUS Research Gallery)

Monday, April 07, 2008

From His Cold Dead Hands

Well-known actor Charlton Heston has passed away.

Here at Fresh Brainz, we have no words.

Only one chart.

Would you like to know more?
Firearm-related deaths in the United States and 35 other high- and upper-middle- income countries (Krug et al. 1998) Free full text article (PDF) on the site.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Counterintuitive Science - The Most Successful Failed Experiment

Have you heard the phrase "Change is the only constant"?

It looks like a self-contradictory statement - but yet it makes sense to most people.

How can this be?

Well, the trick is in the word "constant", which has two meanings in the phrase. It could mean "unchanging" or it could mean "enduring".

What the phrase really means is that change is the only thing that endures through time - nothing is unchanging.

Similarly, a term like "successful failure" appears to be a self-contradiction at first glance.

For many people, such a condition is impossible because they consider success and failure as extreme ends on a single spectrum.

However it makes sense, because the "success" and "failure" here really refer to two different dimensions, two different goals.

A classic example of this occurred in science during the late 19th century.

At that time, physicists believed that light, which has wave properties, travels on some sort of medium similar to how sound waves travel on solids, liquids and gases.

They called this medium the "luminiferous aether", which should exist in a vacuum because light can travel in a vacuum.

However, since the aether isn't a type of material like solids, liquids and gases, there was no way to directly observe it.

So physicists devised a clever strategy to detect the aether and determine its properties.

As our Earth orbits around the Sun, it is travelling at over 100,000 kilometres an hour on an elliptical path.

So the relative speed of the "aether wind" to a fixed position on Earth depends on the direction you are facing and also the time of the year. This should affect the speed of light travelling in different directions.

For example, if an observer was directly facing the aether wind, the measured speed of light should be faster (speed of light + speed of Earth).

Unfortunately, the speed of light is about 10,000 times faster than the speed of the Earth, so any change would only be a tiny fraction of the speed of light. You would need a very precise instrument to detect this difference.

Enter Albert Michelson, a Polish-born American physicist who was an expert on optics.

He had been working on obtaining accurate measurements of the speed of light for years. By 1879, he had already determined the speed of light to within 0.06% of the modern figure.

Two years later, he decided to tackle the difficult challenge of detecting the aether wind. He constructed an instrument, later called an interferometer, which can determine the tiny difference in speed between two perpendicular light paths.

A single light beam was split using a central half-silvered mirror into two long light paths, which were reflected back to the mirror and then recombined.

The recombined light had a characteristic interference pattern which would show a fringe shift if the speed of the light in the two light paths were different.

Using his first interferometer, Michelson discovered that the observed fringe shift was smaller than the expected fringe shift. He noted that this result could be due to the experimental errors of the instrument.

So he collaborated with Edward Morley and built a larger and more accurate interferometer, with many design precautions to minimize external disturbances such as temperature changes and vibrations.

After taking numerous measurements, he published the findings of this experiment in 1887.

The result?

Still a much smaller difference than expected.

In fact, when taking experimental errors into account, it's practically a null result.

Michelson himself was not convinced of this result and went on to do further experiments to verify if it was correct.

Other scientists also carried out experiments to check all sorts of alternative possibilities.

In time, it became increasingly clear that the initial results were valid - there is no difference in the speed of light no matter what direction it took.

This sparked off a furore in the field as physicists debated the significance of this result.

Does aether behave in some complex, bizarre manner? Or does aether even exist?

Michelson did not know it at that time, but the null result that he obtained would lend support to a controversial new idea that would eventually render the aether hypothesis irrelevant - Albert Einstein's theory of relativity.

So the Michelson-Morley experiment is actually counterintuitive in two ways: not only did the results disagree with common sense, but the apparent failure of the experiment was instrumental to the success of a brand new theory.

You are thinking: "Well, good for Einstein then. Fat lot of good that did for Michelson though."

Erm... not quite.

For his efforts at developing a new class of precision optical instruments, and the experiments he conducted with them, Albert Michelson became the first American to receive a science Nobel Prize in 1907.

Would you like to know more?
Original 1887 paper of the Michelson-Morley experiment (PDF)

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Float Like A Cannonball

An interesting article in the Strait Times today, where Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong discusses his plan for leadership succession.

Here's a section that caught my attention:

Building up talent for a future Cabinet

I was looking at some data of our top students to see what happens to them. Take the people with four As at the A levels. We have about 600 or more a year. About two-thirds study in Singapore, and one-third go overseas. One-third is 200, roughly.

Of the people who go overseas, a bit less than half go on scholarship. A bit more than half go on their own. So at least 100 don't go on scholarship. Of these, nearly half have not come back. That doesn't mean they have emigrated; it means they are working abroad. They may be with a merchant bank, they may be with some MNC, they may be pursuing their careers as lawyers or engineers in New York or London. So that's 50 to 60 persons a year gone overseas from among our best and brightest.

Even among the two-thirds - 400 - who studied in Singapore, about 100 of them, we think, are working overseas. So that's 150 or more people from among our 600 top students per year not in circulation - one-quarter of them.

Now hopefully, one day most will come back, and maybe one day after they've come back, they can be identified and channelled and brought into politics. But you can't be certain of that, and this flow is going to continue. So it's a big challenge to find successors, particularly for politics. So that's why we're still looking.

This reminds me of the most devastating job interview I've ever experienced, which I briefly mentioned in an earlier post.

Many years ago, I applied for a research position. I was shortlisted for a job interview, but when I arrived, to my horror I was confronted by a hostile interviewer who not only dismissed my educational qualifications and lab experience, but oddly enough, also criticized me for my poor "A" level results. Not surprisingly, my application was rejected outright.

It is already quite strange that a potential employer would shortlist me just to give me a dressing down, but it's even more bizarre that I would be assessed negatively based on my "A" level results!

"First-class honours? Everyone out on the streets has honour degrees. But WHY did you get a D for 'A' levels!!?!"

It was an absolutely appalling sort of experience which I'm happy to say that I've not encountered ever since.

Still, it got me thinking.

I remember that when I was studying for my "A" levels, we had to cram a whole lot of material for the big exam. The pressure was so intense, and there was so much stuff to memorize and practice that I didn't really understand the significance of all that information.

In fact it wasn't until the first year of undergrad that I finally realized what I had been trying to learn at "A" levels. That gave me a strong suspicion that the "A" levels wasn't really about learning, but is more like a kind of entrance exam, an elimination round to separate the relatively weaker students from the elite students. Someone even told me that the success of your entire life depends on your "A" level results.

Over the years, this suspicion has gradually waned as more educational opportunities became available for the later bloomers. The establishment of the open university for adult learners, and more mobility between ITE, the polytechnics and universities seemed to provide many alternative routes towards academic and career success.

But after that disastrous job interview I wasn't so sure. Maybe things are still the same.

Actually, I often wonder why so much emphasis is placed on achievement so early in life. This has resulted in many overzealous parents planning insane schedules for their children and pressuring them towards perfect scores right from Day One (sometimes earlier!).

Elite pre-schools, elite primary schools, elite secondary schools... piano lessons, violin lessons, ballet lessons, swimming, tennis, golf... assessment books, past year exams, tuition, tuition, tuition...

Perhaps they believe that children are like cannonballs?

You've got to pack as much gunpowder as you can down that barrel and aim it properly, because the initial velocity and angle will determine the maximum height of that cannonball, with mathematical certainty.

So load 'em up and watch 'em shoot into the sky!


Personally I don't think that closely resembles the real world situation. After all, children are living, breathing, adaptive organisms whereas cannonballs are passive, dead objects.

I prefer to think that children are more like birds.

You need to nurture and care for them in their childhood. Help them understand their own strengths and weaknesses. Watch them and guide them as they take their first tentative, slow, bumbling steps towards the skies.

Once they have learnt to fly, they will take to the air under their own power.

High or low, fast or slow, they will find their place in the sky.

Unlike a cannonball that is destined to follow a parabolic flightpath, birds can alter their flightpath at will. They can change directions. They can land gently on trees and cliffs. They can flap their wings, or make use of thermals and tailwinds to help them gradually climb to incredible heights.

Take for example, the photo of the bird shown above. That isn't an eagle or a falcon.

It's just an ordinary-looking goose species, called the bar-headed goose. It is not the largest, strongest or fastest bird in the world.

But yet it migrates over the Himalayan mountain range annually, making the bar-headed goose the highest (routine) flying bird in the world.

This small bird, which only weighs 2 kg on average, has been found flying at altitudes of 33 000 feet - the cruise altitude of huge passenger jets such as the Airbus A380.

You are thinking: "So what if a bar-headed goose can fly over 30 000 feet? Whole flocks of bar-headed geese already routinely fly at that height - we must give our young goose a head start!"


Back to the cannon we go.

Pass me the gunpowder...

Stones taught me to fly
Love taught me to lie
Life taught me to die
So it's not hard to fall
When you float like a cannonball

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Go For Launch

There is a reason why they make you attend those pre-flight briefings.

If you enjoyed this video, don't miss the next video in the series - it's absolutely awesome.

Would you like to know more?
Video clip of an actual space shuttle (Discovery) launch
- More funny videos about NASA