Is π wrong?

July 28, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Posted in I didn't know that! | Leave a comment
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Should Tau replace Pi?

Everyone knows the circumference of a circle is πd, while the area equals πr2, but what if π is wrong?

In 2001, mathematician Bob Palais from the University of Utah first argued that π was wrong. Although the physical number – 3.14159 – is not wrong, Palais argues that, when it comes to circles mathematicians had been focussing on the wrong number.

He states that Tau – 6.28318 or the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its radius – is the truly sacred number of the circle, and that it might even make maths simpler.

Using τ is a much more natural number to use in geometry, trigonometry and even advance calculus agrees Kevin Houston from the University of Leeds. He argues that a quarter of a circle corresponds to half of π, and three quarters to three halves of π, but three quarters of a circle also equals three quarters of τ – a fact might help students from making ‘silly errors’.

It might be easier, but is π too ingrained in our society for it to be replaced? It has become and integral part of our lives -ask anyone what the area of a circle is and they’ll say πr2 – we had that drummed into our heads from an early age and it’s not something we’re likely to forget! But maybe as the τ movement gains pace, we’ll be hearing our children and grandchildren reciting equations with τ instead.


Rock, paper or scissors?

July 26, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Posted in I didn't know that!, Science Lite | Leave a comment
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What’s my first move – rock, paper or scissors? Most people go for scissors, so I’ll pick rock, but what if you do the same and go for rock? I’ll go for paper…but then I might lose…

It’s the same old problem, just which hand shape do you choose to make sure you beat your opponent? New research suggests it doesn’t matter what you choose as you’re more likely to copy your opponents hand shape anyway.

Researchers from UCL recruited 45 participants to play rock-paper-scissors in one of two conditions – both players blind-folded, or just one player blindfolded. Players winning the most games in a 60 game match got a financial reward, so winning the game really was the best option.

In the blind-blind condition, exactly a third of games ended in a draw – exactly what was expected. But in the blind-sighted games, the number of games ending in a draw was higher, suggesting the sighted player copied the blindfolded one. Researchers think this automatic imitation is mediated by the human mirror neuron system, a network of brain regions responsible for action execution and which responds to passive observation of actions.

“It is well established that imitative responses are executed faster than non-imitative responses on controlled experimental task where reaction times average between 200-400ms,” said Richard Cook from the department of cognitive, perceptual and brain science. “However, the present finding confirms that imitation is often ‘automatic’ in the sense of being hard to stop.”

So outwitting your opponent isn’t really an option – we’re likely to copy whatever hand shape they make because we just can’t stop ourselves.

The most unusual talents…

July 19, 2011 at 11:39 am | Posted in Science Lite | Leave a comment

They live in damp locations, feeding on bacteria and other micro-organisms – honey and oats is a bit of a treat, but what slime mould really wants is a sedative.

Slime mould has a tough life – it is exploited to solve mazes and mimic ‘logic gates’ – it’s no wonder that the primitive bacteria has a preference for over-the-counter sedatives. Who wouldn’t if you spent all day trying to solve complex mathematical problems while stuffing yourself with honey and oats?

Professor Andrew Adamatzky from the University of West England uses oats and honey to entice his slime mould – Physarum polycephalum – towards the food source helping solve a complex computational geometry problem known as the concave hull. The concave hull is a many-sided shape that encompasses a number of points.

“For some tasks, oats and honey are not enough,” said Adamatzky, who set about finding an ideal substance to play the role of long-distant attractant and short distant repellent. He found commercial herbal sleeping tablets did just that.

“I became completely curious why Physarum becomes so mad about these tablets – it ignores vitamin pills completely,” he said, and started testing all active substances present in the tablet.

The key was valerian root (Valeriana officinalis) – a herb used to ease nervous tension, hysteria, excitability and stress, and is also a muscle relaxant. Slime mould obviously needs something to de-stress it at the end of a hard day’s task.

Adamatzky said this finding was a result of his curiosity about the slime’s unusual taste, but the outcome might help with future experiments which will exploit the poor mould’s computational abilities.

That slime mould has ‘computational abilities’ is enough to shake the Science lite desk to its very foundations quite frankly – what revelation will turn up next? Bacteria can drive? Mice can organise charity concerts? Frogs can take on the form of a clawed superhero from the X-men comics?

…what’s that? Ah – it appears our attempt at drollness has in fact uncovered a rather incredible truth. Let us introduce you to the somewhat inadequately named Hairy Fog. Why inadequate? you may ask – for is the hairy frog not hairy? Well, yes it is – although choosing to name this particular frog after that trait seems to miss the point a little. We’d like to suggest a re-brand as we launch –drums roll dramatically – the Wolverine Frog!

The inspiration for this comes from a remarkable ability the Hairy Frog – sorry, Wolverine Frog – has to defend against attack. Trichobatrachus robustus actively breaks its own bones to produce claws that puncture their way out of the frog’s toe pads!

Researchers – lead by Professor X presumably – found a small bony nodule nestled in the tissue just beyond the frog’s fingertip. When sheathed, each claw is anchored to the nodule with tough strands of collagen, when the frog is grabbed or attacked, the frog breaks the nodule connection and forces its sharpened bones through the skin.

Once again nature has beaten Hollywood in coming up with the ultimate tough guy. We shall now sit back and wait for Spielberg to call for the film rights. Of one thing we are certain – we Science liters will be the first in the queue to see “Hairy Frog vs Alien”.

The World’s Greatest Idea: the Fifty Greatest Ideas that have Changed Humanity

July 13, 2011 at 8:34 am | Posted in Competition, Read | Leave a comment
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What is the world’s greatest idea – fire, electricity, natural selection? In true Top of the Pops style, John Farndon counts us down from 50 to one – the World’s greatest ever idea – as complied by a panel of experts and voted for by the public. But what will it be – marriage, capitalism, or simply tea and coffee? You’ll have to read it to find out.

This is a witty and surprising read – you learn something new with each idea, even if it’s just where the public rates the idea! This is another great holiday/commuting book – it’s easy to read and the short sections make it an ideal book to dip in and out of whether travelling on the train or sunning yourself by the pool.

And we’ve got a copy to give away. For your chance to win just send your name, address, organisation/institution to by 29th July. Good luck!

Scientific Cookies

July 8, 2011 at 8:06 am | Posted in Competition, Cooking with science, Do | 6 Comments
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We came across these fab chemistry-based cookie cutters  and just had to give it a go – all in the name of science of course!

Each set of unique cookie cutters features a test tube, an atom, a conical flask and a beaker – plus the method for making your tasty cookies.

We had lots of fun experimenting with different methods – we found the one sent with the cutters wasn’t so good for keeping the shape of the our cookies, so we  tried a different one that involved putting them in the fridge (method here).

Once they were cooked and cooled came the fun part – decorating them. If only they looked as good as the ones at – all I can say is I tried!

We’ve got a set of Science Cookie Cutters to give away – to be in with a chance of winning, just send your name, address, organisation/institution to Good luck!

It’s our birthday soon…

July 7, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Posted in 40th birthday celebrations, Lab News videos | Leave a comment
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Laboratory News celebrates its 40th anniversary in October and in preparation for our birthday edition we’ve been trawling the archives finding out how we’ve changed since the first issue back in 1971. Much has changed with the magazine in that time, as it has with science – from the Space Shuttle program which launched the ISS and Hubble Telescope, to sequencing the entire human genome and cloning Dolly the sheep.

We’d love to know what you consider to be the most significant scientific advance of the last 40 years – justlet us know. We’ll collate your responses and publish a Laboratory News top 10 in our October issue. If you’d also like to write a little on why you think your choice is so significant then we may even publish that as well!

What about life in the lab over that time? What has changed? What has remained steadfastly the same? We love to know your thoughts on life as a scientist over the past 40 years or so.

We’re also hoping to get in touch with past editors, writers, contributors and advertisers – please get in touch if you can help us trace them.

As always this is your publication – so please do get in touch, we really do value your input.

As always the address is

The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

July 6, 2011 at 11:32 am | Posted in Do, Events | 1 Comment
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Celebrate science by heading to the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition and see how science is shaping our world and question other UK scientists about their work. With over 20 exhibits, ranging from Airport Security and Bats & Bugs to Hearing Shapes and Rotten Fish & Fossils – there’s going to be something for everyone.

Entry is free, more information at

5-10th July | 6-9 Carlton House Terrace, London

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