Gaia 2013

has the last word...

SF & science oddities, gossip, exotica and whimsy from the past year to Easter 2013


Why do bubbles sink in stout beer? Gaia delights in the science of Bacchus and, in the spirit of Bacchus, sharing this with you. And so one of the latest alcoholic science titbits is the thorny question of why some bubbles in stout sink? This is perplexing given that gas bubbles in liquid one might intuitively think would rise, as indeed they do in champagne and other beers such as larger.   Now, University of Limerick's (being stout it had to be an Irish university didn't it) William Lee, Eugene Benilov (the paper's lead author) and Cathal Cummins have come up with the answer. It is two-fold. First, stout contains not just carbon dioxide bubbles (that are found in other beers and champagne), but nitrogen bubbles too. These are smaller hence (due to surface tension) denser as well as less likely to dissolve compared with carbon dioxide bubbles. Second, is the shape of tall beer glasses that are narrower at the bottom. This means that bubbles in the centre of the glass rise from the bottom to the top carrying liquid with it. So there is a central upward flow which at the wider surface spreads sideways so creating a downward flow at the glass sides. It is the flow of small nitrogen bubbles moving down in this region that is seen by many drinkers. This effect is not an optical illusion (caused by larger bubbles moving upwards making the smaller bubbles seem to move down). The research was published on-line by the physics site in a paper entitled 'Why do bubbles in Guinness sink?'

The biology of pub signs is important. 'Of course', Gaia hears you cry, as biology is clearly important and so is beer. Which brings us to biological represent on pub signs and here (outside of human depictions and heraldry – the 'Red Lion' is one of the most popular British pub names) birds are a common theme. Common pub names include 'The Nightingale', 'Two Tits' and 'Three Swallows'.   So what, ecologically-minded ornithologists ask, is the average body mass of bird species depicted on pub signs in the British Isles, what is its distribution and how does this compare to the body mass distribution of British Isles bird species?   No doubt that this question has been long festering in you mind, but fret not for any longer as ecologist Prof. Sir John Lawton has the answer. Over the years he has noted the bird species on pub signs he has encountered.   In his random sample of 3,360 pubs recorded over a two-year period, over 170 (5%) have bird-related names. Of these the most common bird species used is the swan – 58 pubs for white swans alone (black swans 11) – followed by eagles – 25 pubs.   As for a comparison of the species body mass with that of the distribution of body mass among British species, John found that for birds to appear on signs they need to be a little heavier than average. He also noted that their being useful to humans, brightly coloured and edible were other common traits. Conversely, he notes, if you are a Dunnock then forget it. (Source: Bulletin of the British Ecological Society, vol. 43 (3), pp32-4).

Gaia loves I am Sorry I Haven't a Clue, the BBC Home Service radio show. 2012 saw the show have its 40th anniversary!   In the words of Jack Dee, the show's new compare, it was felt by some that after four decades the regular competitors might have come up with some new gags.   A pity as he would have welcomed the regular competitors being gagged.   Gaia, of course, listens to the show for its educational value. For example, regarding the English language, do you know what the term 'perverse' means?   Well, it is of course the way that freelance poets get paid… Gaia is looking forward to many more decades of mirth and merriment.

On an asteroid, which way is north? Now, Gaia is self assured that Earth's north is well known: Gaia has been mapped! But where is north on an asteroid? This problem did not matter until recently when we started sending probes to asteroids. Of course does not matter for the many thousands of small, tumbling asteroids. But for larger, spherical asteroids hundreds of kilometres in diameter with a steady rotation, knowing which way is north, and having a zero longitude meridian is vital for producing a map and then using it to generate coordinates and so target features with successive space missions, and indeed knowing where you are when having a wander on the asteroid's surface…   And so we come to the asteroid Vesta, the second largest asteroid in the asteroid belt with a mean diameter of 326 miles (525 km). Vesta was first formally mapped using the Hubble space telescope back in 1997. The resulting map and meridian was approved by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) which settles mapping matters and names of astronomical geographic features. This IAU role was historically vital to avoid confusion and also to prevent duplicate nomenclatures by Western and Soviet astronomers during the Cold War 1950s-'80s rivalry.   But now NASA's Dawn mission has been to Vesta (it departed Vesta's orbit 26th August last year) and mapped it in detail. Dawn found that the IAU axis of rotation was off by nearly 10°. The Dawn mission map also has a meridian going through a 700 metre crater called Claudia, whereas the IAU meridian goes through the 200 km diameter dark, circular region, Olbers Regio. These two meridians are 155° apart and that is nearly half a world away!   As things stand, the Dawn mission scientists are sticking with what they have so far worked. Meanwhile the IAU maintain that they are the determinants of international astronomical standards and nomenclature. And so for now we have two systems and hence likely confusion for any passing astronaut stranded on Vesta and wanting a standard map… Gaia reminds fellow sentients across the Universe that science (the philosophical method) is the best universal tool for discerning nature's truths. However science, as practiced by wet, squidgy, psychological biologicals (such as humans on Earth) is, more often than realised, very messy indeed.

Book industry begins to capitalise on the European horsemeat scare. If you are reading this from outside Europe, you may be unaware that in the Spring of 2013 traces of horsemeat were found in some processed meat products across Europe that were labelled as either beef or pork: some unscrupulous suppliers had been illegally cutting beef and pork with horsemeat.  Of course there is nothing wrong with horsemeat even though mislabelling is mis-selling, and so it was probably only a matter of time before a book publisher capitalised on this issue that has had a tremendous media airing. And so Random House has become the first with their new title The Horsemeat Cook Book. The Bookseller magazine's Dent is a charming wag who wonders whether it will rival such all-time horsey classics such as Whinny the Pooh or The Mount of Monte Cristo

That biologists hate maths is a common notion in science. However this belief is colloquial: is there any real evidence for it? Biospherical Gaia – born of biology and geology – has always wondered.   So step up Tim Fawcett and Andrew Higginson of England's Bristol University. They looked at the papers published three leading ecology and evolution journals in 1998 and then at how often these papers were cited by other scientists in subsequent years (Proc. Natl Acad. Sci., 2012, vol. 109, pp11735-11739).   They found that for each additional equation per page of paper, papers received an average of 28% fewer citations.   For theoretical experimental papers (as opposed to observational, practical ecological management or review papers) the position was worse with 35% fewer citations. So we now have some hard, mathematical evidence that biologists really do hate maths!   Gaia reminds fellow sentients across the Universe that science (the philosophical method) is the best universal tool for discerning nature's truths. However science, as practiced by wet, squidgy, psychological biologicals (such as humans on Earth) is, more often than realised, very messy indeed.

School pupil who refused to wear radio ID locator tag loses appeal. Gaia brings you this story in case you missed it as it has everything: Orwellian Big Brother, high tech, mystical religious belief… John Jay High School (in Texas, US) was, at the start of 2012, two schools piloting a policy of radio tagging its pupils so that they can see where they are and, importantly, if they are at school: the school's funding depends on attendance rates. However, Andrea Hernandez (15) refuses to wear the tag due to – not Orwellian concerns but – religious belief: she claims the tag is 'the mark of the beast' as described in the Bible's Book of Revelation chapter 13. After John Jay High School suspended her, she went to court and won a temporary injunction to continue her studies at the school, without the tag. But then in January 2013, the Federal Court overturned that saying that if she were to stay at that school she would be required to wear the badge, otherwise she would have to transfer to a new school. These crazy Yanks… You simply can't make this stuff up.

Does The Hobbit's 48 frames per second solve the light-loss issues that come with 3D? This is surely the question of the year for scientists who are SF/Fnal cinematic buffs. Well, thanks to 'Kermode Uncut' and projectionist Dave Norris, we now have an answer.   To put it simply, once your cinema has upgraded its server to play the high frame rate, once they have put an integrated media block onto the projector (to meet the high-definition serial digital interface [HD-SDI] standard and because all 3D systems currently use the triple flash system that cycles 144 time a second and not the double flash 192 times, and not least anticipated further frame rate increases, such as with the forthcoming Avatar 2 and 3 that will be shown at 60 frames a second with a 240 a second flash cycle) and, not least regardless of frame rate (and cutting down the dark time between frames), Foot-lamberts are Foot-lamberts and the industry standard is currently 3.5 minimum, then...
          Hang on! Are you following this?
          Let's try again.
          Does The Hobbit's 48 frames per second solve the light-loss issues that come with 3D?

Biospheric Gaia reminds you that balance is all. Sometimes it is easy for science fact and science fiction Concateneers to over-do the geek thing. But e-community and e-lifestyle is not everything: biotic products are still important. So do take note of this 40 second video.

And finally…

The 2013 Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year short-list included:-
Was Hitler Ill  by Henrik Eberle and Hans-Joachin Neumann
Lofts of North America: Pigeon Lofts  by Jerry Gagne
God's Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis  by Tom Hickman
Goblin Proofing One's Chicken Coop: And Other Practical Advice in our Campaign Against the Fairy Kingdom  by Reginald Berkely
How Tea Cosies Changed the World  by Loani Prior
and How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artinasal Craft of Pencil Sharpening  by David Rees.
          The annual competition is organised by Bent at the Bookseller magazine. And the winner, as determined by Bookseller magazine reader votes, was Goblin Proofing One's Chicken Coop: And Other Practical Advice in our Campaign Against the Fairy Kingdom  by Reginald Berkely.   ++++   Previous Diagram Prize news reported in earlier Gaia columns includes that from: 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 and 2006.


See you in 2014 with more frivolity.


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