Posted tagged ‘News’

Is that right? How do we know?

September 24, 2011

Yesterday a story suggesting that “Einstein may be wrong” hit the headlines. Apparently scientists at CERN have done some experiments whose results can only be explained by relativity theory being incorrect. Or by their experiments/interpretation/understanding of results being incorrect/flawed. But they’ve repeated the experiments many times and now they don’t know what to make of it all.

Presumably, being world-class scientists employed at a reputable institution, they’ve tried to find every other possible explanation apart from the one now hitting the headlines, and this is why they’ve opened their results up for debate by the wider community. Saying that one of the kings of physics may have been wrong is one thing, but contradicting a theory that explains almost all that we “understand” of physics is another. Apart from anything else, how embarrassing if they are wrong!

Some people have suggested that of course the CERN scientists must be wrong. But this is hardly a scientific viewpoint, rather, to me, it smacks of the kind of inviolable faith that we see normally in religion; belief despite the evidence or lack of it. I’m not going to talk about science and religion today except to say that when discussing science we should look at it in a scientific way, not a faith-based one.

I certainly don’t know if the experiments concerned are flawed or not, and I never really understood relativity theory anyway. But part of me hopes that their findings cannot be explained by using current theories, and that this is not due to any flaws. After all, this is how theories are improved and science is advanced.

When I was in school, I learned that scientific method consists of first observing, and recording accurately what you observe. You must then try to make inferences about what is occuring based on your observations and then form a hypothesis which can be tested. If your hypothesis stands up to experiment then your theory can be considered adequate, until a new set of observations which do not fit with the theory. Therefore, I’d argue that the only ways in which you can be wrong in science is to incorrectly record something or to hold blindly to a theory which does not fit the observed results.

This discussion is also pertinent to a group of Italian vulcanologists currently being sued for negligence because they failed to correctly predict a catastrophic event in which people died. If you think about it, they are being sued because their theory was incorrect. But if it was based on the best available evidence at the time, then how is this fair? They were surely only negligent if they failed to take into account information that could have been relevant and even then, it would have to have been evident to a third-party expert that the information was relevant as it’s often necessary to exclude outliers and noise in order to formulate an initial theory effectively.

It seems that people expect science to provide black and white answers, whereas in fact all we can ever do is give our best current opinion based on the available evidence. It may be that this fact is not adequately conveyed to the public, in schools, etc. Learning science is not like history, where you learn a set of known events and dates, nor like a language, in which lists of vocabulary and grammatical rules can be learned, along with the exceptions to those rules. Rather it is a way of thinking and understanding things.

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More Nano-News and a Merry Xmas to all

December 23, 2010

A round-up of some more stories I wrote for Materials Views recently:

DNA Fragments Throw Light on Nuclease Activity A neat use of carbon nanotubes. Not sure how widely useful it will be but I liked the simplicity for this system. It’s always more appealing to have a visible change in detecting something invisible to the naked eye.

Nano is Super: How to Make Supercapacitors from Nanomaterials New approaches to energy storage and transport are definitely required if we are going to solve the energy crisis. Instead of thinking how we can solve problems using small improvements to existing methods, it can be more useful to think of new ways to approach the same problem, which is what these guys have done.

Nontoxic Nanoparticles yet another blow for those who side with Prince Charles and believe that nanotechnology will kill us all.

I want to thank all the readers of my blog over the past year for taking the time to look in and see what’s going on. I’m especially grateful for any comments or feedback. It’s nice to see that there are others interested in the view from the Giant’s shoulders, and I haven’t fallen off yet either! Merry Christmas and all the best for 2011. May it bring lots of good science and even more good communication of that science.

Lucky dip

November 25, 2010

Two new stories of mine on hybrid electrolytes and a new way to dye biodegradable polymers, have appeared on the Chemistry World website. And a couple on Materials Views on nanoplasmonics, nanomemory, and super strong nanocontacts.Quite a mix!

When is news not news?

October 29, 2010

I started thinking about this after being given a job by my friends at Chemistry World. The paper seemed quite cool and speaking with the author about it really enthused me, but then I spoke to another expert on the field and my enthusiasm was somewhat dampened.

I still think the paper and the idea in it is pretty cool – solve the problem of electrolyte migration in Li ion batteries by tethering the electrolytes. This makes better batteries that can last for longer and are safer than conventional Li ion batteries. Li ion batteries can hold a lot more charge than other sorts of batteries so working with them could be a good idea. Although no-one here has addressed the problem that Li resources may be running out so how do we make the batteries then? I guess that’s someone else’s problem.

The issue pointed out by the other expert is that only part of the electrolyte is tethered. Oh yes and apparently they’ve only tested the system at between 100th to 1000th of the operation current of a real Li ion battery. Issues that may have been easily resolved pre-publication with a couple more experiments – but then such is the way of peer review.

My problem was then is this story still worth publishing as news? I think yes, as it does further science and is a neat new concept, but it certainly doesn’t have the impact that it might have done and a lot of lay-people might not understand that this one experiment cannot really hope to solve all our battery concerns. They might read this and think the advances had already been made, or alternatively read this and think we are still a long way from the perfect battery (which would be true, though we may be closer now than we were).

I liked the concept so I think it is worth bringing to a wider audience, you may not agree. Anyhow the story appeared here so you can judge for yourselves whether it is newsworthy or not.

Taking sides – review of debate on science journalism taking sides

September 24, 2010

This was a not-very-well-advertised debate about science journalism,organised by the Times‘ Science Editor Mark Henderson (sorry Mark, due to The Times’ policy of charging for content you don’t get a proper link) at the RI. It was chaired by Fiona Fox of the Science Media Centre and the speakers were Henderson, Ceri Thomas (Editor of the BBC radio 4 Today programme), Prof. Steve Rayner (Oxford, Science and Civilisation) and Ed Yong  (Information Manager at CRUK and famed science writer/blogger).

Enough with the links….down to the content…..

The RI debate format seems pretty constant as it was the same at the last one I attended – each person gets five minutes to state their position, Fox asks some questions then opens the debate up to questions from the floor. Personally I found her method of taking 4 questions from the floor then asking for answers quite irritating as it means most people have forgotten the first question by the time it comes to be answered. Anyhow here are my summaries of the 4 positions of the speakers:

Henderson: The traditional view of impartiality and fairness is impossible to achieve. Correctness/accuracy and transparency are more important than being balanced. It is the journalist’s duty to evaluate competing claims and provide evidence, uncertainties must be acknowledged.

Thomas: Science is no different than any other subject, shouldn’t be treated differently (NB Thomas was the only speaker who was not a specialist science editor/reporter which may have something to do with his position!).  Shouldn’t take sides and it’s ok to put peoplewho are “wrong” on air. Though reporters should take the side of reason and evidence, it is important to remember that these are not the only important things, most peoplemake decisions based on emotions and irrational thoughts so these need to be acknowledged too. It’s important to represent views not “liked” by scientists where these exist to show they are out there and so they can be held to account in public.

Rayner: Mostly thought that the debate was about science policy rather than science. Scientists shouldn’t have the last say in policy debates because the debate is not about the science itself. When scientists are called on to make judgements about subjects outside of their expertise they are no better than any other layperson. Dislikes polarisation such as the portrayal of “climate deniers” as he feels this stifles debate about the real problems and the ability to reach an inbetween position.

Yong: Many reporters are lazy, don’t investigate enough. The term “scientists have claimed…” is a get-out that allows lack of investigation and lack of endorsement. Reporters must provide a context and analysis as if they don’t, in the internet age, someone else will. Shifting the necessity to make the decision onto the reader is tricky because the reader has less resources (and will) to make this decision than the reporter. All choices are subjective including what we choose to write about at all and how it is written. Overuse of quotes and getting others to tell the story for you is a problem. Reporters shouldn’t take sides with a specific scientist, theory, or science, but always take the side of truth. Journalistic practices are not always compatible with this.

This was an interesting debate as ostensibly all of the speakers were on the same side (i.e. take the side of truth) but all had quite different approaches to it. I did disagree with a few of the comments that were thrown out there. For example, Henderson said at one point that if something seems too good to be true it usually is, and it is up to jouralists to get to the bottom of things and find out about this. Which is all well and good but if the work has been peer reviewed (as in the example of the Woo Suk Hwang fraud he used),what makes journalists qualified to discover this when several peer reviewers and trained editors cannot? Because they are not experts in anything, journalists are only as good as their sources. And someone else also made the point that we all know scientists who will say certain things on certain topics, so you can pretty much always find someone who will say what you want to hear.

I also disagreed with Thomas’s position that science should not be treated differently from art or politics. In these cases, opinion and point of view actually shapes the outcome. If enough people think something, this will inform a policy or a perception of quality. But in science, there are specific rules and ways of working that define this and they are not subject to opinion, they just are. Obviously interpretation of results is variable, but  even their interpretation is based on context within science and models etc that non-scientists cannot hope to understand. If you let unscientific minds try and interpret results they won’t know where to start and you end up with the kind of statements that say that you don’t need evidence for something, like God or ghosts or the Holocaust, because you (want to) believe it so it must be true.

Rayner’s insistence through most of the debate that discussions about science in the news are mostly about science policy not science itself was interesting, but I think ultimately wrong-headed. Yes, I agree that this does happen and there is no point only taking a scientists’sviewpoint on whether stem-cell research should continue or what kind of drugs should be legal, because scientists are not equipped to pronounce on the societal concerns and consequences of the science. But they do need to be a part of the debate. If you don’t have a scientist to tell you about their research then how can you hope to anticipate the societal consequences?

There was a long-running point introduced by Fox about what “her Mum” (read non-scientist member of the public) would understand on reading news pieces. Not knowing Fox’s mum, I imaged my equally scientifically illiterate and disinterested Grandma in this position; you can insert your own beloved relative or neighbour for ease of imagination. This person is not interested in investigating something they are told further. They want to be told in words of a few syllables only what the news is, and why it is important, not to be expected to make up their own mind. They need a clear message not a balanced piece as there is a danger they will only read half of a story before boring of it, thus missing the other half of the argument. If they don’t like what they read, they will go somewhere else where they can get what they do like. When faced with this sort of person, “Joe Public”, how realistic is it to publish a balanced piece in which the scientific viewpoint challenges general beliefs, and then expect that the reader can really make up their own mind in an informed way? Discuss.

Another much-discussed point was the differences between different  media. People may expect opinions in blogs and that’s where they go to get opinions; this is where you get communities building up that agree with each other. There may be a place (and I personally think there is) for straight reporting that gives bald facts and doesn’t try to dress it up too much; information rather than propaganda. There may also be a place for the more opinionated commentary on these facts. But it should always be made clear which is which.

For the avoidance of doubt, this blog is a representation of my opinions which I am justifying with facts where possible – if you want pure scientific facts read a journal paper, discard all the interpretation, and hope that the data is not fabricated. Pure facts are pretty hard to come by these days.

Logic gates take the strain and various surface modifications

September 14, 2010

Some more of my work has appeared on Materials Views….

A story on a paper by ZL Wang and co-workers on smart logic gates that can be operated by simply bending the substrate. This story made it to the MaterialsViews newsletter as headline – it’s a nice piece of work but I would like to think that my write-up also had something to do with this!

A piece on single layers of quantum dots arranged on a surface, and another on stripey patterns on a surface by the use of combined top-down and bottom-up approaches.

To be honest I wrote these so long ago I can’t remember much about them but I think they were pretty good papers. The piezotronic switching logic gate I remember slightly better and this was pretty cool. Enjoy.

Wet weather wear and nanosprings going for gold

August 17, 2010

Just an update on a couple of stories I wrote recently for Chemistry World. Here are links to a piece about a nice JACS paper on gold nanowires that are coiled up into ordered coils  by means of encapsulation in a polymer micelle, and a lovely J. Mater. Chem. (excellent journal!) paper about directional water transport within a porous fabric. These were two of my favourite papers that I have seen in a while, science-wise (I was saddened that the quality of copy-editing in the latter paper was somewhat sub-standard as I didn’t feel it did either the author or the journal justice).