The Ninth Day of Awesome

For me, one of the most irritating things about woo-mongering is the implication that we need magic and fairy stories to make something awesome. But as this blog as a whole and this series of posts in particular aims to prove, reality is plenty awesome enough on its own.

Today’s example of awesomeness is… radiation.

Radiation is a bit of a scary word these days, isn’t it? It is probably one of the most consistently misunderstood things on the planet. Five minutes Googling yields an awful lot of shouty articles about the evils of radiation, most of which show absolutely no understanding of what radiation is, and just how many ways it benefits our lives.

There are two distinct classes of radiation: ionising and non-ionising. Ionising radiation, like X-rays, gamma rays and alpha particles, has sufficient energy to displace one or more electrons from an atom, and if this occurs in an atom which is part of a molecule which is part of you, there is a potential for you to be damaged. Non-ionising radiation, such as radio waves and visible light, does not have enough energy to mess with electrons in atoms, though its energy can interact with atoms in other ways.

This post is going to stick to talking about ionising radiation because it’s both more scary and more interesting. In my opinion, implausible theories about the damaging effect of mobile phone radiation or Wi-fi signals are dull, repetitive and well debunked elsewhere.

Let me start by saying that ionising radiation is undeniably dangerous. Short-term, intense exposure can cause burns and long-term exposure is linked to cancer and genetic damage. However, there are other important facts that are often overlooked. First, radiation is not unnatural, or even unusual. We are all exposed to background levels of radiation (from cosmic rays and natural radioactive materials, etc) all the time. Second, the potential of radiation to cause harm is all down to dose, because your body is able to cope with certain amounts.

In my work at ISIS (see the Fifth Day of Awesome) I come into contact with radiation because my samples become radioactive after hanging out in the neutron beam. I monitor the levels using a Geiger counter and the samples are stored in a lead-lined container until they are safe to take away. Even when the sample is “active” I know I can keep myself safe using the simplest of methods, like waiting a few minutes for most of the radiation to decay, keeping them at arm’s length and wearing simple rubber gloves. This is honestly enough to prevent getting myself irradiated. See? It’s not that scary after all.

Let me now say that ionising radiation is equally undeniably, incredibly useful. As well as the obvious importance of nuclear power, the use of X-rays and radioisotopes have revolutionised diagnostic medicine, and the use of radiation therapy for cancer treatment has saved thousands of lives. But there are also other, less obvious and equally awesome uses. Food irradiation can be used to destroy dangerous bacteria like salmonella and extend shelf life, and before anyone asks, it does not make the food radioactive. Chemists and physicists can use radioactive versions of common molecules to follow chemical reactions and biological processes more easily. The understanding gained from these sorts of experiments is a vital part of scientific research and can directly impact medical and industrial innovation. Electron-beam radiation can clean exhaust gases from power stations and industrial plants. Even the humble smoke detector contains a tiny source of radiation.

So for its million uses in medicine, industry, science and more, I award ionising radiation the stamp of awesome!

Sources include:


The Eighth Day of Awesome

For me, one of the most irritating things about woo-mongering is the implication that we need magic and fairy stories to make something awesome. But as this blog as a whole and this series of posts in particular aims to prove, reality is plenty awesome enough on its own.

Today’s example of awesomeness is… International Big Science.

I spent some time a couple of days ago talking about Big Science in the UK, and now I think it’s time to mention the awesomeness of international Big Science.

The first example that springs to most peoples’ minds is CERN and the Large Hadron Collider, and that is truly awesome. However, their website does a better job of explaining why than I ever could, so I’m going to direct you there.

So what else is going on?  I was struck recently by this picture of the sun:

I know that it doesn’t look like much, but when you consider that it was taken through the earth, using neutrinos, you realise how incredible it is. Neutrinos are tiny subatomic particles that are too small to really interact with anything (from a neutrino’s perspective, the world is mostly a lot of empty space), and so they travel unimpeded across vast distances, at almost the speed of light. The picture was produced by the Super-Kamiokande detector, which is a massive pool of water buried deep in a Japanese mine. The pool is covered in tiny detectors which register the rare occasions when a neutrino collides with an electron in the water, and over time an image is built up.

Light from the sun’s core takes tens of thousands of years to reach the surface, so it’s technically possible that the nuclear reactions at the sun’s core ended sometime around the last ice age or more recently – i.e. that our days on earth are pretty seriously numbered!

Luckily, the unique properties of neutrinos means that one generated in the sun’s core can get to the surface of the sun and across the 93 million miles to earth in a little over 8 minutes. So this image of the sun’s core shows us what the sun is like right now. So we can relax. We’ve got sunlight for at least another 10,000 years. Phew!

Another part of big science that I find amazing is the so-called Heavy Ion research carried out at places like GSI in Darmstadt, Germany, and JNIR in Dubna, Russia. These are the experiments that actually create new elements.

If you take two beams of particles, or a beam and a stationary target, and collide them, generally things will fall apart. You’ll scatter nuclear fragments all over the place, and the type, momentum and trajectory of these particles make for incredibly interesting and important study. It’s much harder to get things to stick together. Heavy nuclei are very unstable. However, given enough energy, like in the colliders at GSI and JNIR, it is possible to get two large ions to stick together and create a new, super-heavy element. Admittedly these elements tend not to hang around – they last for only a tiny fraction of a second before falling apart – but what’s really impressive is that the experiments can verify their existence, work out their exact mass and use that to predict their properties!

Big science is science taken to extremes, and it’s awesome!

The Seventh Day of Awesome

For me, one of the most irritating things about woo-mongering is the implication that we need magic and fairy stories to make something awesome. But as this blog as a whole and this series of posts in particular aims to prove, reality is plenty awesome enough on its own.

Today’s example of awesomeness is… QED.

QED is a skeptical conference and festival being organised by the Merseyside Skeptics Society and Greater Manchester Skeptics to take place in Manchester on the 5th-6th February, 2011. If you haven’t already, go get your ticket RIGHT NOW!

What do you mean, why?

Oh, okay. Why will QED be awesome?

Back in October I had the pleasure of attending TAM London and had a great weekend. I thought the speakers were generally fantastic and I met some great people. However there were some criticisms levelled at the event which I somewhat agreed with. There was a great sense of separation between the skeptical “celebrities” and speakers, and the rest of the attendees, and an atmosphere of sharing and networking was really only achieved in small groups in the bar in the evenings. There was only one stream of talks, and you either sat and listened to them all (whether or not they interested you) or you did nothing.

Before someone tells me I’m a hypocrite for criticising TAM right after going on and on yesterday about how skeptics should stop arguing about how to do skepticism and get on with it already, I will say this: big, congratulatory, glitzy events like TAM have their place. They raise the profile of what skepticism is and serve as a great way to gather lots of disparate groups together under one roof.

However, diversity is key to making progress in skeptical outreach, and events like TAM do not, cannot (and should not dilute themselves by trying to) appeal to everyone. And hence, another option for skeptical types who want a bit of a shindig and the opportunity to meet and mingle, is QED.

QED will be all about celebrating grassroots skepticism. It’ll be all about networking, sharing ideas and meeting like-minded people. There’ll be a main auditorium as well as a break-out room so you can tailor your QED experience to your own interests.

In short, if you were at TAM, you should think about coming to QED. If you weren’t at TAM, but wished you were, you should think about coming to QED. If you weren’t at TAM because you didn’t want to be, you should still think about coming to QED. If you’ve only ever been interested in Skeptics in the Pub type events, you should think about coming to QED. If Skeptics in the Pub leaves you cold, you should think about coming to QED. Get the message? It’s new, it’s different and it can be whatever you, me and we together want it to be. Come on, it’ll be awesome!


The Sixth Day of Awesome

For me, one of the most irritating things about woo-mongering is the implication that we need magic and fairy stories to make something awesome. But as this blog as a whole and this series of posts in particular aims to prove, reality is plenty awesome enough on its own.

Today’s example of awesomeness is… knitting!

Wait! Come back! I have a point, I promise.

I hope you’ll forgive me a slightly different style of post today. Knitting and knitters are often regarded with scornful amusement because of the (somewhat understandable) association with old ladyishness. It’s not often considered relevant in today’s world – a bit like the Women’s Institute and their obsession with the perfect Victoria sponge – it’s quaint and cosy but really a bit silly.

I think the knitting community is so much more than that. There’s a social networking site just for knitters, crocheters and other fibre-crafters which stomps Facebook into the ground  in terms of features, user-friendliness and security. As of a couple of months ago it has over a million members.

A popular knitting blogger and author regularly pulls huge crowds on her promotional tours. Hundreds and hundreds of people gather to hear her talk about knitting and meet other knitters. Through her blog the community has raised over a million dollars for Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders. How incredible is that… a community spread out across the world, with only the fact that they like to make things with two sticks and a bit of yarn bringing them together, able to raise that kind of money?

The knitting community is unbelievably diverse: it’s international, it’s multicultural, it’s inclusive, it’s welcoming and it’s powerful. The community will mobilise almost instantly and with great gusto to help those in need, just look again at the money being raised for MSF/DWB.

You might be wondering what on earth this knitting-related love-in is doing on a skeptical blog, but just think for a minute how truly awesome it would be if we could replace “knitting” with “skepticism” and “knitters” with “skeptics”. Skeptics may be harder to herd than cats and we may take a certain pride in being the community that isn’t a community, but just imagine what we could achieve if we could stop obsessing about internal differences in approach and philosophy and embrace the commonality that we do have.

In the end, knitters don’t really care if you knit with wool or recycled bin bags, fine bone needles or chopsticks. You are a knitter and that’s what matters.

Can we take a leaf out of their book, please?


The Fifth Day of Awesome

For me, one of the most irritating things about woo-mongering is the implication that we need magic and fairy stories to make something awesome. But as this blog as a whole and this series of posts in particular aims to prove, reality is plenty awesome enough on its own.

Today’s example of awesomeness is… Big Science in the UK

When most people hear the words “Big Science” they usually think of places like Cern and the Large Hadron Collider. While the LHC is certainly awesome, that’s a topic for another day, because today we’re staying closer to home. Not many people know about the Big Science that goes on right here in the UK.

Nestling in a quiet valley in Oxfordshire is the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. It has been a site of scientific excellence for decades and, through my PhD, I have had the privilege of spending a fair bit of time there.

An aerial view of RAL with Diamond on the far right and ISIS in front centre. (Image from STFC website)

At RAL there are lots of examples of Big Science, including Diamond, the UK’s brand new synchrotron radiation source. Diamond provides scientists with incredibly powerful beams of X-rays for a multitude of different experiments. Diamond is big, silver and donut-shaped, so if you’ve ever driven down the A34 you’ve probably seen it. RAL also hosts the Central Laser Facility, including the Vulcan Petawatt laser whose beam is (according to their website) 10,000 times more powerful than the National Grid, at least on the picosecond timescale! Scientists at RAL helped design and build one of the experiments at the LHC – ATLAS – and are part of the data analysis system (collision data are sent from CERN to a collection of “Tier 1” computational sites, including RAL, from where they can be analysed either on-site, or by dissemination to Tier 2 sites at Universities). RAL hosts a Space Science research facility, meteorological research facilities and last but not least: my personal favourite (purely because it’s the one I use), the ISIS Spallation Neutron Source.

Now, as some of you may have noticed, my grinning face currently adorns the ISIS homepage! I’m in the banner at the top, but there are several images which cycle round so you might not always see me (shame, I know…) but just wait for the one mentioning the ISIS Annual Report. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether I make ISIS more or less awesome!

For anyone wondering, neutrons are tiny particles which are found in the nuclei of atoms. They are incredibly useful to scientists because of the ways in which they can interact with other materials. Neutrons can be used to study the structures of all sorts of materials from crystals to liquids; to identify stresses and strains in industrial materials (think aeroplane wings, or railway tracks); to find out why certain materials, such as magnetic materials, behave in strange ways; and even to help understand some biological systems.

To use neutrons in this way you need to get them out of their nuclei and aim them at your sample. There are really two possible ways to do this. The first is to make a nuclear reactor and get a controlled chain reaction going. You can then literally make a hole in the side of your reactor and let the neutrons come to you. In reality, reactor sources of neutrons, such as the ILL in Grenoble, employ sophisticated moderators, shielding, and guides to keep the researchers safe and get the neutrons where they’re needed. The second way of producing neutrons for research is through a process called spallation, in which neutrons are essentially chipped off of a chunk of metal by a high-energy beam of particles. This is what happens at ISIS.

Under an otherwise unremarkable patch of grass lies the ISIS LINAC, or linear accelerator. This takes negatively charged hydrogen ions and gives them a good kick of speed. They are then fed into a larger, circular accelerator called a synchrotron, stripped of their electrons to turn them into positively charged ions (protons) and flung round the synchrotron ring a few times until they’re going really, really fast. At this point they are directed onto a metallic target, and neutrons are produced. The neutrons are directed down long tubes or “beamlines” to the various instruments where they can be used for all sorts of awesome science.

A synchrotron is not an easy machine to maintain. Enormous magnets and huge amounts of electrical power must remain synchronised on a nanosecond timescale to keep the protons flying round the circle. As well as requiring 24/7 attention from a small army of technicians, ISIS is also phenomenally expensive just to keep running. But that’s awesome, because it’s totally worth it.

Scientists come from all over the world to use ISIS. A lot of it is older than I am, and it’s still so awesome that only very recently have facilities (in Japan and the USA) started to come online which will one day outperform ISIS in terms of raw power, and it will be even longer until they rival its years of expertise.

And that’s not to say that there’s a lack of innovation at ISIS, either. Recently a second experimental hall with its own target and instruments has been built, to make even more science possible at ISIS. Some of the instruments built on the “second target station” will be the first of their kind in the world. ISIS has always been a trailblazer, and looks set to continue in that vein.

I am proud that ISIS is here, in the UK, and that it is world renowned as a great place to do neutron science. I’m proud that I get to use it to do my science, and yes, I admit it, I am slightly proud that they are using my picture on their website.

The Fourth Day of Awesome

For me, one of the most irritating things about woo-mongering is the implication that we need magic and fairy stories to make something awesome. But as this blog as a whole and this series of posts in particular aims to prove, reality is plenty awesome enough on its own.

Today’s example of awesomeness is… herbs.

I hope you will forgive a brief fanfare of a post for this Monday evening.

You will know by now that when I say that herbs are awesome, I do not mean in the “cure everything, better-than-drugs, natural remedy” sort of way. I mean in the “look how many natural products have given us drugs and ideas for drugs” sort of way.

I’ve been reading a 2007 article from the Journal of Natural Products entitled “Natural Products as the Sources of New Drugs over the Last 25 Years” which provides a thorough review of the sources (natural, natural derivative, synthetic…) of drugs that were approved for use in the period 1981 – 2006. Almost all categories of drugs contain some natural products. Of all new anticancer drugs of that period, 42% were sourced from natural products or their derivatives and a further 10% had a biological source. A large proportion (about 68%) of antibacterial drugs were derived from natural products. Roughly 26% of new antiviral drugs were synthetically produced but their pharmacophore, or the part of their structure responsible for their biological activity, originated from a natural product. Something like 42% of drugs to treat high blood pressure similarly mimic natural products.

Plants are obviously incredibly useful in the search for new drugs, and the reason for this is also one of the dangers of using herbal medicine. Plants contain lots and lots of different compounds, many of which may not be properly identified. When a plant compound is identified as a potential therapeutic ingredient it is isolated, purified and tested thoroughly. Each batch of a natural product that is harvested in this way, or more commonly, produced via a synthetic route from a related compound, will be the same. Its effect on you will be predictable and reliable. This is not so with the base herb. Each plant might contain different amounts of the active compound and equally might contain different amounts of other, potentially harmful compounds. Plant remedies are just not sufficiently regulated and standardised.

As well as extracting or synthetically mimicking natural products, drug companies and researchers use the shapes, construction and composition of the natural products as inspiration to make derivatives that improve the activity or reduce side effects.

Herbs and plants are awesome because of their diversity and the potentially novel molecular structures they contain. And I think I’d better finish with some examples to make my point.

Most people know that digitalis, a drug for heart disease, originates from the foxglove plant.

Morphine, of course, comes from the humble poppy.

Quinine, an antimalarial and anti-inflammatory drug, comes from the bark of the cinchona tree.

Another antimalarial drug, Artemisinin, is extracted from Artemisia annua, the Sweet Wormwood.

The anticancer drug Taxol was originally sourced from the Pacific Yew tree.

The Third Day of Awesome

For me, one of the most irritating things about woo-mongering is the implication that we need magic and fairy stories to make something awesome. But as this blog as a whole and this series of posts in particular aims to prove, reality is plenty awesome enough on its own.

Today’s example of awesomeness is… science!

Or, more exactly: peer-reviewed research and the scientific method.

If we want to know or understand something about the world around us, how do we go about it? We certainly can’t trust our own eyes, or other peoples’. Even if we could trust initial observations, memory and altered perception over time would still be a problem. We can’t blindly trust the media reports, the TV documentaries or the internet, because they all almost certainly probably possibly suffer from bias. We can’t even totally trust textbooks or encyclopaedias due to “lies to children”* and their lack of currency. So what can we trust?

A while ago I had a conversation with a friend who was musing on the benefits of some herb-or-other helping her sleep. She’d read about the placebo effect and wanted to know how she would test if her herb was really responsible for her improved sleep. She suggested simply sleeping one night with the herb and one night without, then comparing the “goodness of sleep”. I pointed out that she would know which night she was supposed to sleep better, and this was a prime time for the placebo effect to kick in. She suggested someone else should administer the herb without her knowledge, but then spotted that she’d still know because of its distinctive smell. Over the course of a long conversation we discussed the need for placebo control, blinding, a non-subjective measure of “goodness of sleep”, repeated trials, multiple participants… My friend was left with a profound sense that she was probably happier in her ignorance, and that’s the point, isn’t it? Thorough scientific research is not supposed to be easy.

Of course even if you, as a scientist, believe that your methods were good and robust and accurate, you are just one person and other scientists are not going to simply take your word for it. And that’s where peer review comes in. In my field when we submit a paper for publication, as long as it gets past the initial screening by the editor, it will be passed on to several (usually anonymous) reviewers who will check it thoroughly and come back with questions, corrections, demands for clarification, etc. If they like what they see they’ll recommend it for publication, if not, your manuscript is tossed back at you with a “thanks, but no thanks”.

Through peer-review it is hoped that major flaws, omissions or inconsistencies in your work will be spotted prior to publication. And even if flawed research does end up published, it will come under scrutiny from readers and these flaws are likely to be spotted. And that’s a great thing about science – it’s allowed to change its mind. The retracted and thoroughly debunked Wakefield MMR-Autism study in the Lancet is an excellent example of this.

Of course, peer review isn’t perfect. There are countless stories of bitter reviewers rejecting good work that disagreed with their own, or journals blindly publishing work with the right name attached to it. In the former case I would have to ask the authors exactly how many different journals they tried to submit to before they gave up, because I know from experience you sometimes have to take it into double digits and beyond. If they were rejected from 100 journals, but still insisted theirs was good work, I’d want to know what the reviewers said. Was it that they didn’t understand the methodology, or were the conclusions counterintuitive? Would re-writing the paper help? Or is their work unoriginal? No one is going to publish old news. And you can see there’d be a million questions.

In the latter case, I have to remind myself that scientists are suspicious creatures by nature. For me, a peer reviewed study is the minimum I require to start to believe something. A well-written peer reviewed study in a respected journal is a step up; and a well-written peer reviewed study whose methods I understand and whose conclusions are clear from the presented data, published in a respected journal and with subsequent papers by independent researchers replicating the findings; is the gold standard.

So, why is science awesome? Because it’s difficult, because it does its best to be reliable and unbiased, because it changes its mind when proved wrong, and because it never stops doubting.
*A term I first heard in “The Science of the Discworld” by Terry Pratchett, Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, which means a concept simplified to a point of actually being untrue. While I begrudgingly admit they may be occasionally necessary in children’s schoolbooks, they are a pet peeve of mine.  If an educator cannot explain a concept in sufficiently simple terms without losing the sense of it, they are not the educator who should be explaining that concept.