Monday, 16 December, 2013
If gold has no intrinsic value, a point-of-view some people – one or two anyway – are keen to champion, why do we find it so desirable, and even use it in some of our currencies? Why aren’t we using another metal, or element, in the place of gold instead?
Part of the reason lies in the fact that gold, chemically speaking at least, is relatively boring:
Gold’s relative inertness means you can create an elaborate golden jaguar and be confident that 1,000 years later it can be found in a museum display case in central London, still in pristine condition. So what does this process of elemental elimination tell us about what makes a good currency? First off, it doesn’t have to have any intrinsic value. A currency only has value because we, as a society, decide that it does. As we’ve seen, it also needs to be stable, portable and non-toxic. And it needs to be fairly rare – you might be surprised just how little gold there is in the world.
finance, gold, science
Friday, 6 December, 2013
If you’ve ever wondered why making sometimes quite simple decisions can be oddly difficult, here’s something of an explanation… regions of our brain would appear to be in conflict with each other when it comes to selecting one option over another.
“Different brain regions may be nudging you to go in one direction or another,” Floresco said. “I like to use the analogy that there are battles going on in your brain pushing you one way or another. What our results suggest is that this nucleus, the lateral habenula, helps this circuitry reach a definitive decision and/or helps you implement it once there is an apparent ‘winner’ in this battle.”
I’m not sure what’s better. Knowing that I’m not actually indecisive, despite all appearances, or the fact that my mind is at war with itself…
neuroscience, psychology, science
Friday, 29 November, 2013
While we may not be able to carry it off with quite the same… panache, it is nonetheless possible to emulate time lord Dr Who with varying degrees of success. Sure, travel through time and interstellar space are still a tad difficult, but with a little… spin it may even be possible to compensate for that.
It’s rare for anyone to enter the Tardis for the first time without uttering some variation of the above phrase. From the outside, the Doctor’s time machine appears to be a wooden Police telephone box, similar to those seen in 1960s London. But on the inside… it is vast. Perhaps infinite. Surely it’s not possible to squeeze an infinite space inside a small blue box? Well, it sort of is, with a little help from a virtual reality headset. Researchers at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria have created a simulator that generates endless rooms and corridors. The device tricks users into walking around a much smaller space in the real world by making them turn before they hit a wall.
Dr Who, humour, science, science fiction
Monday, 25 November, 2013
Sure we all know ice is slippery, especially so when we might have to walk on or across an ice covered surface, and this caused by a super thin layer of water that forms atop the ice. Incredibly enough though, no one knows, still, why this coating of water builds up:
A century and a half of scientific inquiry has yet to solve this one. It’s clear that a thin layer of liquid water on top of solid ice causes the slipperiness. A fluid’s mobility makes it difficult to walk on, even if the layer is thin. But there’s no consensus as to why ice – unlike most other solids – has such a layer.
ice, science, water
Friday, 22 November, 2013
There are some people who are convinced that the universe, and everything within it, including us, is but a simulation. In other words we are merely pawns in some other intelligent entity’s glorified game of The Sims, or some such.
What’s your feeling on this? A load of hokum? Utter nonsense? Completely illogical? What about then when you’ve found yourself subjected to a series of minor mishaps, a run of bad luck? Do you sometimes have the feeling that the universe is against you?
Maybe it is. Maybe some player in another reality is indeed manipulating our every move. The question is though, if we could somehow ascertain, one way or the other, whether or not this whole mortal coil is but an elaborate executable file, would you want to know?
After all, the knowledge we are simply an assemblage of bits and bytes may be, to put it mildly, a let down for some, but it may make a lot of sense to others. Yes, a double edged sword for sure.
Seth Lloyd, a quantum-mechanical engineer at MIT, estimated the number of “computer operations” our universe has performed since the Big Bang – basically, every event that has ever happened. To repeat them, and generate a perfect facsimile of reality down to the last atom, would take more energy than the universe has. “The computer would have to be bigger than the universe, and time would tick more slowly in the program than in reality,” says Lloyd. “So why even bother building it?” But others soon realized that making an imperfect copy of the universe that’s just good enough to fool its inhabitants would take far less computational power. In such a makeshift cosmos, the fine details of the microscopic world and the farthest stars might only be filled in by the programmers on the rare occasions that people study them with scientific equipment. As soon as no one was looking, they’d simply vanish.
Definitions of simulation vary of course, and there are a number of ways of looking at such a notion. Ask some people if a creator of some sort is responsible for our presence, and they will say yes straight away.
philosophy, science, technology
Thursday, 21 November, 2013
The Higgs boson particle is old news. Been there, found that. Sort of, anyway. Its discovery, or confirmation of its existence, has, perhaps not all that unsurprisingly, posed more questions than it answers though.
This means scientists have a whole lot more work ahead of them as they try to ascertain the particle’s properties, and its place in the grand scheme of the universe, and one of the next steps in this process is to take a closer look at those particles that some people thought could outpace light, neutrinos:
Neutrinos are oddballs in the Standard Model. They are tiny, nearly massless, and barely like interacting with any other members of the subatomic zoo. Historically, they have been the subject of many surprising results and the future will probably reveal them to be even stranger. Physicists are currently trying to figure out some of their properties, which remain open questions.
neutrinos, physics, science
Monday, 18 November, 2013
You’re not only what you eat, read, or watch on TV, you are very much a product of the environment around you. Your blood, fingernails, the curls in your hair, together with your teeth, all take at least a little of their composition from the elements and chemicals swirling about us:
When you smile, the gleam of your teeth obscures a slight glow from radioactive waste. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, atmospheric testing of thermonuclear weapons scattered so much radioactive carbon-14 into the atmosphere that it contaminated virtually every ecosystem and human.
biology, chemistry, science
Friday, 15 November, 2013
Considering the planet we reside on is whipping through space at a rate of eight hundred kilometres per second, I don’t think anyone present could say they’re living life in the slow lane.
physics, science, trivia
Friday, 8 November, 2013
I’m no scientist so I could well be being led up the garden path here, but, according to scientific studies into the subject, warmer water will freeze faster than cool water:
One idea is that warm containers make better thermal contact with a refrigerator and so conduct heat more efficiently. Hence the faster freezing. Another is that warm water evaporates rapidly and since this is an endothermic process, it cools the water making it freeze more quickly. None of these explanations are entirely convincing, which is why the true explanation is still up for grabs. Today Xi Zhang at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and a few pals provide one. These guys say that the Mpemba paradox is the result of the unique properties of the different bonds that hold water together.
Handy to know in this part of the world, with summer just around the corner, or already with us, depending on what you consider to be summer weather.
(Photo by Vincent)
research, science, water
Wednesday, 6 November, 2013
Just as we, seemingly, cannot track to their original origin, all the components that constitute the bits and pieces we use daily, the same could be said of the dust we work diligently to clean away from our homes, workplaces, cars, and so on.
A fair amount of it, as it turns out, isn’t even terrestrial, rather it has drifted down to the planet’s surface from space… and the dust you’re sweeping up could be some of the remains, however miniscule, of a long dead star.
Every year, almost 100,000 tons of space dirt falls on our planet. That’s the equivalent of one U.S. Nimitz-class aircraft carrier dropping from the skies every year. Of course, it doesn’t all come at once. Each day, about a hundred tons of material hits the Earth. Most of it is in the form of interplanetary dust caught in the Earth’s gravitational pull. But on any given night, you might also catch the bigger stuff: sand-grain-sized or even pebble-sized bits of the solar system flaring across our sky as meteors. After their fiery journey through the atmosphere, most of that material ends up as dust on the ground too.
astronomy, science, trivia