Subscribe to Feed            Add to your Favourites

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

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Photo Gallery Four

Here's another collection of photos, this time with a common theme that flows through all of them.

No prizes for guessing what it is.

(2007) Sony DSC-S600

Following winds
(2007) Sony DSC-S600

Happiness seems to be loneliness
(2007) Sony DSC-S600

Little swimming pools
(2007) DSC-S600

(2007) Sony DSC-S600

Rising bubbles
(2007) Sony DSC-S600

Row of fountains
(2007) Sony DSC-S600

Splashing fun!
(2007) Sony DSC-S600

I think I need to go to the little boy's room.

Would you like to know more?

- Photo Gallery One
Photo Gallery Two
- Photo Gallery Three

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Counterintuitive Science: Cognitive Dissonance

Have you ever had this thought?

"ARGGGGHHHH! I HATE my job so much that I'd rather take a pay cut to do anything else!"

So what happens if they cut your pay but still force you to do the same frickin' job?

Common sense would predict that you will hate your job much, much more.

But science says - not quite.

In fact, you might even grow to LOVE your job!

This bizarre effect is called Cognitive Dissonance*.

I first read about it as an neuroscience undergrad.

How was this effect discovered?

Back in the 1950s, behaviourism was all the rage in psychology.

Behaviourists believed that the only relevant psychological phenomena were behaviours that could be measured directly.

Stimulus -> Response.

There is no need to use vague concepts such as the "mind" to explain how the response occurs.

Other psychologists suspected otherwise.

In 1956, a UFO doomsday cult predicted that the world would end on 21st December that year.

They expected aliens from the planet Clarion to save them from a global flood.

Psychologist Leon Festinger infiltrated the cult in order to study their behaviour closely.

Minute-by-minute, midnight approached.

Then it came.

And nothing happened.

Even hours after midnight, believers continued to wait for alien visitors to arrive.

Suddenly the cult leader proclaimed that the faith of her cult members had spread so much light that God decided to save the world from doom.

Believers readily accepted the alternative explanation, and by the next morning they were preaching their belief more vigorously than they ever did before.

The failed prophesy did not end their belief - on the contrary, it spurred them to become even more fervent!

Festinger wrote a book about this backwards turn of affairs and proposed the theory of cognitive dissonance to explain it.

He observed that when people are confronted with evidence that clearly refutes their deeply held beliefs, they will feel an uncomfortable tension that results from inner conflict.

However, instead of relieving the tension by changing their belief, many of them will rationalize it - by changing the perception of their actions.

In the case of the doomsday cult, instead of abandoning their core beliefs because of the failed prophesy, members changed the perception of their midnight virgil: from waiting to be rescued by aliens, to convincing God to spare the world.

Festinger decided to design an experiment to test his theory.

Together with James Carlsmith, he recruited undergraduate students to participate in a study.

Students were tasked to perform boring and repetitive activities (such as rotating 48 square pegs one-by-one on a large board) for one whole hour.

They were then split into three groups.

One group was paid one dollar each to tell another student (actually a confederate of the experimenters) that the task was interesting and exciting.

Essentially, they were paid to lie.

Another group was paid 20 dollars to do the same thing.

The control group was not requested to tell the student anything.

Students from all three groups were then interviewed to evaluate their private opinion of the task.

And the results?

If the behaviourists were right, then the students who were paid $20 should like the task more, because they would associate the payment with the task.

Instead, students who were paid $1 said that they enjoyed the task significantly more than the $20 or control groups!

Festinger deduced that these students were experiencing the dissonance of having to lie for a measly buck, so they resolved it by convincing themselves that they really liked the task.

This classic experiment was an elegant demonstration that behaviourist models were incomplete and "mentalistic" concepts were necessary to help explain human psychological experiences.

Since then, many experiments have been done to investigate the details of cognitive dissonance, and so far it appears to transcend gender and culture.

From the way I presented it, you'd think that I consider cognitive dissonance as a totally bad thing.

No, not really.

If not for cognitive dissonance, there would be no graduate students on this planet.

Or science bloggers.

Trust me on this one.

Would you like to know more?
Original research article by Festinger and Carlsmith, 1959

*To A.H.: cognitive dissonance is dissonance within cognition, not dissonance from cognition. I know you hate it, but it's a real term. Heh.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Come Fly With Google Earth!

The latest version of Google Earth (4.2) now has a cool Easter Egg - a flight simulator!

Just press CTRL-ALT-A and an option screen will pop up. You can choose from two aircraft: a jet fighter or a single-engined prop plane.

A simple head-up display gives you the instrument readings.

Now you can fly anywhere in the real world!

OK not quite real, but decked out with real satellite photos and some pretty 3D buildings.

For superb terrain effects, check out the Himalayas around Mount Everest, or the Grand Canyon in the USA.

For incredible 3D buildings, check out Las Vegas.

My only minor quibble is that many airport runways are not flat enough. Makes for rather bumpy take-offs and landings.

Otherwise it is a treat.

You can even try the 45-degree turn at Checkboard Hill into the now defunct Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong.

Or land just metres from the pristine beach at Princess Juliana's in St. Maarten.

Which is usually occupied by naked beach goers.



Monday, September 17, 2007

Fresh Science 17 September 2007

We do the hard work of swimming the globe for the splashiest science articles - so you don't have to.

Relativism (Anders Rasmussen Blog - Sweden)
You don't have to be absolutely correct in order to be more correct...

Number 1 or Number 2? (Bayblab - Canada)
What kind of wind is more destructive? Get to the bottom of this question...

How to hide beer in the office (Darwinian Remiix - USA)
We're out of 80 gsm paper again...

Lucky escape from crossbow brain injury (Mind Hacks - USA)
Guys will instinctively touch their throats when they see the following pictures...

The Tyrannosaur and the Lettuce: A Parable (Principles of Parsimony - UK)
Watch me grind some broccoli into a fine pulp with my canines! Hah!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Random Art Two

Saturday, September 15, 2007

New Brainy Podcast From Scientific American

You know, I didn't always want to be a scientist.

My first aspiration was to become a pilot.

Ideally a space pirate like Han Solo - imagine the freedom to fly anywhere in the galaxy!

With a loyal, furry alien companion by my side.

And a plucky Princess to fulfill all my regular needs when spending many days in the dark depths of space - in a cosy vehicle decked out in smooth leather and cold metal.


So I read up lots of books about aeroplanes and ironically became too myopic to actually become a pilot.

Talk about short-sightedness!

Then later, like every other geeky kid growing up in the 1990s, I wanted to become a computer wiz.

In those days: Computer = Smart.

Unfortunately spending too much time setting jumpers, replacing clock crystals, mucking around in thick programming manuals and debugging endless lines of code was slowly causing me to lose my mind.

Due to frustration and confusion. More the former.

And so I switched focus - to the mind.

The Science of Brainz!

Actually I've been quite a science geek throughout my childhood, but it was an incident during junior college that let me truly appreciate science as a method, rather than a collection of facts.

Reeling from a failed maths exam (I always suck at maths), I sought refuge in my school library and noticed a big, heavy book sitting in the periodicals section.

Just above a stack of computer magazines screaming "586 Will Be Called The Pentium!" and "Insider News About Windows Chicago!"

It was a Scientific American book about psychology. A collection of classic psychological studies dating back to the 1950s.

I remember distinctly two of the articles - one about Harry Harlow's study of love in infant monkeys, and another about "The Moon Illusion".

The moon illusion study was especially interesting because it clearly illustrates how scientists use various methods to check possible explanations of the same effect.

For example: some people proposed that head angle may influence the perception of the moon's size, so researchers created an ingenious optical device that bends light at an angle, causing a rising moon to appear as if it was directly overhead.

Observers looking through this device did not experience the moon illusion, supporting the hypothesis that head position matters.

It was a fascinating investigation that helped to spark my curiosity in brainz science.

Today, Scientific American continues their long tradition of producing cool articles about brainy stuff with an exciting new addition: a weekly podcast called the 60-second Psych.

If you've got a minute, why not head on over and check out the latest brainy discoveries?

Wait a minute... I see a glazed look in your eyes.

You're still having certain thoughts about the Princess, aren't you?

Did you even hear a single word I said?

How typical.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

More Disturbing News

$660 million lifestyle hub to go up at Buona Vista

10 September 07, The Strait Times
by Joyce Teo, Property Correspondent

COME 2011, a futuristic-looking lifestyle hub with a 5,000-seat theatre, restaurants, shops, chill-out wine bars and even dance clubs will emerge in Buona Vista.
Property giant CapitaLand and a church-linked business company, Rock Productions, announced yesterday that they will jointly develop an integrated complex in Singapore's one-north science hub at a cost of $660 million.

CapitaLand's share of the proposed development, including the ownership of about 1,000 carpark lots, will be about $380 million.

Rock Productions - the business arm of the 16,000- strong New Creation Church - will invest $280 million.

The complex, which will be connected directly to the Buona Vista MRT station, will be sited within the 17ha Vista Xchange, the business service centre as well as lifestyle and cultural hub of one-north.

Click here to read more.

This is the proposed design of the new building...

...which looks... eerily similar to...

I have a bad feeling about this.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Creationists Have Arrived

They are here.

And so it begins (so it ends).

Would you like to know more?

Who Is Your Creator? (Website)
Tour of the Creation Museum

Fresh Science 12 September 2007

We do the hard work of sampling the globe for the swankiest science articles - so you don't have to.

Fact or Fiction: Full moon baby boom (Bayblab - Canada)
Let me guess - fiction? Ding!

Life: How well do we know ourselves? (Biocurious - USA)
Yup, 0.678% of us runs everything else in your body...

How your PhD thesis might look to you (Entertaining Research - India)
It could turn out this way... or you could've been a rock star...

Mega-post preview (Laelaps - USA)
The Cope-Marsh Dino wars!

Brain type responsible for politics, pant wetting (Mind Hacks - USA)
It's not my fault, t'was the wiring...

Monday, September 10, 2007

History Of The Pipette

Fresh Brainz is proud to present to you: our very first vlog episode!

It's a "vlogumentary", in fact.


Would you like to know more?

The Art of the Pipet (PDF file)

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Not Too Young To Die, Never Too Old To Rock And Roll

In 1983, Twisted Sister released an album called You Can't Stop Rock 'N' Roll.

A running gag on Brainiac is to "stop" rock and roll by demolishing the cassette player playing this song using torture instruments such as flame throwers and fire extinguishers.

But it turns out that rock and roll can be "stopped" in another way.

Rock stars live fast and die young.

Yes, that has been folk knowledge for a long time.

And now it's supported by science.

Researchers at Liverpool John Moores University, led by Prof. Mark Bellis, studied 1064 British and American artistes who became famous between 1956 and 1999.

They compared the life spans of these rock stars to the life expectancy of the general population (matched for age, sex and ethnic background) up until 2005.

And the results?

Here is a quick summary:

1. By 2005, 100 rock stars have died (7.3 per cent of women and 9.6 per cent of men).

2. Their average life span was 35 years for European and 42 for North American stars.

3. The most common cause of death was drug and alcohol abuse (25% of all cases). Other causes include cancer (20%), accidents (16%), violence (6%) and suicide (3%).

4. In the first five years after achieving fame, rock stars are three times more likely to die than age-matched controls.

5. Ten years after initial success, rock stars still have 2.5 times higher risk of death than the general population.

6. This risk gradually declines toward the population average after 25 years for British stars. Older rock celebrities (such as the Rolling Stones) who managed to last this long have the same life expectancy as everyone else. However, the risk still remains high for American stars. Researchers postulate that the lack of healthcare and the tradition of reuniting old rockers for come-back tours in America may be the cause.

So there you have it.

Rock stars live dangerously close to the edge. Some of them fall right over.

Prof. Bellis said the main reason for this study is to spotlight behaviour in the music industry, and is relevant not only to celebrities but also to the young people who idolize them.

One in ten children in the UK aspire to be a pop star.

"These people hold a special position to potentially influence the behaviour of millions of young people who look up to them."

That is a really cool study.

But I'm not sure if their data will have a positive impact on the behaviour of crazy kids.

Everyone knows that a rock star who rocks into his old age is a Rock Legend.

But a rock star who dies young is a Rock God.


Would you like to know more?

Rock 'N' Roll: Sex, Drugs and an Early Exit
- Rock 'n' roll will never die - but its stars go young
Study affirms that rock stars more likely to die young than regular folk

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Fresh Jobs 5 September 2007

Interested in doing science in Singapore? Check out the latest career opportunities right here on Fresh Brainz.

Post-doctoral Research Opportunities in Singapore @ The Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN)

The Singapore Immunology Network (SIgN), has been established by the Agency for
Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) with the aim of expanding immunological research in Singapore. Steered by Prof Philippe Kourilsky as Chairman, one major objective of the SIgN is to build a strong research programme in basic human immunology with new laboratories located in Biopolis. This programme will interact with other initiatives within Biopolis and across Singapore; and also participate in international collaborations.

Applications are invited for the Infectious Diseases (and Vaccine Research) Unit of
Professor Philippe Kourilsky and Dr Lisa F.P. Ng. In this position, successful applicants will participate in research on infectious diseases from the immunological stand point with specific interests in preventive and therapeutic vaccines, diagnostics, therapeutic antibodies and other products.

Positions open for:

1. Post-doctoral Research Fellow

The post is funded by SIgN, A*STAR with a 3-years contract. The level of appointment and remuneration package will be in accordance to the experience of the candidates and will be internationally competitive.

Qualified candidates should possess:
- PhD in a relevant field (Molecular Virology/Molecular Immunology/Molecular Biology)
- Strong verbal and written communication, analytical skills
- Experience in handling biosafety level 2 and 3 agents

2. Postgraduate/Attachment Research Students

Positions are open for both short-term and long-term research projects.

Qualified candidates should possess:
- A good (BSc/BSc (Hon)/MSc) Degree in a relevant field (eg. Microbiology /Molecular
Biology/Biomedical Sciences/Biochemistry/Virology/Immunology)
- Strong verbal and written communication, analytical skills

Contact: Please send Resume/Curriculum Vitae to Dr Lisa F.P. Ng.


Thank you in advance for your interest. Only short-listed candidates will be contacted.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Brainiac is Back!

Brainiac is back on Singaporean TV!


Check out this outstanding science fluff show on Arts Central, Tuesdays at 10pm.

Explosions, pointless experiments, hot babes, endless double-entendres and even bigger explosions.

What more could one ask for!?!!

As the programme synopsis so eloquently states:

"Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough."

Oh I most certainly am.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Alfred Russel Wallace: A Scientist And A Spiritualist

In this fourth installment of our continuing series on stories of the second best, Fresh Brainz turns to the life and work of Alfred Russel Wallace - a great scientist who never became legend.

Wallace (left photo) is the co-discoverer of natural selection, a crucial mechanism for biological evolution.

In fact, he almost scooped Charles Darwin (right photo) when he formulated his ideas about natural selection in June 1858 while suffering from malaria in a tropical island (in modern-day Indonesia). He sent his essay entitled On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type to Darwin, who was shocked to see that Wallace's ideas were so similar to his own.

Darwin had spent nearly 20 years working on his idea, and his dream was about to be dashed!

This could have a sparked off a fierce academic rivalry, but to the credit of both scientists, the situation was amicably resolved.

Wallace realized that Darwin was a much more prominent biologist and had developed the natural selection hypothesis much further. Thus, he sought to cooperate, rather than to compete with him. Darwin reciprocated in collegial spirit (years later he would also help get Wallace out of financial difficulty by lobbying for a government pension).

They agreed to announce their discovery jointly Darwin decided that their discovery would be announced at the Linnean Society meeting on the first of July.

Their papers were read by the secretary of the meeting, since both Wallace (who was in present-day Kalimantan) and Darwin (who was attending the funeral of his son) were unable to attend.

The papers made very little impact at that time.

Undeterred, Darwin rushed to complete his On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, which was finally published in November 1859. The book was so popular that it quickly sold out.

The rest is history, and Wallace would never rise above the shadow of Darwin.

But Wallace did not merely spark off the revolution in evolution - he had his own distinct ideas about natural selection.

For example, he emphasized adaptation to the ecological environment as the main driving force of natural selection, whereas Darwin focused more on intra-species competition.

Wallace also proposed a role of natural selection as a feedback mechanism for keeping organisms adapted to their environment. Today we call this process "purifying selection" - Darwin himself did not appreciate the stabilizing effect that natural selection can have on populations.

In addition, Wallace discovered a way in which natural selection can lead to reproductive isolation. He predicted that hybrid offspring of two varieties that have diverged far from the parental species would have poorer adaptive fitness, thus allowing natural selection to drive them further apart - resulting in a split into two new species. This is called the Wallace Effect.

Despite his many contributions to evolutionary biology, few biologists today are willing to call themselves "Wallacean (or Wallacian?) evolutionists".


There are two main reasons:

Firstly, Wallace's version of evolution contained some errors.

He downplayed the role of sexual selection, an important aspect of natural selection. He also did not consider the possibility of neutral evolution (from today's perspective he would be a pan-adaptationist).

But more importantly, Wallace did not believe that natural selection applied to the human mind and consciousness. He was a theistic evolutionist who believed that an unseen Spirit had intervened in the course of evolution to produce the human mind.

Another reason is that Wallace's reputation as a scientist gradually declined from the 1860's onwards, as he became more and more attracted to spiritualism.

He wasn't a fan of organized religion.

But he liked phrenology, experimented with hypnosis and was convinced that some of the phenomena experienced during séances were real. He believed it so much that he was willing to defend spiritualist mediums against allegations of fraud, severely undermining his own reputation.

He also became a strong opponent of vaccination, a new medical technique at that time which would later save millions of lives from infectious diseases such as smallpox.

Wallace was convinced that the benefits claimed by vaccination proponents were simply results of better hygiene. He believed that these people were protecting their own vested interests. He even produced questionable statistics while trying to support his anti-vaccination stand during a Royal Commission investigation.

This sort of behaviour alienated Wallace from his scientific colleagues and he quickly faded into obscurity after his death.

Even today, his historic legacy to modern science continues to be controversial.

Still, Fresh Brainz is always happy to root for the underdog.

Wallace was not only a superb scientist, but he also has direct links with Singapore (unlike Albert Einstein), visiting our island numerous times to collect beetles and other insect specimens.

He certainly deserves to be better known and more widely read - which is why Fresh Brainz is so happy to feature his story!

Ok, that's not completely true.

It's his cool glasses that sealed the deal.

Totally geek.

Would you like to know more?

More resources on Wallace
The Alfred Russel Wallace Page
Rocky Road: Alfred Russel Wallace

Other stories of the second best
Swiss vs British Everest teams
Steve Jobs vs Bill Gates
Golgi vs Cajal