Issue 10

Focus: 

Focus Issue 10: Better Living Through Chemistry

During the 18th and 19th century, chemistry was the darling of the Enlightenment and the scientific community. Faraday’s lectures drew hundreds of attendees, and the inhalation of the latest discovery, laughing gas (nitrous oxide), was considered stylish after dinner entertainment. Out of such developments came the modern world, fully electrified, with a ready supply of general anaesthetic and fizzy water.  

But what of chemistry today? Without the awe-inspiring, unimaginably big and small scales of physics or the “what will kill me?” relevance of biology, public interest in chemistry seems diminished. That which was innovative in the 19th century has so successfully segued into our existence, it has become mundane.

2011 is the International Year of Chemistry, a celebration of all things chemical, which hopes to go some way to recapture interest and remind people about the beauty, vibrancy and charisma of this most creative science.
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Features: 

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Making Informed Decisions: The Science of Rock-Paper-Scissors and Soccer Research A Steep Learning Curve

Rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper, paper beats rock: everybody understands how to play this game, but do we really know? Understanding how informed decisions are made is key to designing intelligent software agents that take the right decisions in challenging circumstances. Having data is essential for making decisions. Sometimes, however, more is less.

Say Alice is to play Rock-Paper-Scissors with Bob. If the game is to be played only once, there is really nothing Alice can do to improve the odds: she should simply choose randomly. There is no single choice that will guarantee a win. Each of the three possible tools can beat one of the others but is beaten by the third. Things get more interesting when the game is played for multiple rounds. Read more »

The Yawn of Man

Have you ever seen someone else yawning and felt the involuntary need to do so yourself? Contagious yawning has long been observed in humans and has been hypothesised in recent years to be linked with empathy.

Humans are known to be more empathetic to those within their own close-knit groups. This lack of empathy for outsiders is based on the psychological concept of ingroups and outgroups. Ingroups are those we see as similar to ourselves, and outgroups are those we perceive as different. Biases involved in ingroup-outgroup discrimination are known to result in involuntary responses in humans, including those connected to empathy for pain. Rather unsettlingly, this shows that many of the feelings involved in discrimination and racism are the result of psychological biases largely out of our control. These innate biases hint at discrimination having its roots in our evolutionary past even though empathy has previously been thought to be a uniquely human trait. Read more »

Ash Cloud Closes UK Airports. What are the chances, eh?

The equinox has just passed, marking a year since the Earth enacted its revenge on civilized Europe and ‘The Unpronounceable Volcano’ spewed ash across European airspace. The ash cloud suspended flights for six days across Europe. The volcano challenged our organised travel-dependent ways, entertained a frenzied-media, and drained the pockets of the UK airport operators, BAA, of an estimated £28 million.
As the hordes of disgruntled holiday-would-bes sorrowfully returned from their unexpected camping trip in the terminal, they might well have uttered miserably, “What are the chances, eh?” Read more »

Regulars: 

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What happens when a scientist becomes a manager?

The skewed world of academia presents a perplexing scenario for the scientists of today. After spending more than a decade gaining expertise in a scientific field and developing remarkable practical skills to gain the ability to think independently, they finally land up with their dream academic job. Then all of a sudden, they find themselves in the role of a manager!

To a scientist, curiosity helps spark innovation and make unknown con-nections. It allows joy to be derived from the smallest achievements, as long as it answers questions. Crazy ideas feed the curious mind leading to discovery. They also help a scientist take risks and not just sit by the fence (like our politicians!). A truckload of ambition helps scientists get through the many failures they encounter day after day and keep ‘the bigger picture’ in sight. Read more »

Masters of the Twitterverse

Since its inception in 2006, micro-blogging service Twitter has flourished, garnering endorsements from such celebrity bloggers as Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) and scientists like Simon Singh (@SLSingh) and Brian Cox (@ProfBrianCox). Adoption has spread from a niche following in the ‘new media’ of blogs and social networks to the point where even the hacks in ‘old media’ (aka the newspapers) have now become ‘twits’. Read more »

A Day in the Life of Professor Sue Black

Most of us hate being woken up by a phone call in the middle of the night, and even more so if it has to do with work, but for Professor Sue Black this is a regular occurrence. Requests for her to identify human remains, or sometimes those resembling a human, can come at any time and from anywhere in the world, from Falkirk to Fiji. Professor Black recently gave a well-attended talk entitled ‘Forensic anthropology and the issue of identity’ at the new Roslin Institute Building. She heads the Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification at the University of Dundee, while also serving as a forensic anthropologist in the UK and many other parts of the world. Before her talk, I was able to ask her a few questions. Read more »