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!

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Happy New Year 2010!

So the media says that the decade is over... or is it?

Did the decade start in 2000 or 2001?

Who gets to decide these things?


In any case, a New Year beckons! I would like to thank all regular Fresh Brainz readers for your support through these years.

And just like last year, I'll present a compilation of the Weekly Obscure Quotes from this outgoing year.

Hope you like them!


1. “Pablo Casals was a great cellist of the last century – he was a great virtuoso, just considered the absolute master of his instrument. And in his 90s he was still practicing 3 hours a day. And one of his friends asked him, ‘Senor Casals, you're a master, why do you still practice 3 hours a day?’ and he said, ‘Well, I'm beginning to notice some improvement.’” – George Carlin

2. “A student of ours, Fran and her husband, John, decided they wanted to go to live in the Missouri Ozarks. Everyone told them that there was no way for them to make a living there. Everyone they asked advised them not to do it. Finally, a minister in the Church they proposed to attend told them that they were to serve there. Out of twenty or thirty people they asked, that minister was the only one who told them to come. Of course, it was exactly what they wanted to hear. They sold their home and most of their possessions accumulated over a lifetime. They moved to the Ozarks and went broke within a year. They had to leave and begin all over again.” – Joe Ross

3. “If a judge was to say to you: ‘How do you account for the fact you say you are home asleep at midnight, but we found your DNA at the scene of the crime’, and you went: ‘I move in mysterious ways, goodnight!’ It won’t wash.” – Ricky Gervais

4. “Excellent black people have always been compensated for excellence. Always. The real equality is when we can have a black president as dumb as George Bush. That's when we're really equal. That's when the dream has come true.” – Chris Rock

5. “How easily nonsense proffered in an earnest and profound manner can browbeat someone into acquiescence.” – John Allen Paulos

6. “The opponents of evolution education are not disputing the facts of any particular scientific conclusion - that’s why they don’t do experiments, or publish research. What they want is “equal time”: equal time between religious dogma and science - between faith and reason - between provable theory and unprovable assertion.” – Timothy Sandefur

7. “Using ‘Darwinism’ as synonymous with ‘evolutionary biology’ is thus a touch unfair to the men and women who have contributed to the scientific edifice to which Darwin provided the cornerstone, including (to name a few) Wallace, Huxley, Weisman, De Vries, Romanes, Morgan, Weidenreich, Teilhard, von Frisch, Vavilov, Wright, Fisher, Muller, Haldane, Dobzhansky, Rensch, Ford, McClintock, Simpson, Hutchinson, Lorenz, Mayr, Delbrück, Jukes, Stebbins, Tinbergen, Luria, Maynard Smith, Price, Kimura, Ostrom, Wilson, Hamilton, and Gould, to say nothing of even more who are still contributing to evolutionary biology. As Olivia Judson (2008) recently commented, terms like ‘Darwinism’ ‘suggest a false narrowness to the field of modern evolutionary biology, as though it was the brainchild of a single person 150 years ago, rather than a vast, complex and evolving subject to which many other great figures have contributed.’” – Eugenie C. Scott and Glenn Branch

8. “Governments seem to be unaware that bankers do not rescue economies, they rescue banks. They always want to privatise profits and nationalise losses.” – Daniel Thorniley (The Economist)

9. “No feature of consciousness has ever been discovered that does not depend 100% on neurophysiology. Stimulate the brain with chemicals or an electrical current, and the person’s experience changes; let a person’s experience vary, and you can measure the changes in chemistry or electrophysiology. When a brain is damaged, the person’s mental life is diminished accordingly, and when the brain’s activity ceases, the mind goes out of existence – Wallace’s séances notwithstanding, no one has found a way to communicate with the dead. The very existence of a subjective correlate of brain activity may not be understood (if it’s an intellectually coherent problem at all, which some would deny), but positing a ‘soul’ simply renames the problem with no insight, and leaves the perfect correlation between consciousness and neurophysiology unexplained.” – Steven Pinker

10. “They say a rising tide lifts all ships. As the water drains out of the market, all of the rocks and sharks are left exposed.” – Hendersonmj (commenter at

11. “If anything, a student who tries really, really, really hard at something and still repeatedly falls short might benefit from realizing that his talents lie elsewhere… not to state the obvious, but I don't want a brain surgeon who graduated at the top of his class because he had perfect attendance. I want one who is an artist with a scalpel.” – Michelle Cottle

12. “Additionally, a frightening web of mutual dependence develops among huge financial institutions. Receivables and payables by the billions become concentrated in the hands of a few large dealers who are apt to be highly-leveraged in other ways as well. Participants seeking to dodge troubles face the same problem as someone seeking to avoid venereal disease: It’s not just whom you sleep with, but also whom they are sleeping with.” – Warren Buffet

13. “The worst kind of censorship has always been the kind that newspaper people impose on themselves.” – Andy Rooney

14. “Science lets us see superstition for the disempowering nonsense that it is. I think it’s the only method that can truly satisfy our innate curiosity and it literally lets us reach for the stars. That’s why science is important.” – Alom Shaha

15. “Does anybody understand me? Don't go. I am lonely. I am delicate. Please don't leave me. I'm like an old car in Cuba.” – Hans Oberlander

16. “Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spent the rest of the day putting the pieces together.” – Ray Bradbury

17. “It's the rain that I hear coming, not a stranger or a ghost. It's the quiet of a storm approaching, that I fear the most.” – Delerium (Innocente)

18. “Doth thy other mouth call me? Mercy, mercy! This is a devil, and no monster. I will leave him; I have no long spoon.” – Stephano (The Tempest)

19. “Sometimes, you don't have to do anything to offend... but I'm not in the business of making everyone happy.” – Sam Ho

20. “The world is a mess, and I just need to rule it.” – Dr. Horrible

21. “It depends on what you mean by organising. It is kind of flattering in a way. I'm frustrated, I talk to people, I collect info, I send to different people. You want to join, join. I will help you. We discover that networking helps.” – Dr. Thio Su Mien

22. “It’s a trap!” – Admiral Ackbar (Return Of The Jedi)

23. “What, then, do Jim Watson and I deserve credit for? If we deserve any credit at all, it is for persistence and the willingness to discard ideas when they became untenable.” – Francis Crick

24. “If I ask you for sex, will you give me the same answer as the answer to this question?” – via ‘That Sounds Clever’ blog

25. “In real life, she has almost nothing in common with most of her viewers. She is an unapproachable billionaire with a private jet and homes around the country who hangs out with movie stars. She is not married and has no children. But television Oprah is a different person. She somehow manages to make herself believable as a down-to-earth everywoman. She is your girlfriend who struggles to control her weight and balance her work and personal life, just like you.” – Weston Kosova and Pat Wingert (Newsweek)

26. “Ribonucleotides are simply an expression of the fundamental principles of organic chemistry. They’re doing it unwittingly. The instructions for them to do it are inherent in the structure of the precursor materials. And if they can self-assemble so easily, perhaps they shouldn’t be viewed as complicated.” – John Sutherland

27. “If we cooperate, it will mean opening up our rocket program to them. We have only two hundred missiles, but they think we have many more. So when they say we have something to hide? It is just the opposite. We have nothing to hide. We have nothing. And we must hide it.” – Nikita Khrushchev

28. “Fundamentalists are people who consider themselves oppressed when they’re not allowed to force their beliefs on everybody else.” – Yoga for Cynics

29. “The clue to the entire mindset is in the import of her first few sentences: if we believe that we were "created out of love" by a loving creator, then we are worthy of love, and can love. If not, then not. Like only comes from like. If we are material and physical, then nothing can come out of that but material, physical things. No values, no morals, no thoughts and no feelings. Mind comes from mind. Life comes from life. Fish come from fish. Monkey come from monkeys. People come from people. Love comes from love. If the universe wasn't a kind of love to begin with, then there would be no real love in it at all, ever. Their views are impoverished by their lack of imagination, and the almost infantile inability to see that small changes can accumulate till they are big changes, and novelty can grow out and emerge from something not at all like it.” – Sastra

30. “Because with great power, comes giant robots.” – Starschwar

31. “You're either growing or dying, there’s no middle ground. You can’t hold what you have, that doesn’t work in business. So we grew.” – Hugh McColl

32. “A tree is known by its fruit.” – Leileilove1101

33. “One blueprint for trouble, making collapse likely, is where there is a conflict of interest between the short-term interest of the decision-making elites, and the long-term interest of the society as a whole. Especially if the elites are able to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions.” – Jared Diamond

34. “What is the point of having independent scientific advice if as soon as you get some advice that you don't like, you sack the person who has given it to you?” – Chris Hunhe

35. “I think it is important at least to raise the possibility that you can criticize something which everybody has accepted as uncriticizable.” – Howard Zinn

36. “I did have another job at one point, as a computer programmer, but I kept up with my other work because it was so much more enjoyable.” – Brooke Magnanti (Belle de Jour)

37. “By 2006, chief executives at the biggest U.S. companies had bumped up their compensation to 364 times that of the average worker, compared with just 40 times the average worker's pay in 1980.” – Michael Brush

38. “The crisis almost certainly spells the end of Dubai's economic model that’s focused heavily on property investment and inflows of foreign capital.” – Paul Chapman (Reuters)

39. “On two occasions I have been asked, 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.” – Charles Babbage

40. “Over the past few decades, psychologists have dismantled the myth of objectivity. The fact is, we carefully edit our reality, searching for evidence that confirms what we already believe. Although we pretend we’re empiricists - our views dictated by nothing but the facts - we’re actually blinkered, especially when it comes to information that contradicts our theories. The problem with science, then, isn’t that most experiments fail - it’s that most failures are ignored.” – Jonah Lehrer


Have a Happy and Healthy New Year 2010!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Not Always About Who You Know...

Check out this superb article "Is the Tipping Point Toast?" (Fast Company article via Mind Hacks) which critiques the concept of "Influentials" in Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point and highlights some of the interesting research data by network theorist Duncan Watts.

Social-networking tools are extensively used in marketing today, stemming from a belief that there exists a small group of highly-interconnected Influentials who play the major role in starting or propagating trends of any sort.

However, this belief is rarely put to a rigorous investigation and the assumption that these Influentials can be identified and targetted is made with the benefit of hindsight.

In fact, studies by Watts suggest the counterintuitive result that random Ordinary people are more likely to start trends than Influentials, and there is no way of telling in advance who that person will be.

He performed an interesting "turn back the clock" experiment (conceptually similiar to Richard Lenski's experiment in evolutionary biology) that was published in Science in 2006:

Watts wanted to find out whether the success of a hot trend was reproducible. For example, we know that Madonna became a breakout star in 1983. But if you rewound the world back to 1982, would Madonna break out again? To find out, Watts built a world populated with real live music fans picking real music, then hit rewind, over and over again. Working with two colleagues, Watts designed an online music-downloading service. They filled it with 48 songs by new, unknown, and unsigned bands. Then they recruited roughly 14,000 people to log in. Some were asked to rank the songs based on their own personal preference, without regard to what other people thought. They were picking songs purely on each song's merit. But the other participants were put into eight groups that had "social influence": Each could see how other members of the group were ranking the songs.

Watts predicted that word of mouth would take over. And sure enough, that's what happened. In the merit group, the songs were ranked mostly equitably, with a small handful of songs drifting slightly lower or higher in popularity. But in the social worlds, as participants reacted to one another's opinions, huge waves took shape. A small, elite bunch of songs became enormously popular, rising above the pack, while another cluster fell into relative obscurity.

But here's the thing: In each of the eight social worlds, the top songs--and the bottom ones--were completely different. For example, the song "Lockdown," by 52metro, was the No. 1 song in one world, yet finished 40 out of 48 in another. Nor did there seem to be any compelling correlation between merit and success. In fact, Watts explains, only about half of a song's success seemed to be due to merit. "In general, the 'best' songs never do very badly, and the 'worst' songs never do extremely well, but almost any other result is possible," he says. Why? Because the first band to snag a few thumbs-ups in the social world tended overwhelmingly to get many more. Yet who received those crucial first votes seemed to be mostly a matter of luck.

Word of mouth and social contagion made big hits bigger. But they also made success more unpredictable. (And it's worth noting, no one in the social worlds had any more influence than anyone else.) So yes, Watts figures, if you rewound the world to 1982, Madonna would likely remain a total unknown--and someone else would have slipped into her steel-tipped corset. "You cannot predict in advance whether a band gets this huge cascade of popularity, because the social network is liable to throw up almost any result," he marvels.

Contingency is important, and the role of Influentials is highly exaggerated.

In any case, I find it curious that both Duncan Watts and I have a similar key criticism of The Tipping Point which I reviewed over three years ago - using a similar metaphor!

Watt's view:

Perhaps the problem with viral marketing is that the disease metaphor is misleading. Watts thinks trends are more like forest fires: There are thousands a year, but only a few become roaring monsters. That's because in those rare situations, the landscape was ripe: sparse rain, dry woods, badly equipped fire departments. If these conditions exist, any old match will do. "And nobody," Watts says wryly, "will go around talking about the exceptional properties of the spark that started the fire."

My view:

Just one match (Maven) in a fireworks factory can blow everything up. You don't need to set up a comprehensive network of fuses (Connector) and detonators (Salesman) first. In contrast, even a hundred detonators would have trouble blowing up a hydroponics farm.

We have both observed that an agent in the midst of change has a tendency to believe that she is the prime mover of the change, ignoring the contributions of others, preconditions in the environment and the vagaries of blind luck.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Counterintuitive Science: Fast Speed, Fat Shape

In popular science fiction, fast spaceships are often shown as streamlined, sharply-pointed vehicles: such as the X-wing in Star Wars or the Colonial Viper in Battlestar Galactica.

Sleekness has long been associated with speed, at least since the dawn of rocket science in the early 20th century.

This is hardly surprising because an aerodynamic shape is necessary to attain high speed on Earth, becoming increasingly important at speeds over 200 km per hour.

By the 1950s, human beings were on the verge of space travel, and the popular conception of a spaceship then (and even now!) for both professional engineers and the general public alike, was the sharp-nosed spaceplane.

A good example of this was the X-15 hypersonic research plane.

Striking resemblance to a you-know-what.

However, the reality that awaited spaceflight enthusiasts was somewhat less svelte...

How did needles turn into fat cones and bells?

It turns out that pointy-nosed spaceships perform well on their way out of the atmosphere, but not when they have to come BACK.

The re-entry speed of a vehicle coming in from low Earth orbit is about 27,000 km per hour (over 7 km per second!) or about 25 times the speed of sound.

Clearly, the vehicle has to lose a lot of speed in order to descend safely into the atmosphere, but how should this be done?

It is impractical for an Earth-launched spacecraft to reduce most of that speed using retro-rockets, since the large amount of fuel required becomes an additional burden to the launch vehicle.

So the returning vehicle must decelerate mainly by atmospheric friction using the atmosphere itself, and this is where the pointy-nose shape becomes a disadvantage.

At hypersonic speeds, a sharp object generates only a thin shockwave, allowing the intense heat of friction compression to come very close to the surface of the object contact the leading surface of the object. Thus, during early wind tunnel tests, the noses of the test vehicles simply melted away.

No known material could withstand such high temperatures.

However, when a blunt object is subjected to hypersonic speeds, due to much higher drag the air molecules ahead of the object cannot move away fast enough. A thicker shockwave forms, acting as a cushion of air that shields the leading surface from much of the intense heat, and lowering peak temperatures to within the limits that can be tolerated by existing materials.

Thus, only with the development of fat re-entry vehicles did human orbital spaceflight become a possibility.

Initially, Russian designers used a cannonball shape for their Vostok space capsule, which could safely re-enter the atmosphere in any orientation, but had a steep ballistic trajectory that was very harsh on the cosmonauts.

They later developed the "bell on a bowl" shape for their Soyuz, while US designers developed the "cone on a bowl" shape for their Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. These shapes have a similar function - to provide some lift and self-righting ability, allowing the spacecraft to re-enter with a shallower and more comfortable trajectory.

For 20 years these fat and aesthetically displeasing spacecraft had the counterintuitive honour of being the fastest manned vehicles in history.

Not everyone was satisfied with this and there were numerous designs of spaceplanes (eg. Sänger, Hermes) to replace them, but most of them were unable to proceed beyond test phases.

Then, with the arrival of the US Space Shuttle (1981) and the Russian Buran (1988) the age of spaceplanes appeared to have finally arrived, though with their fat noses and thick bodies neither of them can really be considered sleek-looking. Unfortunately, Buran was cancelled after just one flight and the Space Shuttle is slated to be retired next year.

So for the foreseeable future at least, the vision of a sleek needle-shaped spacecraft stays bogged down in the realm of fantasy, while the cutting edge of real manned space exploration is delivered by the venerable, and fat, space capsule.

Would you like to know more?
- How the Spaceship Got Its Shape (Air & Space Magazine)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Where Is The "Swim" In A Swimmer?

Here's a concise and nicely presented video by QualiaSoup about the problems with the philosophy of dualism.

I should add that substance dualism is also not consistent with the experience of people who go through general anaesthesia.

They describe feeling drowsy before the operation and then abruptly awake after the operation, as if no time had passed in between.

This subjective continuity of consciousness is a problem for dualists - where did the consciousness "go" during those hours?

If consciousness can be suspended in this manner by chemicals, then it cannot be independent of physical reality. The strong possibility exists that consciousness is simply a process of physical reality, and can be obliterated via physical means.

Also, if an "eternal soul" is supposed to persist even when consciousness is suspended during anaesthesia, this suggests that they are distinct entities.

If someone's "eternal soul" survives physical death but is not linked to her consciousness, then she didn't really survive.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

You Don't Need A Rocket...

... to take photos from space (more accurately the stratosphere).

Guess how they did it?

I think this is a superb idea for a student project.

It's not very expensive and is a lot of fun, especially if we can have live telemetry and low-res video transmission in addition to the fixed camera.

Moreover, if the weather is clear, 30 km is almost high enough to capture a photo of the entire Singapore using a 28mm wide-angle lens, so it is possible to take a "satellite" photo without actually using satellites.

Though I think the biggest challenge with such a project is getting the clearance to avoid commercial flights.

Wonder if I should pitch this idea to the Science Centre people?

Would you like to know more?

About this project:
- View of Earth from the OZONE layer in the Stratosphere (Project Pegasus)

About an earlier successful attempt in Spain:
- Teens capture images of space with £56 camera and balloon (Telegraph)
- Scenes from 30,000 meters above (

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Photo Gallery Fifteen

It's been months since the previous photo gallery, so I've got quite a bit of backlog to clear today.

Nonetheless it's that usual eclectic mix of art and weirdness around Singapore. As before, the Lomo photos below have been rectilinearized.

Hope you like them!

Big Shoes
(2009) Lomo Fisheye 2

Book City
(2009) Lomo Fisheye 2

Dots and Geometry
(2009) Lomo Fisheye 2

Hien Toh
(2009) Lomo Fisheye 2

In the Shadow
(2009) Fuji J10

Jellyfish Umbrellas
(2009) Lomo Fisheye 2

Many Mysteries
(2009) Fuji J10

(2009) Fuji J10

(2009) Fuji J10

Or Money?
(2009) Fuji J10

Rainbow Ceiling
(2009) Lomo Fisheye 2

(2009) Lomo Fisheye 2

Sure I Can
(2009) Fuji J10

Triangles of Light
(2009) Lomo Fisheye 2

Would you like to know more?
- Photo Gallery Fourteen

Friday, December 11, 2009

Norwegian Blue, Beautiful Plume, Innit?

Something weird and beautiful appeared over the skies of Norway in the morning of December 9th...

It's a UFO!

It's a transdimensional portal!


Heh, not a UFO anymore, it isn't.

More like the failed third stage of a Russian test missile.

Failure can be spectacular!

Pipette tip to Bad Astronomy.

Would you like to know more?
- Spirals Sighted Over Norway as Bulava Fails (The Moscow Times)
- It's not a UFO, just an intercontinental missile blowing up (Times Online)

Monday, December 07, 2009

Would You Bet Your LIFE On Science?

This guy did.

Heh, nice music. Somehow I feel that donning a Faraday suit and dancing with lightning bolts is more heroic than the old Feynman bowling ball trick...

Flinching at the last possible second!

There is a thin line between heroism and stupidity. That line is called knowledge.