2019 Week 43: Big Things

Short version: A few big things to talk about; nuclear war, bribes, engineered environments, mistakes, and courses.

Long version:

Big Problems

In Oxford I enjoy meeting people passionate about studies I might not have otherwise ever considered. This week I was introduced to ALLFED, a group who spend their time working out how to feed the population who survive a nuclear war. In the current political climate it can be both frightening and paralysing to think the fate of billions rests on the whim of a few individuals. Knowing some out there are trying to be prepared give me confidence that humanity can survive its own incredible destructive power. This work fits under the umbrella of Effective Altruism, which is persuasive (I have a few friends who are strong proponents) but also complex.

Big Presents

There is a common understanding that bribery is wrong, but it is not immediately obvious why. The answer I seem to find is that the central issue of bribery is when a person is able to take an advantage for themselves (the bribe) in exchange for acting against the external interests they represent (e.g. the university in the case of a college admissions administrator). Some examples:

This year a scandal broke regarding admissions to US colleges, where coaches were bribed to select students without athletic ability on an athletic basis. At face value the harm here appears to be a violation of meritocratic principles; students ought be selected on their talent rather than the wealth of their parents. In fact generally wealthy parents are able to have their students attend top universities despite their academic or sporting ability, via large donations to universities. The wrong here comes from the coaches personally profiting from the student’s admission, rather than the university itself.

In China large gifts were given by banks to politicians, and in Australia political donations by banks have been scrutinised, while the volumes of donations in the US are much higher. Cash donations, crystal tigers, coffee; for politicians these rarely come without strings attached. A journalist buying coffee or even a meal in exchange for an interview seems natural, a company paying a politician to be awarded a contract is graft. In between these, it is difficult to work out where courts or courts of public opinion ought to draw the line.

Big Artificial Environments

People have managed to make some incredible changes to their environment. This week The Wave opened in England, an artificial lake that generates artificial waves so that people can surf. There is also warm weather skiing on plastic and the more extreme indoor ski slope cooled to negative temperatures in hot Dubai. The football world cup will required air conditioned stadiums. All this gives hope that technology can repair the damage we are doing from burning fossil fuels, but also these feats of engineering require enormous amounts of energy themselves.

Big Mistakes

In my reading about health, smoking seems to be the worst decision a person can make. This week I saw some calculations about how smoking is a terrible financial mistake, in addition to the health costs.

Big Classes

This week I finished a Massive open online course (MOOC) on statistics, making it the first online course I’ve completed. Previous attempts, such as the biology course I started in Week 28, have been derailed by lack of interest or energy. I was particularly reminded of the importance of working in your Zone of Proximal Development by this line of mathematics.

Depending on your familiarity with logarithms, this may either appear indecipherable or trivial. I particularly remember encountering logs around the age of 15, and it being the point in my mathematical learning where maths stopped being intuitive. It was confronting to not find the subject easy. Unfortunately I couldn’t see or be shown how pushing past that initial discomfort would lead to valuable personal growth, and I moved away from mathematics to subjects I “felt I was better at”. I think the feeling of being overwhelmed, of being stuck, drives many people away from opportunities to grow and empower themselves, and it is a feeling I am still striving to become more comfortable with.

Photos from the week

Dry Ice Fog for Halloween

2019 Week 42: Hot, Loud, Crazy, and Numb.

Short version: Heating Engineering is effective but unintuitive. Tim Minchin’s Back tour, DNA and Microscopy, We loses billions, a dip in my Mental Health.

Long version:

Heating – Great Engineering Terrible Design

If you have radiators for heating the numbers on the valve are not arbitrary, but adjust flow to maintain temperature automatically. Therefore they can be set to a desired temperature and left in that position without need for adjustment based on weather.

Central heating was a novel experience for me when I moved to the UK. A common system (which is fitted in my home) is to have a single boiler that heats water (in my case by burning gas, the alternative being electric heating) that then flows into radiators throughout the house. Each radiator has a valve. Only recently I learned that the valves attached to each radiator are more complex than they appear; rather than simply controlling flow directly (like a tap at a sink), they contain a material that is sensitive to temperature (wax) and the flow is adjusted to keep the radiator at a fixed temperature. If the radiator is set at position 3, corresponding to 20°C, and the temperature in the room is 21°C, no water will flow as the expansion of wax closes the valve. If the room cools to 19°C then the wax contracts and opens the valve, allowing hot water to flow. This document from Honeywell provides some more explanation.

On the one hand, this is clever engineering that ultimately saves energy by preventing unnecessary heating. On the other, the arbitrary 0 to 5 scale, instead of marking the temperature that the valve maintains, makes this feature counter-intuitive. Without being told about this I doubt I would have ever noticed this self-regulation. The combined thermal mass of radiators and the rooms they heat is large, thus the changes from adjusting the valve occur too slowly to observe easily.

Even something ubiquitous and seemingly simple can be surprisingly complex.

Tim Minchin

I saw Tim Minchin play in Oxford this weekend. Songs included 15 Minutes and Woody Allen Jesus. The show was fun, loud, irreverent, self-indulgent, and self-aware. It was an immersive reminder to me that while technology gives us the incredible opportunity to experience almost the entire library of music almost anywhere, there is an intimacy and immediacy to seeing a live performance that makes the experience more powerful. In this comedic performance, the energy of the performers and their impromptu interactions with each other and the audience makes listening alone to recordings comparatively cold and dry.

At a few points while monologuing Minchin pointed out how his earlier songs which come from the perspective of a (relatively) impoverished artist now conflict with his huge (financial) successes. He also addressed the modern “tribes” of progressives and conservatives, and the contradiction of his (huge) personal carbon footprint and his concerns about the environment. It particularly hit home (given the last section of this blog post) to hear him describe his first experience with depression; being sad that his hundred-million-dollar cartoon was binned from a house looking over the ocean, which was paid for by his hugely successful musical. There is a sense that when one is so lucky, so privileged, that mental illness is unacceptable, and yet, it does affect us.

Two Interesting Things from Nature

A narrative regarding the discovery of the structure of DNA, and a comment about the need for easier access to microscopy.

Business in 2019

Is crazy. Consider this quote from this article:

If you wake up on a Casper mattress, work out with a Peloton before breakfast, Uber to your desk at a WeWork, order DoorDash for lunch, take a Lyft home, and get dinner through Postmates, you’ve interacted with seven companies that will collectively lose nearly $14 billion this year.


Derek Thompson
writes in The Atlantic

Venture capitalists have essentially subsidised tech-y westerners to the tune of $100 each (Assuming about 140 million people use these loss making services). Meanwhile WeWork seems to be imploding.

Mental Health

I’ve had a (hopefully brief) decline in mental health recently. It is tempting to look for causation. I could guess at less daylight, or colder temperatures, or working beyond a sustainable amount recently. Maybe it is my experimental work, which while intellectually stimulating, occasionally has patches of repeated failures. Each failed experiment whittles away at confidence and motivation, and creates a sense that the whole exercise is pointless. Importantly though, sometimes there is no cause, or the cause is not concurrent with the effect. All I really know is I woke up on Friday feeling numb, unmotivated, and wanting desperately to escape my own thoughts. I am very lucky to have colleagues and friends who are understanding and supportive. I have learnt that alcohol is a bad way to escape. I am trying to be patient with myself. If I get nothing useful done in a day that is frustrating, but a constant stream of self-berating doesn’t help. I know things will get better.

2019 Week 41: Changing your mind

Short version: An interesting question to reflect on, a mantra I find useful, another reason to avoid diabetes, the Nobel Prize rejection, and making my phone less distracting.

What would it take to change your mind?

I’ve been thinking about this question recently. In many ways our beliefs about the world, what we hold “in mind”, is intertwined with our identity. How those ideas form, and how they can be changed, informs who we are and how we act. I have not spent much time thinking about what specific influences would be required to change my beliefs. I would like to think that, as a scientist, I am willing to “turn on a dime” in response to strong evidence, but what specifically constitutes strong evidence?

On a population level changing minds is critical to governance. Journalist Carole Cadwalladr gave a TED talk with some fascinating images; advertisements run on Facebook that she suggests influenced Welsh citizens to vote against their own interests on the Brexit referendum. I wonder if those citizens would be able to identify what caused them to be so fearful of hypothetical Turkish migrants (specifically) or the EU (generally), and what evidence or experiences they would now require to lose those fears.

I would suggest you try the thought experiment (and would love to hear your thoughts!). Consider what might cause you to change your mind on beliefs that you hold at different strengths. What might make you change the political party you feel aligned with? Your religious views? Views on climate change? On who you are? At the moment my own thoughts are quite confused, but I find the exercise interesting.

A useful mantra

When trying to understand why someone has acted to cause you harm, I find it useful to remember the order of these three causes:
Apathy. Incompetence. Malevolence.

I realised that it is very rare that a negative occurrence is the result of malicious intent, but often we suspect that cause. I’ve explained my thoughts (and the three word reminder above) a couple times in person in recent weeks.

First for something malicious to occur someone needs to care enough to do consider a malicious act and then act on that thought. Most people just do not give significant thought to others, and generally people err on the side of inaction. Even when a relationship is positive and significant, the frequency of thinking of doing something good translating into actually doing it is relatively low, and most people only have a small number of such intense relationships. Consider how many such strong relationships you have, compared with how many people you cross paths with regularly, and this can likely be extrapolated to others. Just as apathy may cause you to thoughtlessly inconvenience one of these people, so too might their apathy inconvenience you. (There is a related punchline in a joke about gun ownership I rather enjoy: if you are buying a gun for personal defence you must (absurdly) have a high opinion of yourself that anyone cares enough about you to try and attack you).

Second, much of the time when we try to influence the world we make mistakes and influence it in an unintentional way. Just as a good intention can produce a bad outcome, so too does an attempt to manifest a bad intention have a chance of producing a good outcome, or no outcome at all. Since most people tend not to practice malicious acts regularly (I hope), then most people even if attempting to cause harm will do so poorly. More often people trying to be good may fail, and therefore accidentally cause harm. The harm is caused by incompetence rather than malice.

Finally, only if apathy and incompetence are considered and ruled out should we consider ill will. Our mind rushes to this conclusion first, stories we learn from an early age arrange themselves around characters acting in opposition, “good” vs “bad”. It is more comfortable to consider a simple and ordered narrative where people are competent and their actions match their intentions, rather than the complex disordered reality where the two are often not coupled. We are at the centre of our own misfortune, and so assume people can see what we do and must therefore notice and care about our strong emotion. Ultimately these are misguided assumptions.

Remember, when next bitterly considering why you were wronged, the likely reason is Apathy, then Incompetence, and only then, Malevolence.

Diabetes and Alzheimer’s

Diabetes is a prevalent disease in the developed world, and can partially be addressed through lifestyle interventions, like maintaining a healthy diet (and hence weight) and exercising. If there weren’t already enough reasons to avoid diabetes, I’ve recently come across the term “type-3” diabetes, an alternate name for Alzheimer’s disease, due to similarities between the diseases and correlation between Alzheimer’s disease and type-2 diabetes.

Nobel Prize Winner’s Nature Rejection Letters

This week the Nobel Prizes were announced, including one for Peter J Ratcliffe, for his work on hypoxia. I’ve seen some tweets sharing a letter to Ratcliffe declining to publish a paper from him. The message is often one of encouragement to persevere in the face of criticism, or that Nature has made a serious blunder by not publishing the work.

The assumptions here are interesting. Ratcliffe’s Nobel Prize indicates a significant contribution, but it does not mean that every paper he wrote warranted publication at all, let alone publication in any specific journal. Perseverance is naturally a requirement for success in a field (trivially if you quit before you succeed you cannot succeed), but that perseverance needs to include a willingness to adapt to both criticism and praise from peers, not blindness to it (though that adaptation can also be bolstering evidence and pushing back against the criticism, rather than conceding to it). Finally the publisher here (Nature) is responding to the comments of the reviewers who would be other researchers in the field (peers), rather than merely dismissing the work, which I feel can be lost in the suggestion that Nature made a mistake not publishing the work: they were following the procedures which fundamentally led to their success and prestige as a journal.

As an aside: Ratcliffe ended up having 28 papers (to date) in Nature family journals, of which 3 are in nature itself, so I doubt anyone is holding a grudge.

Phone Distractions

I wrote about changing my search engine, and while some tasks now take longer I have adapted and think there is some improvement to the content I consume. This week, at a friend’s suggestion, I switched my phone to monochrome (greyscale), in an attempt to make it less visually alluring. I am surprised how effective such a small change is, the content is the same, but the stimulus is reduced, and it makes it easier to moderate my time mindlessly scrolling.

Oxford Half Marathon

This week I ran the Oxford half marathon, and while at the moment I am still overdue on the Blenheim Palace half race report, I’m hoping to write both and update the respective blog posts soon.

Photos from the week

2019 Week 39: Microwaves, Search, and Running.

Short version: I try and explain how microwaves work, I changed my search engine, and ran the Blenheim Palace half marathon.

Long version:

Microwave (ovens)

This week over a (reheated) dinner I tried to explain how microwave ovens work. It was a good reminder of the difficulties of discussing science; first in actually knowing the underlying science, then in communicating it to different people with different (unknown) levels of prior understanding. It was humbling to stumble between gaps in my understanding of a common household appliance and a failure to find the language to explain what I did understand. After refreshing myself on the physics, I try to explain again.

To start:
Microwave ovens convert electrical energy to heat, and are used for warming and cooking food. Other electrical cooking appliances (e.g. stoves, ovens, grills, toasters, and kettles) use the property that a flow of electricity heats the wire (conductor) it flows through. Microwaves make electromagnetic waves (like visible light or radio waves) in the microwave region of the spectrum (hence the name), which heat food (particularly water) as they pass through it. Conventional methods of heating food heat from the surface which gradually warms inwards, where as microwaves can heat food from the inside directly.

Assumed knowledge:
It is easy (and fun!) to get into a spiral of questions about what “heat”, “food”, “electricity” and “electromagnetic waves” are. More information about the parts of a system help build a foundation form where the combined system can be understood; it is hard to understand the science of cooking without understanding a little of the chemistry of what food is, or the physics of what heat is. Also seemingly unrelated knowledge can be useful; if how a musical instrument generates certain sounds is known, then the similar principles of resonant frequencies helps to explain how the microwaves are generated by the magnetron, another type of resonant cavity.

The best I can do:
Food goes in a metal box (a cavity) that stops microwaves escaping. Electricity (240 V AC mains) goes to a transformer that changes the voltage into two windings, a high voltage (approx 2000V) and a low voltage (approx 5 V). The lower voltage powers the user interface (e.g. the clock) and the higher voltage powers the microwave generator, called a magnetron. The magentron is a cylindrical vacuum cavity (closed metal tube with no air) where electrons are thrown off a central filament and travel to the outer walls. Strong magnets cause the electrons to travel along curved paths, and the cavity has spokes that extend from the outer walls most of the way towards the central filament. The spacing of these spokes and the strength of the magnets is tuned so that a specific frequency of electromagnetic radiation (microwaves) are generated by moving charger in the magentron, and these microwaves are guided by a metal tube (wave guide) into the larger cavity containing the food. The generated microwaves bounce around the cavity until they interact with water molecules (and sugars and some fats) in food to vibrate them. This is observed microscopically as heating.

A comprehensive explanation:
Can be found in this paper by Michael Vollmer. Also this video is a good guide.

Microwaves and super-res:
At the moment I work with super-resolution microscopes, which connects with microwave ovens in an interesting way: The grill that lets the user see their food being heated has holes (approx 1 mm across) that are much larger than the wavelength of visible light (approx 0.001 mm) but much smaller than the wavelength of the microwaves (approx 122 mm). Waves cannot “see” and object much smaller than the wavelength of the wave, called the “diffraction limit”. Thus the grill on the door of a microwave oven is “diffraction limited” from the perspective of the microwaves, in the same way that cellular structures can be “diffraction limited” from visible light. I am not sure if the equivalent optics exist for microwaves as in visible light, but it could be possible (though not particularly useful) to super-resolve structures using microwaves. Given microwaves are used in radar, perhaps such techniques are already used for detection of rain, birds, or aircraft.

Small Nudge to Search:

This week I changed my default search engine from google to google scholar.

This has had frustrating consequences; where as typically to find out where a place is, what tomorrow’s weather would be, or to play a song, I simply press the hot-key for a new browser tab and type what I want, that now gives me search results from the academic literature. There are no papers telling me if it will rain in Oxford tomorrow.

I do think this is a useful step. I’ve been reading a little about nudges, a concept linked to Richard Thaler. Changing the default search makes it slightly easier to do literature searches, and slightly harder to do general web searches, which I hope (and expect) will nudge me towards consuming better quality content.

Value-Action Gap

I came across the term “Value-action Gap“, which adds a technical but intuitive term where I would otherwise use the more judgemental “hypocrisy” or the more debater-jargon “principle consistency”. I like hearing opinions on why it is that people often act out of alignment with their beliefs, and am often surprised at my own capacity for cognitive dissonance.

Blenheim Palace Half Marathon

Slightly disappointed with my time, but it was a fun race. I will be adding a race report soon.

Photo from the Week:

2019 Week 38: Food Miles and Mental Health

Short version: I ate an apple, which got me thinking about climate change. I’ve also been talking about mental health. Purdue went bust. Not every article with 300 citations is novel.

Long version:

Climate Economics: Food Miles

I was eating an apple, here in Oxford, and discovered from the oft mocked apple sticker that it had been grown in an orchard in New Zealand (on the other side of the planet). This struck me as a problem; surely the fuel in transporting food around the world is an externality contributing to climate change. I wanted to know the specific quantity of fuel burned to make this possible, and found this study from New Zealand university Lincoln that claims there is a smaller climate impact from consuming New Zealand apples in the UK compared with local ones. I am sceptical, and will hope to follow up on this in a later post, but the data is summarised in table 7.3 on page 72. Summarising and converting the units to equivalent millilitres of Diesel burned we get:

Equivalent Fuel Burned
(diesel in mL) per apple (assume 100 g) for
:
NZ ApplesUK Apples
Direct energy consumption at orchard15.679.4
“Chemicals” e.g. fertiliser pesticides12.917.6
Shipping (NZ) and “Cold storage” (UK)65.244.8
Total93.7141.8

So New Zealand is much more efficient at producing apples (about 5x less energy per apple is needed at the orchard), which largely corresponds to better yield per area of land (at 50 tonnes vs 14 tonnes of produce per hectare in New Zealand and the UK respectively), but also is due to better use of renewable electricity generation in NZ (particularly hydroelectric, wiki links to UK and NZ). This energy difference is almost entirely closed by the fuel used in shipping, but the use of “cold storage” of apples in the UK emits a further 44.8 mL equivalent diesel burned.

In short, the study suggests that fresh apples in the UK cause the same emissions per apple as New Zealand apples shipped to the UK, but if the apples are kept in refrigerated storage then the UK apples have a worse impact on the climate.

One notable thing from this exercise is that when you buy a 20p apple at Tesco, you are also paying for about 15p of diesel that was burned to get it from the tree to you.

Climate Change

This week’s Economist cover is a graphic that describes the warming climate. Meanwhile this photo article from the Guardian (also this week) hit me emotionally. The climate is changing, and the effects are disturbing. Currently my approach is very ivory tower: observing and considering, but not actively campaigning. I have friends who are much more active in Green Political Parties and movements like Extinction Rebellion. I think it may be time to explore similar options. I could blog each week about climate change in an attempt to raise awareness, but I would be very surprised if any of my readers were unaware of the issues?

Mental Health

Last week my friend Jessy shared some insight from her time answering a crisis hotline (read on facebook or linkedin). At work we now have staff trained in mental health first aid. It is good to see mental health issues lose their stigma, even if it is a gradual process. I thought someone might find things I do to maintain good mental health useful.

Mental Health Tool kit
(or “Things I do that I think help me mentally”)
Have a plan: Be enrolled in a health care program, have a GP, speak to them about mental health. Know services in your area. Have hotlines in your contact list. (If you broke your leg or developed an odd growth you would know what to do, what if you broke your mind or developed an odd pattern of thoughts?)
Reflect: Write things down to get them out of your head. Write a couple words about how you feel each day somewhere. Notice if something keeps coming back. Even just putting information somewhere else helps me relax that I won’t forget it, so I can let it go even briefly.
Exercise: Match the mental stress with physical stress, release endorphins. “Get out of your mind by getting into your body”. Do something that makes you sweat for 10 minutes. Endorphins make you feel better. Matching the physical stress to your mental stress helps align how you feel. If you are physically worn out, you will sleep.
Sleep: Get good sleep. Put distractions far away. Passing out from alcohol is not sleep.
Eat Clean: Sugary oily foods (fast foods) taste great but make you feel terrible. You also know that they are bad for you so you feel guilty. Eating well makes you feel better.
Control: Organise your room. Go somewhere you want to (ideally under your own power like walking or cycling). You have so much freedom and power. Remind yourself of this by using it.
Breathe: Slow your breathing. Count four on the way in, hold for four, count four on the way out, hold for four, repeat until you don’t remember how long you’ve been trying this.
Mindfulness: Take some time to practice mindfulness (this is a skill that I can’t explain in a couple sentences, but I’d recommend trying the free sessions on Headspace).
Unplug: Go offline. You don’t need technology to survive. Switch off. Leave smart devices behind. Even leave your watch behind to lose track of time. Just be.

Purdue Pharma

On Monday Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy. Opiates are incredibly useful and powerful drugs, but are also addictive. The US over prescribed them, peaking at 81.2 prescriptions per 100 persons in 2010-2012. Those prescriptions and subsequent addictions and addiction related deaths are linked to the marketing of OxyContin in many lawsuits against Purdue Pharma. For a humorous take on a dire situation, see John Oliver (April 2019).

Quirks of Academia

A high school student in Australia recently published in a mathematics journal, and it made the news. I have read some slightly bitter comments along the lines of “so what”. There is a lot of pressure inside academia to publish papers (a metric of performance) and seeing a relatively simple result gain media coverage can inspire envy.

Tumbling down the rabbit hole led me to this (now defunct) blog, poking fun at Mary M Tai’s paper and claim to have developed a new method for finding the area under curves. That method may actually be over 2000 years old. That paper has 363 citations today (another metric of academic performance). I found this funny.

Photo from the Week

Some late nights in the lab have let me share runs with the wildlife of Oxford.

2019 Week 37: Bottles, Birds, Blunders, and Bumper Cars.

Short version: Plastic is everywhere, but it doesn’t make you sick. There are some familiar bird sounds at the new physics building. An honest apology keeps me involved. Oxford’s St Giles Fair returns.

Long version:

Plastic in Water

I woke up from a dream this week thinking about the amount of plastic particles humanity has introduced into the environment. The disturbing reality is that just as we have added enormous amounts of plastic to the ocean so too have we added plastic to the water we drink and the food we eat, and hence to ourselves. Plastic has been falling out of popularity, with campaigns to reduce the use of plastic in supermarkets, and bans of plastic drinking straws in the US. It is relatively rare that organic molecules become well known, but BPA (a monomer for poly-carbonate) has attracted sufficient controversy to become a household acronym (particularly when followed by the word “free”).

Ultimately, however, a reason plastic is so ubiquitous is probably also a reason it is relatively harmless: plastics are fairly inert. They don’t break down easily, and so similarly don’t get broken down or absorbed by the body easily. This study found worryingly that Chinese infants’ exposure to BPA is 10x higher than that of adults, but also found that these levels of exposure pose little risk to health.

There is a fairly comprehensive and recent report from the World Health Organisation, which similarly concludes that plastic is everywhere, but there is not evidence that it is causing harms to health. It does suggest the need for further investigation into possible health effects, and that plastic waste management needs to be improved.

Interesting to me was that while browsing this topic, I came across the website “plasticsmakeitpossible“, produced by the American Chemical Council, which in turn is made up of some pretty large companies. I’ve not delved much into how established corporations sway public opinion at arms length, and I think it would be interesting to discuss websites like “plasticsmakeitpossible” in a future blog post.

Bird Calls

This week while waiting outside the Clarendon Laboratory, I heard the strangely familiar sound of Kookaburras coming from the new physics building (the Beecroft Building). My first thought is that the birds were being kept nearby for study, but after hearing the exact same pattern of calls (recording below) I realised it was being played on a loud speaker. My guess is that it is to deter real birds from nesting/resting on the new building, but I could not find any details of this system from the architects website. The sounds do not play at regular intervals so I suspect some sort of motion sensors are involved.

Apologies

I recently received an email from a study explaining that a large amount of valuable data had been deleted. It must have been tempting to try to blame the system or a fault in the technology, but this individual took ownership of their mistake (essentially having pressed the wrong buttons), and I found myself with more trust in them as a result.

This event is also a useful reminder to implement good data management processes, including backups of irreplaceable data and some sort of delay mechanism for the permanent deletion of data.

St Giles Fair

Oxford hosts the St Giles Fair on the Monday and Tuesday following the first Sunday in September. For at least 200 years the central streets of Oxford have been closed to make way for stalls and rides, and strolling through the rides, games, and food stalls is becoming a tradition for me as well.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 36: Flow and Food

Short version: I was thinking about how long things last. I’m looking for a good methodology for self-experimentation.

Long version:

Flow

This week I was thinking about flow, particularly through a reservoir or storage vessel, as a model for people and cities. The intuition starts with a bucket, being filled by a dripping tap and emptying from a small hole in a bottom, such that the amount of water in the bucket is fixed. Over some amount of time, all the water that was in the bucket will be replaced. If the flow in and out is very small relative to the size of the bucket, the time to replace every molecule of water in the bucket is very large (as the molecules become less concentrated, more new molecules are lost in each drop out), where the extreme case has the no flow and the original water stays in the bucket forever. In other extreme, where the hole and tap are the so large that the entire volume of the bucket is replaced with each drop, it is essentially a pipe and so the replacement rate is essentially infinite (though there is a speed with which molecules diffuse against the direction of flow in a pipe, perhaps something to look into later).

I will update this post shortly with some more thoughts, but taking as an example the question “how much of the bone in your body is made up of calcium consumed by your mother”:

1000-1300 mg/day (calcium intake) = 32.5 mmoL per day in/out. We assume some constant calcium mass in the human body e.g. 1.5% by mass calcium so for 75 kg= 975 g calcium. Probabilities give p(excretion in a day) = 1.3/975 so p(remain) = 1-(1.3/975) = 0.9986 per day = 61% remains per year = 0.61^(age in years) = amount remaining, so after 100 years 7.08e-22% remains or 10 molecules from birth. This of course is very crude. People are not born with the same weight of bone as an adult, which would make this an overestimate of calcium remaining. However not all the body’s calcium is replaced equally frequently, some may be trapped much longer deep in thick pieces of bone, meaning the flow estimate would underestimate. Suffice to say, I confidently predict we all have some calcium in our bodies originally consumed by our mothers.

Supplements and Superfoods

I’ve been hearing bits and pieces about “superfoods”, dietary supplements, and generally nutrition comes up when eating with others. There’s a lot to be skeptical about when it comes to alleged benefits of oils, powders, and pills, as the authors of Reality check: no such thing as a miracle food discuss. I’d be interested in testing the effects of some of these, being inspired by the likes of Tim Ferriss or Peter Attia, but I don’t have an obvious experiment in my head. If you have suggestions I’d love to hear from you, and will try and look more into the literature around nutrition. A good starting point on supplements is this NHS report.

Photos from the week

2019 Week 32: Unsympathetic Science

Short version: Tweets spark controversy, Google studies teamwork, New Zealand takes the record for largest parrot, hire bikes pile up around China, and you can now get berglabs in your inbox.

Long version:

Guns, Germs, and Neil deGrasse Tyson

Last weekend the US experienced another mass shooting. Sadly another is the correct word, as the US averages nearly one mass shooting a day. A series of charts compiled by vox make the correlation between prevalence of guns and deaths pretty clear. Neil deGrasse Tyson in the wake of the shooting on the weekend shared some statistics (listing other preventable causes of death that occur at higher rates). This resulted in outcry on social media. That tweet and the reaction is an example of why technocracy ultimately fails; people are emotional and those emotions are real and matter.

Re: Work

Google makes a lot of money, and can afford to spend it on developing its culture and staff. Most famously this is through perks like free on site cafes and restaurants, bean-bag rooms, and video game set ups. More useful to non-googlers is the research they conduct and share on improving workplace practices. This week I was shown Project Aristotle, particularly the actions for fostering psychological safety.

Big Birds

This week in Biology Letters an article was published describing New Zealand’s giant parrot, a bird estimated to weigh 7 kg and stand about waist height. This would be similar in size to a modern albatross, as well being twice as large as the largest known parrot, however at such size it likely could not fly. It adds to New Zealand’s collection of exceptionally large and extinct birds, such as the famous Moa.

Bicycle Business Blunders

This article from the Atlantic has some incredible photos of abandoned bicycles in China. The collapse of ofo, a bike sharing company that placed millions of bright yellow bikes in cities around the world, came up discussing Matt Levine’s piece on MoviePass. Rapid growth is alluring to investors, but clearly doesn’t always lead to success.

Email Subscriptions

Soon you will be able to get blog posts in your email inbox! Sign up below if you would like this.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 30: Every Olympic sport

Short version: The Olympics is one year away. The weather is getting hotter. Sometimes scientists lie. People keep doing impossible things. I’m more active on social media.

Long version:

Olympics

One year from this Wednesday, on Friday 24th July 2020, the Tokyo Olympic games will open. The games will feature 339 events in 33 different sports, encompassing 50 disciplines. Although playing sport was compulsory in school for me (I played tennis and football (soccer) poorly), it was only while working in anti-doping alongside passionate athletes that I became motivated to try more athletic activities. Since then I have found participating in sports gives me a much greater appreciation for the strength and skill of professional athletes (though many Olympians are “amature” as not all sports have enough of a following to create professional opportunities). This creates an interesting personal challenge: to attempt to “play” each sport between now and the opening ceremony in 2020, and thereby be a much more informed spectator.

Hot Weather

Oxford had the hottest day on record this Thursday, at 37 °C. The 38.1°C in Cambridge was close to the all-time record in the UK of 38.5°C [update: it was actually the hottest day on record]. For an Australian these are not particularly remarkable temperatures, where the “Angry Summer” heat waves were 10°C warmer again, but the ABC put out a video explaining why lower temperatures in the UK feel hotter. Climate change will continue to bring hotter and more frequent heat waves.

Investigative Science

Last week I wrote about staying up to date by reading work from other scientists. Publishing papers is how academic scientists progress their careers, which creates an incentive to cheat. To sharpen my skepticism I keep an eye on papers that get taken down for false or misleading data; Retraction Watch is a blog that covers such cheating. This week I stumbled upon their collaboration Forensic Friday, which lets you practice your ability to discern real and fake data.

People do Impossible Things

A couple times this week the incredible feats humans are capable of have come up in conversation. Talking about personal strength goals, my aspirations pale in comparison to athletes like Chen Xiexia who at a bodyweight of 48 kg set the olympic record for Clean & Jerk by lifting 117 kg overhead. A number of friends are experimenting with intermittent fasting, but even a fast of a few days merely makes the record 382 day fast more impressive (an interesting article about the line between fasting and eating disorders). I remember reading (though I struggle to find the source) that it was once thought there was a limit (approx 10) to the number of marathons the human body was capable of running, but since then several athletes have run more distance than a marathon a day for several days, including Terry Fox who ran 5,373 km with one prosthetic leg and suffering from cancer. Most recently I learned that the USSR banned blindfolded chess simultaneous exhibitions because of health concerns (Morphy, Capablanca, and Alekhine reported headaches from playing blindfolded matches), but you can watch Magnus Carlsen playing a blindfolded simultaneous exhibition match.

Social Media Activity

I’ve been much more active lately on social media, particularly uploading photos from this blog to instagram. I am interested in reaching out to more people. Aside from the vain joy of having a larger audience, I hope you (the reader) find some of my content interesting, or even better comment or reach out to guide me to create better content.

Photos from the Week

2019 Week 29: Front Page News

Short version: I summarise and share thoughts on articles from the covers of current editions of high impact journals. I ran late at night and it was serene.

Long version:

Front Page Science

Human knowledge is vast, and discovering is more difficult than learning from others what was discovered before. This explanation of what a PhD is visualises that point. Scientists need to communicate with each other about their results, and do so by publishing articles collected and edited by journals. Today with journals available online it is rare to open a physical periodical rather than read individual articles digitally (or printed one by one). Those hard copy collections still exist, and necessarily they have a front cover. This week I looked up the covers of some high impact journals (see below), read the related article, and wrote down my thoughts.

Snooze Report
On the cover of Nature.
This paper studies sleep in Zebrafish. While we all sleep, it is a complicated process with many aspects still not understood. Zebrafish are a model organism, that is they can be used as a substitute for understanding processes in humans, and have been studied extensively. Zebrafish are known to sleep based on behavioural criteria (essentially they stop moving for a while for regular periods), but it is hard to compare Zebrafish sleep to humans (or mammals in general) in a more detailed way. This is because sleep is studied in humans by looking at electrical signals from the brain (via electroencephalograms or EEG), but fish do not have a similar part of the brain (the neocortex) where human sleep signals are recorded. The team behind this paper, mostly from Stanford, used a light microscope based method to look at Zebrafish brains while they slept, and discovered two sleep signatures that they call “slow bursting sleep” and “propagating wave sleep” that they claim to be similar to our “slow-wave sleep” and “rapid eye movement sleep“.

Artificial Muscles
On the cover of Science
Much of science and engineering aims to replicate nature, be it materials (the first plastics replaced natural materials like silk and ivory), phenomena (electric lighting replacing flames), or biological feats (aircraft allowing human flight). Being able to artificially produce the mechanical properties of muscle (fibres that can contract) is important for robotics and prosthetics that more accurately mimic what natural creatures can do. This group, mostly from MIT, have created fibres that can lift 650 times their weight, and withstand thousands of cycles.

African Killifishes
On the cover of Cell
The advances made in DNA sequencing accelerated rapidly, and whole genome sequencing is now routinely available to researchers. This research team studied the genetic code of 45 killifish species to better understand the relationship between genes and life span. Killifishes have a range of life spans due to species diversifying and adapting to different environments. Killifish with shorter lives tended to have more genetic code, including both more redundant code and more detrimental mutations.

Controlled patterning of stem cell cultures
On the cover of Nature Methods
Three key concepts underpin this paper: Stem cells are cells that can become other types of cells. Morphogens are chemicals that, through their distribution, influence how cells develop, and eventually leads to the organisation of different types of cells in complex organisms. Microfluidics is the process of handling very small amounts of liquid. Those three come together in this method that explains how using a microfluidic device to introduce morphogens in a gradient over stem cells alters the patterns that they develop.

Atomistic Simulations of Membrane Ion Channel Conduction, Gating, and Modulation
On the cover of ACS Chemical Reviews
Reviews are an intermediate type of publication between cutting edge research and established science found in textbooks. This paper covers computer simulations of membrane ion channels, and is a comprehensive 72 pages (excluding the 923 references). Membrane ion channels are important for electrical activity in biological systems, i.e. the nervous system. Computer simulations have become increasingly important in chemistry, made particularly famous in 2013.

A one-dimensional individual-based mechanical model of cell movement in heterogeneous tissues and its coarse-grained approximation
On the cover of Proceedings of the Royal Society A
My mathematical understanding is far from the frontiers of mathematical research, and so I don’t often read papers from mathematicians. This paper presents a model, that is a mathematical representation, for cell movement in tissue. The power of mathematics, and of models, is to be able to generalise from limited information. In this case the hope is a generalised model might inform a better understanding of disease.

Guiding spin waves in artificial antiferromagnets
On the cover of Nature nanotechnology
Spin is a fundamental property of subatomic particles, such as electrons. Magnetism is a directly observable consequence of spin, in a similar way to static electricity being a directly observable consequence of charge. We manipulate charge in conventional electronic devices, and spintronics aims to manipulate spin in a similar way. This paper describes spin-waves being controlled, and is a step towards more complex applications of spin.

Rapid Plant DNA Extraction
On the cover of ACS Nano
The paper describes a method for extracting the DNA from plants using a patch covered in hundreds of sub-millimeter needles. This reduces a multi hour chemical extraction to a few minutes work.

Nanopore metagenomics enables rapid clinical diagnosis of bacterial lower respiratory infection
On the cover of Nature biotechnology
Oxford Nanopore, like ONI, is a spin out of Oxford University. They develop a device for rapid and portable DNA sequencing. In this paper they apply that technology to diagnosing bacteria in respiratory infections. Conventional identification by growing the bacteria taken from a patient sample takes 2-3 days, whereas the Nanopore method could give results in a few hours.

Night Runs

Early this week I wanted a long run, but only had time to start at midnight. I decided to go for it, and found I really enjoyed the quiet streets. Particularly the lack of vehicle traffic meant I could run on the road. Even having the whole footpath to myself the alternating sloping driveways and flat footpath required attention, while the smooth asphalt gave me space to get lost in my thoughts. I had decided to run unplugged, without music or a podcast, and even turned off the backlight on my watch, setting the pace purely on feel. After the first few kilometres I found a rhythm and just listened to my foot fall, soaking in the serenity. An additional fun moment was running through some road works barricades, which gave me the impression of being on the course of a race.

Photos from the Week