All posts by Rob

Delightful and impressive creative thinking

These two bits of scientific thinking impressed me a lot: Dark energy and flat Universe exposed by simple method and Cosmos may show echoes of events before Big Bang with links to the original papers that I like to have explicit rather than search for. The first, as the article title suggests, is a method to determine the large-scale geometry of space-time. Is it flat (so we can use Euclidean geometry) or is it curved (so we have to use a non-Euclidean geometry). What impressed me is the simplicity of the analysis. There is an assumption that the inclination of orbits of binary galaxy systems that we observe has no bias for any angle, but from that the flatness of space-time and the proportion of dark energy in the overall Universe mass is obtained. My ‘lay’ question on this is that we need to know what theories that amend general relativity to avoid the existence of dark energy would predict.

The second report is of work done with Roger Penrose, a very creative thinker. I had always assumed that if the Big Bang theory is really the way our world came into existence we would have no way of knowing anything about what was before the Big bang. This is so if you take the conventional view of the event, but Penrose does not like the instant inflation that current models need (the Penrose view suits me) and has a model of the Universe where the Universe preceding ‘this’ one produces the effect that inflation in the conventional model does. The papers author’s find non-uniformities in the microwave background radiation that can be related to the previous Universes and Big Bangs. We need alternative models in a similar way to test the ideas in the first paper mentioned above.

Beautiful, informative novels

I have been reading novels by Tracy Chevalier after a recommendation from a friend who lent me the first I read.

The first novel I read was Girl with Pearl Earring. I have always admired the paintings of Vermeer so this setting for the story suited me. What I liked most about the work was the lack of a plot in the sense that many modern novels have a bullet-like plot-thread. Tracy allows one to look around and come to know the characters as though they are people you might meet rather than means to show how clever the author is. Towards the end Tracy clearly felt the need for closure and a small plot emerges that allows her to wind up the story.

The second book I read was Remarkable Creatures. I would make the same comments as above, but also add the shame I felt for not knowing about Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot. The names of the male palaeontologists of the time were familiar to me. Thanks to Tracy I not only got some biography from the novel but also read more about them thanks to Google.

Robert Fisk

I heard Fisk in person for the first time yesterday, after reading his books and articles over the past 20 years. He speaks as crisply as he writes. I find him one of the great reporters of the past decades. I did not learn anything new of his opinions, but there was one interesting comment. His driver in Lebanon is a Sunni Muslim who wishes him “Happy Christmas” in late December as honestly as Fisk wishes him “Eid Mubarak” during the Eid festival. Fisk’s comment was just what I also say to people; why are we so afraid of offending people in the multicultural UK by playing down Christmas celebrations as though people cannot tolerate the festivals of others. I hope to keep gaining a better understanding of Middle East matters from Fisk’s articles for many years still.

If only

I am trying to get started on some techie problem I want to solve and finding it difficult to start. The result is the blog notes. Recycled Island gave me such hope, yet somehow it does not seem feasible and maybe misdirected. The plan is to collect plastic waste in the Pacific Gyre to build an island of about 10000 square kilometres. The only attempt at explanation of how does not mention how the waste will be collected from up to 15,000,000 square kilometres of plastic polluted ocean. How long will it take? How much energy will be needed for the work? Would the island be tethered or would the gyre keep it in place? What about those super storms and waves that happen from time to time? Surely the effort should first be into stopping plastics getting into the ocean.

I don’t know the estimates of proportions but I think a lot of the plastic waste is already in microscopic particles throughout a considerable depth of water that will be impossible to collect. If one is going to collect stuff from over 15,000,000 km2 it does not seem much more effort to take it for land treatment; maybe we could use huge wind-powered robot-guided barges that have most of their bulk under water to minimize storm damage that could even filter the water of plastic particles that are bigger than plankton in size.

Trust evolution -part 2

Some months ago I was struck by the benefits of running barefoot, and here is further argument on the same issue but for children: Why barefoot is best for children. There is similarity here with the arguments in the Michael Pollan book on food I commented on a few weeks ago: first check with our evolution and past, then think if what we are doing is a good plan. Climate change raises a similar problem in that everything evolves and changes but the rate of change has to be limited if we are to survive.

I am not against intervention with scientific understanding. An example would be arguments for Vitamin D deficiency being treated with oral supplements. In the past when people spent a lot of time outdoors the amount of Vitamin D synthesized in the skin was large by the scale of recommended supplement tablets; something like 50 to 100 times the amount you would get in one tablet from the pharmacy. I am sure we were not creating that amount of Vitamin D just to throw away, so if we are not getting much sun we should not be surprised if we have health problems if we do not take vitamin D supplements. Even with this we should be thinking what else might have been happening with sun exposure that oral supplements do not provide.

Cancer and Vitamin D

I read this today, British breast cancer rates ‘four times higher than eastern Africa’, and was surprised that there was no mention of possible Vitamin D deficiency. That could be a major difference between women in the UK and women in East Africa. It is worth following up on the work of Dr Cedric Garland at the University of California San Diego. He has spent about 30 years working on the different rates of colon and breast cancer in the US where the incidence is low in the south and high in the north-east. He thinks that it is due to vitamin D deficiency, and adequate vitamin D could cut rates for these cancers by a half or more. Start with


Many years (decades) ago in the pre-internet age when I used to go into book shops, on one visit to Blackwell’s science department in Oxford I suddenly saw a book by ‘me’ on cell biology; that was quasi-namesake-me. Because of this blog another quasi-namesake has contacted me, who has some of my interests in programming and music, though with a generational shift I guess of about -1.5 to -1.9. He has a well written blog:

The Robert who wrote on cell biology is and has now delivered nearly 10,000 babies. Oddly there was a point when I thought I might switch to medicine and do obstetrics.

I wonder if names influence people. If we were to take cohorts of quasi-namesakes would we find unexpected correlations? I know that my given name is a real namesake and was chosen by my mother because in the 1930s she saw movies with the actor Robert Taylor and found him attractive.

Vitamin D and sunlight

The other ‘food’ topic I have been interested in for some time is vitamin D. There will be more comment to come on this, but recently because of the discussion about Muslim women in Europe wearing the burka I was wondering why vitamin D deficiency had not been mentioned as a problem. A major route to getting enough vitamin D is through synthesis in our skin from exposure to UVB.

Vitamin D plays such a central role in cell processes that deficiency causes many health problems. In the days when rickets was a problem for children, it was not rickets that killed them but infectious diseases for which they had little immune resistance. I can accept that in places in the middle east where the sunlight comes strong through a clear sky and women have a back yard where they may wear less body covering there may be less vitamin D deficiency, but in Europe where sunlight is weaker and skies are cloudier and in winter UVB is near zero anyway, vitamin D deficiency will be a real problem – especially for women coming from the hot countries whose skin has pigmentation for UV protection as well. A the very least these women should be taking oral vitamin D supplements regardless of the argument over the burka.

[Postscript: I should have used Google before these notes. I find there is some recent discussion in Letters in The Independent on 20/07/2010. It shows that one assumption of mine is wrong. One letter says, “The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition for June 2007 reported that, out of 178 burka-wearing women studied by the United Arab Emirates University, Al Ain, only two were not vitamin D-deficient.” I did not find the word “burka” in the paper and some did expose their face and hands, but given that the exposure to sunlight was 1 minute per day (+-3.8) {I did not find what -2.8 minutes exposure meant!} they are secluded from the outer world. Vitamin D oral supplement was recommended.]

Newton’s law of cooling

I have been making yogurt since 1965. After initial trial with a yogurt making kit the method became simplified into equal quantities of evaporated milk and boiling water poured into jars that then have a spoonful of the last batch of yogurt added. These jars then go into a polystyrene milk-bottle keep-cool container that I got in 1962 as an offer with Kellogg’s cornflakes! Left overnight there is perfect yogurt in the morning. There is some pleasure in still using this battered polystyrene box, up-cycling it in current jargon, for almost 50 years – technology you can trust.

The past few years I have had some mild allergy to “standard” milk that I don’t have with organic milk. Now I am making yogurt with organic milk that needs heating to 82C to kill bacteria and prepare the milk protein to help setting, and then cooling to 43C before adding some of the last batch of yogurt.

The cooling takes over an hour and to start with I kept going to check because the final temperature is critical. Then I thought that I would make use of Newton’s rule-of-thumb about bodies cooling in still air. It was a delight to see the near linear plot of log(temperature difference) against time. This I now use by taking the starting temperature and one other reading at a later time that an excel spreadsheet then turns the time I need to go and add the yogurt – ping.

The temperatures are measured with an IR thermometer that I got to help with research on house insulation. The measurements of temperature and time are rough – same eyes reading both and jotting down – but fit for purpose.

Temperature vs time
Cooling of the yogurt jar

Final points: The top and bottom temperatures of the jar are different and half-way up the jar gives a reasonable average. The milk in the jar is hotter than the temperature on the outside, in my case by about 2C. I add one dessert-spoon of yogurt and that cools the milk by about 1.5C . The final milk temperature I aim for is 43C, so 43C on the outside is just about right.

At last into that courtesy-of-Kellogg’s 1962 insulating box.

Probably all this is over done, but it is irresistable to let a bit of our skills affect everything we do.

Inspiration that humbles

This is the most inspiring talk I have heard for ages: Anil Gupta: India’s hidden hotbeds of invention.

The TED summary just hints at what is being done: “Anil Gupta is on the hunt for the developing world’s unsung inventors — indigenous entrepreneurs whose ingenuity, hidden by poverty, could change many people’s lives. He shows how the Honey Bee Network helps them build the connections they need — and gain the recognition they deserve.”

One valuable comment Anil makes is that we often discard solutions to a problem because “they do not scale”. He reminds us that if people in a locality find a solution for an issue that works only in their area – that is enough for them. Probably we are better off with a million local solutions than one global solution. This is like Darwinian evolution; let’s develop what fits in each niche.