Out of this world

January 27, 2011 at 9:07 am | Posted in Editorial Comment | Leave a comment
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Out of this world

Out of this world

Walking on the moon is considered one of mankind’s greatest achievements to date, and although no-one has set foot on the lunar surface since Apollo 17’s Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt in December 1972, it hasn’t stopped generations dreaming of returning.

I remember being in primary school asking my friends what they wanted to be when they grow up – cowboy, fireman, astronaut were their replies. We are a generation lucky enough to see our dream of flying into space become a reality – we might not be astronauts in the traditional sense of the word, but what the hell – we can book our ticket into space today.

Space tourism appears to be becoming a bit of a buzz word – Virgin Galactic are offering seats aboard their commercial spacecraft for a mere $200,000, and after a four-year break, Russia is to start selling multimillion-dollar tourist tickets to the International Space Station in 2013.

So which do you choose? It’s a hard decision to make – $200,000 for a short flight to just outside the atmosphere to experience zero gravity, or an unknown fee to spend 10 days aboard the ISS. I know what I’d choose!

The chances of getting a place aboard the Russian Soyuz are slim – US firm Space Adventures say they will only be offering three trips per year. So it looks like booking a flight aboard the six-seater SpaceShip Two might be a better option – but with 390 “astronauts” already signed up, you might be in for a bit of a wait.

If you can’t be bothered to wait, there is always another option: send your face into space aboard one of the two remaining NASA space shuttle flights. It’s free and you can even print out your own certificate saying you’ve been into space – ok so physically you might not have been, but who cares – I’m going into space!

faceinspace.nasa.gov

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Want to stick to your resolutions? Then remember, the brain is your worst enemy

January 21, 2011 at 11:27 am | Posted in Science Lite | Leave a comment
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Willpower? We have none - pass the chocolate cupcake

Willpower? We have none - pass the cupcakes

As the cloying fug of the festive period lazily begins to lift here on the Science lite desk, we take no pride in the fact that we have already made – and broken – more New Year resolutions that we care to write down.

Heads slightly drooped in shame (or is that still the hangovers?) we got to thinking – why is it so hard to decide something, and then stick to it? Just why is willpower so – well, powerless?

Could it be a question of evolutionary time-lag? Giving up things that are bad for us is, after all, a very modern problem. Indeed, even the concept of ‘things that are bad for us’ is – in evolutionary terms – at the very cutting edge of contemporary worries. No evidence has, as yet, come to light of Neanderthal mans’ attempt to form a smoking cessation support network. Or of ancient cave walls adorned with rudimentary rock art signs warning of the dangers of eating too much fatty mammoth meat.

A further clue to the weakness of resolutions is hinted at when we consider where willpower ‘lives’. Oddly enough the excesses of the festive period have in all likelihood delivered a kind of homing beacon to the doorstep of willpower. The brain area largely responsible for willpower, the prefrontal cortex, is located just behind the forehead – an area painfully highlighted, certainly for us, if you are sporting an alcohol induced post-festivity headache.

So what about its ‘location’ suggests limitations? Well, in short the prefrontal cortex is already pretty damn busy. Neuroscientists have discovered that this area is in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems – asking this overworked sliver of cortex to take charge of turning down that extra bit of chocolate orange is often more than it can take.

Now if all this is beginning to sound like the rantings of someone desperate to justify their complete failure to keep any resolutions – then you are correct. But, as it happens, we have managed to cobble together some evidence for it.

One such piece of evidence – although admittedly it comes from the world of marketing, we leave you to draw your own conclusions on that – shows how the ‘busyness’ of the prefrontal cortex can affect willpower.  The experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, involved several dozen undergraduates who were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits.

Could it be that the working memory employed to remember the seven-digit number pushed any sense of willpower to the sidelines? A casualty of a higher cognition deemed more important by evolution?

And there is one more twist to the resolution tale. It would seem exerting willpower is a very energy intensive process. Professor Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University found that students who fasted for three hours and then had to perform a variety of self-control tasks, such as focusing on a boring video or suppressing negative stereotypes, had significantly lower glucose levels than students who didn’t have to exert self-control.

This would mean that often the things we are trying to give up at this time of year – chocolate, sugar, fizzy drinks – may well help the willpower on its way, ironically making it harder to refrain after we stop consuming them.

A cruel twist of nature then, this human compulsion to give things up – at once a burning priority and unimportant all-so ran for our minds. A mismatch of requirements for the conscious whole and the cognitive subdivision charged with the unwanted job of willpower guardian.

Now, will someone please pass me the paracetamol. And that last mince pie.

Inspiring astronomers

January 14, 2011 at 1:46 pm | Posted in Editorial Comment | Leave a comment
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The night sky (Sarah G/Flickr)

The night sky (Sarah G/Flickr)

Early January saw the BBC try a little experiment – Dara O’Briain and Professor Brian Cox presenting a live program on astronomy – StarGazingLive.

It could have been a disaster; Cox isn’t used to live TV and O’Briain – although he studied theoretical physics and maths at university – is better known as a comedian and would be playing the ‘lay person’. Add in Mark Thompson – the astronomy guy on The One Show – and Liz Bonnin of Bang Goes the Theory fame and you got some very knowledgeable brains on the screen.

I watched it and it wasn’t bad. It kept me amused for three hours and made me want to go and look at the stars – job well done BBC. It’s just a shame the light pollution of London doesn’t really allow much stargazing.

Many astronomers will argue that the science was dumbed down – and it probably was – but for a general interest program it certainly did the job. Even as I write this, Twitter is filled with people tweeting about where the next StarGazingLive event is – lots of universities and clubs are running events – and calling for the BBC to make the show an annual event.

    Dear BBC, please can #BBCStargazing Live be, at a minimum, an annual event? Preferably twice a year like Spring/AutumnWatch.

    @Astronomyblog

    Yes – my Planisphere Stargazer pack has turned up. Some reading to do before tonight – assuming its cloud-free. #bbcstargazing

    @david_gow

It’s like the programme has ignited everyone’s inner astronomer and a quick search for planisphere on Amazon reveals 6 of the top 10 items are either severely low or out of stock.

I wonder how long the stargazing craze will last, but if the show has managed to inspire just one person to tear themselves away from the TV and get outside that’s a major achievement. Who knows, they might even have inspired the next generation of astronomers and astrophysicists.

I think @NickAstronomer summed it up best:

the best thing from all of this is meeting fantastic and very keen new astro people. Astronomy is a passion for so many!

plus my 4 year old will be doing a project on space for school…let’s see what daddy can provide as help 🙂

IQ2 Science and Truth

January 13, 2011 at 1:37 pm | Posted in Do | Leave a comment
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Thursday 27th January 2011 | 7-8.45pm | The Dana Centre

Is science the only path to truth? Find out IQ2: Science and truth, an evening of informal, intelligent and exciting chat. The event – organised by Jack Klaff of Intelligence Squared – includes speakers Ian Angell, Jane O’Grady, Raymond Tallis and David Papineau.

Tickets are free, but please book via 020 7942 4040 or tickets@danacentre.org.uk
More information: The Dana Centre

You can find more of the same on our events page. If you want your exhibition, conference, show or festival listed on this page, then email details to us and we’ll put them online, and perhaps even mention it in the magazine.

Wonders of the Solar System

January 11, 2011 at 9:32 am | Posted in Watch | Leave a comment
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Wonders of the Solar SystemIt’s a new year and it’s time to get your brain active, and what better way than to swot up on your space knowledge with Wonders of the Solar System – especially since Wonders of the Universe is out later in the year! Whether you catch it in all its glory on Blu-ray or simply stick with the dvd – and accompanying book of course – you can’t help but to fall in love with space, astronomy and Professor Brian Cox all over again!

January Crossword

January 7, 2011 at 9:28 am | Posted in Competition | Leave a comment

Fancy winning yourself a Free LAB PALTM Sample Labeller from Brady?

Just click on the grid below, print out and complete the crossword below and fax back to 020 8253 4609 or scan and email to phil.prime@laboratorynews.co.uk by the end of January. First out of the hat will win.

January Crossword

ACROSS

1 Her optimum variety of radioactive element (10)
7 Some real farm grass (4)
9 Of abnormal narrowing of passage in body section removed about end of August (8)
10 Yellow church, capital place (6)
11 One French city can be included that’s weird (7)
12 Coaching perhaps without a dish of dumplings (7)
14 Response concerning battle (8)
15 A cat had tiny particle (4)
17 Full of energy, but no good making a comeback (4)
18 Chief left to speak on salt (8)
21 Ringer to make discordant sound with glass cover (7)
23 Support pivot on which lever turns (7)
25 It will not pass the acid test (6)
26 All right a vehicle can proceed along African river (8)
27 Move slowly to the island (4)
28 Mo rewriting my bold menu (10)

DOWN

2 Some more, ten, extracted from hydrocarbon (6)
3 Me ages with Nan rediscovering element (9)
4 It was a big loss to shipping (7)
5 Long to take the item with honour (4)
6 Middle Eastern study taking in something that exists in opium (7)
7 A posh one in church of gold (5)
8 Robin’s rage first with ventilated case (4,4)
13 Magnetic grassland? (5)
15 Value taco cooked using pressure cooker (9)
16 Tell one getting in wine in France it is chief protein found in egg-yolks (8)
18 Nutcase! (7)
19 Nonsense, its leaves are poisonous (7)
20 Start kicking under new goalposts, endless fun in martial art (4,2)
22 Allow liquid to percolate from pustule achingly (5)
24 Swelling heat (4)

Answer will appear here in early February

ACROSS 

1 Her optimum variety of radioactive element (10)
7 Some real farm grass (4)
9 Of abnormal narrowing of passage in body section removed about end of August (8)
10 Yellow church, capital place (6)
11 One French city can be included that’s weird (7)
12 Coaching perhaps without a dish of dumplings (7)
14 Response concerning battle (8)
15 A cat had tiny particle (4)
17 Full of energy, but no good making a comeback (4)
18 Chief left to speak on salt (8)
21 Ringer to make discordant sound with glass cover (7)
23 Support pivot on which lever turns (7)
25 It will not pass the acid test (6)
26 All right a vehicle can proceed along African river (8)
27 Move slowly to the island (4)
28 Mo rewriting my bold menu (10)

DOWN

2 Some more, ten, extracted from hydrocarbon (6)
3 Me ages with Nan rediscovering element (9)
4 It was a big loss to shipping (7)
5 Long to take the item with honour (4)
6 Middle Eastern study taking in something that exists in opium (7)
7 A posh one in church of gold (5)
8 Robin’s rage first with ventilated case (4,4)
13 Magnetic grassland? (5)
15 Value taco cooked using pressure cooker (9)
16 Tell one getting in wine in France it is chief protein found in egg-yolks (8)
18 Nutcase! (7)
19 Nonsense, its leaves are poisonous (7)
20 Start kicking under new goalposts, endless fun in martial art (4,2)
22 Allow liquid to percolate from pustule achingly (5)
24 Swelling heat (4)

Voyage to the Heart of Matter

January 5, 2011 at 8:26 am | Posted in Competition, Read | Leave a comment
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Voyage to the Heart of Matter

OK so it not so much a read, but a read-and-have-lots-of-fun-at-the-same-time kind of book!

The LabNews team has been waiting with bated breath for the CERN Voyage to the Heart of Matter – a pop-up book all about the Atlas experiment – and it was well worth the wait!

The book tells the story of CERN’s quest to understand the birth of the universe focussing on the Atlas experiment which is looking for clues to the early universe and the Higgs boson. It’s jam-packed full of facts and figures about the particle smasher; combine that with the fun of lots of things springing out of the page and tabs to pull – and even a collider to complete – this interactive book is sure to leave you amazed – we know we were!

Voyage to the Heart of Matter: The Atlas Experiment at CERN by Anton Radevsky and Emma Sanders. Published by Papadakis, £25.

If you fancy getting your hands on a copy of Voyage to the Heart of Matter, just send your name, company/laboratory to phil.prime@laboratorynews.co.uk by 31st January – first out of the hat wins!

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