Friday, 20 December 2013

Book Review: 'Shaman' by Kim Stanley Robinson

Kim Stanley Robinson's new novel may seem like a change from his past works, but in a way it fits in well with his other works. Instead of spaceships we get the end of the last ice age. And although you may think that this is a huge change in what Kim usually writes, we do get a story about humans surviving and adapting through innovation and investigation, just like all of his stories. 'Galileo's Dream' may have seemed like Kim was talking about the beginnings of science, but with 'Shaman' he shows that there are no beginnings of science and that it is essentially part of being human.

Kim has stated that his inspiration for this novel come from extensive hiking near glaciers and the type of environments that Europe would have been like at the end of the last ice age. On these hikes Kim would imagine what it would have been like to be a human at this time. Other inspiration has come from the ongoing investigation of Otzi, the five and a half thousand year old body found exposed in a glacier in 1991. Clothes and other artifacts found with the body have survived wonderfully and provide a great insight into the technology and innovation of the time.

What Kim produces is a heart-warming, coming of age tale of an apprentice shaman. We join him in his first wandering, cast aside into the wilderness naked and with no tools. We learn an awful lot about his clan and how they function in day to day life. And every character you encounter is well-drawn and is a complete individual. These people and the book itself does well to remove itself from using the standard caveman stereotype and indeed shows that 'humanity' has been with us all along and did not come about with the rise of civilisation.

I found that I did not enjoy this novel as much as some of Kim's other works such as the Mars trilogy and 'Galileo's Dream', but compared to most other works out there, it is still a brilliant and thoughtful work full of wonder and heart. In my opinion even when Kim is experimenting and trying something different like this, he could write the pants off all but a few authors.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Book Review: 'In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex' by Nathaniel Philbrick

Any reader who has read 'The Life of Pi' and 'Moby Dick' should be all over this as both works of fiction were inspired by the tragic events of the Essex.  The Essex was an American whaling ship that was attacked by a disgruntled sperm whale (well the whalers had attacked it with harpoons) and sunk in the south-western Pacific in 1820. All the crew survive the sinking but they are stranded in the middle of the Pacific, in a region desolate of life, and they seem to want to make it back to civilisation the hardest way possible. Hilarity ensues. That was sarcasm.

Nathaniel does a magnificent job in describing the events on the Essex. But what also sets this book apart is his description and history of the whaling industry of Nantucket. The town is dominated by Quakers at the time and it is interesting how that justified this religion with systematic slaughter of animals and bolstered a whole industry around it. For a supposedly peaceful and placid religion, these people were blubberthirsty.I don't know if this is spoilerific (can history have spoilers?) but it also goes on to talk about the aftereffects of the tragedy and how the survivors went on living.

But the heart of the story is that of the survival of the sailors. How they relied on each other and how they tried to survive despite all odds. Having read this after years after reading 'The Life of Pi' I feel a bit ripped off. There are so many parallels in the fictional story, and it would have been great to get all the references.

A great read that taught me a lot about the whaling industry with a lot about ocean survival. Recommended to all fans of those two fictions I mentioned earlier and would make a great gift for someone going on a cruising holiday.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Returning to the Moon

So I have been absent for a few weeks from the blog. Well, at least I didn't abandon you all like we did to the moon. Thanks to China, after 37 years we have finally put another craft on the surface of the moon. The Chang'e-3 lander contained a rover called Yutu, or Jade Rabbit in Chinese. After a landing on Saturday everything seems to be go for the little rover.

The rover has a twofold mission; to explore the landing area, the dark lava plains of Bay of Rainbows in the north of Mare Ibrium, as well as deploying a telescope on the surface. The Bay of Rainbows has piqued the interests of the China National Space Agency due to its geological features. Investigation of the lava plains will lead to greater insights into the history of the moon, from when there was volcanic activity on the surface. These lava flows are presumed to have left behind lava tubes, as occurs in lava flows on Earth. Lava tubes are formed by hotter flowing lava accumulating in channels that run through cooled lava. These tunnels can be small, about 100 mm diameter, up to very large tunnels several metres in diameter. I recently visited one at Mount Kilauea, Hawaii that was large enough to take a leisurely stroll through.

These structures under the lunar surface would be perfect for future human settlement as they will easily convert to a sealed environment, with the benefit of having radiation deflecting rock above. The lack of atmosphere on the moon allows for all radiation from the sun to contact the surface; a very dangerous long-term environment for any life. The importance of finding and exploring these structures is important to future space efforts.

To aid in this underground investigation, the rover carries a ground penetrating radar system, estimated to be able to detect structural changes down to about 150m below the lunar surface. The rover also carries a scoop with a spectrometer to analyse lunar regolith samples.

Deploying a telescope on the moon is of great interest to astronomers due to the lack of atmosphere, the same reason why the Hubble telescope was so successful also. Looking through an constantly shifting atmosphere at distant stars can prove to have its difficulties.  The lander also carries an ultraviolet camera in the aim of photographing the Earth's plasmasphere, a distant part of the atmosphere where the Earth's magnetic field deflects incoming radiation from the sun. Although the plasmasphere has been mapped before, it has only been mapped from within. The new photographs will confirm the structure of the plasmasphere from the outside.

The new rover is part of the beginning of China's space program. Previously two orbiters have been successfully launched by the program, and there are plans for many more including a mission to return rock and regolith samples back to Earth in 2017. With South Korea and other countries also initiating space programs in the last year, it is definitely an exciting time for humanity. The collaborative efforts of space exploration are proving to be beyond politics. It's time to be optimistic about our futures.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Book Review: "Heads in Beds: A Reckless Memoir of Hotels, Hustles, and So-Called Hospitality" by Jacob Tomsky

This read was a bit of a gamble. Written by a employee in the hotel business it professes to tell great stories, tips on getting the best service and an insider look behind the scenes. With many other writers this could have been quite dull, but Jacob's wit, heart and cynicism makes this a great read that does deliver on all the promises.

The memoir part takes up most of the book with a chronological tale of his employment from a valet parer in a luxury hotel in the southern U.S., through the lofty heights of management, and finally to a bitter front desk clerk in New York. You get to experience the differing hotel environments in each hotel he works in and see the direct effect of these styles on the staff, which of course reflects in the service of the clients.

Jacob has wonderful tales from his time in each hotel from the classy woman who only hires a New York room for 3 hours regularly, to the CEO client who stays multiple times a week and leaves a bag behind containing some interesting luggage.
So many funny and weird tales.

Interspersed throughout is Jacob's advice to us, the paying public. How do you get the best service and the added perks? What the fuck is up with minibars and how do you get stuff for free from them? And why do people constantly underestimate the power of the front desk clerk? This person has complete control over your stay and if you treat them like shit, they can make your stay hell. The methods for making a client's stay not so nice are rather funny and clever, but do not worry, you probably won't get to experience these methods unless you are an asshole to the clerk, or do something nasty in their presence such as treating your wife, girlfriend or especially kids like crap in front of the clerk.

This book is a wonderful and fun read, with the added advantage of being educational on what happens behind the scenes in the hotel industry and how you can make the most out of your next stay at a hotel.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Book Review: "Feynman" by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

I have been slow to discover the delights of Feynman, but I recognise a similar thinker, albeit a much, much brighter man. I love his famous BBC interview that was towards the end of his life and I did greatly enjoy his autobiographical sections in "Six Easy Pieces".

A graphic novel adaptation of Feynam's life works very well. While it does not present any new material, it takes the best snippets from all different sources and makes his life come alive with wonderful and simple illustration. Another great advantage to this medium is that the authors presented sections of Feynman lecturing and explaining physics problems. This works wonderfully and could only be bettered by watching a video of these lectures. (You can find some of his filmed lectures on Youtube).

So this was a wonderful read for a rainy Sunday afternoon. It really did capture his voice and his philosophies if I could use that term.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Library Copy of 'Fifty Shades of Grey" Tests Positive For Herpes

For a laugh two Belgian toxicologists borrowed 10 books from their local public library and put them through toxicological and bacteriological screenings. What they found was quite intriguing.

All books were rife with bacteria. Well that should be a no-brainer, but did they run some background readings on other books, say from their own library?

Another finding was that all showed trace amounts of cocaine. Not enough for a reader to display physiological symptoms, but possibly enough to alert a drug screening.

Also, "Fifty Shades of Grey" tested positive for the Herpes virus. Very low amounts mind you and the experts say not enough to transmit the virus. But what if you have a suppressed immune system?

Anyway, support your local libraries, they do great work. Keep your cocaine away from the books though. And anyone borrowing "Fifty Shades" from the library, well you deserve what you get.


Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Book Review: "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

I have been getting rather annoyed with blurbs the last few years and I am trying to steer clear of them as much as possible. Of course they come in handy for judging a book quickly and I do read them for unknown authors or authors that are hit or miss. After reading a book and looking at the blurb I have often thought "That's a bit spoilery. I could have done not knowing about that."  Why do blurbs have to contain spoilers of the first 100 pages of plot?

Anyway my point is with "The Goldfinch" is I made a concerted effort to avoid blurbs or any description of any kind before reading it. And looking back at the blurb now I have to say:


I would have been so disappointed with that knowledge. Sure sometimes I get pissed off with books with no blurb and just quotes from Bill Bryson and Stephen Hawking. But this is me this time, and this is my gushing thumbs up, and that means more than Bill Bryson's. And therefore this review is just going to amount to a huge gush of adoration with no plot details at all.

Of course I can tell you all what I loved about this book apart from plot details. And the plot was great. Lots of surprises, lots of intrigue. The characters are all wonderful, both to love and to hate. The writing is just so fucking brilliant. 800 or so pages in just under 3 days. That is how good.

I also loved Donna's "The Secret History" for a lot of the same reasons. She has definitely become one of my favorite authors, and it is good to know that she is popular. A rare overlap between what the masses love and what I love.

I don't know if this is an adequate review. But I loved it. And you should read it.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Book Review: "Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science" by Will Storr

In my mind Will Storr is the brilliant love-child of Mary Roach and Louis Theroux, both of whom I adore. I think Will may have to join their lofty heights in my respectability/adoration mind shrine.

Will's "Will Storr vs the Supernatural" was a wonderful and random find that I made several years ago. Will took it upon himself, Louis Theroux style, to get immersed in the lore and activity of the supernatural. What was different about the other supernatural books is that Will approached it from a skeptical point of view. His conclusions were  that most of what he investigated was utter bullshit, but there were a few instances that made him think. That book was much better than Mary Roach's approach taken in her book "Spook".

Anyway, this time Will has taken on the enemies of science. Well more like the enemies of reason. SO each chapter or two is dedicated to an interview or an activity with a fringe group or person. You start with a creationist preacher, move through to holocaust deniers and take on homeopathy. All sections are well-researched and Will approaches each instance with a sympathetic ear. That ear may not last long, but he does have the best of intentions.

All throughout Will is bringing this all back to the nature of belief and the apparent need for the human brain to make reliable sense of the world it exists in. So there is a greater message other than "Look at these dickheads" and a great attempt to try and understand human thought processes.

In it's own way I think that this book adds it's own to a religion vs. science argument and should be considered essential reading for anyone tackling this subject. It definitely should be as popular and as read as Dawkins' "The God Delusion" and makes a much more logical assay of belief than Hitchens' "God is Not Great". It had a die-hard atheist like myself thinking as opposed to going "right on!" to every point.

Book Review: "Pedro and Me" by Judd Winnick

I know this looks like the cover to an after school special, and it is actually like an after school special. But don't judge me.

I first came across Judd's work with the hilarious "Barry Ween" series which I do adore (I should write reviews for them). But I did not enjoy his collection of "Frumpy the Clown", which was unfunny newspaper type strips. So I picked this up a few years ago with no idea what it was about.

Turns out it's an autobiographical comic on the author's relationship with his friend Pedro, who was an AIDS advocate in the 90's. They met by becoming roommates in a MTV reality show. There are no surprises here and it ticks all the boxes for being a heartfelt story with a message.

But what really spoke to me reading it this time through  is the message of acceptance of differences and the need to be exposed to diversity. In the final stages of the audition process for the show Judd was asked by the producers if he was comfortable to share a room with someone who is HIV positive. Being a liberal kind of guy he didn't even think before saying yes, but then later admits that he did have some prejudice based purely on ignorance of how the disease is transmitted and how would that impact on him sharing a room with Pedro. Of course everything turns out fine, but it took a little bit of time (not as much as what you may think) to get used to living with someone like this. I think it goes to show that no matter how liberal we may be in our views, until we are close to someone who is different we are probably just full of idealistic words. Here it was someone with HIV, but in our lives we need to expose ourselves to all kinds of different people.

We have gained a multitude of sources for HIV education and this may be a great source to give to people who do not read novels or for teenagers. But I think the main strength is the message of equality and exposing yourself to different people. No, not in a trench-coat-wearing way.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

A Day in the Life of a Seagull

Dutch researchers attached a GPS to a female seagull to track her travels during a day. The video animation is the result of the data collected.  332 km were covered during the day.

I'm still not giving them my chips.

Friday, 25 October 2013


Ah Iceland, beautiful vistas, Bjork, Sigur Ros and necropants.

Yes, you heard right, necropants. A wonderful pastime for all the family in 17th century Iceland. What are they? Well it's a little Silence of the Lambs meets those trendy printed tights, minus the trendy printed tights.
The only known intact pair is housed in the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft and is shown below. I thought I ought to include a warning, but let's face it, you all had a good look at the pic way before reading this boring text.

More explanation from the Museum:

"If you want to make your own necropants (literally; nábrók) you have to get permission from a living man to use his skin after his dead. After he has been buried you must dig up his body and flay the skin of the corpse in one piece from the waist down. As soon as you step into the pants they will stick to your own skin. A coin must be stolen from a poor widow and placed in the scrotum along with the magical sign, nábrókarstafur, written on a piece of paper. Consequently the coin will draw money into the scrotum so it will never be empty, as long as the original coin is not removed. To ensure salvation the owner has to convince someone else to overtake the pants and step into each leg as soon as he gets out of it. The necropants will thus keep the money-gathering nature for generations."

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Back in Action

Hi everyone,

Sorry to just abandon you all but I had to take off time to write my Honours thesis. It's all done now (thank the Spaghetti Monster) so I'll start by getting into the swing of things. There is a book review of the one solitary book I read in the last month, but it was a damn good one that managed to take my mind off iodopyridines.


Book Review: 'Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity' by David Kirby

'Death at Seaworld' is a fascinating and meticulously researched work that centres upon the death of a killer whale trainer at the U.S. theme park in 2010. However the work also takes on the entire history of the captivity of these whales, as well as research undertaken in the wild.
What you get to read may be argued as one-sided as it argues strictly against the captivity of killer whales, but with the evidence presented, there is no other conclusion that could be reached. It does essentially come down to animals performing under extreme duress for the pleasure of humans to bring in dollars.

There is a lot of focus on policy and politics about marine mammals in the U.S., but it never gets bogged down in too much detail, and the people who played a part in these affairs are well-drawn and interesting people in their own right.

An interesting section looks at the plight of Keiko, the star of the 'Free Willy' movie. Keiko was hired from a Mexican animal park to star in the movie. The conditions that he was in were dismal with a very small concrete tank, that was so shallow that his pectoral fins always touched the bottom and had lesions on them. The tale of his journey being an experimental re-release into the wild is a wonderful and enlightening story.

I guess what also sets this work apart from the usual anti-captivity arguments is that it is strictly about killer whales. The author does make an argument for captivity of certain species for educational and conservationist purposes. He is not a die-hard anti-this anti-that person. The argument put forward is strictly about this species and it's conditions and treatment in captivity.

So if you are a bit of a zoological nut check this book out. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

That Adam Savage Video is Online

This is the video of the talk from Adam Savage outlining his rules for success. Yes they are aimed at Makers, but I think the same rules work across the board.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Don't Touch Lizzy, You Don't Know Where She's Been

From New Scientist

Just as the Bank of England announced it was considering phasing in plastic pound notes in 2016 a study announces the fact that some bacteria tend to survive for longer on plastic than other currencies.

Habip Gedik at the Okmeydani Training and Research Hospital in Istanbul, Turkey, placed bacteria such as E.coli on differing currencies (the euro, US dollar, Canadian dollar, Moroccan dirham, Croatian kuna, Romanian leu and Indian rupee) and had volunteers handle these notes. The time between dosing the dosh with bacteria and handling was differed.

The best anti-bacterial notes was the euro, with the U.S money coming up second. The worst was the Romanian leu, with a large amount of bacteria being transferred to the handler after the most amount of time. The Romanian leu is similar to the New Zealand and Australian notes and we should all beware.

Still, it's probably less bacteria than the amount on your keyboard right now.

"I was amazed to see that some currencies act like breeding grounds for bacteria while others seem to be auto-sterilised," says team member Andreas Voss of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Book Review: 'Galileo's Dream' by Kim Stanley Robinson

I finally braved getting this large tome out of my to-read-pile. It's not that it scared me, I have pretty much adored all that I have read of Kim's, it's just that I'm busy researching at the moment and I knew that this would eat up my time and imagination. And it did, but it did not interfere with my work at all. I'm glad I pulled it out. It really was the best book at the best time.

'Galileo's Dream', although being fiction, is 70% biographical. The story is essentially Galileo's life from his work on telescopes up until his death. We see him rise to fame for his mathematical work and his work with telescopes, his writings on the Copernican universe, and his downfall and judgement by the Catholic Church.

Interspersed in this non-fiction are little snippets of fiction that Kim has placed in Galileo's story. Each section fits into the truth so well and mirrors excerpts from Galileo's writing. As to what they involve, well you'll have to read it yourself; but Kim is a science fiction writer at best.

Just like Galileo the book is intelligent and funny with a great amount of detail being given on politics and his everyday life. Each character is unique and you get to experience many wonderful personalities. The imagery in this book is wonderful, sumptuous and beautiful, full of the observations of an early scientist.

At the heart of the story is the story of science and one of it's founding giants, a man who connected what he could see and observe to mathematics, and looked to see if these results were repeatable and consistent. The fiction of the story is a further exploration of science and philosophy which is powerful and a great enough story in itself.

This really is a wonderful work which gives me a great respect for Galileo and has encouraged me to read further into his story and see how much the details in the book are true. Kim has risen to new greats in my respect also. This one one of those rare treasures of a book that spoke volumes to both my mind and my heart. It would definitely be in a top 20 book list of mine and may even make it to a top 10. It deserves all 5 of those elephants.

Book Review: 'My Brief History' by Stephen Hawking

Thanks to and Random House Publishing Group for a review copy in exchange for an honest review.

I have never read  any Hawking before *gasp*, so what a place to start, on his autobiography. Titled 'My Brief History' is really is brief and to the point.

The style of this autobiography is terse, to the point, and mainly about his academic achievements. His children and wives get a brief mention, which is reassuring, with the only other personal story being that of the onset of his disability and the management of it. Which is also brief in comparison to the rest of the story.

I have thought about why this style may have come about and I have several theories, each may play a role. Foremost, he is a scientist, and has given us the facts of his life. There was no embellishment, because scientists don't tend to go for all that touchy-feely stuff.

It takes a lot of effort for Stephen to write. He says explicitly that he manages three or four words per minute using his speech system. This short autobiography translates to many hours of work. Give the guy a break.

He is a private guy, and would prefer not to have all his washing hung out. Although you do get snippets now and then. For instance, when he thought he was dying in the 70s and his children were young, he and his wife decided upon a future father and husband after he was gone. The man that was selected moved in to get better acquainted with the children. Stephen's condition did not go according to what the doctors predicted and months later his marriage was over. It is obvious he did this out of love for his wife and children. It is tragic as to how it turned out.

The closest autobiography in style to this that comes to mind is Roald Dahl's 'Boy' and 'Going Solo'. Both authors give brief tales that are full of facts and not much feelings.

So a nice quick read that gives us a look at the personality and work that the amazing man has done over the last 50 or so years. Just be careful about your expectations of what this autobiography will give you. It will not give you an in depth warts and all account of his whole life. But still well worth the read if you are a fan or a fellow scientist interested in how famous academics live and research. It has given me the inspiration to move his other works up my to-read list.

Galaxy Cluster Abell 1689

2.25 billion light years away lies Galaxy Cluster Abell 1689, a region of the universe thick with dark matter. Each dot and swirl you see in this image is not a star, but a galaxy, 100 billion stars each. 
What is so special about this far away cluster is the amount of globular clusters surrounding these galaxies. Globular clusters are old stars that orbit outside the main region of a galaxy and are thought to be leftovers from galaxy formation. The Milky Way is thought to have about 150 of these regions, but Abell is thought to have 160,000. Why is a good question and it seems to be linked to dark matter. According to NASA: 

"The research team found that the globular clusters are intimately intertwined with dark matter. "In our study of Abell 1689, we show how the relationship between globular clusters and dark matter depends on the distance from the galaxy cluster's center," explained team member Karla Alamo-Martinez of the Center for Radio Astronomy and Astrophysics of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Morelia. "In other words, if you know how many globular clusters are within a certain distance, we can give you an estimate of the amount of dark matter."

From Hubblesite and io9

Monday, 16 September 2013

The Parbuckling of Costa Concordia

Remember the Costa Concordia that run aground in January 2012?

Well this week it's finally getting salvaged. Sounds like a difficult job, and it is even more so due to it's location in the Tuscan Marine Sanctuary, a rare area where dolphins and whales still frolic near the European shoreline. Because of this, the ship cannot be broken up, nor can the tonnes of fuel it carries be let into the environment. Added to this, the vessel is precariously situated upon the edge of a steep underwater slope.

Titan Salvage, the company conducting the operation has already started on an ingenious plan to re-float the vessel. They have built an underwater platform for the ship to be turned over upon and then re floated. The turning over of the ship is scheduled for this week.

Take a look at the plans at the Titan Salvage website.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Kim Stanley Robinson's New Novel

It's on it's way and I'm getting it for my birthday next week.

Instead of the future Kim is going 32,000 years in the past. Instigated by Otzi and visits to the Chauvet caves in France. And featuring Neanderthals.

Van Gogh Painting Found: Confirms Doctor Who Exists in the Real Universe

Remember that wonderful season 5 episode, "Vincent and the Doctor", where the Doctor and Amy visit Van Gogh to discover his mental state was under alien influence? Sounds lame, but it was a highlight episode of the season.

Meanwhile in the real universe (this one), an original Van Gogh has been recovered from sixty years in an attic and recently confirm by experts. "Sunset at Montmajour" was placed by it's owner and collector in his attic in 1908 after being told by an art authority that it was a fake. It turned up in an estate sale in the seventies and has only now been confirmed as a real Van Gogh.

So what does that have to do with Doctor Who? Well remember how the episode features a Van Gogh with the TARDIS? Take a look at the recovered painting.

No that isn't a nearby abbey. That's the TARDIS dammit!

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Book Review: 'A Universe From Nothing' by Lawrence M. Krauss

I guess everyone could have predicted that I would give this book 4.5 stars, if not at least agree with it's theories. Being a forthright atheist and scientist I was bound to love this book right? Well that argument could be made, but I refer you to my ratings for other atheist works such as "The God Delusion", which I must admit deserves a reread and possibly an updated higher score in retrospect, and Hitchens' "God is Not Great" which I thought was relatively poorly argued due to being essentially "look at all these bad things that religion makes people do", which anyone with any education will conclude with "no shit Hitch, but what about whether God could and may exist?".

But this book isn't really an atheist agenda, as it only answers the question of how a universe could come into existence from nothing, no energy, no trigger, no cause. This is a question I ask as a scientist an non-believer, but it also gives an answer that happens to contradict most theological thought. Coincidence? Well I guess most theories based upon the observed data over the last few centuries have done this and in effect God has been pushed further and further away until has has been left with the role of the spark. Now Lawrence is taking away that role and it pisses people off.

I guess that even though 95% of this book is purely cosmological with the only agenda is to illuminate, it is hard to not go into a science vs theology argument here as the reviews for this book on, and I would surmise "The God Delusion" follow a similar pattern. 

Poor reviews for this book tend to fit into the categories:
* I did not get it (it was written with too much jargon and with a steep learning curve)
* People who are offended that he had a go at philosophers.
* Religious people who tend to say "While the cosmology was interesting his conclusions were ill-found and the afterword by Richard Dawkins was just offensive."

I guess you could also argue that good reviews tend to be from scientists and atheists.

So despite being one of the best atheist arguments I have read in print, it is not going to achieve any change at all in the religious 'head-in-the-sand' type. If you are religious, don't read this book. Don't try and argue against it as you will look the fool. If you are an atheist or a scientist give it a go. It is a hard slog in sections, but it is rewarding.

I adored this book as it educated, enlightened and reconfirmed the power of science and reason.

Book Review: 'Doctor Who: The Ripper' by Tony Lee, Andrew Currie, Richard Piers Rayner, Tim Hamilton

This collection proved to be a great little distraction when putting in long hours in the lab this week. I could dip in and out of these stories in between various tasks.

The first story is a fun little romp where Rory gets his hands on that mobile phone that works throughout space and time and downloads spam into the TARDIS. The situations are quite hilarious.

The second story deals with the Jack the Ripper murders. In the outset this annoys me as it has already featured twice before in Doctor Who print and will probably come up again and again. By the way, I think "Birthright" did the Ripper murders best.

So this story doesn't feature the best of plots, but again, it fits in with the TV series well as each character is consistent and the words that come out of their speech bubbles seem entirely plausible.

So while this is a slight dip in quality for the IDW Who comics, I'm still a convert and a fan.

Voyager Has Left the Solar System. No Seriously, This Time It's True.

So yet again comes the news that Voyager has left the Solar System. But this time it's a bit more reassuring as it comes from NASA itself.

But you could not be faulted for believing over the last couple of years that:
  • Voyager is lost and too masculine to ask for directions.
  • The edge of the solar system consists of a series of alternating stripes of Solar System and Non-Solar System.
  • Spacetime is a massive degree.
  • No one has any fucking idea where the Solar System starts and when it ends.
The last one is the closest. It seems that there are differing definitions upon what should constitute the edge of the solar system and these guesses end up being not so easy to be defined and measured.

I guess it's kind of like saying "Today a certain molecule of water passed from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean". Sure these oceans have their own currents, differing salinity levels, temperatures, etc so how would you define an edge between them both? Say there was a major difference in salinities, where would you define the boundary? The average value of salinity content between the two? Sounds like a great idea but this will not give one definite line (an isosaline?) between Africa and Antarctica.

Back to space and we start defining regions by the density of ions, plasmas and the presence of magnetic fields. The main area around the Solar System is defined as the heliosphere, where the Sun's magnetic influence is strong and the area is streamed with charged ions from the sun.

Beyond the heliosphere is interstellar space, where the suns magnetic and ion influence drops almost altogether, and a high concentration of interstellar plasma takes over. The transition happens over a wide concentration gradient called the heliopause. 

Looking back upon readings from August, NASA confirms a change in magnetic influence on the craft and a much greater concentration of plasma in the surroundings. I guess that NASA has made the calling that Voyager is in the latter of the heliopause if not in interstellar space. It just goes to show, definitions are hard to make.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Nugget of Wisdom from Murray Gell-Mann

Murray Gell-Man, a collaborator with Richard Feynmann and Nobel Laurate, talks about his expectations upon graduating from Yale with a physics degree and applying for PhD positions.

The great advice is don't commit suicide until you have tried the thing that you are dreading. This is a great piece of advice and ranks up there with Pauling's Golden Rule of doing 25% better to others as they do to you to account for subjective error.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Walter Potter: Taxidermy of the Weird

Walter Potter was a 19th century self-taught taxidermist who made wonderfully weird anthropomorphic displays of dead animals partaking in everyday activities. His collection was housed together in a local museum until the early 2000s when a lack of funds caused the collection to be split up and sold at auction. A documentary about his work has been made and a preview is shown below.

Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Special Poster Released

No spoilers. 
The Beeb released a poster and running time details for the 50th Anniversary episode yesterday. Tennant's hair is not right. It may be more now, but he was more then.
Below is a closeup of the non-Doctor Doctor, with some hints surrounding him.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Underground Nuclear Bunker in Las Vegas Straight from The Brady Bunch

Got a spare US$1.7 million?

You could own yourself a unique property in the heart of Las Vegas. Sure it's 10 metres underground but the Las Vegas summer is warm and I'm sure this place has great insulation. This house was the Bluth equivalent for the nuclear age. Entrepreneur Girard B. “Jerry” Henderson, built this wonderland in the mid 70s as a prototype to launch his luxury bunker company, Underground World Home Inc.
The house boasts a heated pool (with a water fountain), a four-hole putting course, Jacuzzis, a bar, and a dance floor. Then there are more unusual features, like the sky control system—a dimmer that can be set to "morning," "dusk," or "night," which activates the "stars" embedded in the ceiling. Just above them, a thick concrete shell protects this perfect suburban simulacra from impending nuclear doom.
What you end up with is 'The Brady Bunch' meets 'Blast From the Past'.

Book Review: 'Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal' by Mary Roach

Mary Roach has written yet another winner here. Her early books "Bonk" and "Spook" were a little flat and derivative, but ever since then she has delivered.

Yes, she chooses deliberately risque subjects and yes there is always a chapter on farts, but damn she can make things interesting. It seems she can make the fine balance of making a scientist such as myself happy, while also placating my inner 8-year-old. And really, all she is doing by telling us how artificial farts are made, and the size of Elvis' colon is saving us time; I know I'd be looking up articles to see if anyone has gas chromatographed a fart after reading this. Mary has already done the Not Safe For Work googling for us.

Mary's books are great for everyone. You do not have to be a scientist to enjoy them, and you do not need to be an 8-year-old boy either. If you are a bit squeamish and delicate about bodily functions, read this, get over yourself and enjoy the wonderful piece of biology that you occupy.

So everyone, get out there and read some Mary Roach. You'll laugh, learn, be amazed and there will be plenty of WTFs. May we have many more wonderful Mary Roach adventures!