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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, April 30, 2009

Swine Flu: Alert Orange

Latest update on swine flu - the Ministry of Health has upgraded the Disease Outbreak Response System Alert status in Singapore from Yellow to Orange:

Swine Flu

Last Updated 30 April 2009

The Mexican swine flu outbreak situation continues to evolve rapidly.

As of 30 April 2009, there are reportedly 99 confirmed cases of Mexican swine flu (H1N1) cases in Mexico (with 8 deaths), 91 in the United States (with 1 death), 19 in Canada, 10 in Spain, 5 in United Kingdom, 3 in Germany, 3 in New Zealand, 2 in Israel, 2 in Costa Rica, 1 in Austria, 1 in Switzerland and 1 in Peru.

As of 30 April 09, there are no human cases of Mexican swine flu in Singapore. There have been 22 cases in total referred for further medical assessment. Of the 22 cases, 19 cases have been tested negative for Influenza A. 2 tested positive for usual circulating seasonal strains of Influenza A and 1 is pending laboratory investigations.

Alert Status

On 29 April 2009, WHO raised the current level of flu pandemic alert from phase 4 to 5. The change to a higher phase indicates that there is human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one region. The declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent, though not inevitable. WHO has recommended countries to take steps to heighten surveillance, adopt measures for early detection and treatment of cases, and step up infection control in all healthcare facilities.

Even though there are currently no human cases of Mexican swine flu in Singapore, the Singapore Ministry of Health on 30 April 09 upgraded the Disease Outbreak Response System Alert status in Singapore from Yellow to Orange. There is a real possibility that such cases may surface in Singapore and we must be prepared at all fronts to delay its spread to Singapore for as long as possible.

Public Advisory

Members of the public are strongly advised to postpone or avoid non-essential travel to Mexico and affected areas. In the event that travel is unavoidable, the public is advised to take precautionary measures such as avoiding crowded areas and maintaining high standards of personal hygiene at all times.

The public is advised to maintain high standards of personal hygiene, such as washing hands frequently with soap and water, especially after contact with respiratory secretions (e.g. after sneezing and coughing). Those who are unwell with respiratory illness should stay at home and wear a surgical mask if possible.

Schools, workplaces and places of mass gathering are encouraged to conduct temperature checks routinely. Those with a higher-than-normal temperature should be advised to seek treatment immediately. Recording of all information of all visitors, including the date and time of visit, personal particulars and contact number of visitors, is recommended. This will facilitate contact tracing when the need arises.

Would you like to know more?

FAQS on Swine Flu (
Communicating the Swine influenza A (H1N1) crisis (The Biology Refugia)
We are now at Alert Orange (Angry Doctor)

Monday, April 27, 2009

Health Alert: Swine Flu

An outbreak of Swine Flu, caused by a new subtype of the Swine Influenza A/H1N1 virus, has occurred in the USA and Mexico.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that this is a situation of high concern:

"The majority of these cases have occurred in otherwise healthy young adults. Influenza normally affects the very young and the very old, but these age groups have not been heavily affected in Mexico.

Because there are human cases associated with an animal influenza virus, and because of the geographical spread of multiple community outbreaks, plus the somewhat unusual age groups affected, these events are of high concern."

1. Here are the affected countries so far (27 Apr 2009):

Google Maps - H1N1 Swine Flu (by niman)

Pink markers are suspected cases
Blue markers are confirmed cases
Deaths have no dot in the marker


Total - about 900 suspected cases

18 laboratory confirmed cases
20 confirmed deaths due to swine flu

United States of America

Total - 20 cases(laboratory confirmed cases)

California - 7 cases
Kansas - 2 cases
New York City - 8 cases
Ohio - 1 case
Texas - 2 cases


Total - 6 confirmed cases

British Columbia - 2 cases
Nova Scotia - 4 cases

New Zealand

Total - 10 likely (Influenza A positive) cases


Total - 1 suspected case


Total - 3 suspected cases


Total - 2 suspected cases

2. Health advisory from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

For public:

Residents of States with Swine Influenza Cases

CDC has identified human cases of swine influenza A (H1N1) virus infection in people in the U.S. CDC is working with local and state health agencies to investigate these cases. We have determined that this virus is contagious and is spreading from human to human. However, at this time, we have not determined how easily the virus spreads between people. As with any infectious disease, we are recommending precautionary measures for people residing in these areas.

- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.

- Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hands cleaners are also effective.

- Try to avoid close contact with sick people.

- If you get sick, CDC recommends that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.

- Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread that way.

There is no vaccine available at this time, so it is important for people living in these areas to take steps to prevent spreading the virus to others. If people are ill, they should attempt to stay at home and limit contact with others. Healthy residents living in these areas should take everyday preventive actions.

People who live in these areas who develop an illness with fever and respiratory symptoms, such as cough and runny nose, and possibly other symptoms, such as body aches, nausea, or vomiting or diarrhea, should contact their health care provider. Their health care provider will determine whether influenza testing is needed.

For Clinicians:

Clinicians should consider the possibility of swine influenza virus infections in patients presenting with febrile respiratory illness who

- Live in an area where human cases of swine influenza A (H1N1) has been identified or

- Have traveled to an area where human cases of swine influenza A (H1N1) has been identified or

- Have been in contact with ill persons from these areas in the 7 days prior to their illness onset.

If swine flu is suspected, clinicians should obtain a respiratory swab for swine influenza testing and place it in a refrigerator (not a freezer). Once collected, the clinician should contact their state or local health department to facilitate transport and timely diagnosis at a state public health laboratory.

Update 28 Apr 2009

WHO raises pandemic alert to phase 4

Latest tally:

Mexico = ~ 2000 suspected cases (149 suspected deaths)
USA = 40 confirmed cases
Canada = 6 confirmed cases
Spain = 1 confirmed case
UK = 2 confirmed cases

Update 29 Apr 2009

Till date, no deaths outside of Mexico.

Latest tally:

Mexico = ~ 2000 suspected/ 26 confirmed cases(152 suspected/ 7 confirmed deaths)
USA = 64 confirmed cases
Canada = 13 confirmed cases
New Zealand = 11 confirmed cases
Spain = 2 confirmed cases
UK = 2 confirmed cases
Israel = 2 confirmed cases

*Update 30 Apr 2009

WHO raises pandemic alert to phase 5

First death from swine flu outside Mexico - a 23-month-old Mexican child died in Texas.

Latest tally:

Mexico = ~ 2000 suspected/ 26 confirmed cases(159 suspected/ 7 confirmed deaths)
USA = 91 confirmed cases (1 confirmed death)
Canada = 13 confirmed cases
New Zealand = 11 confirmed cases
UK = 5 confirmed cases
Spain = 4 confirmed cases
Germany = 3 confirmed cases
Israel = 2 confirmed cases
Austria = 1 confirmed case

Would you like to know more?

- Swine Influenza and You (US CDC)
- Singapore will be pro-active in handling possible swine flu outbreak (Channel NewsAsia)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Photo Gallery Twelve

The photo gallery returns with a slight difference; rather than focusing on the artistic aspect, this week's selection is a quick survey of some bizarre sights around Singapore, with a touch of black humour.

It's difficult to find graffiti in Singapore, what with all the constant scrubbing and whitewashing of public areas.

But those few that remain are no less arty or profound than the ones found in any other large city.

It's hard to tell what this example here is trying to say; it may be an expression of personal frustration, or a biting social commentary.

But we do know for sure that the painter is a fan of Don Hertzfeldt.

Sometimes words can achieve what pictures will never do. Unlike the crass "Johnny loves Carmen" or "For a good time call XXX-XXXX" variety, this set of scribblings is appropriately composed upon a lamp post, a source of earthly light that serves as a metaphor for the heavenly light of God.

Within these words, we can feel the frustration of those who yearn to see by heavenly light what they are unable to see by earthly light.

The anguish of those tasked to convince others to see what they themselves cannot see.

But we do see many things around us, with exquisite clarity. A tiny glitch in the System reveals the Matrix that underlies everything.

As the great German philosopher Hans Oberlander once said: "We're all going to be computers soon you know. Thank goodness!"

After they are confronted by another tedious object hunt or the mythical "wall of air" for the nth time, do avid gamers start to question if they are playing the computer game, or is the game playing them?

Which is the Tool, and which the Master?

Here's another burning question. If there are so many "registered" soccer players in the great US of A, then why do they suck so bad at it?

Perhaps sheer numbers will impress... no, distract people from the searing reality that the best soccer players in the world never did spend their formative years spending top dollar to consume bottles of glorified sugary water.

Or perhaps the Gods of yesteryears have been replaced by the Gods of Red, White and Blue - the mother of all brand names.

It only takes a spark, to get the fire going. And soon all those around, may end up as charred corpses.

The first few foreign particles on the leaf may be attractive, even beneficial additions, but as more and more of them arrive, their behaviour changes and the leaf is severely compromised.

Not unlike how adding some carbon particles can strengthen iron into steel, but add too much and you will produce a fragile piece of cast iron that will shatter to pieces when hit with a hard knock.

The cost of diversity is vigilance, a perpetual awareness of the social boundaries that allow a people of various cultures to work together with some semblance of cooperativity.

This is heightened when a huge population is confined to a small geographical area, resulting in frictions that occur on a daily basis.

An appearance of nonchalance on the surface cannot fully mask the suspicions beneath.

Like the models above who look at the shoppers with disturbing stares, people are always watching.


Defining social progress by primarily economic terms, there are many who seek the use of Darwinian principles to justify their actions in what they perceive to be a dog-eat-dog, "survival of the fittest" world.

But Nature is a tinkerer, and much of biological evolution has proceeded via stochastic, neutral events.

Many things persist, not because they are superior to the competition, but because they are irrelevant to the competition.

Take a look at this rusty old weighing machine with creaky analogue levers and spinny wheels. Once a staple of shopping centres everywhere, this one sits alone in a corner that time forgot.

Who would spend 20 cents to receive her weight info stamped onto a card? What is the cost-benefit ratio of such a machine today?

Yet it lives on, oblivious to the rise and fall of digital technologies around it, maybe due to nostalgia, or more likely because nobody really cared enough to get rid of it.

An artifact of the past; now reborn as a metaphor in an obscure science blog.

A shining future of opportunities awaits you! No doubt decked out with flashy new gizmos and catchy new slogans.

But an astute outside observer will ask: "The train only has two sides. Why would you need a display to point out where the doors will open?"

The observer may have failed to appreciate the crushing mass of humanity during rush hour that would impede a person from reaching the other door, if she had inadvertently picked the wrong side of the train to stand at.

More importantly, the observer may have failed to realize that the future does not belong to the last person who is still standing, but to the last person who is still breathing.

Would you like to know more?
Photo Gallery Eleven

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sidewalk Astronomy Carnival!

As you may be aware, 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy. My good friends at the Science Centre have informed me that there's a fun astro event to be held right at your neighbourhood sidewalk megamall!


Sidewalk Astronomy Carnival

In celebration of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) 2009, Science Centre Singapore and The Astronomical Society of Singapore (TASOS) together with our partners, HISTORY(TM), StarHub and Vivo City, is bringing to Singaporeans a Sidewalk Astronomy Carnival. The Carnival will provide a unique opportunity for the public to gain an understanding of astronomy through observations of the sky and related educational talks, activities and documentaries that bring enjoyment and edutainment to both young and old. The public will be able to get up close and personal with the Moon and Saturn through telescopes set up on site.

Date: 1-2 May 2009, Friday & Saturday
Time: 6pm – 10pm
Venue: Vivo City Skypark


6:00 – 6:30 Astronomy projects for kids/families

6:30 – 7:00 Stage games by emcee + FAQs

7:00 – 7:45 History Channel Screening of The Universe (The Moon)

7:50 Welcome Mdm Ellen Lee, MP for Sembawang GRC & Adviser to Woodlands GRC

8:00 Telescope viewing starts

8:00 – 9:00 “The Night Sky and our Solar System” Talk by Mr Kalaimani s/o Retnasamy (Founder member and Hon Secretary, TASOS)

9:00 – 9:15 Stage games by emcee + FAQs

9:15 – 10:00 History Channel Screening of The Universe (Saturn – Lord of the Rings)

10:00 Close


If you are curious about what Saturn looks like through a small telescope under good seeing conditions, here's a nice video:

"Sidewalk" star parties tend to focus on the Moon and planets, because these are easier targets in the city sky, which is awash with the orange glow of light pollution.

To see the more spectacular deep sky objects such as nebulae and galaxies, you may not need a bigger telescope, but you MUST go to a better dark sky location. I'm sure Teck is now at a more stargazing-conducive location than any of us here in Singapore; do check out some of his photos.

However, the upside of a such convenient location is that if the seeing conditions aren't so great, you can just head indoors and stuff your face silly with some of that famous Vivo City kueh tutu!

I think I'll turn up with me olde SP-C80.

Fresh Brainz fanz, if you find a guy with the rustiest scope you've ever seen... that would be me.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Update: Spy vs. Spy

Yet another news release on the AWARE Exco takeover saga, this time with two bizarre twists (highlighted in bold):

AWARE president questions intentions of veterans unhappy over election outcome

By Cheryl Lim/Pearl Forss, Channel NewsAsia
Posted: 17 April 2009 1747 hrs

SINGAPORE: The new president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), Josie Lau, has questioned the intentions of veteran members who are unhappy that newcomers have swept most of the executive committee (Exco) seats in the organisation's recent annual election.

In a statement to the media, she challenged these members to disclose their motives and objectives fully and honestly.

On Tuesday, 160 members had written to the new Exco to request for an extraordinary general meeting, with the apparent purpose of replacing the Exco. The much-awaited extraordinary general meeting will be held on May 2.

Meanwhile, Ms Lau pointed out that no more than five of the signatories were present at last month's annual general meeting.

She also highlighted that just-resigned president Claire Nazar had nominated six out of the 11 new Exco members with the support of veteran members.

Ms Lau also said that following the first Exco meeting on April 7, Ms Nazar unilaterally resigned by email on April 8.

The Exco then called for a second Exco meeting on April 15, the earliest possible date, as the Constitution requires at least seven days' notice.

It was at this meeting that Ms Lau was named the new president unopposed.

Ms Lau said the current committee hopes to improve the life of women in Singapore and is pro-women, pro-family and pro-Singapore.

She added that AWARE is a secular organisation - with members from different races, walks of life and belief systems.

She said that as a democratic society, they welcome diverse viewpoints.

Ms Lau added that she has full confidence in her team and that they are ready for the challenges ahead.

Meanwhile, on Friday evening, some members of the new Exco spoke to Channel NewsAsia.

The new Exco said the organisation's old guard is recruiting members to call the extraordinary general meeting.

The new guard said 120 of the 160 signatories were recruited in the last month to swell support for the requisition.

A vote of no confidence may be considered against the new committee at this meeting.

This comes just weeks after the old guard accused the new Exco of recruiting members to "muscle their way onto the Exco" in the society's annual general meeting.

When asked of their intention of joining AWARE, the new Exco said they wanted to bring fresh ideas to the organisation and improve the quality of life of women in Singapore. They are also planning programmes to help women who are suffering during the economic downturn.



I thought I was pretty good at bending my brainz around stuff, even quantum physics, but this latest news is just too much for me.

I... erm... I'm actually lost for words.

As such, Fresh Brainz will adjourn from this topic, at least until the new Exco actually organizes some dubious activities, if they ever have the chance.

Back to your regularly scheduled mix of wacky research, fun science events and my endless blathering about systems science!

*Update (18 Apr 2009): Josie Lau was actually nominated by Claire Nazar! (1 clash settled, 1 heats up - TODAYonline)

*Latest Update (20 Apr 2009): Josie Lau says that the takeover was not a planned coup. (Aware chief answers critics - ST)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Update: Josie Lau Is AWARE's New President

Latest news - the new president of AWARE is Ms. Josie Lau, who is a vice-president at DBS Bank and the wife of Dr. Alan Chin.

Check out the following news article for more details (key points in bold).

Click on the link to see some pictures of the new Exco:

DBS exec is Aware's head

Josie Lau appointed despite employer's advice not to run

By Tan Dawn Wei, Wong Kim Hoh & Yen Feng

BANK executive Josie Lau, 48, was appointed the new president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) on Wednesday night at a meeting of the new team in charge.

She is vice-president of consumer banking group cards and unsecured loans for DBS Bank.

But shortly after she announced that she was president, posed for pictures and made brief comments to reporters, her employer expressed unhappiness that she had taken the top post at Singapore's best-known women's group.

DBS Bank said it had told her just before last night's Aware exco meeting that it did not support her running for president. The bank said it supported employees' participation in community work, but they needed approval before taking on external appointments.

And Ms Lau did not have the green light to be Aware president.

'We believe that as a vice-president in DBS, she already has a challenging job with many responsibilities, and the role of president would demand too much of her time and energy,' a spokesman said last night.

Ms Lau could not be reached to comment as the new team wanted media queries to be channelled via the Aware office.

Checks by The Straits Times revealed that she is married to Dr Alan Chin Yew Liang, who owns several clinics under the Lifeline Medical Group. They have two teenage daughters, and Ms Lau is also listed as director and shareholder in some of her husband's clinics.

A beaming Ms Lau refused to take questions from reporters when she emerged from last night's exco meeting which lasted nearly four hours. But she said she was pleased and delighted to be president.

'Together with the new exco which was duly elected under the Constitution, I will build on the good work of the past Aware members who advanced the causes for women in all areas of society through advocacy, research and community work,' she said.


With this announcement, I think that the suspicions of many people regarding the Exco takeover has been substantiated.

The Straits Times also reported that "Exco member Caris Lim, a long-time member, walked out three hours into the meeting of the new team, saying she was 'very disillusioned'."

The official statement says: "The new team intends to build on the solid foundations laid by the founders of Aware and will continue to promote the participation of women, on equal terms with men, in the political, social, economic and cultural life of our society. The goal remains to bring about full equality of the sexes and to end all forms of discrimination against women."

However, the new president has refused to answer any question from reporters.

DBS Bank appears to foresee the potential implications of this new appointment, but I fear that they may be vastly underestimating the public sentiment.

To me, reading this news feels like seeing the first six watertight compartments of a ship completely flooded with water.

Would you like to know more?

- Construction of the Titanic

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Update: AWARE Exco Remains Silent

Here are some updates from mainstream media sources regarding the AWARE Exco takeover (I've highlighted some key facts in bold):

1. 160 AWARE members call for meeting to question new ExCo

By Pearl Forss, Channel NewsAsia

Posted: 14 April 2009 2057 hrs

SINGAPORE : 160 members of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) have submitted a request to call an extraordinary general meeting for the society, where a motion of no confidence in the newly-elected Executive Committee (ExCo) will be considered.

It all started at the AWARE annual general meeting on March 28.

Nine of the 12 Executive Committee positions went to newcomers during that meeting. Over 100 people had turned up to vote and many of these voters had only just joined AWARE.

Some of the newcomers have previously written to the media speaking against homosexuality. AWARE, on the other hand, is known for its liberal stance.

"It (AWARE) stands for choice, it stands for gender equity, it stands for democracy, it stands for diversity, plurality. That's why our membership has always been open," said Corinna Lim, a former Executive Committee member and AWARE member since 1992.

When asked for their reasons for seeking leadership, the new ExCo members declined comment.

"We told you that ExCo is going to be meeting sometime this week, after which there will be a press release. So there is no comment," said Charlotte Wong, VP of AWARE.

Its newly-elected President, Claire Nazar, a longtime member of AWARE, resigned barely two weeks after being voted in.

Some past presidents in the meantime, have been collecting signatures to call for an extraordinary general meeting - prompting some observers to comment that they are behaving like sore losers.

"We welcome change, it is not about losing at all. Someone from a different group came in, have certain ideas about what AWARE should be doing and hasn't communicated it, and all we want to know now is what this is about," said Lim.

"The extraordinary general meeting is an opportunity for the new guard to explain their position and win the members over. We can't really comment whether they will hold fast to the traditional line of AWARE, but I can't imagine why not, if they chose to enter AWARE and run for office there," said political analyst Gillian Koh.

The current committee has not replied to members' request to hold the meeting.

AWARE has about 500 members.
- CNA /ls

2. Old guard calls for meeting


THE old guard is fighting back.

After a leadership grab by new faces, the abrupt resignation of the new president and rumours of hidden agendas swirling on the Internet, some 150 longstanding members of the women’s advocacy group Aware have called for an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) that may include a motion of no-confidence in the new executive committee (Exco).

“We don’t know who these people are. We’ve not heard a word from the new Exco for the past two-and-a-half weeks,” said Ms Corrine Lim, a longstanding member of Aware, which stands for the Association of Women for Action and Research. Ms Lim is one of the 150 signatories calling for the EGM.

The concern of the old guard is palpable. On March 28, a large group of new members turned up at Aware’s annual general meeting and apparently staged a coup. Nine of the 12 seats on the society’s Exco went to new members. Eleven days later, its new president Claire Nazar quit abruptly and cyberspace has since been abuzz with rumours about the religious and allegedly anti-gay views of the new Exco members.

“It didn’t help that people were speculating all kinds of things on the Internet. In fact, in times like these, the Exco should come out to respond quickly,” said Ms Lim.

Aware’s new vice-president Charlotte Wong was tight-lipped when Today met her at the group’s office yesterday.

“None of us can answer your questions until the Exco meets. We’re just following the rules. They are in the constitution,” said Ms Wong. “We’ll be releasing a statement after we meet.”

However, a check with Aware’s constitution has turned up no such rule.
Today understands that the Exco will meet today.

Responding to comments by veteran journalist P N Balji that Aware should live up to its spirit of “championing the need for choices in a pluralistic society” and so accept the new line-up, Ms Lim said the EGM will precisely serve this purpose.

“It will be an opportunity for members to raise their concerns with the Exco and also for the new Exco to explain their values and vision of Aware. If the general meeting is happy with their goals, we’ll go along. If not, we’ll put (the matter) to a vote,” she said.

Members of the old guard have asked that the notice to call the EGM be issued no later than 14 days from the date of the request. This is the first time that the society has called for one.

3. Counter-attack at Aware

160 veterans to table no-confidence vote at extraordinary meeting

By Wong Kim Hoh, Senior Writer

THE old guard at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) has launched a counter-attack after several unknowns seized the leadership at its recent elections.

A group of 160 veterans are calling for an extraordinary general meeting (EOGM) where they intend to table a vote of no confidence in the new executive council.

In a statement on Tuesday, they expressed concern over the unusual nature of the March 28 annual general meeting 'when a large number of new members turned up and appeared to vote for several office bearers, all of whom are also new members'.

Older members present were shocked when the newcomers contested and won almost all positions, beating more seasoned members by wide majorities.

Those calling for an EOGM also found it disturbing that Mrs Claire Nazar, who was elected president without a contest, resigned within days.

The new exco members have yet to make known publicly who they are, how they are connected, what prompted them to take over in the manner that they did, or their plans for Singapore's leading women's group.

Repeated attempts to reach exco members for comments have drawn a blank since last week.

Ms Corinna Lim, 44, a spokesman for the old guard group, told The Straits Times: 'It is necessary to have an EOGM because we need an open discussion of what their agenda is.

'We've had a lot of calls from concerned members but we have had no communication from the new exco.'

Ms Lim, a corporate counsel, said that under the Aware constitution, an EOGM must be called if 10 per cent of the membership ask for one in writing. Given the rules, it could be held within a month.


In light of this new information, I think that my previous guess that there is a lack of rapport between the veteran core and their members is incorrect.

The fact that 160 members can stand together and call for an extraordinary general meeting shows that their ties within the organization and their commitment to AWARE's mission remain very strong.

This suggests that the Exco takeover was only successful due to its unexpected nature and not because of any fundamental disunity within the organization.

If there is any schism at all, it is between the new Exco and the vast majority of AWARE members.

And this gulf widens every day with their continued and concerted effort to stop communicating with their own members, not to say the press.

Even more worrying, they appear to be interpreting AWARE's constitution in their own special way.

If this situation persists, the remaining silent majority of about 300 members may become motivated to take a stand.

Anyone who has some experience as a member or a leader of a committee would be aware of the importance of a clear channel of communications, especially during unusual situations.

And this is an unusual situation indeed.

How unusual? Let me put it this way:

Imagine if you just won an election, by a landslide victory, over a group of veterans in an established and respected organization.

You would thank your supporters enthusiastically.

You would immediately reach out to the outgoing exco, thanking them for their previous contributions and assuring their supporters that their voices will continue to be heard by the new administration.

You would greet the new day with a press release announcing the plans of the new exco, affirm your commitment to the core values of the organization and say something optimistic about its future.

In other words, you'd be rather happy. Ecstatic even.

Because you won!

But instead, we get this cold, hard, stonewall.

Even the supporters, who in other elections (remember the US presidential election?) would be running around happily, singing praises of the new committee, remain strangely silent.

"No comment".

In my previous post, I used the metaphor of an iceberg collision to convey my feelings about this matter.

Once a few chunks of ice hit the deck, people will start to ask questions.

If the leaders do not quickly and honestly communicate the situation to the people, the people may begin to imagine all sorts of hideous problems under the surface.

Would you like to know more?

- Time line of events aboard the Titanic

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Serge Haroche's Talk At NUS

French physicist Professor Serge Haroche came to the new NUS Alumni House last Wednesday to give a public talk entitled "Power and Strangeness of the Quantum".

I think that quantum physics is one of the most misunderstood fields of science in the public perception, so I decided to go to the lecture to learn more about it directly from an expert in this area.

Since it was going to be a public talk, hopefully there won't be too much difficult maths!

As you can see, the turnout for the talk was excellent. This was my first visit to the Alumni House - they have a nice big lecture theatre, which was about three-quarters full on that day.

The crowd was quite varied; there were political dignitaries (I assume from the French Embassy), French-speaking scientists, school kids in uniform and even a Sister in religious dress.

Here's the MC for the evening starting off the event by introducing the Dean of Science, Professor Andrew Wee, who would be giving the welcome address.

In his address, Prof. Wee said jokingly that he was glad that so many people turned up for the talk, even though it was April Fool's Day!

He noted that this talk was part of the 80th anniversary celebrations of the Faculty of Science, which would include many other activities, such as science busking.

He also revealed that the Ambassador of France was in attendance in the audience, which indicates that the invited speaker is a highly respected academic indeed.

Next, Prof. Wee called upon Christian Miniatura, who is a visiting professor at the Centre for Quantum Technologies, to give an introduction about Prof. Haroche's research career.

Here's a quick overview of Prof. Haroche's many academic accomplishments. Note that he has taught in American universities for a number of years - I'll come back to that later.

Next, a photo of the research group where Prof. Haroche was a graduate student. His supervisor Prof. Claude Cohen-Tannoudji would later share the Physics Nobel Prize in 1997.

Prof. Miniatura remarked that Prof. Haroche looked pretty casual at that time, with his hands in his pockets...

Another photo of Prof. Student Haroche at that time, not looking very prominent amongst a big stack of research equipment.

Prof. Miniatura noted that those machines may look antiquated, but our instruments today would also look old-fashioned to our grandchildren.

I should also add that scientific equipment may become faster and better, but one thing will never change - troubleshooting.

Remember kids, if there isn't any troubleshooting, it ain't science!

After the brief introduction, Prof. Haroche was welcomed onto the stage...

... and there was a lolcat right there waiting for him.

But of course.

What did you expect?

Did you really think that you can sit through a lecture on quantum physics without seeing a lolcat?!??

Think inside the box, my friend!

Prof. Haroche began by remarking that seeing those old photos again gave him a bittersweet feeling, because it reminded him of how fast time flies.

I think that the years that he spend in the USA has affected his accent; he sounds less French than Prof. Miniatura.

(I also noticed that French people who have spent too many years in Singapore pick up an amazingly authentic Singlish accent, far more accurate than Americans or Brits. But that's a topic for another time...)

He then pointed out that the famed Richard Feynman quote - "nobody understands quantum mechanics" - should be taken with a grain of salt.

"But just in case you don't learn anything from my talk, at least you're in good company," he joked.


Though quantum physics is usually associated with microscopic phenomena, it actually deals with more than 60 orders of magnitude!

As mentioned in the previous slide, quantum law appears at all scales, but at the macroscopic level, it is generally "veiled".

This is an important point that he'll explain in detail later.

As usual, with these sort of scale charts, biological scales are often represented by the DNA double-helix, but never the collagen triple-helix.

It always makes me smirk. Oh well, I'm not a biochemist anyway.

And biologists always appear "sandwiched" between particle physicists and astronomers.

That's fine to me too; it's the stuff in the "middle" that determines the flavour of a sandwich...

This is a public talk where the audience may be more interested in tangible benefits, thus Prof. Haroche spent some time emphasizing the importance of quantum physics to everyday technologies, such as computers...

... lasers...

... atomic clocks (less than one second error over 10 million years!) and GPS systems that depend on them...

... and the quintessential marvel of modern technology - the MRI, which is actually a combination of three quantum technologies.

Now for the maths... time to run and hide!

Not so fast, Prof. Haroche is simply stating that the behaviour of an electron in a hydrogen atom can be described using a wavefunction - a mathematical tool that gives probabilistic results.

Instead of a particle moving in a fixed orbit, the electron is considered to be in a superposition of an infinite number of possible positions.

He noted that Nature has a "wavy" structure. In quantum physics, determinism is replaced by randomness and particles are replaced by wavefunctions.

Apparently Einstein disliked the random aspect of the wavefunction so much that he uttered his famous "God doesn't play dice" quote.

Wavefunctions may sound like mere mathematical constructs, but Prof. Haroche showed us that modern instruments can produce real images of wavefunctions.

Once again, he emphasized that quantum theory is a probabilistic theory.

The essence of quantum strangeness is exemplified by the bizarre phenomenon of quantum interference, which is often demonstrated using Young's double-slit experiment.

When individual particles (eg. electrons) are fired one-by-one through the setup, they hit the target screen at random positions.

As more and more particles pass through, a predictable interference pattern builds up progressively.

But how can there be "interference" if there was only one particle passing through at any one time?

In quantum physics, the wave equation accurately predicts the appearance of the interference pattern.

But Prof. Haroche remarked that classical physicists are not satisfied with that sort of "explanation"...

... they want to know exactly what happened to the particle...

... but the very act of observing the particle disrupts the interference pattern on the target screen!

To me, the easiest way of bending my brainz around this is to think of "observation" here as an active process that can perturb the behaviour of the particle.

Something like how people look away when you shine a bright light in their faces!

More on this later.

Quantum interferences don't just occur spatially, but temporally as well. Interference patterns that appear in time are called "quantum beats".

I'm not going to pretend that I understand the maths behind quantum entanglement.

Suffice to say that once again Einstein didn't like this, calling it "spooky action at a distance", but John Bell found a way to experimentally test it and prove him wrong.

Another strange feature of quantum mechanics has to do with particle identity.

At macroscopic scales, "identical" particles can still be differentiated from one another.

But in quantum systems, identical particles cannot be distinguished from each other. They have no "colours".

Particles can be divided into two categories, based on their interactions with one another: Fermions and Bosons.

Here's a quick overview of the differences between fermions and bosons.

Particle constituents of matter are fermions while intervening particles (such as photons) are bosons.

Got it.

But atoms that are made up of an even number of fermions behave like bosons.

Er... I'm getting a little lost here.

So, depending on the total number of particles in an isotope (including electrons), an atom can behave either as a fermion or as a boson, thus producing a different interference pattern.

I think I understand this.

Now, to me this is the most important slide in the entire talk, because it addresses a key public misunderstanding of quantum physics that is often exploited by New Age woo-meisters.

Can quantum strangeness occur to macroscopic objects?

Erwin Schrödinger once posed this question as a thought experiment: the infamous Schrödinger's Cat (referenced in the lolcat slide earlier) which has become sort of a mascot for quantum strangeness.

Schrödinger was thinking of a way to transform a superposition inside an atom to a large-scale superposition of a live and dead cat by coupling the cat and atom using a specially constructed device.

He wanted to critique the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics by illustrating the absurdity of its consequences.

Wikipedia describes this concisely:

A cat, along with a flask containing a poison, is placed in a sealed box shielded against environmentally induced quantum decoherence.

If an internal Geiger counter detects radiation then the flask is shattered, releasing the poison which kills the cat.

Quantum mechanics suggests that after a while the cat is simultaneously alive and dead.

Yet, when we look in the box, we see the cat either alive or dead, not a mixture of alive and dead.

Prof. Haroche explained that quantum strangeness usually does not happen to macroscopic objects precisely because of decoherence: the environment gets entangled with the system and destroys quantum superpositions.

He said that you can consider it as the environment "spying" on the cat.

Decoherence becomes faster as the system size increases, thus macroscopic objects behave in a more intuitive, classical manner.

Schrödinger did not expect anyone to actually test his thought experiment, but today physicists have the tools to fight decoherence and it is now possible to do the imaging of isolated trapped atoms...

... see microwave photons...

... and even set up a photonic version of the Schrödinger's Cat experiment.

Here, the purple feature under the disk corresponds to the "cat state" quantum coherence.

As decoherence effects set in, you can see the purple feature gradually disappear from the field diagram as the quantum system is transformed into a classical system (towards upper right).

Prof. Haroche then proceeded to talk about new quantum technologies on the horizon.

An exciting new field of quantum computing is emerging and has the potential to be much faster than current technology.

However, he cautioned that building a large practical quantum computer is very difficult because of decoherence.

A simpler application of quantum entanglement is in cryptography - used for the purposes of secure communications. This technology is already available on the market.

In his last slide, Prof. Haroche turned to his attention to the question of whether a second "quantum revolution" is approaching.

He speculated that we might see new applications in the future that we can't even dream about today.

As a concluding message, he encouraged young scientists to let their curiosity drive their research and not to be obsessed with the quantum computer, but quickly added "as long as the funding agencies permit it".

He joked: "That is our tragic position in life."

With that, he ended his talk and it was time for the Q&A session!

I asked the first question of the evening, and not surprisingly it was:

"What popular misconception of quantum physics in the public annoys you the most?"

Prof. Haroche replied that he especially disliked the abuse of quantum physics in discussions of consciousness or free will, because those processes operate at an "overwhelmingly classical" level.

Later, a member of the audience stood up and commented: "I'm just a layman but now I know where the term 'quantum leap' comes from!"

Then there was a question about quantum tunneling, and Prof. Haroche proceeded to give a quick overview of that effect.

I think the best question of the evening came from a young man who asked:

"There are now numerous interpretations of quantum mechanics. Which interpretation do you prefer?"

Prof. Haroche conceded that it was a good question - he was aware of physicists who were adamant that quantum mechanics does not "need" interpretations and that the mathematics was all that you needed.

He used to subscribe to that view, but confessed that as he got older, he appreciated interpretations more. Still, he thought that it could be an "endless game" since our intuition is simply unable to understand quantum mechanics.

After all that heavy intellectual "food" it was time to stuff my face with some real "classical" stuff!

It was Thai food, and you can see that there was a good spread.

As I munched on my dinner, I was thinking about decoherence due to environmental entanglement and how it vastly simplifies the behaviour of macroscopic objects, which fits nicely into my FAMILIAR model.

Maybe I'm really on to something...

Would you like to know more?

Other lectures by prominent academics:
Bruce Alberts At The Biopolis
Embryonic Stem Cell Lecture (Prof. Martin Evans)
Early Detection Is Your Best Bet (Prof. Lee Hartwell)