Week 5- The Perfect Storm

Sorry about the late post; the last two weeks were quite busy but everything is fine now.

In week 5, we learned about the mathematical and computational models that model the climate around the earth. The earth is split into separate grids, and each grid has its conditions (humidity, temperature, precipitation) modeled.

Below is a temperature map from NOAA (based on measurements, not models). The model that we learned about, the GCM, can make predictions into both the future and the past.

While New Zealand had around average temperatures for July (i personally found June-July this year quite cold), much of the world had above average temperatures and even record warmest temperatures. It seems like the world is tending towards not just a warm trend but also instability. This is not great because the weather extremes are harder to prepare for.

Typhoon Haiyan- an extreme weather event

In the West pacific basin, storms form much more frequently than cyclones form near South pacific (where NZ is). Since summer in the Northern Hemisphere is opposite to summer here, ocean temperatures are high between July-September. Warm ocean water increases the rate of convection and is great for forming powerful cyclones.

In November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan got to pass a strip of sea surface exceptionally warmer than normal temperatures, especially for november, which is essentially the start of a winter season.

All credits to scienceblogs for the diagram below.

So how strong was this storm? Here is a satellite photo of the storm at peak intensity (from wikipedia):

The country in the photo, the Phillipines, is approximately the same size as NZ.

This storm caused the deaths of at least 6,340 people, and the cost of $2.86 Billion USD. Incredibly scary..

Modelling for extreme weather events and climate change

So, you might wonder if there is a way to predict when, where and how such a storm could form. However, Climate models are currently trend-based, meaning there could be predictions as to how likely a region will be in severe drought or be flooded, but we can’t know for sure. This is similar to modelling climate change. While we will be able to estimate what the future will look like, a change in one factor could easily change everything. Thus, sometimes there exists a need for modelling based on different possibilities, the most known being the worst case and best case scenarios.

During the session, I was astonished how much computational power there needs to be to predict and model global climate systems, and even then, the confidence in each predicted outcome is not very high.

This all makes me wonder about the claims media make about the polar sea caps melting and the rise in sea levels due to this. Are they just taking the worst-case scenarios, adding some pictures of polar bears on melting ice rafts (although they can just swim away) to trigger some sort of alarm response in people?

Although climate change is, and will continue to be a huge issue, painting it in its worst colour will only trigger fear in more people and let others start to deny it (as it seems so extreme).

The problem with this issue is there is no ‘lab rat’ of the earth for us to experiment with, and we end up with the results of whatever we do to the one planet we have. I hope that if we can’t reverse what’s been done, then we don’t do any more harm. Like we blame the industrial revolution for causing climate change, perhaps future generations will blame us for not doing enough to stop it.

Thank you for reading!


Week 4- Critical thinking, Science, and Medical Ethics

This week the session was hosted by 2 philosophy experts- in fact, I attend the classes of one of them! Although I thought that his first lecture (in the class I take) was boring, I changed my mind after attending this session. He was able to talk non-stop for nearly 2 hours while keeping the whole conversation very entertaining.

Since I am writing this blog post 5 days after the initial session, I had a chance to read some of the posts by other science scholars- and they were all great posts about Medical Ethics. So I want to talk about something else covered in the session- one about the role of a critical thinker.

I listen to Freakonomics radio, a podcast which ‘explores the hidden side of everything’, such as the cheating in the professional sumo wrestling scene, and the link between legalised abortion and reduced crime rates. I highly recommend their podcast and their books. Here is their logo- a nice, crunchy, juicy ‘apple’:

One of the topics covered in a recent-ish podcast was the topic of Homo economicuswhich is a person who:

  • Is consistently rational
  • Uses the least resources and labour to obtain an optimal end, making them as happy as possible

A person acted out the role of Homo economicus. What he did was ask people on a subway (underground train) how much he needed to pay them for them to give up their seat for him. He got mostly weird looks, tired rejections, or an absurdly high amount of money requested. If Homo economicus was in excess of money and really wanted the seat, then asking others seems like the rational thing to do to maximise his happiness.

And from the perspective of the person being asked, wouldn’t it be great if this Homo economicus person paid for their ride and all they had to do is stand? Or would it be too much of an effort?

A critical thinker is a rational person, and would a rational person do something like what Homo economicus did, or something else? I’m not sure, but I think that there are dangers to becoming a completely critical thinker, just like turning into Homo economicus.

  • Critical thinking can be practical for some decision-making processes, but may not be in others. For example, critically analysing your boss’s remarks may be treading dangerous waters.
  • Many people are not critical thinkers, and there will be a communication gap present between you and others if you follow the rules of critical thinking completely.
  • Life can be boring, because there will be no spontaneity, and every decision you make will be practical and great in the long run- but what about enjoying your life? It will be up to you to decide how much critical thinking to use, but I don’t think too little or too much is a good idea.

Thank you for reading! Sorry about the shorter post- I am getting quite stressed nowadays. I am trying different ways to increase my productivity, and it seems to me that a general rule is if I stay at home, nothing will get done.. I admire everyone who has the self-control and determination to study at home.

Week 3- Science In Communication

This week, we discussed why effective communication in science is so important.

Charles Darwin, as we all know, was the famous scientist/naturalist who came up with the theory of natural selection, which changed the world of biology. But while Darwin was on the HMS Beagle exploring the world and solidifying his theories, another person- Alfred Russell Wallace– was also working on a similar theory. Darwin and Wallace were co-authors of the paper: “On the Tendency of species to form Varieties; and on the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection.”

Were long beards selected for in academia? Left- Darwin. Right- Wallace. Source: The Independent

So why is Darwin so well known today compared to Wallace? We were told that it was because Darwin was a better communicator, and I decided to do some research. I found that Darwin’s big break was not the scientific paper mentioned earlier, but his book On the Origin of Species. Although Darwin was already well-known in the scientific community before the publishing of the book, he became a household name after the publication. His theories were both based on evidence and against the common assumptions of how organisms came to be. A prevailing assumption was creationism– that life originated from specific acts of divine creation. Darwin’s (and Wallace’s) theory opposed the beliefs of Creationists, and this created some controversy (although less than Darwin had imagined).

Darwin was frequently ill and unable to participate in public debates, which was an important form of communication, but some of his colleagues and supporters were fierce protectors of his theory.

After seeing the evidence, I am unable to say for sure why Darwin is so much more famous now, but my guess would be a combination of factors, including Wallace respecting Darwin, Darwin’s book and the controversy surrounding it, and Darwin’s colleagues and followers sticking up for him, not just because Darwin was a better communicator.

A more recent case

If Darwin was clearly a better communicator, I could’ve easily said “and that’s why communication is so important!”. This was not the case, and I am even going to argue that communication for scientists is much more important now than in the 19th century. This is because information can spread all over the world in one day, and if you say something that is not well-received, there is nowhere to hide.

Tim Hunt, nobel laureate, said this during the World Conference of Journalists in Seoul, June 2015:

Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!

Tim Hunt, Biochemist, Nobel Laureate. Taken from The Guardian, 2015.

He received massive criticism from this comment, losing many positions, including his Honorary professor role at University College London (UCL). And he has probably received many death threats because of his statement. This all goes to show how one single statement can change the perception of the world on one person, just like a great speech can change the lives of many.

It is difficult, because although you want to be careful what you say to the media, you also want to speak your thoughts and crack some jokes from time to time- and even then, what you perceive as something that will be well-received may not be, and vice versa. Although I can type, I don’t think of myself as a good communicator (for example, I have to work on my confidence, body language, etc.), but I think with practice I can avoid being a bad communicator.

Below are some of my thoughts on what Tim Hunt said and the responses he got- this may be controversial, so feel free to skip this part.

What he said was likely an exaggeration of a snippet of real life for him- if he has worked in labs in his whole life, then he will have personal experiences of him falling in love with girls and girls falling in love with him. A girl may have cried when criticised by him too- these statements are not factually incorrect. What I think he did wrong was he took perhaps the most notable three parts of his years of experience working with women in labs, and omitted the other parts. He defined them based on these parts of his experience, and this is stereotyping. I do not agree with stereotyping in this case, because it is not an accurate depiction of women in labs.

And what did many people do wrong? Many others read the statement, took it out of context, and used that one statement to define Tim as a person. Those people also stereotyped. Their view of Tim is based on their reaction to the statement, and it shouldn’t be. This would be judging Tim based on one of his worst comments in his 72 years alive, while disregarding the other good things he has done for others in all his life. For example, Tim has fought for years to get day nurseries established at some universities, and this has been successful in the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology. Does that balance out your views of him somewhat?

It seems like humans are very good at forming judgments based on the information we’ve been given, and once this first impression is formed, it is difficult to change. In this case, most of the public have been fed scarce information, only covering a small part of who Tim Hunt is, and it is easy to form a strong negative impression of this person in an instant.

In controversies like this, I think many people like to choose a side because they like certainty, but I also think it is a good idea to wait and consider both (or more) sides of a discussion before choosing a side. I choose to stay neutral in this case because this means I avoid any conflicts :D.

Thank you for reading!

Week 1- A real life scientific controversy from the inside

We began the second semester with a general science themed session. In the first hour, we were introduced to the various types of science that spark controversies. In the second hour, we were given (in detail) the first-hand experience of a person who was part of the cold fusion project, which blew up in the late 80’s- early 90’s. The project received backlash from the rest of the scientific community, and the hype around it died soon after. If you’re interested in nuclear fusion at room temperatures, read the informative wiki post.

The cold fusion cell that was supposed to generate vast amounts of energy at room temperature. Taken from undsci.berkeley.edu

My post will be focused around the first half of the session, with some current examples.

The 3 types of science gone wrong

  1. Science that is wrong: The scientific method is correct but the idea/hypothesis itself is completely wrong
  2. Pathological science: The researcher is led to believe an incorrect conclusion based on his/her way of looking at the experimental outcome.
  3. Pseudoscience: Something that is not science being disguised and conveyed as science. Commonly seen in popular science!

Science that is wrong

This is the reason why we do so many experiments. When we attempt to come up with new ideas, many of them will be tested and proven wrong. And, in general, not being afraid to be wrong is good for science because we learn from our mistakes!

Although the next example may not be the creation of a scientific idea, it is motivating to see how a setback does not equal a failure, and the same applies to science.

One of my favourite stories is that of the invention of the Post-it note.

Motivational post-it note!!

The co-inventor of the post-it note was a scientist working at 3M. In 1968, While attempting to make a super-adhesive in the lab, he created a weak glue that did not hold things well together- they could be detached just by peeling gently. This was useless at first, but then he thought of making a bulletin board with this adhesive on it. Although this wasn’t commercially successful either, it was one step closer to the ‘right answer’. A chemical engineer, also working in the company, suggested that the adhesives be placed on pieces of paper, rather than on the board itself. The community that got free post-it notes loved it! This lead to the successful development of the Post-it note.

Pathological science

Is this molecule too negative? Try making it yourself.

A good example of this would be polywater– a polymerised form of water that has a higher boiling point, a lower freezing point, higher viscousity- meaning higher overall stability. In the late 1960s, it was developed by soviet scientists, and the British and the Americans learnt of this a few years later, leading to concerns that the soviets were ahead of the west. The material had capabilities as an anti-freezing agent, and there was fear that polywater was ‘infectious’- that polywater would convert normal water into itself.

Never heard of polywater? Do you want to make it yourself? Here’s my step-by-step guide to making polywater:

1. First drink a cup of normal water. Your body is used as a medium for the creation of polywater.

2. Next, you should enter the correct mental state to create polywater. You are reading this random blog, when you feel a small chill down the back of your neck.

Imagine a person behind you- what do they look like? What are their intentions? Only scroll when you have a clear mental image of this person.

… Your heart rate seems to have gone up.

… As quickly as you can, turn back and face that person.

… Nothing there. But you were frightened.

… Now look at your palms. You have created your own polywater- sweat.

(Sorry if that was scary!)

What happened was that the soviet scientist’s flask of water was contaminated with organic materials, leading to its unusual physical properties. The American scientist who debunked the myth of polywater was an avid player of handball. After a casual game in the lab, he analysed his own sweat, and it was surprisingly similar to ‘polywater’!

What I learnt from this is scientists are human and make stupid mistakes. In many cases of pathological science, the scientist makes an unusual observation, and rather than go for the most likely explanation (“There might be a mistake in the experiment”), they choose an explanation that seems to excite them more (“New discovery!”). It is this split-second of non rational thinking that drives them to cling on a false belief.

What is worse is if they are a well-known, distinguished scientist, then people will automatically assume that they are correct. Controversial statements spread like fire through the general population, and many will accept it as a fact without critically analysing what is being said.

In the case of polywater, a more well-known Soviet scientist had verified the work of the first scientist (showing that both had contaminated equipment), which lead to the general public of the UK and US believing it almost straight away.

In the case of cold fusion, a world expert electrochemist advocated for the project. Although progress in science is driven by remarkable original ideas, they can be a double-edged sword and harm the progress in science if the ideas cannot be backed up by evidence.

5 Crazy facts about pseudoscience- you won’t believe #6!

Did you know that..

all scientists practice pseudoscience?

most scientists prefer to use more pseudoscience in their lives, if they could?

– pseudoscience and Vitamin C combined is 75% more effective for treating colds than just Vitamin C?

pseudopseudoscientists should not be trusted?

– If you drop your pseudoscience course at your local university, you can still pick it back up and eat it if you didn’t drop it for more than 5 seconds?

Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams?

Unlike pathological science, there are too many pseudoscientific statements to count them all, and what’s concerning is that the general public have ‘facts’ of pseudoscience grouped together with science because they seem indistinguishable.

So how does one distinguish pseudoscientific statements from those that are scientific?

1. The source. Is what you are reading coming from a reliable peer-reviewed journal? Or is it a buzzfeed article shared by your facebook acquaintance who posts everyday even though his posts get no likes? Regarding information from the internet, common sense is good for distinguishing the good information from the dramatic fake ones. However, if the source is the people around us, oftentimes it is easier to accept what they tell us as facts. Next time a scientific ‘fact’ or piece of advice is given to you by a caring relative or an enthusiastic friend, I recommend that you ponder on it before accepting it as a fact.

2. The evidence. After a controversial statement, is there evidence or an explanation to back it up? Or is the reader left wondering? Pseudoscience may not have evidence because the writers know that there is no good evidence. Sometimes, in an attempt to provide evidence, a single, small trial (prone to statistical errors) by a relatively unknown researcher is referenced. In general, the more sources, the better, especially if they are from scientific journals.

3. The status quo- for the scientists. What do the majority of scientists think of the statement you have seen? Is there a simple reason to debunk it as a myth? Google searching a pseudoscientific statement can often come up with contrasting statements- the scientists claiming that it is false, and the attention-grabbing sites that actively promote the statement.

4. Your common sense and intuitive mind. If it is a subject that you do not necessarily know a lot about, you may be driven to believe the statement that ‘looks’ the most correct. But does it seem right? Common sense may be helpful. It may also be helpful to know more about the subject before you decide on what to believe in- or perhaps just hold your opinion on the specific topic.

5. Know the biases.

  • Experimenter bias: the scientist conducting the experiment cherry-picks the results to only show ones that have an effect. This misleads the media into thinking the experiment is more successful than it really is.
  • Publishing bias: the majority of experiments that report a negative result are withheld and those that show a good result are published. This means that the ratio of success-failure as understood by the media is different from the actual ratio.
  • The placebo effect. A new medicine is 20% more effective than no medicine? Giving a sugar pill may do the same, because people actually get better when they believe they have taken medicine, regardless of what they are taking.
  • Manipulating percentages– if your risk of serious injury or death from a plane crash is increased by 200% if you are sitting in the non-aisle seats, is that a major concern? Probably not, as the initial risk is lower than 1 in 2 million (source).

And that is my post for week 1. It got much longer than I expected- which is okay so far because I still have free time. As course work for the other courses start to pile up, the posts may begin to decrease in length- but I will strive to keep the posts at a relatively good quality level.

Thank you for reading!

Week 2- Cryptography

Week 2 is cryptography! This is a topic I really like because the more detailed it gets, the more fascinating it is. The article will be shorter than the first one though- the workload for the semester is picking up.

We were given a brief overview of some fields of cryptography to start with, including:

  • The Onion Router (TOR)- This software makes tracing users very difficult due to the number of re-routes it performs. I have never heard of this before attending the session and it is quite interesting- what the name implies is that any one searching for the user on the internet must go through a long-winded process to find them, similar to having to peel all the layers of onion skin (and crying) before reaching the core. This could be a double-edged sword- those who need the protection of a safe router may find this useful, but those participating in crime will also use this for anonymity. Those who use routers such as TOR are more likely to be involved with Drugs, for example.
  • http vs https- You may have noticed that many sites now have https:// in front of the web address. The tabs that i have open right now- Gmail, Facebook and WordPress- all have https in front of their web addresses, and this is a good thing because the s stands for ‘secure’ (and http = hypertext transfer protocol). It involves an extremely detailed protocol, which uses an encryption that allows only the client and server to know what is going on. With http, when you send your credit card details to the company you are purchasing from, there could be a ‘man-in-a-middle’ intercepting your information. With https, this is much more difficult.
  • Bitcoin- this currency is widely mentioned in the media because of its volatile nature:                            From bitcoincharts.org; Drastic price changes occurred in December 2013/January 2014
    • Bitcoin can be ‘mined’- although high-ended processors are needed for this.
    • Bitcoin is the first officially decentralised digital currency, and it doesn’t really have a physical form. The ownership of the bitcoin is included in its digital form.
    • Although users of bitcoin are heavily promoting its usefulness (in anonymity and security, for example), I think its flaw is that it is unlikely to be stable enough for the general public to adopt this currency.
  • Edward Snowden- we share the same first name! This person has given up much of his freedom to inform us of what some security/spying agencies are capable of, including:
    • Tapping into fibre-optic cables
    • Asking major companies to give up metadata on its userbase
    • Backdoors- in some cases deliberate

It seems like the amount of privacy everyone wants is different, but if we had the choice, we would prefer at least some sense of security. This is a quote that our group mentioned during the group discussion/debate:

People who have nothing to hide, hide nothing.

On the surface, this statement seems correct. If we are doing everything lawfully, then why should we worry about these spying agencies?

In tropical countries, most wear clothes, even though the extra warmth provided by them isn’t needed. Then, is it okay to ask them to not wear clothes at all? No, because the majority of them will have insecurities about their bodies. This is similar to our internet profile.

Spotify, the music streaming service, shows your friends what song you are listening to at any given time. Now imagine that your internet use is broadcasted as so: “Friend A has visited Friend C’s profile. Total- 13 times this week”; “Friend C has blocked D from her profile, with the label- ‘sexual harrassment'”; “Coworker T is listening to ‘Baby one more time’ by Britney Spears, for the 957th time..” I’m not sure any of these people will be happy to have their information broadcast like this. Would you?

Hopefully you can see by now that although the power of vulnerability, with a decreased sense of privacy, could be an important aspect to have, it has to be done in moderation.

My proposed solution would be for users to choose their own level of privacy as they see fit. For example, John may want his locations tracked for recording how far he’s been jogging, but Johanna may choose not to in fear of her ex-husband finding her. This is of course only a hypothetical solution and will be difficult to implement, but some companies are already using a form of this.

Hope you enjoyed this post, and please tell me what you thought of my solution/other parts of this post!

This session was presented by Steven Galbraith and Peter Gutmann. (Thanks, Peter, for the thought-provoking discussion afterwards!)