Why Professor Brian Cox can dismiss ghosts from his armchair

In my last post, I praised Brian Cox for standing up for science and brazenly criticising the “woo-merchants” who promulgate its misunderstanding. This prompted an exchange on Twitter from Fortean UK about ghosts, which you can see below:

Twitter ghost conversation

I’m firmly of the opinion that you can dismiss the existence of ghosts without the need to investigate ghost claims. Please allow me to make my point with a simple thought experiment.

Imagine that you get a phone call from a very excited friend, claiming that they have drawn a four sided triangle. You know from your school mathematics lessons that a triangle has to have three sides, not four, so you can safely conclude that your friend has not drawn a four sided triangle as claimed. What do you do next? Here are a few options.

  1. Launch some profanities at your friend and point out how stupid they are before slamming the phone down
  2. Politely explain to them why they can’t have drawn a four sided triangle
  3. Ask them to explain what they have drawn so you can tell them the reality of the situation

Clearly, option 1 could be argued as being correct but rude and not in the least bit helpful. Option 2 is much more preferable, as it gives you the opportunity to educate your friend. However, best of all is option 3 as it will set everyone straight, but it requires the most effort.

So how does this relate to ghosts? Firstly, we need to consider what a ghost is supposed to be. I know that there are differing opinions, but for argument’s sake I shall define a ghost as a manifestation of a dead person. Let’s consider how preposterous this is. The mind of the person would somehow need to keep living even though their body is dead and cold. Science tells us that the human mind is the product of brain activity, so no living brain, no concious mind. That fact alone should make the very concept of ghosts laughable, but even if there was some sort of medium for the mind to be independent of the brain, that mind would somehow then have to manifest itself. How could a ghost appear to and communicate with someone? The list goes on, but I think I’ve made my point. I would even go so far to say that anyone who thinks that there is a possibility of ghosts existing (at least according to my above definition) is either totally ignorant of science or they lack respect for it, just as someone who believes a four sided triangle can exist is either ignorant of or disrespectful towards mathematics.

To that end, ghosts are a four sided triangle.

Professor Brian Cox stands up for science

I consider myself to be a passionate supporter of science. I dismay when science comes under attack from people such as alt med pushers, global warming denialists and creationists. That is why I was so heartened to read this blog post by everyone’s favourite physicist, Professor Brian Cox, entitled “Why Quantum Theory Is So Misunderstood”.

I’m not going to talk about quantum theory too much, as I don’t really understand it (hopefully Richard Feynman would be proud), but what really impressed me about this article is Cox’s almost ruthless attitude to those that would take ‘quantum theory’ and besmirch it’s good name by using it to justify almost any new-age piece of nonsense. Deepak Chopra, I’m thinking of you!

Although countless woo-mongers misappropriate quantum physics to sell tomes of drivel, I agree with Cox that this should not deter people from making science a part of popular culture. I think that any ideas along the lines of “it’s too complicated for the great unwashed” are deeply patronising, and you only have to look at the popularity of the “Wonders” series to see that there is a demand for science programmes.

Having said that, I’m of the opinion that the scientific method itself is often poorly communicated, leaving many people without a solid grounding in what science actually is (hence why I give talks on the scientific method). Therefore, it’s too easy for people like global warming denialists to muddy the waters by claiming that there is a “debate” on climate change. Antivaccinationists find it too simple to ensnare people with distorted statistics and scare stories about the perils of vaccination, and creationists all too often exploit a lack of understanding of terms such as “theory”. After all, evolution is “only a theory”. I think we need to have more confidence in teaching science and treat it as something to be embraced, not feared.

Finally, it’s refreshing to see such an eminent scientist be so unequivocal about the role and achievements of science:

Our civilization was built on the foundations of reason and rational thinking embodied in the scientific method, and our future depends on the widespread acceptance of science as THE ONLY WAY WE HAVE to meet many, if not all, of the great challenges we face.

If you doubt that sentiment think about what, we humanity has achieved through science. Smallpox, a disease that once scourged the planet, was defeated with the use of vaccines, not homeopathy. Modern telecommunication methods make the world that much smaller, and they were developed with science, not with wishful thinking. The application of science allowed us to leave this planet entirely, we did not put men on the surface of the Moon through prayer.

So let’s stand up for science like Professor Brian Cox does!


How I would make millions by ripping off children with cancer

Please don’t be worried by the title of this post. I haven’t turned evil, this is simply a thought exercise.

First off, I’d do the hard part and get a medical degree. I’d follow this up by getting a qualification that isn’t quite a doctorate, but I’d say it is anyway so that I could write Ph.D after my name as well as MD. I’d then follow this by researching at a university for several years, trying to find a simple chemical in urine that I could patent as a cancer cure. Once I had this patent, I’d open up my own clinic to treat cancer patients with it. Of course, I’d need to get around the fact that my drug wouldn’t work or have any sort of official approval. To do that, I’d treat patients as part of a ‘clinical trial’. Also, there would be nothing to stop me using real cancer drugs at my clinic, I just wouldn’t draw attention to that! I’d charge patients huge amounts of money for my treatment, and I wouldn’t feel bad at all about charging the parents of terminally ill children hundreds of thousands of dollars. Who knows, perhaps some famous comedians would put on charity gigs to pay for my treatments!

Of course, some people in this world would want to see some evidence that my treatment worked, and they wouldn’t be happy that I was selling their children false hope for extortionately high prices. In an attempt to placate them, I would fine some patients that have been lucky enough to survive my treatments, and put images of their beaming, smiling faces on my website. Everyone loves a testimonial, especially if it’s from a cute child! For those that want some actual scientific evidence, I’d occasionally write a piss-poor paper about my research and submit it to a desperate, crappy journal somewhere. I’d also present my work at a conference from time to time, and reference those presentations as if they were papers. Most people won’t know the difference! It wouldn’t matter if other scientists could not replicate my results, and I’d pay no heed to the opinions of cancer charities.

Now, with the scientific evidence for my ‘treatment’ being either flimsy or non-existent, I’d need a well-oiled propaganda machine in place. Once again, I’d resort to my testimonials as evidence. I’d say that the authorities are part of ‘big pharma’, who don’t want people to be treated by my amazing cure as it means they will lose money. I’d also rally against the establishment, claim that other scientists know nothing and declare myself a ‘maverick’. Once I had a dedicated following, I could even get a film made! Anything to get more people through the doors to line my pockets!

But, what to do with my detractors? I wouldn’t follow the normal scientific procedures and address criticism in the peer reviewed literature, I’d hire a lawyer to bully anyone who dared speak against me with threats of libel. I’d have plenty of money by then, and could easily absorb any costs involved. I’m counting the money in my head right now!

Fortunately, I will of course never do this because I’m not a shameless, manipulative greed-driven monster.

By the way, this has nothing to do at all with the Burzynski clinic. Nothing whatsoever.

Catch me ‘on tour’!

It’s just dawned on me that I’ll be at three speaking events within a fortnight. They are all in different places throughout the UK, so if you were feeling generous you could broadly call it a speaking tour! Dates and events are as follows:

November 28th 2011: “The Scientific Method: Uses and Abuses” at Hackney Skeptics in the Pub

December 1st 2011: “ATP: Nature’s unsung hero” for Ignite Liverpool

December 12th 2011: “The Scientific Method: Uses and Abuses” at York Skeptics in the Pub

I’m hugely looking forward to all of these. Hackney will be my first talk in London, and it’s also their very first event! York will be a bit of a homecoming for me, as I did my first two degrees there (some guy called Chris French giving their first talk!). The Ignite event should be a very interesting affair. I did a talk at the last one, and the 5 minute format makes for a rapid and engaging evening!

Looking forward to hopefully seeing lots of you at these events!

Thank you Portsmouth Skeptics!

portsmouth skeptics in the pubLast Thursday I was very kindly invited to Portsmouth to give my talk on the scientific method to the Portsmouth ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ group. I had a great time, and I think that the subject matter certainly got people talking. I’d like to thank everyone who was very welcoming, my ‘test subjects’ during the evening, and especially to Giles and Trish for looking after me. There are a couple of write-ups of the event here and here, and I understand that it was recorded so perhaps I’ll post that when it’s available. They have a very good set up in Portsmouth, with an interval quiz and free chips, so if you’re on the south coast, I’d recommend going there for their next talk, which is by Chaz Shapiro & Dr Paul Curzon. I’m still keen to give my talk to other skeptic/science groups, so if you’d like me to speak at your event just drop me a line!

Could Professor Brian Cox’s “Wonders” be done on the cheap?

I’m a big fan of the “Wonders” series by Professor Brian Cox. I think that they are great, seminal works explaining various concepts in physics, but what with the exotic locations and use of expensive equipment, they must have cost a pretty penny to produce. Would it be possible to show examples of physical phenomena on a shoestring? I think it is, here are a few examples.

1. Centrifugation (without the need of an expensive centrifuge designed to test the endurance of jet pilots):

2. Zero Gravity (without getting in a Zero G plane)

3. Chaos theory (I know this is a bit of a stretch, but it’s an excuse to show a video of someone throwing a brick in a washing machine):

4. Newton’s third law of motion (To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction)

Any more?

PS Sorry, for the lack of blog updates recently, been really busy with other stuff!

My first ‘phlog’ via iPadio

I thought I’d try out iPadio, a free service available from ipadio.com which allows you to record your phone conversations and publish them as ‘phlogs’ on the iPadio website. You can also sync them up to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, or in my case my WordPress blog.

My first foray is just a little introduction about myself and what I do. As it appears to have worked, I’ll be using it to do a series of interviews at the upcoming QED conference in Manchester (February 5th and 6th, but of course you all know that by now!). If you want to share your thoughts with me at conference, feel free!

Cotesia glomerata: an amazing example of what evolution is capable of

I’ve recently read Richard Dawkin’s The Greatest Show on Earth (the Evidence for Evolution) and it pointed me in the direction of the family Ichneumonidae, a family of parasitic wasps. Most reproduce by injecting their eggs into their hosts (usually caterpillars). An example is Cotesia glomerata, subject of the National Geographic program In the Womb: Extreme Animals. Here is a short clip:

I find this species to be an incredible example of evolution at work. Not only does the larvae of the wasp feed off of the caterpillar host, but after they bite their way out and make cocoons, the host caterpillar spins it’s own cocoon over the larvae, and protects them until it starves to death! Yes, it could be considered pretty gruesome, but fascinating nonetheless.

A New Website for Liverpool Cafe Scientifique

Public science is pretty strong in Liverpool, with regular talks from the Merseyside Skeptics Society, Scibar and Cafe Scientifique. Liverpool Cafe Scientifique have started their new year with a new website, which now includes a blog and videos relating to future meetings. Their next meeting will be on Tuesday January 11th, and the speaker will be Professor Andrea Varro of the Liverpool Biomedical Research Centre, who will be talking about Helicobactor pylori as a possible cause of stomach cancer. The talks are aimed at the general public and are always engaging, so I hope to see you there!

Arsenic-eating bacteria: fascinating, but not that surprising

Last week, NASA announced a press conference that was hyped to the extreme. Some believed NASA would announce an alien life form, or perhaps an organism that used something other than DNA to store it’s genetic information. Sadly, what they announced was neither of these, but instead an interesting little quirk of biology.

Writing in Science, NASA scientists announced that they had discovered an extremophilic bacteria in Lake Mono, California, which has a pH of almost 10, and contains high levels of arsenic. When they cultured this bacteria in the lab, they found that it could grow in growth media which had phosphate replaced with arsenate, conditions that would usually be toxic to any other bacteria.

Then (and this is the fascinating part) they found that the bacteria were actually incorporating the arsenate into their biochemistry, including reaction pathways and their DNA. Usually, arsenic is toxic because it is similar enough to phosphorous that it competes with it, stopping various biochemical apparatus from functioning properly (they are in the same group of the periodic table). However, this organism could substitute the arsenic for phosphorus, and the biochemical pathways remained intact.

This seemed to be where the confusion with DNA comes in. The structure of DNA is well understood, and integral to this structure is a phosphate backbone. As this extremophile can substitute the phosphate for arsenate, it technically has DNA which is different to any other organism. However, this change is cosmetic, the code is exactly the same (as far as we know). It would be like painting your house a different colour then claiming that you had a completely new house.

In fact, this phenomenon was quite predictable. Arsenic is “one below” phosphorous in the periodic table, just as sulphur is “one below” oxygen. Extremophiles have been found living where oxygen is scarce but sulphur is plentiful. These organisms can substitute oxygen with sulphur, so it should come as no surprise that organisms exist that can substitute phosphorous with arsenic.

In conclusion, this is a fascinating discovery, but not earth-shattering. Don’t believe the hype!

DNA chemical structure

Chemical structure of DNA. Simply replace "P" with "Ar"!