Sunday, 28 December 2008

Social detritus

'The daily press is the evil principle of the modern world, and time will only serve to disclose this fact with greater and greater clearness. The capacity of the newspaper for degeneration is sophistically without limit, since it can always sink lower and lower in its choice of readers. At last it will stir up all those dregs of humanity which no state of government can control.'
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and theologian, expressed this opinion in The Last Years, a collection of his journal entries between 1853 and 1855. How apt they were in the middle of the 19th Century, I do not know, but now, over 150 years later, they can have rarely resonated with such truth.

During the course of the last year we have, as always, seen a number of examples of journalists taking their journalistic license just a little bit too far. But, what we all witnessed thoughout the summer regarding the end of the world as soon as the LHC was switched on at CERN, made feeding time in the lion enclosure look like the height of hout-couture!

This problem of media attention for all the wrong reasons was similarly faced by astronomers 5 to 10 years ago. Pioneering work on the Cretaceous-Teriary
impact by Walter Alvarez and others cemented the idea of cataclysmic asteroid impacts causing mass extinction events, in turn paving the way for enormous summer blockbusters such as Armageddon and Deep Impact. In the wake of these attention grabbers, every discovery of an asteroid with an Earth crossing obit (known as an NEOs - Near Earth Object) gained pages of dedicated coverage in the world's media. The end of the world was, seemingly, at hand.

In the short-term such publicity can be good for the scientists involved, but in the long-term its effect on the science can be disastrous. The general public have a relatively short attention span when compared to your average scientific experiment. Don't get me wrong, this isn't the scientist inside me coming over all pompous and considerably better than thou, rather simply stating the fact that the public struggle to grasp the immense timescales involved in most scientific project, nor the general scientific adage of 'so-and-so being correct within errors'.

With the NEOs this is particularly apparent; when was the last time you saw a newspaper report of an asteroid getting all snugly with the Earth in a couple of hundred years time? Just because the press coverage has died down doesn't mean the chance of us being wiped out by a lump of rock and metal hurtling towards us from the icy depths of the solar system have diminished, quite the contrary. One will hit us sooner or later, and chances are we might not even see it coming as it approaches us from perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) and is therefore lost in the blinding glare of our dear, little star. The lack of news is simply a reflection of the rapidly waning interest.

I, for one, hope that CERN and the LHC does not suffer a similar fate. Although it will, in all likelihood, take some 5+ years to get meaningful results the team are confident enough to publish, the questions it could answer are enormous. However, somehow, sadly, I think it has already begun. Indeed, one could say it had already begun the moment the world didn't end...even if that was just a rediculous piece of journalistic fiction.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Alternative famine remedy...

Recently I came across a paper published in the September 1920 issue of the journal Nature under the rather presumptuous title; 'The Drying up of South Africa - and the Remedy'. This interesting paper (more of a comment, really) talks about the eternal struggle between Mankind and Nature (as in the hippy-ish force, not the journal!), opening with the paragraph:

'Whilst Man of all races and skin-colours is once more involved in fractricidal quarrels - how Superior Intellegences in more advanced spheres must grin as they watch our wars against one another through super-telescopes or by aethereal telegraphy! - Nature is making one more effort to get rid of man. This time through Drought. She has seemingly hated everything that rose above the mediocre on this planet, whether it was in fish shape, or the fish-saurian, the dinosaur, the struthious bird, the ungulate mammal, or the brain-worker, Man. She tried to nip us in the bud by reviving the Ice ages which she had used for other destructive purposes in the pre-Cambrian, Devonian, Permian, and Jurrasic periods. But this succession of cold spells only braced Northern Man to greater efforts and greater triumphs, and sent Southern Man to grapple with the tropics, and to digest and partly overcome their germ diseases. Now the tropics, and above all the sub-tropical regions are being threatened by drought. The desert is spreading in sub-tropical North America, in tropical South America, in temperate and sub-tropical Asia and eastern Europe, in northern and north-central Africa, and in that prolongation of the African continent which lies beyond the Zambezi and Kunene Rivers.'

Quite a rant, I know! Wait until you see the last paragraph:

'Man must give up internecine warfare and unite all his forces to defeat his arch-enemy, Nature. He must melt the ice at the North and South Poles, and put a stop to the spread of desert conditions in Asia, Africa, Australia, and the Americas.
H.H. Johnston'

'...unite all his forces to defeat his arch-enemy, Nature.' For some reason I now have an image of Nature in my head that's a cross between Brittania and the classical Victorian image of Queen Boudica.

Well, whether by design or not, we seem to be trying to do what he suggests, although somehow I don't think it's working quite how he imagined...

Friday, 14 November 2008

How proxy is a proxy? - Part II

So, I believe that last time I threatened to, for once, have a series of evolving posts that gradually elucidate on a single topic. Henceforth, here is round two.

As a reminder, last time I posed the question:

How accurate are experiments where non-human, proxy cadavers are used?

In particular, I'm considering experiments where we want to use existing acoustic technology to image submerged cadavers.

To start with, lets think about precisely what we're going to be imaging with the acoustic returns. Sounds simple, doesn't it?! Sadly, as with almost everything to do with acoustics, simple questions tend to result in complex answers.

In order to image something using sound, it needs to present a measurable change in acoustic impedance (i.e., basically a measure of the strength to which the material resists the passage the sound wave) to it's immediate surroundings. The human body is generally considered to consist of 60 -70 % water, suggesting that a cadaver sitting on the seabed, lakebed, or riverbed will tend not to offer as strong an acoustic target as, say, the sediments on which it is resting because it closer resembles the water around it than the sediments do.

However, the acoustic backscatter from a target (the sound which travels from the source to the object and is reflected back towards the source again) is the combined response of two processes:

1. Surface scattering: the energy reflected back by the water/cadaver interface.

2. Volume scattering: the energy reflected back from within the target.

Of these, the volume scattering is the one we're particularly interested in. As I said earlier, the surface scattering will not be very strong for a cadaver. The volume scattering, on the other hand, will be. This is because, during decomposition, gas builds up within the tissue and internal cavities of the cadaver. This gas will present a very strong change in acoustic impedance.

So, when we want to acoustically image a cadaver, we would expect the dominant acoustic signature to be from the build up interstitial gas as a result of decomposition.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

How proxy is a proxy? - Part I

As I've mentioned in a blog a couple of months ago, Piggy hide and seek, I've recently been looking into the idea of using shallow water marine geophysical techniques in helping Law Enforcement Agencies conduct underwater body searches. Going through the frantic research process involved with writing any kind of research proposal, a particularly interesting thought occurred to me, namely:

How accurate are taphonomic experiments where non-human, proxy cadavers are used?

In certain states of the USA it is possible to use human cadavers when people have donated their body to science, or their body remains unclaimed. This has enabled researchers at the University of Tennessee's Anthropological Research Centre, in Knoxville, to setup their 'Body Farm', where human cadavers are placed in a variety of environmental conditions and their decay monitored over a period of days, weeks, months, and sometimes years. As a result of the ground-breaking research conducted at Tennessee, other body farms have now sprung up in Western Carolina University and Texas State University, although on considerably smaller scales.

The work undertaken by these institutions has been truly astonishing, advancing forensic entomology immensely. Without this work there must be thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of homicides the world over that would never have been solved. However, outside of these specific locations, the vast majority of people trying to undertake research in this, or related, fields have to rely of using proxy cadavers, normally domestic pigs. This leads to the question of how accurately a pig cadaver can imitate a human one? Taphonomically they have been shown to be very, very similar; their skin is close enough to ours for use in skin grafts for burns victims, whilst, also being omnivores, they have much the same gut bacteria, leading to a decomposition progression that very closely mimics our own.

This is all well and good for taphonomic and forensic entomology studies of beetle or fly larvae colonization, etc, but for our purposes, where we want to image the acoustic properties of the cadavers, can we truly say the same?

This is something I'm, hopefully, going to explore in the next few blogs by discussing the physics behind the variety of acoustic profilers that can be used. In this way, it should be possible to see where the potential differences between the different cadavers could result in different observations.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The Obama-wagon...quick, jump!

Firstly, and probably most importantly, congratulations to Senator Obama on his resounding victory Tuesday evening. Secondly, congratulations America!

It was quite a surreal evening for me. I attended my first ever 'Election Party' (I'm not sure what it says about me that it was for an American Election rather than a British one, but...). Throughout the evening there was a lot of talk about how, if Obama got in, people would feel 'proud to be American again', which says a lot for the damage our friend George W. has done to international relations on all levels. However, the best comment of the evening, I think, came when someone said:

'We've really dodged a bullet by avoiding electing Palin as Vice President.'

I couldn't agree more, it's hard to imagine what could be worse that having the gun-toting creationist loitering in the wings, just in case something happened to McCain. I have to admit, though, there is a part of me that feels sorry for Senator McCain. The guy is not a bad politician, and probably wouldn't have made a particularly bad President, but suffered because somehow his party decided Sarah Palin would make a great running-mate!

However, what has grabbed my attention most about the immediate outfall from the election result, is the level of childishly cynical hero worship that has swept around the political world. Nothing describes this better than the pitiful exchange between Gordon Brown and David Cameron in the House of Commons yesterday.

What is more pathetic than two grown men fighting it out to be associated with Senator Obama's victory? Why is it necessary - is the result of the US election really going to influence British voters in their choice of who they will vote for in our forthcoming election? Had the elections happened the other way around (which they might well have), do they really think that Obama and McCain would have reciprocated and been fighting tooth and nail as to whose campaign closest resembled that of the British PM? I think not!

After all the comments on the blog-o-sphere and articles in newspapers and news websites in the UK criticizing American politics over last few years, on the evidence of this we should perhaps be looking a little closer to home!

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

E-Day is nigh

Sadly, there's been little activity on this blog in recent weeks. I assure you, it's not that I don't have anything to say, simply too much to do. As anyone who's ever done a PhD will tell you, as the deadline looms everything else in life gets pushed aside as the behemoth of a thesis grows (you should see the amount of facial hair I now have)!

Today is an interesting day. As I'm sure everyone is aware, it's US Election Day! Over recent weeks the newspaper, together with quite a few of my favorite blogs, have been discussing this topic ad infinitum:

Cosmic Variance
Lab Lemming
Shores of the Dirac Sea
Michael Berube

Plus, probably a million more that I don't read! So, I'm not going to say anything else on the subject, other that try reading some of the above if you're interested.

Oh, and, "Come on Obama!"

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Talking ourselves into a recession

This morning I had an interesting conversation with a work colleague regarding the dubious present state of the financial system over our usual mug of ultra-strong coffee. I have always tried to shy away from writing social criticisms and keep my blog purely science based, but for this I'm going to make an exception. As a vaguely scientific side note, however, our coffee would normally make a good high school science experiment since it behaves more like a glass than a liquid. I'm not sure whether this is purely a factor of the percolation time, or a combined effect with the obscene amounts of sugar vigorously stirred into it, but, either way, this coffee could quite easily go undercover as treacle.

Today's caffeine fueled discussion stemmed from an
article published on BBC News yesterday. Entitled 'UK economy already 'in recession'', it is one of the millions of stories being run on news websites and in papers around the world regarding the impact of the present economic crisis on society at large, i.e. levels of unemployment, high-street spending, manufacturing, etc. The point we were talking about was not the comments on rising unemployment, etc (all of which are very valid and supported by statistics from the British Chambers of Commerce), rather that half-way down it proceeded to say 'Technically the UK is not yet in recession...'.

Hang on one cotton-picking minute! First you say we're in a recession, then you say that, according to the guidelines by which economists define recession, we're not - guidelines which have some well founded mathematical basis.

Don't get me wrong, I know full well why headlines such as this are printed. I am all too aware of the way journalists will twist stories to be more dramatic if they think it will result in more sales. The kernel of our discussion this morning revolved around the fact that, normally, the application of such writer's license effects only a limited number of people. Take, football, (soccer to any Americans reading this) for example. The amount of bad press placed on the England football team after a poor performance has many times affected the confidence of the players and therefore their subsequent performances, resulting in the demise of a number of managers in the process. But, this effect is limited to the team and their immediate circle. Although poor performances leading to us not making a major competition has been shown to cause a drop in revenue for sports bars, etc, in general terms this impact is low.

With the economy, the story is a different one. The western economy is closely coupled to the performance of the stock market, when the market is in a period of growth the economy will grow too, and vice versa. The danger of the stock market is that, to a large extent, is is driven by the mood of it's investors. If they get twitchy and start panicking then all hell breaks loose (as was seen with the Northern Rock debacle earlier this year). Unlike football, in this case any fall out from bad press can effect everybody as overly dramatic stories bemoaning the 'almost' recession cause investors to become less pragmatic and the market to plummet and the economy to wobble. As the news article itself pointed out, this then feeds back into the general public with job losses, etc, which then feeds back into the economy with less high-street spending to prop up the markets, i.e. an economic circle of death.

So, in conclusion, I ask the question we talked about over coffee. By printing and talking all this doom and gloom regarding the state of the economy, are we in fact talking ourselves into a recession when otherwise the markets would have dipped but stabilized?

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Don't forget the old ways

Recently I've been spending a large part of my time writing quite a complex bit of new code to process the seismic data we acquire using our 3D chirp system (those of you who've been paying attention will remember me talking about this a little while ago). Going through this process I've become increasingly aware just how much we take for granted the insane amounts of computing power those of us in active science research have available to us.

Although the process I'm trying to accomplish (3D seismic imaging) is not in either conceptually complex, nor difficult to write as an algorithm, it is difficult to do well. This spawns from two main factors: firstly, our obsession with data redundancy leading to enormous amounts of data being pumped in at the beginning; and secondly, the complex coupling between acoustic waves and their host medium making modelling the propagation of sound in geologically complex areas mathematically expensive (equally, this can also be thought of as a problem resulting from our desire as scientists to push the limit and explore more challenging environments).

The former problem is the one I've been mainly struggling with. The nature of our system means that trying to produce an imaged volume requires the manipulation of an incredible amount of data. For an average survey you're talking about having 10 - 15 million spatial samples, each consisting of 3000 - 4000 measurements of the reflection energy recorded at different times. To image this, the data has to be converted into the Fourier (frequency) domain since the propagation of acoustic wavefronts through a medium is frequency dependent. This produces a further 1500 - 2000 data points for each time measurement, giving a total of about 1.2 x 10^14 (120 trillion) data samples to manipulate! Not to mention a windowed Fourier transform before and after!

When handling data on these sorts of volumes it's easy to forget that altering the location of a single calculation within the code can dramatically affect it's run time. Simple things, like moving a variable calculation out of a for loop so that it is calculated only once for each frequency component on each time series shaves, literally, days off the processing time. Equally, a clever bit of sorting of your input data can enable the application of a single calculation to time series from multiple surface locations.

These techniques are not new, as sundialsvcs pointed out in this thread on I recently stumbled across. There is a tendancy with the processor power and memory volumes available at increasingly reasonable prices for our coding to become more slapdash and less optimized. The application of a little thought and some of the tricks commonly employed when computers were beasts that filled entire rooms could, I think, cut swathes off our (by this I mean scientists) processing time.

Also, talk about cutting energy usage to save the environment - imagine how much greener it would make us!

Monday, 6 October 2008

A fifth force farce

Over the weekend a good friend of mine from undergrad sent me a link to this site discussing a joke publication on the discovery of a fifth fundamental force.

Personally, all credit to the guy! Threatening to take the mickey and submit a spoof paper, be it as an April fool or whatever, is something I think most people would talk about (probably somewhere between pint number 4 and pint number 5), but then casually side step when it came to actually joining pen and paper. But not Lawrence Krauss, oh no! He threatened, and then had the balls to back it up.

There are a couple brilliant bits in his article, but I think my personal favorite has to be reference 6:

'6. Thanks to the intermediation of high-ranking officials from certain Italian banks, Vatican archival material was made available to us.'

As good a spoof as the original manuscript is, he was completely out performed by the 'reviewing' team from PRL. Their report is a work of genius. This line from the editor had me in stitches for a good while:

'In addition, we feel that the general interest (and even novelty if you want to be arcane about it) no longer supports the discovery of new forces. Already five have been reported in the literature and we think the time has come to draw a halt to the unbridled publication of force discoveries.'

Hopefully most readers of the science blogosphere, especially those who've ever had the privilege of trying to sift through reviewers comments, should appreciate this as much as I did. Enjoy!

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Cosmic Variance Challenge 2008

In the US there is a tradition each year for DonorsChoose to use the impact of the internet to provide extra funding to classrooms all over the US with their Bloggers Challenge. This year, one of my personal favourite blogs, Cosmic Variance, has got involved with their very own Cosmic Variance Challenge 2008.

I'm sure any donation to this worthy cause would be much appreciated (even more so if you can help them beat ScienceBlogs!)

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

We like da Moon

As I wittered about a few days ago, I'm quite keen on the concept of Big History. Something I meant to talk about in that post, but kinda ran out of room, was an idea that has been rattling around my head for some time now. It goes something like this...

The Moon, our big white faced friend in the sky, is believed to have been formed by a collision between the proto-Earth and a Mars-sized body some 4.45 billion years ago. The evidence for this particular theory for the lunar origin, first proposed by William Hartmann and Ronald Davis in the journal Icarus during April 1975, has been steadily growing over past decades. Where as almost all other planetary satellites are thought to be either captured asteroids (e.g., Mars' moons Phobos and Deimos) or co-formed accumulations of material during the planet's formation (e.g., the Galilean satellites of Jupiter), the anomalously large size ratio and angular momentum of the Earth-Moon system make either of these scenarios unlikely. Just to add weight to this arguement, the Moon also appears to have a small (< 5% total mass) iron core, which one would expect to be much larger in both former cases.The third theory popular prior to Hartmann and Davis' writing, which involves the moon breaking away from a rapidly spinning Earth, also falls down with this latter piece of evidence as one would expect no (or almost no) iron core (let alone mismatches in the amount of angular momentum!).

I suppose, the long and short of what I'm trying to say is, basically, that it has been circling our little blue globe as long as life has been wandering round, eating, fighting, and having sex.

In his talk at IGC, Walter Alvarez postulated that having such a large moon had a massive impact in the development of complex life on Earth. This, he said, is likely to be caused by the lunar tides making the transition from aquatic to terrestrial life easier. In both of these statements, he is correct. Having a large Moon has almost certainly had a massive effect on the development of life on our planet, while the presence of a tidal zone (which would have been considerably larger when life was forming in the Archaen, since the Moon would have been much closer) one can conceptually imagine would smooth the transition into land dwelling life forms.

However, I disagree that this is the most lasting influence of the Moon-Earth system on the development of life. One could argue this from the philosophical view-point that Alvarez is implying that all truly complex life will be terrestrial in origin. To put it politely, this it utter codswallop! Marine life and the marine ecosystem is incredibly complex, and just because they don't pour concrete over everything doesn't stop them from being highly evolved. Taking the more scientific approach, the largest implication for having such an Earth-Moon system is, I think, one which has been loosely discussed for some time, namely the stabilizing effect of the Moon on the Earth's obliquity (angle of the Earth's rotation pole to it's orbital plane). Presently, the complex interaction between the Earth's orbital and rotational momenta, with the gravitational effects of the Moon, Sun, and Gas Giants, holds this stably at c. 23 degrees (plus/minus c. 1.25 degrees). Without the stabilizing effect of the Moon, it has been shown that the highly variable effect of the Gas Giants (caused by their changing position relative to the Earth during the orbital cycle) could cause this to vary by up to 80 degrees!

The small fluctuations in the Earth's obliquity are known to be one of the driving forces behind the Milankovic cycles, which are thought by climate scientists to be the dominant cause the glacial cycle. Conceptually, introducing larger amplitude and shorter period variations in the obliquity would dramatically change the Earth's climate history; which is generally built on long periods of warmer climate and low ice levels, separating somewhat shorter periods of colder climate with large ice levels. Shortening these calm time periods between ice ages is likely to have a large effect on the evolution of complex life. Although one could argue that it is unlikey to stop the development of complex life completely, shorter calm periods would certainly have slowed evolution down a notch or two.

To my knowledge no one has tried running any kind of altered obliquity simulation. Maybe on of these days I'll get round to it!

Monday, 29 September 2008

Piggy hide and seek

Watching the 'freshers' turn up at work this year, all bubbly and full of the promise of a new beginning, made me have a little think. Eight years ago I was one of those over-eager little souls bounding into the Physics and Astronomy Department in Sheffield. Four years ago, I was probably not too dissimilar, this time bounding into the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. Last week my PhD and, hopefully, Post-Doc supervisor handed me a book entitled 'Advances in Forensic Taphonomy: Method, Theory, and Archaeological Perspectives'. Funny how things change!

Were you to ask me where I thought I'd be in eight years time when I started my undergrad in Physics with Astronomy at Sheffield, I would almost certainly said something along the lines of 'hopefully doing something in astronomy'. Were you to ask me where I thought I'd be in four years time when I started doing geophysics at Southampton, I'd almost certainly have replied something along the lines of 'yeah, well, I'll probably sell out to the industry and go hunting for oil'. Yet, now, here I am, writing a Post-Doc proposal to play underwater hide and seek with some dead pigs using a variety of acoustic profilers. Funny thing is, I ain't complaining!

The principle is quite simple: we have already proved that our decimetre resolution 3D seismic system, 3D Chirp, can be used to image everything from geological structure on 10s metres scale, down to individual objects some 10s centimetres in size; and a number of companies have already shown that acoustics can be used to locate dead bodies. However Police authorities around the world still primarily default to using shore walks and diver surveys when conducting missing person searches.

To a large degree, their lack of trust in these new technologjes is reasonable. Practically, these systems tend to be highly specialised, requiring a large amount of detailed knowledge to get the best out of them. Thought needs to go into which acoustic profiler to use (side scan sonar, sector scanning sonar, echoscope, or a sub-bottom profiler such as chirp or boomer), where and how to use it, how to process the acquired data, how to interpret the processed data, etc, etc. The list is almost endless. Then, to confound it all, there has been very little work done on how the acoustic response of a body varies with the level of decomposition. How long does a body have to have been deceased before they present a strong enough acoustic signature to be detected? How long before the body is so decomposed that is presents no acoustic signature? How does this vary from person to person and locality to locality? How does this vary with the frequency content of the acoustic source? Such basic, fundamental questions need solid, scientifically robust answers before the Police authorities can be expected to make extensive use of these techniques. Hopefully, we might be able to provide them with a few.

Finally, something a little more topical. I recently discovered
this post by Moshe Rozali talking in very general terms about the principles of field theory, and in particular Quantum Gravity. This is a pretty meaty topic to tackle in any situation, but Peter manages it with beautiful elegance in his usual easy-to-read style. Given the recent media hype surrounding the LHC and the Higgs Boson, this post is well worth a read as it outlines some of the basic holes in our present understanding of gravity. Personally, I think it's a shame some of the 'science' journalists didn't give it a browse before they started the 'black hole to destroy the world' tirades, maybe we'd have gotten a few more interesting news reports if they had...although they would, probably, have sold fewer newspapers!

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Big History

Big History is an area of science I only recently discovered via a talk given by Walter Alvarez at the 33rd IGC meeting in Oslo, Norway. This multi-disciplinary approach to looking at history, considers the major events/factors that have been the driving forces behind the formation of the world and indeed the universe as we know it today.

Personally, I find the idea of bouncing around ideas on such large scales fascinating.
The way that, for instance, you can consider the evolution of complex life from the view point of a series of astronomical forcing factors really tickles my little grey cells. Also, discussing such topics is clearly perfect for pub based debates, where almost anyone from any walk of life can contribute something. It reminds be greatly of my 2nd and 3rd year Astronomy tutorials with Prof. Hughes, which turned into massive debates on subjects such as the origin of the solar system, or asteroid impacts, or any one of a million other subjects.

For an introduction to the topic one shouldn't look any further than Marnie Hughes-Warrington's excellent article in the Bulletin of the Historical Society, which provides a brilliant and engaging overview of the subject and how it has developed from the early imaginings of, for example, Isaac Asimov and Preston Cloud, in the 1980s through to the recent pioneering writings of David Christian and Fred Spier. Anyone interested in the subject should, I think, start there. It certainly worked for me!

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Why exams are bad!

This morning, the title story on the Education section of BBC News reads 'Testing harms school science'.

No sh*t sherlock!

This particular little gem is something nearly everybody in science has been screaming to the heavens about for years. Don't get me wrong, I'm not pointing the finger at teachers or pupils (Christ, I was one of the latter not too long ago!), rather my wagging pinky is aimed straight at Whitehall and those suit clad tyrants who dictate just about everything in our lives by instating ever increasing levels of red tape.

Their obsession with tests and league tables and an ever changing syllabus is at the root of this problem, which extends far beyond Science's sacred shores. First year physics students at Bristol, along with most other UK Universities, are made to sit a basic maths test in their first week. This forms a guide to the Maths for Physicists modules that run throughout the first year in order to get everyone up to the required competence level. I quote the test in Bristol specifically, because this test has been running for some 30+ years now, and, while the average A-level grade of entrants has sky rocketed, the average score on this never changing test has plummeted. This is not a reflection of the quality of the students, or their aptitude for maths/science, rather it reflects the method of GCSE and A-level teaching.

The pressure on schools, teachers, and pupils to get straight A's and be at the top of their respective league table is bordering on the obscene. As a result of this Stalinistic approach to schooling kids, the basic understanding of the fundamental subjects (English as well as Maths and the Sciences) is being superseded in preference to exam grades. For me, the key point is that exam results are mistakenly being identified as the goal, whereas, surely, the primary outcome should be that kids leave school brimming with knowledge and skills that can be applied to the rest of their lives.

Unsurprisingly, with such a contentious subject, there are lots of webpages out these discussing this exact same topic. One of my personal favourites is this one on Y Safle, who collates figures garnered from the Exam Boards to back up his arguement. It's well worth a quick peek.

To finish on a bit lighter note...while on my morning browse of BBC News I also discovered something which would only ever happen in Australia:

'A woman on the north coast of New South Wales in Australia is being held hostage in her own home by a large pig'. That has to be the best opening sentence to a news item since the tiger was found a NY flat, and by some margin! I've got this image now of a very large pig, with Samuel L. Jackson side-burns and a John Travolta quiff, peaking out between blinds at an array of police cars whilst clutching a sawn-off shotgun, cigarette hanging limply from his chops.