21 December 2007

"Mystery" of traffic jams solved - really?

I couldn't give a monkey's how traffic jams happen, just so long as they don't happen to me. But it's a subject that's obviously been playing on the minds of mathematicians from the universities of Bristol, Exeter and Budapest, because they've seen fit to develop a model of it.

Is it just me or does this strike you as the kind of thing mathematicians do for a laugh in their lunch hour? And, having seen Leila Sattary's report on the pseudoscience spouted about wrapping Christmas presents, I'd like to contest the fact that mathematicians do any real work at all.

If you're interested in the traffic jam study, the upshot of it is that an overreaction by an individual driver, i.e. braking too sharply, can cause 'backwards travelling waves' in the traffic. Gosh, that one must have taken them all lunch hour. Where are all the quadratic equations and common denominators in this, eh?

Image: Emin Ozkan

23 November 2007

6 free range eggs

Quoting Waitrose, "Columbian Blacktail Hens - these British-reared laying hens thrive on the freedom of their outdoor life and are kept in small flocks on the open pastures of family run farms."

I'm all for fair treatment of animals, but 'free range' would have been ample.

"Our hens are ethically raised by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, woken gently each morning by the sounds of pan pipes playing and provided with relaxation day tokens to spend at their nearest Hilton hotel."

Image: Michael Grunow

21 November 2007

High speed flip flop

So I'm browsing the latest issue of Patents and Designs Journal, just for fun, as you do. And I come across a patent application for a 'high speed flip flip'. Wow, I think, what's that? Sounds kinda spacey. Maybe it's a beach shoe with rocket blasters that makes an annoying 'thwack' noise... So I run a quick search on patent application number GB0719451.7 and discover there's no information on it. Hmm, slightly irritating, but I'll live.

Next thing is, on page 5226, someone's trying to patent a 'seagull tidy'. What? Like a desk tidy but for seagulls? Now this I have to see. Sure I won't be disappointed a second time, I feed the number into the patent finding machine. And it spits out... nothing. Again.

Okay, so last try. According to PDJ, Gavin Waxkirsh is planning to patent a bubble-blowing showerhead. Ooh, that sounds like fun. I don't know what possible use it could be - probably about as much use as a high speed flip flop or a seagull tidy - but I want to have a gander at it. So, typing the number in very slowly and carefully (perhaps this will encourage the search engine to look a bit harder) I give it one more shot. Aaaand, zip. Nowt.

On all three occasions I am told, quite abruptly "! Application details not yet published."

What do you mean, "not yet published"? You've just published them in your own sodding journal! You can't allude to a rocket powered flip flop* and then leave us all dangling for three years whilst you make your mind up about it.

So if anyone knows where I might find the details of a patent application and how soon they become available, do tell. I've got a garden full of seagulls I'd like to put in order.

*I have a suspicion this might turn out to be something rather boring to do with electronics, and not, as one would hope, some sort of futuristic sandal.

14 November 2007

Forgotten how to laugh

I've been watching repeats of Have I Got News for You lately, which, now I think about it, strikes me as a rather pointless exercise, being as all the news in them happened months ago... I think it's a work avoidance tactic.


I watched a show the other night with a fellow science communicator and an archaeologist. At one point, Paul Merton and co. were taking the mickey out of a scientist for getting over excited about spaghetti physics. A comedy photo of said scientist (honoured at last year's Ig Nobels) was shown wearing a white lab coat, eyes near popping from his head at the sight of raw spaghetti breaking.

General hilarity and derision ensued; as, we're taught, is often the case when science comes under the scrutiny of the media. Both science communicators sat silently, intestines tying themselves in knots no doubt, while the archaeologist chortled along with Merton obliviously.

This was last year's Ig Nobels. They're meant to be funny, dammit.

Really, I thought afterwards, no wonder science communication is in a state. We've had it drummed into us for so long that it's WRONG to stereotype scientists and EVIL to laugh at them, that we've not an ounce of humour left for white coat jokes, even Paul Merton's. What a shame.

4 November 2007


Note to self: this needs exploring.

I had a very entertaining conversation in the car on the way back from the Downend fireworks extravaganza (a.k.a. Chaville Tennessee) on Friday night. It culminated in the bold assertion by Passenger Seat that Mr. Hayley was more of a chav than me. At which point Back Seat Driver 1 countered that I drove a Peugeot and was therefore more chavvy.

What makes someone a chav and do we all have elements of chav that we're happy to embrace? Do we all, in a sense, attain different levels of chaviness? Is wearing gold hoop earrings to chavvy what bad apostrophe use is to dyslexic?

19 October 2007

Not just an Apostrophe Catastrophe...

Thanks to: Badgas

If Marc Abrahams can hand out prizes, so can I

I’m awarding prizes. Categories subject to change each month. In October, the categories are:

Most Consistently Preposterous Titles for Journal Articles

The Journal of Consumer Research
-For such pearls as ‘Mood and Comparative Judgement: Does Mood Influence Everything and Finally Nothing?’, ‘Of Chameleons and Consumption: The Impact of Mimicry on Choice and Preferences’ and ‘Time Will Tell: The Distant Appeal of Promotion and Imminent Appeal of Prevention’.

Inappropriate Use of Provocative Language in Science Media

Testosterone turns male juncos into blustery hunks – and bad dads
-What this means: Male birds increase testosterone production to attract mates; sometimes it makes them a bit narky.

Most Completely Incomprehensible Utterance by a Scientist

"The mere fact that now we can have a predictable organic-nanotube hybrid composite, with enhanced properties should open the door for many new applications. The enhancement in the luminescence properties bodes well for a new generation of organic devices that could potentially reach commercially viable figures of merit for large scale production. The work conducted at the ATI will now allow us to investigate ways to modify the active material used for solar cells in order to harvest more of the solar spectrum using hybrid mixtures."
-What this means: I don't know.

Best Pun in a Press Release

No prizes this month - or possibly ever, seeing as how I might elect to change the categories next month - they're all far too lame.

Non-story of the Month

The U.S. hasn’t changed its stance on how much fish women can eat while they’re pregnant.
-Yes, that’s "hasn’t". Right.

Apostrophe Catastrophe

Charlies Angles
-Thanks to Bad Gas.

Best Things Recalled This Month

Minnie’s chocolate chunk cookies
-"Undeclared presence of nuts".

Kahlua Kahlua Brownie and Double Fudge Brownie ice cream
-You think anyone's sending those back?

Image: thanks to Fernando

12 October 2007

Man, I'm excited about Heroes

Sneaky sneaky. Somehow the genius that is Heroes hadn't quite crept up on me until last night... A Japanese guy who can teleport in the same programme as a cheerleader who can mash her own face up and then magically restore herself. But what really did it for me last episode was the badness of the bad guy. He's so evil it's positively sexy. (Perhaps there's something slightly warped about me?) Plus the fact he spent half the show in a room with a scientist who was neither completely repugnant nor portrayed as an utter fruitloop/geek. It's a winner.

11 October 2007

Holidays: worth it?

This is a graphical representation of my stress levels over the last three weeks. As you can see, stress levels nose dive from a moderate '5' during the week of the holiday, then soar to astronomical heights ('15' on my scale) afterwards.

What does this tell us?
a) Holidays make you stressed
b) Not being at work for a week makes you stressed

or, crucially,

c) Too much time spent procrastinating and avoiding work after a holiday makes you stressed

7 October 2007

Mio Dio!

I'm fresh out of Italy - Pisa to be precise - armed with all manner of Italian colloquialisms to baffle (that's buffoon, if you're a Malaprop) the English speaker. "Mio dio" ("my god") just happens to be my favourite, but I also have a soft spot for "cretino" (no prizes for guessing) and "chiusi il becco" ("shut up", but I'm pretty sure it literally translates as "shut your beak").

Anyway, while abroad, fellow biologist and travel companion, Zia Lewindon, informed me that the "average" Italian family consumes 50 litres of olive oil a year. I say "average" because this is the amount one hopeful oil vendor tried to sell her. Either he thought she had six children, or one member of a four person family is genuinely expected to consume (drink?) - let's see - a quarter of a litre of olive oil a week... Mio dio!

Image: thanks Jeresn Callewaer

1 September 2007

Hot Scientists

Eek, it's been a very long time since the last blog. But now I'm blogging for a very good reason...

If you're reading this (that's all two of you, I imagine) stop for a minute and think about how many scientists you know. Then think - are any of them sexy/dashing/fit/toe-curlingly beautiful?

I know there are some hot scientists out there and I need to make contact with them. Nothing untoward, I swear. I just need them to help me prove that there is sex appeal in the scientific profession by posing as the Null's 'Hot Scientist of the Week'.

So if there's anyone out there - man, woman or geek - working or studying in any vaguely science related area (the more bizarre, the better) who can really pull off the lab coat look, do tell. Please.


Image: Jean Scheijen (fittie)

27 July 2007

More ceiling mushrooms

There's a whole ecosystem growing on our bathroom ceiling these days. The flat orange population continues to multiply, but it is joined by a more evil-looking spindly variety.

It is with some trepidation I venture to the shower of a morning, unable to prevent myself from throwing the odd wide-eyed glance in their direction. They're watching, I know it.

14 July 2007

Ceiling mushrooms

What do you do when you discover a new species? I mean, who do you tell?

As far as I understand it, if you discover it, you get to name it. Right? So I'm hereby announcing the existence of Xanthofungus ceilingdampus, or as it's more commonly known, the yellow ceiling mushroom.

Nowt special. They look like mushrooms, they smell like mushrooms and they will flourish on your ceiling if your upstairs neighbours happen to have sprung a leak and your landlord refuses to investigate.

Unfortunately the poor little buggers met a sorry end this evening. We might, in fact, have brought them to the point of extinction. Oh well.

In anticipation of house guests over the weekend, The Man of the House took a dustpan and brush to the population, which seemed to be enjoying exponential growth, and wiped it out in one big swipedy swipe. All that now remains of this ill-fated species is (limited) photographic evidence, which I'm witholding for now of course. If anyone knows of an extremely rich and none-too-bright fungi enthusiast, do tell.

22 June 2007

Chatted up twice in two days

I'm not a girl. Although obviously I am in the traditional sense. What I mean is: I'm not the kind of girl who gets up half an hour earlier to straighten her hair, or the kind of girl who has one of those sticks for pushing her cuticles back. I don't even know what one of those looks like.

But - and this is my theory based on recent evidence - you don't have to be that sort of girl to attract the same amount of attention from the opposite sex...

A few days ago I began an experiment, unbeknownst to me, that proves this.

Feeling flush following an influx of birthday cheques, I had decided to invest in - big spender - some mascara. It was a silly thing to do, I thought, when I got home. Mascara has never agreed with me. It's normally around about the 12 minute mark after application that I start rubbing, and inevitably end up looking like a lemur - or the reverse of one, whichever.

Still, I persevered, combining with lashings of kohl and eye shadow. By the end of the first day, throughout which I managed to stave off itching, I had received at least a couple of compliments on my new eyes. Then came the extraordinary thing. Two separate instances of blatant male flirtery, both cashiers, on two consecutive days.

Now these incidents can only be accounted for by the new eyes. I am never chatted up in shops. Ever. And this is all the more pleasing because it only took me five minutes in the morning to achieve, even as a novice. Do other girls know this?

I propose to continue with this experiment - it seems of vital importance to the female population. Plus, if I can prove that eye make up application accounts for 50% of male interest in women, maybe Max Factor will give me a million.

Image: Trine de Florie

17 June 2007

The boy with the incredible brain

Before I start on this Boy and his Incredible Brain, I just want to say something about Doctor Who last night.

Did anyone else feel slightly let down by the fact that Captain Jack's "story", which had remained a mystery for an entire 13-episode series of Torchwood, unravelled in a matter of seconds on Doctor Who? So fast, in fact, that I barely caught it. What? He was a time agent (what's a time agent?) stuck in the 20th century, waiting for the Doctor to materialise, so he could - what? Someone please explain. All I got from this was John Barrowman + David Tennant = great viewing.

Anyway, this Boy. Found on Stumbleupon on Friday night - programme about a boy (actually 25 years old) who can recall Pi to 22,000 digits and learn Icelandic in a week. Sounds like madness but he could provide major insights into the way people with autistic spectrum disorders view the world. Normally someone with these kinds of abilities (a "savant" - think Rain Man) would also have severe impairments in other areas of learning, often social aspects, making it difficult for him to integrate himself into society. However, this particular Boy has no obvious learning difficulties and is able to talk freely about his "internal landscape". Absolutely jaw dropping. Wonderful TV.

Is it me or is this blog turning into a science on TV blog of late? Clearly I'm not working hard enough...

14 June 2007

Double whammy of alien-ass busting godlikeness

Not that I'm counting down the days or anything but.

Saturday. David Tennant.

And. John Barrowman.

One show.


30 May 2007

Here from the internet

I do hope Mr XKCD doesn't mind the stealage, and oh, I do love his cartoons so.

16 May 2007

And the prize for the week's most media friendly scientific paper goes to...

'When Two and Two is Not Equal to Four' by Rao and Haipeng Chen of the University of Miami.

Essentially they've found that people can't add up when it comes to price discounts - wishful thinking seems to make the discount bigger.

Make your own calculations.

7 May 2007

Doctor Who - not ENTIRELY accurate...

Don't get me wrong, I love Doctor Who (and Torchwood - who doesn't love Captain Jack?), but I've got a creeping suspicion it isn't doing much for the old PUS. If that's an alien concept to you, PUS stands for Public Understanding of Science. Although come to think of it, any movement that calls itself PUS isn't doing much for its own public image.

So last night, the Doctor comes up against some crazed Dr Strangelove-style scientist who manages to hack into his own genome, turning his body clock back 30 years. Then, the mad geneticist proceeds to munch up the local inhabitants to satisfy the needs of his mutating genes, which will otherwise transform him into a 20 foot tail-thrashing monster.

Oh, I know, I know, it's science fiction. But where do you think people are getting their ideas about modern day genetics? Precisely. Jurassic Park and Gattaca.

3 May 2007

Run, get thin. Keep running, stay thin. Not rocket science.

Am I going mad?

Some scientists have spent actual money... (As opposed to what - Monopoly money? I don't know. Look it's late, get on with it. And stop talking to yourself.) Clearly I am going mad, but that doesn't alter the fact that these scientists have spent real money on working out that if you run for your whole life you'll stay thin. Well, obviously not constantly for your entire life. Because that would make you very thin indeed, possibly skeleton-like. You'd have to stop for some grub every now and again. A salad leaf or two maybe.

Anyway, we're getting sidetracked again.

Apparently these scientists got through 8,000 people before it hit them. Exercise = burning energy = losing weight = being thin. Therefore, constant exercise = being thin forever. Really thinking outside the box there.

According to Paul Williams of the US Dept of Energy (so this guy knows his stuff when it comes to energy... allegedly), "Getting people to commit to a vigorously active lifestyle while young and lean will go a long way to reducing the obesity epidemic."

It really makes you wonder sometimes doesn't it?

Give me several thousand pounds worth of research money (or several hundred thousand) and I'll do something much more useful with it, like buying 8,000 fat people a skipping rope each.

Check it out for yourself.

26 April 2007

Ear Nose and Throat

Courtesy of Shelley Batts at Retrospectacle.

18 April 2007

Sci comm conference London 2009

News straight from Melbourne - I have my sources - London has just won the bid for the 2009 Science Journalists conference. Excellent work, although perhaps a shame Italy didn't win; it would have been a fantastic excuse for a holiday.

14 April 2007

M.C. Nuts

Science? I don't think so, but watch this... giant hip hop squirrel. Need I say more?


12 April 2007

US women will only date short men if they earn $146k more

From the New York Times, on online dating: "A 5-foot-8 man was just as successful in getting dates as a 6-footer if he made more money — precisely $146,000 a year more. For a 5-foot-2 man, the number was $277,000."

Which complements a recent study by The Null quite nicely.

Image: misterhyun

10 April 2007

Sci-Pop Airs

Science in musical form. And it comes in many weird and wonderful disguises. Let me or The Null know if you have any we haven't thought of... the list must be endless.


8 April 2007


If you ask me, flies are just about the dumbest animals there are. The mere sight of one head butting the window, making that infuriating zzzzz-thud noise, triggers a fly-related torrent of abuse, punctuated every five words by "Why are you so stupid?" But scientists who have spent far too many hours video tracking the filthy little blighters say they deserve more credit. H'apparently they don't buzz around in random frenzies, they have "strategies". Yeah, like annoying the hell out of me. Didn't these guys have enough of Drosophila during GCSE biology?


5 April 2007

Wanted: Sleepwalkers

Do you sleepwalk? What's it like? Have you ever done anything strange whilst sleepwalking?

Tell me... I want to know! (Purely in the interests of science).

It would really help me out if anyone who has had a sleepwalking experience, strange or otherwise, could get in contact. It would only be a five minute chat, or rapid exchange of emails if you prefer. Email sleepwalking@manyfinewords.co.uk

2 April 2007

Writing reduces your cholesterol

Does it? If that's the case, my cholesterol must be in minus figures.

Oh, wait. You have to be writing affectionately. Ah, now that's obviously where I'm falling down.

Scientists say people who devote 20 minutes now and again to writing affectionate words about their loved ones can significantly lower their cholesterol within 25 days. Presumably their control group was spending a much more enjoyable 20 minutes stuffing their faces with pastries.


31 March 2007

Sci-Pop: Steve's song

Thanks to Siobhan Laura Casalegno (Facebook), who flagged up this little audio gem from The National Center for Science Education.


I am in the midst of compiling a list of popular music with a scientific theme. Hence "Sci-Pop". Okay, so "popular" isn't exactly the term I would use to describe Steve's Song. But it's genius nevertheless.

In case you're wondering "Steve" is the NCSE's champion for keeping evolution in the school curriculum.


29 March 2007

Diamond geezer

A family from Blackpool consider their dad to be such a gem, that they've turned him into one.

25 minutes of sciencey goodness in audio form

The iProf, the Null Pod, the Profcast, whatever you want to call it, it's now online at ClickCaster. Or you can download from iTunes. Pubic lice, NASA and beautiful women all get the once over.

1 February 2007