Posted by: Kash Farooq | December 30, 2013

The Pop Sci Book Club – Book 6

Psocoptera - an order of insects that are commonly known as booklice.

Psocoptera – an order of insects that are commonly known as booklice.

[If you are unsure what this is all about, see The Pop Sci Book Club - an introduction]

PopSciBookClub Book 6 has been selected by Regan Naughton. It is “How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming” – by Mike Brown (271 pages). So, please buy the book and join in with the Pop Sci Book Club forum discussions.

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming - by Mike Brown

Related posts

Posted by: Kash Farooq | November 10, 2013

Can you explain your PhD to a layperson?

Update: This is now officially a “thing”. Dozens of speakers have already volunteered to explain their PhD to a bunch a people in a pub. Head over to the PubhD blog for more information.

Can you explain you PhD to a layperson?

Can you explain your PhD to a layperson?

At the end of a recent Nottingham Skeptics talk, a few of us were discussing ideas for future events. We weren’t trying to come up with different talks and subjects areas, but completely different formats. We thought getting PhD students to practice for upcoming vivas by explaining their thesis to an audience like us would make an interesting event.

After further conversations, Regan and I refined this. It wouldn’t really be viva practice for the PhD students – at a viva, students would be speaking to experts in their field of study, not laypeople like us.

So, here is our idea:


Can you explain your PhD to a layperson?


A monthly event at which 3 or 4 local PhD student speakers, from any discipline from Art History to Quantum Mechanics, would explain their work to a layperson. The talks would be about 10 minutes long and would be followed by up to 20 minutes of (friendly!) Q&A.

The “friendly” aspect is important. This isn’t about bringing PhD students into a “lion’s den” to be grilled about their studies. The audience, we hope, will be genuinely interested in hearing about a wide variety of academic areas.

What the PhD students get out of it

A pint!

Plus public speaking and public engagement practice.

What the audience gets out of it

Something interesting to listen to on a Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday night (the days of the week when we should be able to get a pub room for free).


We want to make this as cheap as possible. We’d get in touch with local universities for the PhD students (so the travel costs will be low). And we would just have a whip-round to buy each of the speakers a pint. Perhaps, £1 into a pint glass passed around?


We don’t think this event fits under the “Skeptics In The Pub” banner. It’s actually similar to Science Showoff, but is not restricted to science. There are PhDs in all disciplines, so this event would be for all disciplines. Plus the format is different from the “Showoff” events (e.g. there will be a Q&A at this event).

So, we need a new name. Some ideas to get you thinking:

  • PhD and a Pint (from Suze)
  • Pint of PhD (from Suze)
  • PhD in the Pub (from me)
  • #PubPhD (from me, h/t #PubSci)
  • Doc-chat (from Regan)
  • PubhD (from Xamonas Chegwé)
  • Viva Imbiber (from Yves van Gennip)

I think PubhD is my favourite at the moment.

Over to you…

So, what do you think? Do you think it will work? Has this already been done?

As a layperson, would you go to such an event? As a PhD student, would you be willing to speak at such an event?

If there is positive feedback, I’ll approach the local universities to see if they are interested (and would be able to provide, say, 3-4 students per month).

And what should we call it?!

[Image adapted from images created by Wiki Commons users Will Murray (Willscrlt) and Stannered]


There is sufficient interest from an audience perspective, so we’ve gone with the name PubHd (thanks Xamonas!) and started a blog.

Now we just need to find some speakers. So, if you are a PhD student, or post-doc, and are interested in explaining your work to an audience of laypeople in exchange for a pint or two, please contact us!

Posted by: Kash Farooq | October 13, 2013

The Pop Sci Book Club – Book 5

Psocoptera - an order of insects that are commonly known as booklice.

Psocoptera – an order of insects that are commonly known as booklice.

[If you are unsure what this is all about, see The Pop Sci Book Club - an introduction]

Our fifth book is The Self Illusion: Why There is No ‘You’ Inside Your Head – by Prof. Bruce Hood.

So, please buy the book and join the Pop Sci Book Club forum.

The book specific forum for this book: The Self Illusion: Why There is No ‘You’ Inside Your Head (Prof. Bruce Hood).

The Self Illusion - by Prof. Bruce Hood

Related posts

This is a quick blog post as a follow up to my previous blog post: “Has alien life been found in a meteorite? Or the sky? Or [Insert Location Here]?

The recent “Alien Life Detected In The Atmosphere” headlines all arise from this paper: “Isolation of a diatom frustule fragment from the lower stratosphere (22-27km) – evidence for a cosmic origin” (PDF). It was published in the Journal of Cosmology.

In summary: a team of scientists sent a balloon to an altitude of 22-27 km. When they retrieved it, they claimed to have found a diatom (a microscopic plant). They state that the only way that this diatom could have been found at an altitude of 22-27 km was if it had come from space. Hence, they have discovered that panspermia is indeed real and, in fact, is still going on.

If you open the PDF paper you’ll see that it was accepted for publication on August 9th 2013.

And if you read the abstract you’ll see:

Sampling of the stratosphere at heights between 22 and 27 km was carried out in the UK on 31st July 2013…

The “scientists” sent the balloon up on 31st July 2013, “the sampling drawer was opened for 17 minutes as the balloon rose from 22026m to 27008m”, and then the “sampling apparatus was returned to Earth (by parachute) undamaged and completely intact”.

Then, within 10 days, the “scientists”:

  • Inspected the sampling apparatus.
  • Searched for biological matter.
  • Found and imaged the diatom.
  • Concluded that it was alien.
  • Wrote a paper.
  • Submitted the paper to a “scientific” journal.
  • Had this paper, which detailed the most remarkable discovery in the history of science, …ahem…peer reviewed.
  • Had the paper accepted into the “scientific” journal.

Impressive turnaround, don’t you think? *.

Now excuse me while I mock all my scientist friends that take months (or even years) getting their papers published, what with all the revisions that the peer review process forces them do. Perhaps if they wrote better papers in the first place, there would not be so many to-ings and fro-ings. ;)

* I’m not a scientist. I’m assuming that this sort of incredible news would take longer to get accepted into a journal.

There are going to be lots of articles in the next few days like this one: Alien life found living in Earth’s atmosphere, claims scientist.

The first thing you should do when you see such an article is search for “Journal of Cosmology” in the article text. If you find a match, take the article with a gigantic pinch of salt.

The Journal of Cosmology has form. They seem to discover alien life frequently. I wrote about one such announcement a couple of years ago: Meteorites, the Phobos-Grunt LIFE project and the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

Some things to note and remember about the Journal of Cosmology

Their website hurts your eyes (I’m not going to link to it). This may seem like an odd thing to note, but there does seem to be a correlation between pseudoscientific websites and poor website design. Someone should do a study.

The superb RationalWiki website has a page about them. I don’t think journals normally end up with dedicated pages on anti-pseudoscience websites. One of the quotes from the website:

The Journal of Cosmology is a supposedly-scientific journal

The journal does not appear to have an impact factor. I asked a friend and he responded with (thanks Dave!):

I couldn’t find a reference to an impact factor on the web anywhere. Normally journals tend to big up their IF somewhere. The ultimate repository of impact factors is the Thompson web of science. A search for “journal of cosmology” on web of science yields zero hits.

The journal has a very quick peer review process: “Scientists: how long does it typically take between data collection and paper acceptance?”. Does 10 days sound reasonable for such an amazing discovery?

One of the main people behind the Journal of Cosmology is Chandra Wickramasinghe. From Wikipedia:

During the 1981 scientific creationist trial in Arkansas, Wickramasinghe was the only scientist testifying for the defense, which in turn was supporting creationism. In addition, he wrote that the Archaeopteryx fossil finding is a forgery, a charge that the expert scientific community considers an ‘absurd’ and ignorant’ statement.

PZ Myers was subtle as ever when discussing the journal:

The ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth. Unsurprisingly, it is not in fact peer reviewed, despite claiming to be.

The respected Bad Astronomy blogger, Phil Plait, keeps on having to debunk stories coming from the journal again, and again and again. From one of Phil’s posts:

The Journal of Cosmology is an online site that claims to be peer reviewed. However, the papers it publishes are not always of the highest quality. One paper they published a few years back claimed to have found fossils in meteorites, and it was roundly ridiculed by biologists familiar with the field—one even used the word “pathetic.” Ouch.

The journal has been awarded the Pigasus Award – an annual tongue-in-cheek award presented by skeptic James Randi. Past winners include Uri Geller. JREF refered to the journal as “crackpot”.

In summary

I just wanted to use this meme as a summary.

Journal of Cosmology summed up in one image

Related articles – new

Related articles – previous Journal of Cosmology ‘discoveries’

Posted by: Kash Farooq | September 8, 2013

Bradgate Park and Precambrian Life

Bradgate Park is a country park in the Charnwood Forest area of Leicestershire. It is very picturesque, has lots of deer roaming around and has lots of history (the 500+ year old Bradgate House is thought to be the birthplace of Lady Jane Grey, for example). It’s free to get in, and parking costs £5 for the day. For these reasons alone, I would recommend a visit.

Deer, Bradgate Park.

Deer, Bradgate Park.

Bradgate Park is also very interesting for scientific reasons. It has some of the most ancient rock in the UK, and probably the oldest rock in England. Within 3 km2, you can look at geology 220 to 560 million years old.

Twice a year, around May and September, local paleontologist John Martin takes people on a guided geological tour of the park: “Geology of Bradgate Park – 500 million years in one afternoon!“.

This weekend I went on the guided walk. I’ll write about what we learnt from John about the geological history of the park in more detail in a later blog post. Here is a tip: put the next walk into your calendar now. Seriously. Do it now. I highly recommend it.

For this blog post I wanted to write about one particular story.

During the walk we were lucky in that we had two experts guiding us – paleontologist John and keen geologist Roger. Throughout the afternoon, with John leading the walk, Roger would contribute extra details in his areas of expertise.

The whole walk was scenic and scientifically fascinating. Learning how to “read the rocks” added to the beauty of the park.

The walk ended at this rock face.

Precambrian rock face, Bradgate Park, Leicestershire.

Precambrian rock face, Bradgate Park, Leicestershire.

It’s not much to look at in this image, but it (and others like it in the area), are scientifically very, very important. It is Precambrian rock – i.e. older than the Cambrian Period, which started about 540 million years ago.

John started telling the story of the discovery made in this type of rock, in this area of England. It’s a story I knew well after seeing David Attenborough talk about it in a couple of documentaries.

The accepted scientific view at the time was that life emerged in the Cambrian period. The Cambrian Explosion was the period in which most major animal phyla appeared. There was no point in looking for life in rock older than Cambrian rock – you’d just be wasting your time.

But there was something in the Precambrian rocks of Leicestershire. Tina Negus, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, had seen something in the rocks, but her geography teacher wouldn’t believe her (and didn’t think to check).

I’ll let John Martin continue the story:

In 1957, three Leicester school boys who were into rock climbing had gone to quarry on the other side of the forest near Charnwood Golf Course. In the rock they saw what looked like marks on the rock surface. They kind of knew that you weren’t supposed to find fossils in the Precambrian.

One of the lads had a relative who was on the staff at the university in Leicester, and this relative knew the geologist Trevor Ford.

And that lad was called Roger Mason. And that’s him.

John pointed at Roger. The guy who had been walking around with us as a punter, helping John explain the geology here and there.

Roger Mason, Bradgate Park, 2013-09-07 - standing in front of a Precambrian fossil bed.

Roger Mason, Bradgate Park, 2013-09-07 – standing in front of a Precambrian fossil bed.


Needless to say, the geologist Trevor Ford did check the school boys’ story and a new species was catalogued.

We were gob smacked. I’ve been telling this story for years, and here I was, getting geological insights about the area from the discoverer of Charnia. The image below is of the actual fossil Roger and friends found:

Charnia masoni - discovered by Roger Mason and friends (New Walk Museum, Leicester).

Charnia masoni – discovered by Roger Mason and friends (New Walk Museum, Leicester).

[Wikimedia Commons image by Andy Dingley]

The full species name is Charnia masoni. Yes, it’s named after the area where it was discovered and Roger Mason.

Incidentally, it is difficult to pick out the signs of life in these fossil bed rock faces. But if the light catches it just right, e.g. when the Sun is low in the sky but still bright, you can easily see the fossils. And this happened while we were there. Signs of life leap out.

It was stunning.


Roger sent me a photograph from the local newspaper at the time of the discovery:

Roger Mason - Leicester Mercury - 1957

Roger Mason – Leicester Mercury – 1957

Related articles

Well worth a read: An account of the discovery of Charnia – by Tina Negus. Tina discovered Charnia a year before Roger, but her geography teacher wouldn’t listen!

Posted by: Kash Farooq | August 29, 2013

The Pop Sci Book Club – Book 4

Psocoptera - an order of insects that are commonly known as booklice.

Psocoptera – an order of insects that are commonly known as booklice.

[If you are unsure what this is all about, see The Pop Sci Book Club - an introduction]

Our fourth book has been selected by Stephen Henstridge: we are going to read Philosophy of Science – A Very Short Introduction – by Samir Okasha (160 pages).

So, please buy the book and join the Pop Sci Book Club forum.

The book specific forum for this book: Philosophy of Science – A Very Short Introduction (Samir Okasha).

Philosphy of Science - A Very Short Introduction - by Samir Okasha

Philosphy of Science – A Very Short Introduction – by Samir Okasha

Related posts

Posted by: Kash Farooq | August 28, 2013

How we stopped tasting our cutlery

I’m reading a PopSci book in between “official” PopSciBookClub books at the moment. It’s about materials – “Stuff Matters” by materials scientist Mark Miodownik.

Stuff Matters - by Mark Miodownik

Stuff Matters – by Mark Miodownik

It is a very interesting look at the materials all around us that we just take for granted. It also looks at the future of materials science – the materials we will use to build from, and the materials we will use to repair our bodies. I highly recommend it.

I bought the book after seeing Mark’s fantastic talk at the Winchester Science Festival. Mark started his talk with a lovely story about the humble stainless steel spoon. Stainless steel is something we take for granted nowadays. And we definitely take stainless steel cutlery for granted.

A stainless-steel spoon

A stainless steel spoon. Image by Donovan Govan (Wikimedia Commons)

Before stainless steel was invented, unless you could afford gold cutlery, our cutlery used to taste of something. Eating food with, say, a copper spoon altered how food tasted. Different spoons can make food taste more bitter or more sweet – basically, you might not be truly tasting the food if you use cutlery that tastes of something.

Not that this is always a bad thing – some cutlery may “go” well with certain food. Zinc and copper coated spoons really work well with mango, apparently . Or as the chef Heston Blumenthal said during a spoon “tasting” experiment: “the metallic note can, with some flavours, be more enjoyable than otherwise”.

So, what’s going on?

Every time you eat something with cutlery, some of the atoms from the cutlery end up in your mouth. The electrode potential of a metal gives the atoms the ability to react with the saliva in your mouth and produce ions – and these ions may taste of something. For example, saltiness is detected when taste buds encounter alkali metal ions and sourness is perceived when hydrogen ions enter taste buds.

So, depending on how many ions are produced, and which ions are produced, you won’t just be tasting your food – you’ll also be tasting your cutlery. Gold is relatively unreactive and won’t produce ions in your mouth – hence it is tasteless.

Steel is an alloy of iron and (mainly) carbon; and stainless steel has the additional ingredient of chromium. Normally, the iron in steel rusts (it oxidises). But when chromium is added to steel, it oxidises before the iron to form chromium oxide. This is transparent and coats the steel – it forms a protective layer. And it is this layer that makes the spoon tasteless. Chromium oxide is tasteless (and odourless) and so cutlery made from stainless steel is also tasteless.

As Mark puts it:

…we are one of the first generations who have not had to taste our cutlery.

So let’s stop taking the everyday materials around us for granted! Or, again, as Mark puts it:

Stuff Maters - by Mark Miodownik - Inside

“Keep enjoy(ing) the non-tasting stainless steel spoons!”

[Whoops - just spotted Mark's typo when he signed my copy of his book!]

Related posts and information

Posted by: Kash Farooq | August 20, 2013

Why don’t oil rigs rust?

Reinforced steel is used for large structure construction projects as it has a number of properties that make it a perfect choice. For example, oil platforms have steel legs.

Iwafune-oki - Japan's only offshore oil and gas field.

Iwafune-oki – Japan’s only offshore oil and gas field. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Steel is an alloy of iron and (mainly) carbon. But we all know that iron rusts. Iron combines with oxygen to form iron oxide – i.e. familiar red-orange coloured rust. (This is the same reason why Mars is red).

Rusty barbed wire. (Image by Wikimedia Commons user Waugsberg)

Rusty barbed wire. (Image by Wikimedia Commons user Waugsberg)

Rust takes up a greater volume than the iron from which it is formed. It is also porous – so if your steel gets a coating of rust, water can still get through it and continue to create rust underneath the rust layer. These two properties will split and crack the metal, weakening it.

So, if we don’t do something, the steel legs of an oil platform will rust, weaken and subsequently collapse – we clearly need to somehow protect the steel.

To prevent small steel objects from rusting we galvanize them: we give them a coating of zinc. We literally dip the objects in molten zinc. Zinc also reacts with oxygen to form zinc oxide but, unlike iron oxide, zinc oxide is waterproof. Once this outer layer of zinc oxide is created, the metal underneath – the steel coated with zinc – is protected.

But oil platform legs are too large to use this technique – we can’t dip them in a massive vat of molten zinc. A different technique is needed.

Instead of galvanizing, large steel structures are protected by attaching a sacrificial metal to them.

A sacrificial metal is a metal that is easily oxidised. A metal such as magnesium is often used. Magnesium readily reacts with oxygen and the following equation shows what happens:

Mg = Mg2+ + 2e-

The equation shows a magnesium atom oxidising to form a magnesium Mg2+ ion.

However, the important part of the process, in terms of protecting our oil rig’s steel legs, are that 2 electrons are released during the reaction (shown in bold in the equation). These electrons flow along a steel cable connecting our sacrificial metal to our oil rig and give the whole oil rig a small negative charge.

Preventing rusting of an oil rig by attaching a sacrificial metal (Image: Open University, course S104)

Preventing rusting of an oil rig by attaching a sacrificial metal (Image: Open University, course S104)

So how does giving an oil rig (and its legs) a negative charge stop iron oxidising to form rust? Well, oxidation is a process that produces positively charged ions by releasing electrons – as can be seen in the magnesium oxidation equation above. To oxidise the iron in steel a similar reaction would need to take place. Iron atoms would need to form iron ions by releasing electrons into the structure – a structure that is already negatively charged. The negatively charged structure forms a sort of charged barrier – the structure can’t become even more negatively charged. It prevents iron from forming ions and hence stops it oxidising to form rust.

Eventually, the sacrificial metal block “runs out”. It becomes completely corroded and has to be replaced, which is relatively cheap. Attaching a sacrificial metal is an ingenious way to cheaply protect large steel structures exposed to water.

Full title: “On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life” by Charles Darwin.

We were discussing this book on the #PopSciBookClub forum and I thought I’d write a quick post about it.

It is a book that everyone has heard of, but not everyone has read. My recommendation? Read it!

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Considering it was published in 1869, it’s surprisingly readable. I recommend you read it if you haven’t.  You can get it free on Amazon Kindle.

The first few chapters are brilliant and I’d recommend everyone read these, if nothing else. I really enjoyed seeing all the famous quotes in context, including the ones quote-mined by creationists!

After the first few chapters he goes into all the evidence that he has gradually gathered to justify his statements made in the first few chapters. I think that you could potentially skip most of these. Obviously, at the time of publication, he had to “show all his working” – I skimmed through most of this; I didn’t feel I needed to see his evidence . It’s a bit like if you pick up a scientific paper: you can just read the abstract, introduction and conclusion – and you only need to go into method and results if you don’t believe the author.

I highlighted loads of text while I was reading. If you don’t want to read the book, you can at least read these beautiful passages!

On species being independently created:

Although much remains obscure, and will long remain obscure, I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained–namely, that each species has been independently created–is erroneous. I am fully convinced that species are not immutable; but that those belonging to what are called the same genera are lineal descendants of some other and generally extinct species, in the same manner as the acknowledged varieties of any one species are the descendants of that species. Furthermore, I am convinced that Natural Selection has been the main but not exclusive means of modification.

On selective breeding:

The key is man’s power of accumulative selection: nature gives successive variations; man adds them up in certain directions useful to him. In this sense he may be said to make for himself useful breeds.

Introducing the term “Natural Selection”:

…two countries very differently circumstanced, individuals of the same species, having slightly different constitutions or structure, would often succeed better in the one country than in the other, and thus by a process of “natural selection,” as will hereafter be more fully explained, two sub-breeds might be formed.

On variation and the struggle for life:

Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring.

Natural Selection:

I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.

But Natural Selection, as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.

Natural selection can act only by the preservation and accumulation of infinitesimally small inherited modifications, each profitable to the preserved being; and as modern geology has almost banished such views as the excavation of a great valley by a single diluvial wave, so will natural selection, if it be a true principle, banish the belief of the continued creation of new organic beings, or of any great and sudden modification in their structure.

Darwin didn’t understand the cause of variation:

Whatever the cause may be of each slight difference in the offspring from their parents–and a cause for each must exist–it is the steady accumulation, through natural selection, of such differences, when beneficial to the individual, that gives rise to all the more important modifications of structure, by which the innumerable beings on the face of this earth are enabled to struggle with each other, and the best adapted to survive.

On the incomplete fossil record:

Whilst the bed of the sea is stationary or is rising, or when very little sediment is being deposited, there will be blanks in our geological history. The crust of the earth is a vast museum; but the natural collections have been made only at intervals of time immensely remote.

The eye:

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. How a nerve comes to be sensitive to light, hardly concerns us more than how life itself first originated; but I may remark that several facts make me suspect that any sensitive nerve may be rendered sensitive to light, and likewise to those coarser vibrations of the air which produce sound.

Slight successive variations:

Why should all the parts and organs of many independent beings, each supposed to have been separately created for its proper place in nature, be so invariably linked together by graduated steps? Why should not Nature have taken a leap from structure to structure? On the theory of natural selection, we can clearly understand why she should not; for natural selection can act only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a leap, but must advance by the shortest and slowest steps.

Related posts

PopSciBookClub: All the posts.

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