Archive for the 'Science' Category

Thomas Robert Malthus and Humanity’s Self-Destructive Nature

August 16, 2009

“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man”

via Thomas Robert Malthus – Wikipedia

I’ve been reading The Spirit in the Gene recently (borrowed from Joss Winn), by Reg Morrison. The book is essentially about humanity’s genetic predisposition to increase in number at a geometric/exponential rate. The book brilliantly describes the evolutionary journey which has led us to the present point where our fertility rate, together with our larger brain size-to-body size ratio, means we are the most advanced animal on the planet. Yet at the same time – and virtually single-handedly – we are destroying the very environment which has fed and sustained us.

The prescient quote above (from 1798) neatly sums up the crux of the problem: the earth and its resources, vast as they are, are finite; however, the rate at which humans reproduce and consume is greater than the earth’s capacity to replenish these resources.

It’s a little crass to sum up the message – of both the book and the Rev. Malthus – as “we’re doomed”, but that’s essentially it. Without a significant and conscious shift in lifestyle, humanity looks set for failure.

This could be seen as depressing, but to me it’s actually a relief to read stuff that doesn’t beat around the bush and just makes sense of an issue that’s very difficult to face.

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Twitter Science?

April 16, 2009

I came across the below while reading an @mashable tweet about how to retweet:

What we see here is that while the number of followers exposed to a Tweet does have a positive effect on the number of times that Tweet is ReTweeted, it is a weak correlation, meaning that other factors play a much larger role. By calculating a ReTweets-per-follower ratio for 20,000 users and graphing the distribution of that metric we see that while most users have a similar ratio, there does exist a class of users with a much higher ReTweets-to-follower number.

via The Science of ReTweets.

Check it out! Twitter science with proper stats and everything! I don’t know what this means for me, but I think maybe I should get onto graphing my metrics in the morning.

(I think what it actually means is that number of followers doesn’t have as big an impact as you might expect on how often something is retweeted.)

Should science only be funded if it makes money?

February 7, 2009

That’s the question posed by Lord Drayson (UK Government Minister for Science and Innovation) and picked up by the Guardian on Thursday, where it has already generated heated debate:

Should science only be funded if it makes money? | Science | guardian.co.uk

The responses so far can be largely summed up by “No! Are you joking?!” As someone who works in research funding, I can only shake my head and echo the words of “hungrydoug”: You can’t do applied science if you’ve got no science to apply.

The thing about research, in the true sense of the word, is that you don’t know if it’s going to give you the results you thought you were looking for. So how are you going to judge what will and will not yield a return?

150 = Magic Social Network Number

August 12, 2008

That’s according to Professor Robin Dunbar, who writes a fascinating short article on the link between brain size and social grouping sizes in the British Academy’s latest Review of research. Here’s an extract from “Why Humans aren’t just Great Apes“:

This figure of ~150 appears frequently in many aspects of historical and contemporary human organisation. It was the mean village size recorded for almost all English counties in the Doomsday Book as well as during the eighteenth century, and is the typical size of the company in most modern armies, the number of recipients of a typical Christmas card distribution list in Britain, and the size of the social network in reverse ‘small world’ experiments, amongst others.

A few things are interesting about this. First is the fact that this 150 “limit” is structured differently in modern networks (both in the real world and virtual world). In modern society, social groupings are fragmented and diverse – if you and I are in the same social network, the 150 people in my network will overlap with, but won’t be identical to the 150 in your network. Whereas in traditional hunter-gatherer and pre-industrial society, the 150 in a given community tended to all know each other.

The second interesting facet is concerned with different hierarchical “levels” within this 150. According to Prof. Dunbar’s research, our most intimate grouping will contain roughly 5 people, the next level of social closeness has 15, then 50, 150, 500 and 1,500. But beyond 150 the social network degrades to the point where we typically have little to no “personal” knowledge about the people in the group.

Third, and central to Dunbar’s argument, is that the social grouping number of 150 correlates with brain size (specifically neocortex size). This, he argues, is related to “intentionality” or theory of mind, i.e. I think that he believes that she supposes… etc. Most humans are limited to five orders of intentionality, though some can hold six in mind at once (some autistic people, of course, never develop theory of mind).

Social Networks

Social Networks

I wonder whether our varying ability to hold five or six levels of intentionality in mind – and, relatedly, our brain size – might be reflected in the size of our online social networks. I suppose I’m fairly average, judging by the size of my Facebook network (180). Most of those I would say I know reasonably well (or have known at some stage in my life).

However, as predicted, there are clear levels of intimacy within that group. There are probably 4 or 5 people I message and interact with regularly on Facebook, and another larger group that I will send a message to once in a while. Beyond that, my network is definitely “fragmented and diverse”, composed of a range of old school and university friends, work colleagues, as well as friends from church.

I’m sure that there are endless competitions of who can add the most friends on Facebook and other social networks, but does this reveal anything about advanced theory of mind of the competitors or are they just trying to up their stats to compensate for something else? Hmm…

Online Privacy Is A Matter Of Trust

November 27, 2007

ESRCLast week, the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council reported on research it funded into ‘self-disclosure’ of personal information online:

Internet Users Give Up Privacy In Exchange For Trust

The research […] revealed that internet users will reveal more personal information online if they believe they can trust the organisation that requests the information. ‘Even people who have previously demonstrated a high level of caution regarding online privacy will accept losses to their privacy if they trust the recipient of their personal information’ says Dr Adam Joinson, who led the study.

Self-disclosure is currently a big issue, not only on social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, but also personal banking sites and in internet shopping.

Dr Joinson found that when a website is designed to ‘look trustworthy’, users will be more likely to divulge personal data. But more important than website design is the reputation of the company behind the website. This is closely tied to whether or not the user trusts the company, and therefore whether they will give over personal details.

I recently registered for free with New York Times online, and I was put off because of the level of personal information requested — why do you need to know our household income just so I can read a news article? Although NY Times is a large and (potentially) trustworthy organization, this level of detail seemed like prying to me, and I chose ‘prefer not to say’, which — incidentally — is at the bottom of the drop-down menu — another subject touched on in this report.

This is a particularly timely report, given that it comes days after the unprecedented loss of CDs containing the personal data (names, addresses, dates of birth, and bank details) of 25 million people. If we can’t trust the government with our personal information, should we really be happily entering it into Facebook — or maybe you trust corporations like Facebook more than the government…

Why Play Games?

August 7, 2007

Here’s another interesting and engaging gaming-related article from the good old BBC:

State of Play: Why I Play Games

Margaret Robertson asks why on earth we can get hooked on games when a lot of them are about making us feel like hopeless, braindead losers. And that’s not to mention the fact that they’re boring, overpriced, repetitive piles of turd. So why play games at all? It’s all down to the fact that our brains like to learn; they love data, and creating links between pieces of data is even better.

Okay, so it’s a little bit too pseudo-psychology/cognitive sciencey for its own good, but it’s certainly plausible. It’s one possible explanation for why I love gaming, but my wife can’t stand it. She infinitely prefers settling down with a good book or a film — she likes stories being told to her, but hates having to connect the dots or have any significant input into the way the story is played out. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but in contrast I derive my enjoyment in gaming precisely from being involved: the knowledge that my actions in the game world make a difference is what counts for me.

This is currently the subject of intense debate in the nascent field of Ludology, which is concerned with the study of videogames and whether they are narrative or simulation. In fact, a few academics in my own university are engaged in similar research — perhaps I should ask them.

Printers May Be Bad For Your Health

July 31, 2007

If, like me, you have an office job, you may want to skip this one on the grounds that ignorance is bliss. An article on New Scientist cites a study which shows that some printers may be hazardous to your health:

Printer Particles May Pose Health Risk

Of 62 laser printers tested by a lab in Queensland, Australia, 27% were found to emit a high level of particulate pollution. Researcher Prof. Lidia Morawska found that one printer emitted as much pollution “as the average smoker”. This is more than a little worrying, but it will of course need more work to determine just what’s causing the pollution and what the potential harmful effects are. The good news is that many printers don’t emit any pollution at all, so it should be a relatively straightforward matter to enforce legislation ensuring that sitting next to a printer isn’t a health and safety risk.

What’s In A Chicken McNugget?

March 24, 2007

A recent entry in Al Nye The Lawyer Guy’s blog reveals all:

So What Really Is In A McDonald’s Chicken McNugget?
(via Reddit)

No, it’s not recycled chicken guts, or pig saliva, or any of the other thousand and one unsavoury substances that may have popped into your head in the last five seconds. It turns out it’s mainly corn, and corn-based derivatives. 56 per cent corn, in fact. Everything from the corn-fed chicken to the cornstarch in the batter and – ominously – the ‘filler’.

Besides the corn, of course, there’s your everyday potent mixture of toxic synthetic chemicals, including tertiary butylhydroquinone, which in large doses (i.e. >1g) can cause adverse reactions, like vomiting and nausea. Good thing it comprises less than 0.02 per cent of the oil in the McNugget, then!

All this is probably nothing new, but still rather disconcerting, especially when I’ve made a date with the irresistible-looking Burger King Three Pepper Angus Burger sometime within the next two weeks:

Three Pepper Angus Ad

Butylhydro-what? I just see a tasty-looking burger. I mean, fried peppers and a pepper-cheese sauce…? That’s good eating.

Boy uses sound to see

July 18, 2006

Ben Underwood, a blind 14-year-old, has taught himself to use human echolocation to perceive his surroundings:

Full story (People magazine)
(via Boingboing)

It’s essentially the same technique that bats use to navigate around obstacles in dark caves, but Ben uses it in everyday life; to walk around, dance, skateboard and even ride a bike:

Ben has learned to perceive and locate objects by making a steady stream of sounds with his tongue, then listening for the echoes as they bounce off the surfaces around him. About as loud as the snapping of fingers, Ben’s clicks tell him what’s ahead: the echoes they produce can be soft (indicating metals), dense (wood) or sharp (glass). Judging by how loud or faint they are, Ben has learned to gauge distances.

It’s an amazing story, and one that showcases the incredible courage, determination and self-belief of a young man who, in the world’s eyes, suffers from a severe disability. Ben doesn’t see it that way, though:

“I tell people I’m not blind,” he says. “I just can’t see.”

Live Insects Challenge Humans in Bizarre Computer Game

July 8, 2006

In Wim van Eck’s project, humans square off against real crickets in a modified version of Pac-Man:

Full story at livescience.
(from Digg)

The best thing about this article is the deadpan implication that we may be able to use this project as some kind of pre-emptive training for fighting real-life alien bug wars in the future:

“If we’re going to fight insectile aliens, we certainly need to start somewhere; Wim van Eck’s project is a fine beginning.”

I guess the next challenge will be figuring out how to make World of Antcraft so that we can hook the potential offworld invaders on endlessly levelling up their virtual buggy avatar. Then, when they run out of credits to pay their monthly subscription to Blizzard, we can kick their worthless insectoid hides off our planet — by that time, of course, their formerly strong multi-limbed bodies will have decayed and grown weak from months of inactivity sitting around playing an MMORPG.

Bring it on!