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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, May 29, 2008

Uniquely Human: Social Prowess

Just came across this excellent article entitled "How Are Humans Unique?" in the New York Times, written by evolutionary psychologist Michael Tomasello.

Here is an exerpt:

Human beings have evolved to coordinate complex activities, to gossip and to playact together. It is because they are adapted for such cultural activities — and not because of their cleverness as individuals — that human beings are able to do so many exceptionally complex and impressive things.

This short article provides an interesting explanation of how social prowess underlies both the creative ingenuity and destructive conflict that are hallmarks of the human condition.

Pipette tip to Hyphoid Logic.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Phoenix Lands On Mars

After travelling for nine months in space, NASA's Phoenix spacecraft has landed in the northern polar region of Mars on Sunday.

This landing site (approx. 68 degree N latitude, 233 degrees E longitude) was chosen because the Mars Odyssey orbiter had discovered in 2002 that a significant amount of water ice lies just beneath the surface at the higher latitude regions of Mars.

The main mission of the lander is to use its 2.35 metre robotic arm to examine the soil and ice samples around it.

One goal of analyzing the properties of the soil and ice is to learn more about the history of water on Mars.

If fine sediments of mud and silt are found at the landing site, this may support the hypothesis that an ancient ocean once existed on Mars. Alternatively, coarse sediments of sand might indicate past flowing water, especially if the grains are rounded and well-sorted, indicating water erosion.

Another important goal is to assess the suitability of the Martian polar environment to support life, by conducting sophisticated chemical experiments that will test the soil for life-giving elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and hydrogen.

Here is one of the latest photos that it transmitted back to Earth:

This successful landing is significant for me because I once followed the Mars Polar Lander mission very closely and stayed up all night to watch the live telecast of its landing on TV.

The expected time of arrival came and went, but no signal was received from the lander. As the hours dragged on, and continuous attempts to communicate with the vehicle failed, you can see the mission personnel becoming more and more discouraged.

Eventually that spacecraft never called back and it was declared lost. It was a great disappointment to us space exploration fans. One can imagine how devastated the mission teams would have felt.

Later, the basic layout of the Polar Lander and some of its instruments would become the basis of the Phoenix lander.

Here is a computer animation that shows you the perilous journey that the Phoenix spacecraft took in order to get to Mars.

Congratulations to the Phoenix mission teams for this incredible achievement!

*Update 28 May 2008

Check out this breathtaking photograph of the Phoenix spacecraft parachuting onto the surface of Mars. It was taken by a high resolution camera (the HiRISE) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This marks the first time in history that a spacecraft has photographed another one during the landing process on Mars.

Click the above photo for the full resolution image at NASA.

Pipette tip to Bad Astronomy.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Classic Science Documentaries

One of the most important goals of science communication is to bring the joy of knowledge to inquisitive young people and inspire some of them to become our next generation of scientists.

Today the Internet is rising in popularity as a superb medium for science education and communication, but up until the last decade, the most effective medium for doing this has been television.

Here at Fresh Brainz we have dug into the YouTube archives to bring you three classic science documentaries, including Carl Sagan's Cosmos which helped to "con" your humble narrator into choosing the path of science that many years ago.

Of course, the fact that these old TV shows are freely available in their entirety on YouTube underscores the emerging power of the Internet for communicating science.


Jacob Bronowski's Ascent of Man (1973)

Thoughtful and powerfully written, Bronowski's Ascent of Man focuses on the biological and cultural evolution of human beings. It proceeds at a slower pace compared to documentaries today, but strives to convey more interesting knowledge per unit time instead of padding the narrative with glitzy special effects. Nevertheless, it contains ground-breaking micro and high-speed photography that is still impressive today.

Carl Sagan's Cosmos (1980)

Inspired by the Ascent of Man, Sagan's Cosmos widens the scope and places more emphasis on cosmology and astronomy. Although packed with vastly improved visual effects, it is no slouch in the content department. If the poetic language and haunting music doesn't get to you, then perhaps Carl Sagan's handsome face will.

Richard Dawkins' Growing Up in the Universe (1991)

Erm... not too familiar with this brash young fellow, but here's his TV lecture about evolutionary biology, filled with ingenious demonstrations.

We shall watch his career with great interest.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

An Anti-Scientific Mind

An article written by British economist Robert Skidelsky is featured in the Straits Times today.

The header blurb on the Saturday section of the newspaper reads:

Cults of distortion

Environmental alarmists like Al Gore have infected science with a doomsday spirit that distorts debate.

That sounds provocative enough, but you wouldn't believe how shocking the actual article is.

You can read the full article from the Guardian website here.

Its original title is "The Apocalyptic Mind." The Straits Times has re-titled it "Beware Of Doom Merchants" and removed part of paragraph two, which I will discuss later.

But first, a quick summary of the article.

At first glance, it seems to be advocating skepticism against the media exaggeration of the negative effects of global warming, which might be counterproductive and lead to an economic disaster instead.

But more careful reading reveals the article to be a thinly-veiled and vicious attack on rational thought and the scientific enterprise.

Here at Fresh Brainz, we feel it's our responsibility to the public to encourage rational thinking and discourage obfuscation and disinformation.

Hence it is imperative that we scrutinize this article in great detail to highlight the numerous problems that it contains:

The Apocalyptic Mind

It was only to be expected that former US vice-president Al Gore would give this month's Burmese cyclone an apocalyptic twist. "Last year," he said, "a catastrophic storm hit Bangladesh. The year before, the strongest cyclone in more than 50 years hit China ... We're seeing the consequences that scientists have long predicted might be associated with continual global warming."

Surprisingly, Gore did not include the Asian tsunami of 2004, which claimed 225,000 lives. His not so subliminal message was that these natural catastrophes foreshadow the end of the world.

Right from the beginning, the author immediately conflates the term "apocalyptic", which is a religious term to describe prophesies revealed by divine revelation, with scientific prediction, which is developed using evidence.

In addition, a more accurate reading of Al Gore's message is that global warming will have severe consequences to humanity, not that it will somehow "foreshadow the end of the world".

It is one thing to claim that Gore was making an exaggeration to hammer home his point about global warming; it is entirely another to cast doubt on the essence of his message - that global warming is real and constitutes a significant threat to our future. More on this later.

For now, let's look at the second paragraph, especially the first sentence. Professor Skidelsky is "surprised" that Gore did not mention the Asian tsunami of 2004.

I am not surprised by this - because the tsunami was caused by an earthquake, a geological phenomenon. Al Gore may exaggerate but he certainly did not claim that global warming can cause earthquakes.

Is Prof. Skidelsky claiming that global warming can cause earthquakes?

However, I am surprised that the Straits Times chose to omit this sentence completely. It is likely that they noticed that this sentence alone would utterly undermine the credibility of the author to talk about climate change and thus they removed it.

Apocalyptic beliefs have always been part of the Christian tradition. They express the yearning for heaven on earth, when evil is destroyed and the good are saved.

In their classical religious form, such beliefs rely on signs and omens, like earthquakes and sunspots, which can be interpreted, by reference to biblical passages, as portending a great cataclysm and cleansing. Thus, apocalyptic moments are products of a sense of crisis: they can be triggered by wars and natural disasters.

Classical apocalyptic thinking is certainly alive and well, especially in America, where it feeds on Protestant fundamentalism, and is mass-marketed with all the resources of modern media. Circles close to the Bush administration, it is rumoured, take current distempers like terrorism as confirmation of biblical prophecies.

In secularised, pseudo-scientific form, apocalyptic thinking has also been at the core of revolutionary politics. In his latest book, Black Mass, the philosopher John Gray discusses how political doctrines like Marxism colonised the apocalyptic vision in prophesying the destruction of capitalism as the prelude to the socialist utopia. But political messianism was an offshoot of 19th-century optimism. With the collapse of optimism, contemporary apocalyptic belief lays more stress on catastrophe and less on utopia.

Clearly, the author likes to talk about the concept of apocalyptic thinking, devoting a number of paragraphs to describe its historical background. Unfortunately, he also enjoys using this concept as an over-extended analogy to everything else, eg. Marxism and science.

Skidelsky is claiming that biblical apocalyptic belief, Marxist vision of the destruction of capitalism and scientific predictions of environmental disaster are conceptually identical.

It boggles the mind what sort of detailed parallels you can draw regarding these three disparate fields to allow anyone to conclude that they are one and the same.

The only thing they have in common is: "before something really big happens, there are some symptoms."

So if somebody detects intensifying tremors and predicts that a volcano is about to erupt, is that an example of "apocalyptic belief"?

If I feel nauseous and predict that I might throw up soon, is that an example of "apocalyptic belief"?

For example, in his book Flat Earth News, the investigative journalist Nick Davies reminds us of the millennium bug panic. Newspapers everywhere carried stories predicting that computer systems would crash on January 1, 2000, causing much of the world to shut down. The subtext was familiar: those who live by technology will die by it.

It is certainly true that the Y2K problem became overhyped by the media, which underscores the importance of critical thinking and basic fact-checking in journalism. However, this does not mean that we should dismiss the possibility that obsolete computer codes can cause real problems.

In any case, what does this analogy have to do with global warming again?

Misreporting of science is now so routine that we hardly notice it. Much more serious is when science itself becomes infected by the apocalyptic spirit. Faith-based science seems a contradiction in terms, because the scientific worldview emerged as a challenge to religious superstition. But important scientific beliefs can now be said to be held religiously, rather than scientifically.

And so the attack on science starts. This entire paragraph is so absurd that it reads like bad satire.

The claim that science itself has become infected by the "apocalyptic spirit" is patently false.

Scientists don't believe that environmental disasters will destroy the evil, save the good and result in some sort of paradise - the negative effects of climate change will simply strike anyone who is unlucky enough to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time.

In fact, scientists very rarely even use the term "apocalyptic" in research publications: a quick search of the words "apocalyptic" or "apocalypse" in PubMed yields 101 articles, of which only one is remotely related to environmental science.

In striking contrast, the word "disaster" brings up 27,050 articles, "climate change" 4,573 articles and "climate disaster" 657 articles.

The only article of any sort that I have ever read that mentions "apocalyptic" so many times is this one by Skidelsky himself.

Also note that this article does not have a single reference to any actual scientific paper, indeed not even a brief mention of any environmental scientist or scientific organization at all.

And what in Justice Bao's name is "faith-based science"?

Science is based on evidence; faith is not. If the "faith" is based on evidence, it ceases to be faith.

Alternately, if the "science" is based on faith, it ceases to be science.

Scientific ideas are developed by testing hypotheses: acquiring physical evidence to support them.

Some people may find a scientific idea more convincing than others, so they would believe it more strongly, but I'm not sure what is the meaning of the phrase "important scientific beliefs can now be said to be held religiously, rather than scientifically".

Perhaps Skidelsky is trying to say that scientists should not be too confident of their ideas if there is insufficient evidence to support them. That is a valid point, but most scientists are well aware of this.

This brings us back to Al Gore and climate change. There is no doubt that the earth became warmer over the 20th century (by about 0.7 deg C), which most climate scientists attribute largely to human carbon dioxide emissions. If nothing is done to restrict such emissions, global temperature will rise between 1.8 and 4 deg over the next century. At some "tipping point", the world will be subject to floods and pestilence in classic apocalyptic fashion.

This is the second doomsday scenario of recent decades, the first being the Club of Rome's prediction in 1972 that the world would soon run out of natural resources. Both are "scientific," but their structure is the same as that of the Biblical story of the flood: human wickedness (in today's case, unbridled materialism) triggers the disastrous sequence, which it may already be too late to avert. Like Biblical prophecy, scientific doomsday stories seem impervious to refutation, and are constantly repackaged to feed the hunger for catastrophe.

I don't know if this is genuine confusion or deliberate obfuscation, but it is a mess.

The author insists (sarcastically?) that there is "no doubt" that the Earth is getting warmer and much of this is due to human activities. He thinks that the scientific prediction is that widespread floods and "pestilence" (again a religious term that is rarely used in science) will occur.

He then interjects the discussion with what he considers to be an example of an inaccurate scientific prediction: the Club of Rome's report in 1972. Ignoring the fact that the Club of Rome is think-tank, not a scientific organization and that they later gathered better data and improved their predictions - even if the Club of Rome is absolutely wrong, what does this tell us about global warming?


The tortured logic employed here is remarkable:

A. Some predictions I consider to be "scientific predictions" are wrong.

B. Therefore scientific predictions are likely wrong.

Well, since Newton was wrong about alchemy, Darwin was wrong about blended inheritance and Einstein was wrong about quantum theory, all of science must be inherently unreliable, right?

The author next claims that: "Like Biblical prophecy, scientific doomsday stories seem impervious to refutation, and are constantly repackaged to feed the hunger for catastrophe."

If this is true, maybe the environmental situation is really as bad as it is portrayed.

Alternatively, the appeal of doomsday stories could be mainly due to media hype rather than the scientific facts themselves. "Stories" may be impervious to refutation, but scientific ideas ought to be revised with improved data.

In any case, Skidelsky doesn't think that scientists are exempt from the responsibility of exaggeration:

Scientists argue that the media and politicians are responsible for exaggerating their findings as promises of salvation or warnings of retribution. But scientists themselves are partly responsible, because they have hardened uncertainties into probabilities, treated disputable propositions as matters of fact, and attacked dissent as heresy.

Excuse me sir, but what is the meaning of "hardened uncertainties into probabilities?"

A probability of 0.9999999999 is pretty hard while a probability of 0.0000000001 is not quite so hard.

Is the author trying to say that by switching a descriptive term (uncertainty vs probability) you can transform eg. a feather pillow into a brick wall?

And, if there are disputable propositions that bother him so much, why not discuss the scientific details in the article, so that we can examine them?

Scientists are notoriously loath to jettison conclusions reached by approved scientific methods, however faulty. But their intolerance of dissent is hugely magnified when they see themselves as captains in the salvationist army, dedicated to purging the world of evil habits.

Conclusions reached via the scientific process are scientific conclusions. These conclusions are supported by the best evidence and the most accurate models available at the time, rigorously checked for precision and reliability.

Of course scientists are not supposed to "jettison conclusions" on the basis of their personal convictions, no matter how counterintuitive the results may be.

That would be an act of professional misconduct.

If Professor Skidelsky personally believes that what he considers as "approved scientific methods" (testable predictions? repeatability? peer review? WHAT?!??) to be so fatally flawed, then my question for him would be:

What other method would give you better results?

As for his complaint about intolerance of dissent, I can't speak for all scientists, but here's an alternative explanation: I'm quite sure people in general would be annoyed if they were confronted with unsubstantiated arguments and baseless accusations that they are "intolerant".

Today it is the west that foists an apocalyptic imagination on the rest of the world. Perhaps we should be looking to China and India for answers about how to address environmental damage, instead of using climate change as a pretext to deprive them of what we already have. How do the Chinese feel about their newfound materialism? Do they have an intellectual structure with which to make sense of it?

Without missing a beat, Skidelsky over-generalizes his apocalyptic thinking to all the Western nations. Perhaps he feels qualified to represent all of them as the "captain of their salvationist army".

Well, he is probably right that a whole new generation of environmental solutions, including economically viable green technologies, will arise from Asia.

I can't speculate on the intellectual structure that will be employed to achieve this, but if China and India succeeds in this endeavour, I think it won't be due to the efforts of people like him, but in spite of them.

The best antidote to the doom merchants is scepticism. We must be willing to take uncertainty seriously. Climate change is a fact. But apocalyptic thinking distorts the scientific debate and makes it harder to explain the causes and consequences of this fact, which in turn makes it harder to know how to deal with it.

OK, so skepticism is good and Skidelsky accepts that climate change is a fact. Apocalyptic thinking is bad (you don't say!) because it distorts the scientific debate.

Although the consequences of climate change are real, the extent of the problem is debatable - he appears to have taken an entirely reasonable stand.

The danger is that we become so infected with the apocalyptic virus that we end up creating a real catastrophe - the meltdown of our economies and lifestyles - in order to avoid an imaginary one. In short, while a religious attitude of mind deserves the highest respect, we should resist the re-conquest by religion of matters that should be the concern of science.

Wait a sec, now Skidelsky says that global warming is imaginary and we should carry on with our lifestyles as if nothing has changed.

What is his real stand?

Does he even have a stand?

In addition, he turns 180 degrees around from saying that "apocalyptic thinking distorts science" to "a religious attitude of mind deserves the highest respect" in the space of just one sentence!

So is apocalyptic thinking good or bad?

Does he even care?


To sum up, this is the most appalling article I have read this year.

At Fresh Brainz, we are in awe of how all these over-extended analogies, tortured reasoning, vacuous arguments and self-contradictions can possibly fit into one article.

Despite this, we strongly agree with the last line in Professor Skidelsky's article:

We should resist the re-conquest by religion of matters that should be the concern of science.

Global warming is a scientific matter and we must resist the attempts by anti-scientific individuals, such as Prof. Skidelsky himself, to dismiss a real problem as an "imaginary catastrophe".

Would you like to know more?
Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Scientific Consensus On Climate Change (Science Magazine)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Venerable Elderly Frog

Canadian scientists at the University of Calgary have discovered a 290 million-year-old fossil of an animal which has a mixture of frog and salamander features.

The research team, led by Dr. Jason Anderson, have named it Gerobatrachus hottoni, or elderly frog. They have also dubbed it the "frogamander" (although I suppose it's also possible to call it the "salamandrog").

Picture credit: Michael Skrepnick
(via Reuters)

The Gerobatrachus fossil has two fused bones in the ankle and a very large ear drum, which is normally only seen in salamanders.

However, it also has a lightly-built and wide skull similar to that of a frog.

Its backbone is exactly intermediate in number between the modern frogs and salamanders and more primitive amphibians.

Due to limited fossil evidence, the evolutionary ancestry of modern amphibians (such as frogs, salamanders and earthworm-like caecilians) has been a matter of significant scientific debate.

"The dispute arose because of a lack of transitional forms. This fossil seals the gap," says Dr. Anderson.

The discovery of Gerobatrachus supports the view that frogs and salamanders evolved from one ancient amphibian group called temnospondyls, whereas caecilians are more closely related to another group called the lepospondyls.

Dr. Anderson hopes that this intriguing find will help raise public awareness of the ecological disaster facing amphibians today.

"It is bittersweet to learn about frog origins in this Year of the Frog, dedicated to informing the public about the current global amphibian decline. Hopefully we won’t ever learn about their extinction."

Here at Fresh Brainz we are impressed by the transitional characteristics in the Gerobatrachus, especially the number of vertebrae it has.

If someone insists that the Frogamander is "just a frog", then the presence of a tail in an order of animals defined by their lack of tails would be, oh, quite problematic.

In addition, while examining the artist's impression of this animal, we were struck by a touch of déjà vu.

Somehow... we've seen that face before...


A case of life imitating art.

Would you like to know more?
- Original research article:
A stem batrachian from the Early Permian of Texas and the origin of frogs and salamanders (Anderson et al. Nature)
Frogamander: A Putative Member in the Common Ancestral Line of Frogs and Salamanders (Hyphoid Logic)
A frog that has no lungs

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Love At First Sight

Some things in life are simply meant for each other.

Bread and butter.

Corn flakes and milk.

Strawberries and cream.

Maybe I should turn this into a caption competition.

*via In The Form Of A Question.
Photo credit: KaranJ at Flickr

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Damned Materialistic Scientists

One thing I have never really understood is how the term "materialism" came to have such a negative connotation in society nowadays, both in the East and the West.

Considering how much of the high quality of life in affluent countries is made possible by market economies.

Oddly enough, it seems that people who are the most driven by material wealth are also the ones most likely to disavow or downplay the importance of this powerful motivating force.

"It's not about the money, it's about passion in investment."

Man, there's widespread denial going on.

What is especially annoying is how some people lump the words "materialist" and "scientist" together as some kind of insult.

"Damned materialistic scientists refuse to accept the possibility of supernatural explanations!"

Superb rhetoric, by the way - in one blunt blow, it denigrates the scientific endeavour by insinuating that scientists are dogmatic and small-minded money-worshippers.

Here at Fresh Brainz, we examine this dubious statement and arrive at a few surprising insights.

Prepare to bend your mind around it ...

1. Science is not restricted to "natural" phenomena or explanations

This is an easy one.

There is simply no hard (or permanent) boundary between natural and supernatural phenomena.

A long time ago, many observations had supernatural explanations.

The Sun was supposedly pulled across the sky behind the chariot of a sun god. Diseases were caused by evil spirits. Bizarre behaviours were the result of demonic possession.

They were supernatural phenomena.

Gradually, as the scientific process was employed to investigate them, naturalistic theories were developed which replaced the old explanations. Eventually, these phenomena became redefined as natural.

You are thinking: "What's so great about natural explanations? Why not just keep the old supernatural explanations if people love them so much?"

Dude, natural explanations are far superior to supernatural versions.

Not convinced?

Consider this - if a deity was personally responsible for hauling the Sun across the sky, then you would have a lot of things to worry about:

What if he wakes up late one day? What if the chariot breaks and the Sun falls out of the sky? What if the horses stop running and the Sun gets stuck in the middle of the sky? What if he is angry at the mortals for some reason? Do we need to build a statue to appease him? How many times must we worship him a week? What kind of animal sacrifice would please him?...

... and so on.

Supernatural explanations cannot generate testable predictions, which means that you will always be at the mercy of some unknowable power.

In contrast, a natural explanation such as the heliocentric theory is not only simpler and more elegant, but also fits the observations much better, generates reliable predictions and serves as the basis for future knowledge.

No need to build a statue or sacrifice a goat.

Even so, that doesn't mean that naturalistic explanations must be any less exotic than supernatural ones.

I mean, the Solar System is governed by invisible gravitational forces that travel at the speed of light? That almost sounds more "supernatural" than a sun god!

Nevertheless the theory predicts the exact second that sunrise and sunset occurs, as well as other accurate forecasts for solar eclipses, lunar eclipses and the movement of the planets.

This incredible achievement had an immense impact on how people live and view their own place in the Universe, replacing a cloud of fear and superstition with clarity, understanding and confidence.

Notice that the heliocentric theory cannot DISPROVE the possibility that a supernatural deity is personally dragging the Sun around the Earth while simultaneously planting fake evidence that the Earth orbits the sun.

It just renders such a belief unnecessary and irrelevant.

2. Material explanations do not preclude emergent properties

Here's an often asked question: "If human beings evolved from monkeys, then why shouldn't we act like monkeys? Why do we need to care about morals?"

Indeed, if we evolved from "lightning striking a mud puddle", why don't we act like mud puddles?

To illustrate just how ridiculous such a question is, let me bring up a simple example:

This is a pyramid.

A pyramid has a square base, triangular faces and an apex on top.

Due to the fact that the pyramid has a wide base and narrow top, it is a stable 3D shape.

Of course, no "indivisible" pyramid exists in reality, so here are some example of physical pyramids.

This is a pyramid made of beer cans.

It has a square base, four triangular faces and an apex on top.

But none of the components have a square base or an apex! Beer cans have a cylindrical shape.

So how can a pyramid be made from beer cans?

This is a pyramid (more accurately a tetrahedron) made of marbles.

Marbles don't have any base or apex. They are completely round.

How can a pyramid be made from marbles?

This is a pyramid made of seashells.

Seashells have an irregular, complex shape. Not quite sure which part of the shape can be considered a base or apex.

How can a pyramid be made from seashells?

Although all these pyramids are made from different components with different properties, the emergent properties of each complete structure are the same.

This is mainly due to the organization and interaction of the components, and not so much on their individual characteristics.

Thus, just because living systems are made from tiny molecules, doesn't mean that life is a simple additive result of molecular properties. Complex systems have emergent properties at each successive organizational level.

Similarly, just because human beings evolved from other species of animal in the past, doesn't mean that we are compelled to follow their social rules. Our own morals are socio-emergent properties that arise from interactions between human beings at the societal level.

There is no need to posit a supernatural origin for our social behaviour.

In addition, being made of molecules doesn't reduce our status down to a mere bag of molecules nor does being evolved from bacteria eons ago somehow reduce our dignity to that of bacteria.

In the past, it may be excusable to confuse materialism with greedy reductionism, but today with increasing emphasis in organizational principles in science (eg. computational neuroscience) it is difficult to comprehend why there are still so many people who insist that a material explanation is insufficient to account for life.

Maybe I should invent a new word, called "process-ism" or "functionism" instead of "materialism" to emphasize the importance of the organization and interaction of the components, rather than the materials themselves.

After all, once you understand how the system works, you can swap the components around like nobody's business and it will still function properly.

The system "transcends" its material make-up, but cannot exist without it.

3. Money is virtual, not "material"

The problem with using the term "materialism" is that it has two distinct meanings:

a) The philosophical theory that matter is the only reality.
b) A desire for wealth and material possessions with little interest in ethical or spiritual matters.

So far the focus of the discussion has been on the first definition.

Now, just for fun, let's examine the second definition of materialism.

Money has always been used as the poster child for materialism.

However, when you think about it - unless you collect coins and banknotes as a hobby, money is not in fact a type of material, but a virtual concept!

I recall watching a documentary where the CEO of Linden Labs (creator of Second Life) said that "money is the first form of virtual reality in human society".

And that is quite true.

Unlike "real" material possessions like computers or luxury watches or sports cars, the value of money is not in its intrinsic function.

It is only a placeholder - a piece of paper or metal given value by governmental authority and social consensus.

Today, money is evolving towards a form of pure information due to the popularity of computer-based banking and finance. Increasingly, it has become bits stored on a hard disk, magically transforming into goods and services upon demand.

So, does this mean that only the people who buy lots of actual material merchandise are "materialists" whereas misers who hoard gobs of money in virtual form are not?

What about people who treat money as a tool for safeguarding their freedom, rather than as a means of buying stuff? Are they "materialists"?

Hmm ...

Maybe money is a kind of "real virtuality" like computer games or human consciousness, which is why people are naturally attracted to it.

You are thinking: "Yeah whatever. Money might be virtual but it isn't abstract. Just stand in front of a vending machine with an empty stomach and an empty pocket and you'll immediately know how concrete it is."

Dude, that was brilliant.

Bill O'Reilly vs Stephen Colbert

We interrupt our regularly scheduled programme of high-brow science articles with this breaking news report about a breaking news reporter.

Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to hilarity.

Here at Fresh Brainz, we have stoically maintained that the truth is always funnier.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

John Stewart Bell: The Part-timer Who Proved Einstein Wrong

A letter written by Albert Einstein in 1954 has recently emerged and clearly indicates that he was not a supporter of religious beliefs.

Einstein is without a doubt one of the most brilliant physicists who ever lived, but his views on religion has always attracted controversy due to his (deliberately?) unclear stand.

Of course, as Prof. Larry Moran of Sandwalk observes correctly, what Einstein personally believed is not relevant to whether supernatural beings exist or not.

Besides, it's not as if Einstein was right about everything.

Einstein's strong "brand name" has given the public an impression that he couldn't possibly be mistaken about anything, but that is simply not true.

For example, in 1939 Einstein and Leó Szilárd co-wrote a letter to US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt - a letter that helped to spark off the nuclear arms race.

After realizing the magnitude of the horror that atom bombs unleashed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein would spend his later years strongly opposed to nuclear weapons.

Just before he died, he revealed to Linus Pauling that:

I made one great mistake when I signed the letter to President Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made.

Albert Einstein is definitely a human being, with human desires and weaknesses.

Not everything that Einstein says outside of theoretical physics must be true.

In fact, not everything that Einstein says inside of theoretical physics must be true!

Fresh Brainz readers, you're in for a treat - this week's science story is both about counterintuitive science AND the second-best.

An amazing story about how a young man REFUTED one of the greatest minds in history (as a hobby!) ...

... and nobody cared.

Because the public didn't understand the significance of what he did.

To begin the story, let's turn the clock back to 1935.

Einstein, who recently achieved great success with his discovery of the photoelectric effect and the theory of relativity, has moved on to other interesting questions in physics.

He was embroiled in a long-standing dispute with a group of physicists (known as the Copenhagen theorists, most notably Niels Bohr) over the implications of the predictions generated by the brand new theory of "quantum electrodynamics".

Or quantum theory, for short.

Quantum theory predicts a bizarre phenomenon called quantum entanglement, where measurements performed on parts of a quantum system that are widely separated from each other can somehow have instantaneous influence on one another.

From the perspective of Einstein's theory of relativity, particle interactions cannot propagate faster than the speed of light, and thus two spatially separated particles can never affect each other instantaneously.

Therefore, Einstein considered the concept of quantum entanglement counterintuitive and unbelievable, coining the term "spooky action at a distance" to describe its absurdity.

Rather odd that an originator of one counterintuitive theory could find another counterintuitive theory so utterly unacceptable, but like I said, Einstein is human.

Together with Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen, Einstein published a paper in 1935, introducing a thought experiment called the "EPR paradox" that highlights the apparent weaknesses of quantum theory, including the concept of quantum entanglement.

Einstein himself said that:

Quantum mechanics is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the 'old one'. I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.

They concluded that quantum theory is an incomplete theory and postulated that "hidden variables" may be responsible for the observed results.

Einstein would maintain this position for the rest of his life, and the controversy would not be resolved until after his death.

Enter John Stewart Bell, a brilliant Irish physicist.

He was only seven years old when the EPR paradox was published.

In his early 20s, Bell became fascinated by this scientific controversy. In the beginning, he was a strong supporter of Einstein's view, stating that:

I felt that Einstein's intellectual superiority over Bohr, in this instance, was enormous; a vast gulf between the man who saw clearly what was needed, and the obscurantist.

A bizarre twist lay in the future.

By the 1960's, Bell's day job was working as a particle physicist and accelerator designer at CERN. However, his part-time obsession was quantum theory, especially with the "hidden variables" mentioned in the EPR paradox.

In 1963, Bell took a year's leave from CERN and was able to spend significantly more time on his pet obsession. He focused on working out a way to experimentally test the existence of these hidden variables.

Finally, he published Bell's Inequality (or Bell's Theorem) in 1964. Bell's inequality makes it possible to construct experiments to directly test if "spooky action in a distance" actually occurs.

Other physicists began to perform experiments based on his hypothesis. After numerous experiments using many different approaches, the result is clear.

Quantum entanglement is real.

There is no need to postulate any hidden variables to account for the results.

John Bell had single-handedly disproved the great Albert Einstein.

The parallels could not be more obvious - just as Einstein had once rendered the "luminiferous aether" irrelevant using the theory of relativity, so Bell has also rendered Einstein's "hidden variables" irrelevant using Bell's inequality.

Bell's inequality was hailed by fellow physicists as the "most profound discovery in science". In the late 1980s, Bell was even nominated for a Nobel Prize.

Unfortunately, Bell would never enjoy anywhere near the amount of fame and prestige that Einstein received.

On the 1st of October 1990, John Bell died suddenly of a stroke.

Had he lived longer, he would most likely have been awarded the Physics prize, and things might have turned out very differently.

Alas, because theoretical physics was inaccessible to the public at that time, most people never came to understand the importance of his work.

And so John Stewart Bell, the part-timer who proved Einstein wrong, was consigned to the footnotes of history.

Would you like to know more?

About John Stewart Bell:
John Bell and the most profound discovery of science

About other stories of the second best:
Swiss vs British Everest teams
Steve Jobs vs Bill Gates
Golgi vs Cajal
Wallace vs Darwin

The Future Of Computer Technology

Professor Damien Underwood gives us a glimpse into the cutting edge of computer science research today.

Like any new technology, it seems a little out of this world...

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Counterintuitive Science: Grand Complexity From Humble Beginnings

You may be wondering: "What's up with that soap bubble you left hanging around for a few days? Is it a lead-in to something?"

Heh, Fresh Brainz readers are sharper than a glass microtome.

The two most misunderstood and maligned ideas in science both involve the origin of something: the origin of the Universe and the origin of Life.

Lots of people find it absolutely impossible to accept scientific explanations of these events, resorting to caricatures like "How can the Universe be created by an explosion from nothing?" and "How can the intricate complexity of Life start in some primordial ooze?" in order to quickly dismiss them out of hand.

Or as Ben Stein would say - "it's lightning striking a mud puddle."

Have you wondered why people are so resistant to these ideas?

Turns out that there is something else in common.

They both involve something tiny and simple gradually evolving into something vastly bigger and more complex.

Of course, the mechanisms involved in these two events are different. In addition, the exact moment that the Universe started (cosmogony) and Life started (abiogenesis) may always be shrouded in mystery and speculation, since it is practically impossible to replicate those initial conditions.

However, once the Universe entered the Quark Epoch (around a billionth of a second after the origin), the process becomes much better understood because the conditions are now accessible to experimental study.

Similarly, once the first simple prokaryotic cell appeared (about 3.5 billion years ago), the process of biological evolution becomes far better studied and solidly grounded in evidence.

Since we already know quite a bit about these two processes today, why is it still so difficult for many people to make the conceptual leap that big things can come from small things?

Here at Fresh Brainz, we have stumbled upon two possible reasons why (all while blowing soap bubbles in the shower) :

1. Not everything has to start at the beginning

When a little kid is blowing a soap bubble, she doesn't need to "create" all the raw materials required, such as soap molecules and water molecules.

Water molecules already exist naturally. Soap molecules are produced in a factory by hydrolyzing animal or vegetable fat.

Nevertheless, she is 100% the creator of the soap bubble, no doubt about it.

Without her, the soap solution would still be sitting in a bottle.

Likewise, the Universe didn't start from "nothing"; it started with a set of initial conditions.

Where did that come from?

Well, that would be pure speculation. It could have always existed prior to the origin of our current Universe. It could be a remnant of a previous Universe that ended in a Big Crunch.

It could have been made in an interdimensional alien factory for a young interdimensional alien child to blow into a bubble.

All these scenarios are no less likely than if it was intelligently designed by a omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent deity.

What we do know for sure is that gradually the fundamental particles did form and the Universe did expand. These processes are well understood by physicists.

Similarly, the first living cells didn't have to "invent" chemistry.

It's not as if the first cell had to be put together, atom by atom, into a complete system.

Complex polymers of amino acids and nucleic acids and phospholipids already exist on the early Earth.

You don't have to be very imaginative to see how self-replicating molecules stuck in an oily bubble can begin to exhibit some properties of life.

The belief that an "origin" must imply the beginning of everything seems to be intuitive to most people.

Now I think it is easier to see why many people, especially Americans who live in a culture that is obsessed with hero-worship, cannot accept gradual change as an explanation of complexity.

They focus so much on the agent of change that they completely ignore the pre-conditions and environment that allowed the change to occur.

I call it the "Didn't Thomas Edison Invent Everything?" myth.

2. The originator didn't need to plan everything now found in the current state

In the soap bubble scenario, notice that the little kid didn't need to work out how to arrange the millions of soap molecules and water molecules into a perfect sphere.

She only needed to blow at a thin film of the solution. Piece of cake.

It isn't brain surgery, a machine can be made to blow bubbles. Heck, even a random gust of wind will do.

Once the bubble starts to form, the chemical properties of the molecules cause them to arrange themselves into a sphere.

If the bubble formation is successful, the molecules end up having more organizational complexity than they had while in a bottle of soap solution. This illustrates the concept of emergent complexity.

Of course, bubble formation doesn't always succeed. When it doesn't close properly, the soap molecules revert back to its usual random configuration and splosh onto the floor.

An eloquent demonstration that soap bubble creation is not a miracle, but a process.

Here, let me give you another example.

Coca-Cola was invented by John Stith Pemberton in 1885.

Just one person making pennies per drink.

Today, the Coca-Cola Company has 90,500 full-time employees and generates an annual revenue of US$30.1 billion.

Do you think that Pemberton personally planned everything that happens in the company today?

Then why do so many people believe that an originator must personally work out all the intricate details of the final state?

Once again, I believe that a culture of hero-worship is responsible. This over-emphasis on the originator is symptomatic of a tendency to simplify the world by forcing ideas to fit into one absolute or another.

She either totally created something or she didn't. She either designed everything right from the start, or it was all random chance.

Well, look at the soap bubble then.

Just look at it.

That my friend, is how the Universe works.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Creator Of A Soapy Cosmos

Soap bubbles are created by human beings.

Free-floating soap bubbles are practically perfect spheres.

Every last one of them.

Each soap bubble is made of millions of molecules.

The next time you watch a little kid blow a soap bubble, ask yourself:

How does the creator arrange all those millions of molecules so perfectly to ensure that they will always form a sphere?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Bubblegum Sequencer

Move aside ABI and 454, here comes a new class of sequencers with more balls than your whimpering machines.

They will beat you, hands down.

Doesn't colour you impressed?

Then check out its latest incarnation made by a bunch of kids over the weekend using a desktop PC and an unlimited number of beer bottles.

Needs more cowbell.

Would you like to know more?

Videos of other bizarre electronic music gadgets:
Monome 40h
8x16 Monome

Monday, May 05, 2008

Seal Loves Penguin: Alas It Was Not To Be

An Antarctic fur seal has been caught on camera trying to have sex with a king penguin.

Biologist Nico de Bruyn and a colleague were studying elephant seals on Marion Island (a territory of South Africa) when they noticed a young, adult male Antarctic fur seal attempting to copulate with an adult king penguin of unknown sex.

"At first glimpse, we thought the seal was killing the penguin," says Mr. de Bruyn, a PhD student at the Department of Zoology and Entomology in the University of Pretoria.

BBC describes the process in graphic detail:

The 100kg seal first subdued the 15kg penguin by lying on it.

The penguin flapped its flippers and attempted to stand and escape - but to no avail.

The seal then alternated between resting on the penguin, and thrusting its pelvis, trying to insert itself, unsuccessfully.

After 45 minutes the seal gave up, swam into the water and then completely ignored the bird it had just assaulted.

The penguin did not appear to have been injured by the seal.

Scientists note that while sexual coercion among animals is extremely common, this bizarre incident is thought to be the first recorded example of a mammal trying to have sex with a member of another class of vertebrate, such as a bird, fish, reptile, or amphibian.

Of course the question you are asking is: WHY?!??!!

The researchers speculate that it was the behaviour of a frustrated, sexually inexperienced young male seal.

Equally, it might be been an aggressive, predatory act; or even a playful one that turned sexual.

While these are plausible explanations, here at Fresh Brainz we propose a much simpler possibility.

To the best of our knowledge, only one situation can cause an individual to suddenly lose all normal inhibitions and engage in unpredictable, indiscriminate sexual behaviour...

Pass the beer googles, Randy.


Would you like to know more?
- Original research article:
Sexual harassment of a king penguin by an Antarctic fur seal (de Bruyn et al. 2008, Journal of Ethology)

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Counterintuitive Science: Child Prodigies, Adult Mediocrities

Here's a fun question for you - what does Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein and Augustin-Jean Fresnel have in common?

You are thinking: "Duh, they are all scientists."

Of course, duh, this is a science blog.

Try again.

"Their last names run in the alphabetical progression of D,E and F?"

Hmm... close enough.

They were all mediocre-performing kids.

Darwin sucked in mathematics, Einstein was slow in learning to speak and Fresnel couldn't even read at eight.

If you met any one of them when they were seven, you'd probably tell their parents something like: "Oh, it's too bad that little Charlie failed his classics again, I'm sure there are plenty of ditches left to dig and french fries to sell. My son? Bobby got 97% for his classics and 99% for mathematics - just a 2% improvement from last year, NO BIG DEAL, hahahaha..."


In today's competitive society, it seems that the rat race begins right from the get go.

Not surprising that many parents would be envious of other parents whose children surpass their peers in academic and artistic performance by so much that they are called child "prodigies" or "geniuses".

Some parents even claim to have developed the technique for turning any kid into a child prodigy.

But the question is: even if a child is a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious prodigy, does it guarantee that she will become super-successful as an adult?

The short answer: No.


I won't go into the details here - you can read the references for the research data and in-depth insights.

Here's an exerpt that I especially like:

When someone is put on a pedestal, it’s likely that person will fall off at some point in time. How much damage is done in the fall is largely dependent upon the individual’s emotional maturity and the support received from others. If not managed carefully, permanent damage is done in the fall.

To summarize, I believe that there are three important reasons why:

1. You can't choose to become super-successful

2. Success is fleeting

3. Human beings are not cannonballs

You are thinking: "Well I suppose you didn't accidentally fail to mention Isaac Newton, Thomas Young, Marie Curie, as well as dozens of other prominent precocious kids who did in fact succeed later in life."

Here at Fresh Brainz, we focus on the downtrodden, disillusioned and desperate, the decrepit has-beens and the distraught nearly-theres.

Of course there are many people who went from being smart to smarter, rich to richer and from a big winner to a even bigger winner in life.

However, based on our intimate understanding of the human condition, we believe that most Fresh Brainz readers will not enjoy those sort of stories.

Because while everyone hates a winner, nobody hates a winner like a winner.

Would you like to know more?
Educating the Very Able (OFSTED Reviews of Research)
Child prodigy: Two sides of genius (TheStar Online)
Child prodigies (

Friday, May 02, 2008

Spiders With Sexy Ultraviolet Bling

A team of scientists in China and Singapore, led by Prof. Li Daiqin at the NUS, has discovered that the "Jumping Spider" Phintella vittata is able to see ultraviolet light in the UVB (280–315nm) range.

UVB reflective patches are found on the abdomens of male jumping spiders and are likely used for mating displays.

To find out if females of the species can see these patches, Prof. Li's team put a number of male and female spiders into adjacent cages that can be fitted with transparent filters which only block off UVB wavelengths.

Under normal lighting conditions, some female spiders responded positively to the male spiders' courtship display in the next cage. However, when the UVB filters were added, these females lost interest. This demonstrates that the UVB patches on the male spiders are essential to attract the females.

While many species of insects, crustaceans, birds, fish, and mammals can see ultraviolet light in the UVA (315-400nm) range, this discovery is novel because Phintella vittata is the first species found to be capable of seeing the shorter UVB wavelengths. Since UVB rays can cause eye damage and skin cancer, scientists had previously thought that it is unlikely that animals can perceive it.

How these spiders see in the UVB range is unknown, since UVB receptors have not yet been found (although one of the UVA receptors in the mantis shrimp may have overlapping sensitivity to UVB). It is also not known how their eyes are protected from the damaging effects of UVB.

To me, only one thing is for sure.

Nobody can resist the Power of Bling!

Wearing my bling, doing my thang, rappin' 213, uh huh uh huh...

You are thinking: "Dude, human bling is so not synapomorphic to spider bling - it's obviously a homoplasy!"

Fresh Brainz readers are such smarty pants.

Shut up, real audience, I'm trying to talk to my target audience here!

*awkward silence*

*tumbleweed rolls by*

Would you like to know more?
- Original research article:
UVB-Based Mate-Choice Cues Used by Females of the Jumping Spider Phintella vittata (Li et al. 2008, Current Biology)
Jumping spiders can see UVB! (The Biodiversity Crew @ NUS)
Seeing Love in a Different Light (ScienceNow Daily News)

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Demotivational Posters Galore!

On this Labour Day, Fresh Brainz is happy to bring you our fine selection of demotivational posters.

I should say that I've been collecting these for years from humour websites like and other random sources, so I didn't make any of them. Do contact me to link your site if you made one of these.

I've grouped the posters into seven categories for your enjoyment. A minor warning - one of these categories (Sexy As Hell) is slightly NSFW (not safe for work).

Which reminds me: to double the enjoyment, savour the thought that while you are having fun on your holiday, I still have to return to the lab to be a slave to my cell culture.

Oh the tears of joy!

What A Cruel Whorl

Only In Japan

The Internets

Star Wars

Sexy As Hell

Still Smarter Than You


Would you like to know more?
Despair, Inc: Bursting your bubble since 1998
Caught@Work Productions: They'd be funnier if they're not so painfully true