Don’t you just hate good-looking people? Of course you do. They’re the worst. Especially when they’re good at stuff. How dare they be attractive and talented at the same time, it’s just an abomination. Glad you all agree. Right, let's get on with it.
A few days ago I stumbled across an interesting journal article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It showed that people tend to evaluate others based on their looks. In other news - triangles have three sides.
It's hardly a shock to say people judge each other on appearances. I mean what else are you going to judge them on? The quality of the character and their personal achievements?! Please!
What was really interesting about this particular study was that it correlated beauty with one parameter I’m very interested in: whether you are trusted as a Scientist. It claimed that people are actually less likely to take you seriously in a Scientific context if you are good looking. When it comes to Science, apparently we want our experts ugly.
It’s good news for me because I look like a potato with a beard, but I can imagine somebody attractive finding it a problem. Thing is I'm very fortunate and I get taken seriously as a Scientist. I have my own quantum-mechanical equation, my own chemical and I've got a book coming out in July 2018, but it has to be said that at my graduation ceremony nobody asked for my number. Imagine being a Scientist where your ideas got dismissed simply because you look good in a lab coat? Actually, what am I talking about…everyone looks good in a lab coat.
Conducted by Ana Gheorgiu at Cambridge University, the study showed people photographs of Scientists and asked them to rate each one for looks, perceived competency as a Scientist, and whether they looked interesting.
One of these tests gave a fairly expected result: we’re more likely to be interested in a person’s research if they are attractive, but here’s the kicker…we’re less likely to trust the actual Science they write.
As if that wasn't puzzling enough, she took things a stage further. She gave another group of people an article with an author photograph beside it. When the author was one of the “ugly” Scientists, the article was praised. When the author was “pretty” the same article was suddenly criticised as being sloppy. The lesson here is obvious…use pretty people to get funding for your research, but don’t let them do educational TV shows.
This discord between a Scientist being “interesting” and “competent” implies that while we might tune in to watch the charming features of Brian Cox, we don’t actually trust him as a Scientist. I mean just look at him with his perfect hair and rugged features. What an idiot he obviously is.
Are we hard-wired to mistrust attractive people? Of course not. The exact opposite in fact. In 2016, Fengling Ma from the Wenzhou Medical University showed a group of children 200 faces and asked them to rate each one for trustworthiness. Two months later they came back and rated the same faces on how attractive they were. Overwhelmingly, the children associated good-looking people with trustworthiness.
Maybe it's hard-wired? After all, we usually think highly of someone because they’re gorgeous. So often does our culture praise beautiful people and ask them for opinions on things they aren’t qualified to talk about.
I’ve written before about cognitive biases, but it seems there is a subtlety to this particular one. Our natural inclination is “pretty = trustworthy” but there is an important qualifier “unless you’re a Scientist.” Where does that come from? I’m going to put forward a hypothesis. See what you think. Also, here's Kat Dennings, my pick for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Annoyingly Perfect People
The cultural stereotype of Scientists is that they are intelligent. What I propose is that this is over-ridden by an older and more engrained stereotype: attractive people are supposed to be dumb.
People often regard beautiful women as air-heads or bimbos, while attractive men are meant to be vain and shallow. Since these people are more likely to get favourable treatment in life, the assumption is that they never have to work hard intellectually. Is it true? Can beautiful people be smart? Obviously they can.
I have two instagram friends who are, by anyone's standards, physically attractive. One of them is a former beauty queen who used to do pageants, has appeared on Jay Leno and did some commerical work as a bikini-clad model. Let's be frank, you don’t get to do those things unless you look good. Today, she is a bilingual NASA intern who runs her own business. How's that for a stereotype.
The other is a pre-med student (ie clearly smart) who posts photographs of herself looking attractive. What’s really baffling is that she receives hate mail about it. People actually criticise her for posting images where she looks nice. What's the point? Nobody criticses me when I post a picture of an equation.
What's more, when you talk to both of them, they are intelligent, confident, Scientifically literate and (shock horror) nice, friendly women...they just happen to look good as well. Apparently, this makes many people uncomfortable - as if it’s unfair. There seems to be an unspoken belief that nobody should be good at too many things, so somebody who is smart, friendly and good-looking needs to have something wrong with them to balance the Universe out.
But life isn’t a game of The Sims where each human gets a certain amount of points to share among ther personality traits. People can be good at everything and look amazing while doing it. Same way you can be dumb and ugly at the same time.
There might be a certain amount of misogyny going on here. I’ve written before about why we need more feminism in Science so I won’t bang on about it, but I think sometimes society assumes a woman’s job is to look pretty and smile. Only the ugly ones are supposed to go into Science.
But this is the real world and it’s not filled with stock-characters from 1950s sitcoms. People are allowed to be talented, smart and good-looking simultaneously. Be jealous of them, sure. And by all means do mocking impressions of Brian Cox in front of your physics class (just…you know…if that’s like…what you wanna do) but don’t hold it against them. Hating someone for being good at things is forgivable, treating them differently is not.
By the way, I’m very aware that I’m focusing slightly more on women here. That’s because as a heterosexual man I find it easier to comment on whether a woman is good-looking or not. So my apologies for giving a one-sided perspective of this debate. I'm just not as good when it comes to spotting an attractive man.
Running the Numbers
Now, just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, let’s consider whether or not the stereotype has any foundation. Are pretty people less likely to be intelligent? Well, on cold statistical grounds there might be an arbitrary correlation, but it doesn’t imply what you think.
Beautiful people constitue a small sample of the population, as do intelligent people. The chances of a person falling into both categories is potentially smaller still. So yes, a person being both gorgeous and intelligent is less likely than them being one of those things exclusively. But, and here is the crucial point, this is an incidental relationship, not a causal one.
The number of people who like cactuses is small. So is the number of people who like Nicolas Cage movies. So if we meet a Nicolas Cage fan who also collects cactuses they are probably quite rare. But those two things are completely unrelated. The fact they like Nicolas Cage movies has nothing to do with their liking of cactuses. They obviously just enjoy punishment.
A Nicolas Cage-loving cactus collector is rare but we shouldn’t meet a Nicolas Cage fan and assume they therefore don’t like cactuses. There is no causal nexus between the two. Likewise, if a person is pretty it doesn’t mean we should assume they are dumb. Or act surprised when we find out they are clever.
It also doesn’t mean if you’re good at Science you’re unattractive. Neither is it true that if you’re gorgeous you’re doomed to fail your exams. The truth is that your brains and your beauty are completely uncoupled from each other. If you care about appearances then you primp and preen yourself as much as you want. If you don't care about your appearance then leave the house wearing a crumpled sack if you want. There's no correct way for a Scientist to look.
So, there’s my hypothesis. Because we tend to associate hot with dumb, we’re less likely to trust a hot Scientist because it implies a contradiction. Now, like all hypotheses, it needs to be criticised and tested, so let me know what the problems are and let’s see if we can disconfirm it!
Ultimately, what the study highlights is how wrong we can be when we make snap-judgements, especially about how intelligence relates to looks. We might as well ask people to predict a person’s favourite sandwich from what colour their eyes are. If you are ever asked to judge someone’s competency as a Scientist from a photograph, that photograph had better be of their research thesis!
Right, I’m off to buy an eye-patch.
At the weekend I went to see The Belko Experiment from the writer of Guardians of the Galaxy, James Gunn. The premise of the film (rated 18 in the UK) is that a group of people are sealed in an office block and told they have two hours to kill 30 co-workers otherwise 60 of them will be murdered at random.
It’s a similar premise to Battle Royale directed by Kinji Fukasaku, in which a group of high-school students are placed on an island and told to kill each other until one survives (basically remade as The Hunger Games). Both are played as jet-black comedies with an emphasis on hard-to-watch violence, although Battle Royale depicts it as tragic while The Belko Experiment takes glee in showcasing the sadism.
You could draw further comparison with The Purge trilogy, set in a future where all crimes are legalised for 12 hours. In The Purge the morality is reversed from the other two however, because rather than an authority figure using threats to force characters to commit violence, The Purge is about what would happen if all authority figures and threats are removed.
They all share the same ethical question however. Not “are some people capable of violence?” rather, “is everyone capable of violence?” If you took a bunch of people at random and put them in an environment where savage violence is one of the choices, how many would actually choose it?
All three film franchises believe the same thing would happen. A small group of people jump straight to violence while most stay out of it. Do they get it right? What would really happen if we carried out a Belko Experiment? You’ll be pleased to know such a thing has never been attempted, but there have been fascinating studies which point to the willingness of people to commit violence.
Because I Told you To
In 1961 Stanley Milgram at Yale University carried out an experiment designed to measure a person’s willingness to commit violent acts. The subject was told to adopt the role of a teacher who was educating a student on the other side of a wall. The teacher asked a series of questions and punished the student with electric shocks for every mistake. Unknown to them, the “student” was an actor pretending to scream in agony and begging for the teacher to stop.
The student would complain about a heart condition, pretend to pass out from the pain, bang on the wall etc. and if the teacher refused to continue torturing the actor they were told “please continue” or “you have no choice, you must continue”. Only if they objected four times, were they finally allowed to stop.
The aim was to see how many people would be prepared to go on harming another human simply because someone told them to. The experiment has been repeated and carried out a number of different ways over the decades and the results are roughly the same.
Between 61 – 65% of people were prepared to keep going and shock the person to the point of potentially killing them. It’s worth noting that every participant did show discomfort but most carried on regardless.
Charles Hofling performed a similar experiment in 1966 when 22 nurses were instructed to administer a lethal dose of medicine to a patient. 21 of them were prepared to do it simply because a doctor insisted. Don’t misunderstand me here, I think nurses are amazing people...but that is exactly the point. Even kind, compassionate, ethically wonderful people can still commit acts of violence when ordered to. It seems if an authority figure asks you to do something immoral, there's a good chance you'll salute and say "Aye-aye!"
The Stanford Prison Experiment
An even more controversial experiment was carried out in 1971 by Philip Zimbardo at Stanford Univeristy. Zimbardo selected 24 students, all male with no criminal record or history of mental illness, and randomly assigned them to one of two groups: prisoners and guards. He converted one of the basements at Stanford into a makeshift prison and threw the two groups in to see what would happen.
The experiment is controversial because it doesn’t follow a lot of the standard methodologies required by Science. There was no independent variable, no dependent variable, Zimbardo himself got involved and there was no quantitative data, nor a hypothesis tested. This is really an anecdotal example of “what would happen?” which many would argue is unscientific. Nevertheless, the results were sobering.
Within a few days, the “guard” students began brutalising the prisoners and subjecting them to psychological tortures. The prisoners were made to strip naked, sleep on concrete, exercise to the point of exhaustion, got locked in a cupboard, suffered sleep deprivation and endured constant verbal abuse.
Zimbardo argued that, contrary to popular opinion, aggressive power-abusers were not a “certain type of person”, rather, anyone given the chance to exert power can become violent and aggressive.
What’s even more interesting is that 50 people came to observe the simulation taking place and raised absolutely no objection to Zimbardo. In the same way Milgram’s experiment showed that people are prepared to be violent, Zimbardo’s showed that people are willing to stand by and do nothing.
The experiment was eventually stopped when Zimbardo’s girlfriend got so worried about his involvement that she insisted he finish it. Acknowledging that he was becoming emotionally invested, Zimbardo did indeed halt the simulation, much to the annoyance and frustration of the “guard” students.
A similar experiment was carried out by Jane Elliot in 1968. A primary school teacher, Elliot decided to split the class into two groups based on their eye-colour and told the brown-eyed children they were intellectually and socially inferior. She began giving privileges to the blue-eyed students and the results were astonishing.
The blue-eyed students became arrogant and bullying, while the brown-eyed students began performing worse on tests and devaluing themselves. Elliot intended the exercise to teach the children about the utter ludicrous nature of racism but found, unexpectedly, that by splitting a group of people into privileged and not, they began fulfilling the roles automatically.
We have to ask ourselves what we would do in these situations? We’d all like to assume we’d be the one nurse who objected to the lethal dosage, the 35% of people who refused to electrocute, or the girlfriend who insisted the violence end. But statistically, chances are most of us would go along with it. I’d like to think I’m a decent guy…but I wonder.
So are humans basically evil?
These studies suggest what films get wrong is that only a small minority of people will turn to violence. Actually, most of us are prepared to be violent if the situation calls for it. But don’t rule our species out just yet, because there are also studies which showcase our capacity for altruism.
In 1973 a study by Darley and Batson, the so-called “Good Samaritan Study” found that 63% of people would stop to help someone passed-out on the street, provided they were not in a great hurry.
Then there was the 2004 study by Molly Crockett at UCL who reversed the Milgram experiment to see if people would be willing to electrocute another person or themselves for money. Crocket found that people were twice as willing to endure pain themselves than inflict it on others. This doesn’t necessarily contradict the Milgram study but it does suggest that context might be everything. If we’re being instructed to do something awful we might be persuaded, but if we’re given a choice we’d rather not hurt anyone. Submission to authority might be a part of us, but so is empathy.
The Greatest Experiment Of All Time
The films I mentioned at the beginning all go in different directions at their finale, making different comments about the nature of humanity. In some we are told that even peaceful people can become killers while in some we are told nobody can be pushed to violence against their will.
It seems most film-makers, and possibly audiences, make the same assumption: a small minority of people engage in violence immediately but the majority of us are a complex mixture of aggression and pacifism. Where we each differ is how far we have to be pushed to let the violence take over. This sounds like a pretty grown-up response to the knotty question of human nature, so bravo Hollywood!
For my money the best summation of the human condition is found in the movie Full Metal Jacket by Stanley Kubrick. The protagonist wears a helmet displaying the symbols for peace and the words “Born to kill” written beneath. When questioned, he explains he’s trying to make a comment about the duality of man. Ultimately, this soldier might have the most honest outlook of them all. Good ol’ Kubrick.
We did evolve to survive and breed at all costs but we also learned that living in communities gives us an advantage. We evolved a capacity for aggression which helped us hunt but also a capacity for cooperation which helped us build.
Really, The Belko Experiment has been running for the last hundred thousand years all across the globe. A group of intelligent, self-aware creatures are stuck together in a sealed environment called Planet Earth and we’ve pretty much been left to our own devices.
You might believe we’re in a Purge Universe where there is no authority for our actions (atheism), you might believe we’re in a Battle Royale Universe where there is a powerful being watching and giving us instructions (theism) or you might believe we’re in a Belko Experiment universe where the powerful being sets things up and then steps back (deism). The point is we really are playing out this social experiment and the results don’t suggest humans are solely evil.
So far in the experiment we have gone to war a lot, invoked slavery and torture but we’ve also invented peace-talks, charity, Science, art and medicine. How the experiment is going to conclude is anyone’s guess, but regardless of your ethical or theological stance, we are all faced with the same question: if there are Gods/aliens/future Scientists analysing and judging our civilization’s behaviour, what would you like them to conclude about us? What would you like them to conclude about you?
A student recently asked me for some advice. First off, that’s a pretty unwise thing to do, I haven’t got much of a clue about anything, but I appreciate the flattering assumption I’m a fully-fledged grown up!
The student is locked in an ongoing internet debate with people who just won’t listen to reason. It’s not a debate about opinion or personal taste either eg "what’s the best superhero film?" (although really there’s no debate there, the correct answer is Spiderman-2). This is a debate about the nature of reality.
Things like: “Do vaccines cause autism?” “Is climate change happening?” “Is the Earth flat?” “Do ghosts exist?” are all in the Scientist’s sphere of influence because they are all answerable questions.
So the student asked me how to have a Scientific debate with someone who doesn’t know how to think Scientifically? An even trickier question would be to do it when the person thinks they can. It’s a bit of a minefield because everybody automatically assumes their view is correct. Scientists try to be doubtful of their preconceptions, but they’re only human and everybody is guilty of stubbornness.
It occurred to me that the skill of debating is something you’re never really taught. Unless you join a debating society, having a debate/argument/row is something you either figure out for yourself or pick up from watching others. As a teacher, I never do a lesson on the rules of Scientific disagreement. So, I thought, I’ll jolly-well give it a go! Here are ten simple-sounding (although difficult to implement) rules for finding out who’s right and who’s wrong.
1. Take your time
In the heat of the moment you always feel the pressure to be as quick-witted as possible. There’s a gut-feeling that if you don’t come back with a snappy response within seconds you’re going to look foolish. The effect is compounded when there are people present because you’re suddenly on display. But you must resist the urge to be fast.
People take a long time to change their minds, so you aren’t going to convince someone in the space of 30 minutes a belief they’ve held for years is wrong. If you really want to make progress it’s going to take time. A good debate shouldn’t look like a tennis match with arguments bouncing back and forth at lightning speed, it should be a chess match with long pauses in between each move.
The longest debate I ever engaged in took something like nine years. The debate in question was the mothership of all debates: is there a God? It began at University when I met someone who disagreed with my own convictions and we just went for it. We would sometimes debate in person but we both agreed we didn’t feel comfortable doing so, because conversations happen fast and this was something to be cautious with. We kept it entirely in writing and here’s the key thing: eventually, one of us changed their mind. So remember, there’s no pressure to be a quick thinker. The important thing is to be a deep thinker.
2. I’m open to your idea, just not convinced yet
Make it clear the reason you don’t agree with them is that the evidence isn’t good enough. But also make it clear that if they present good evidence, you’ll listen. This makes them feel less attacked and therefore more willing to listen to what you have to say. It also puts the emphasis on evidence rather than personal feelings, intuitions, guesses and upbringing. You’re not debating the person, you’re debating their claim.
It’s also wise to establish this early on, because it reminds you to keep your own humility. After all, it’s possible you might be the one who’s mistaken. I haven’t called this blog “how to win a Scientific debate” because maybe you’re supposed to lose it.
Furthermore, by showing you’re open to correction it gives your opponent motivation to continue talking to you. If you go in insisting they’re wrong, they’re less likely to take you or the discussion seriously.
3. Certainty vs Confidence
If the person you’re debating claims something, ask if they are 100% certain or 99% confident. If their answer is "100% certain", I’m afraid the debate is over. As difficult as this is to accept, you have to walk away, explaining your reason.
If your opponent is 100% convinced of something that means “there is 0% chance I’m willing to consider the possibility I'm wrong". You cannot debate a person like that. You don’t need to be rude about it but they don’t actually want to debate, they just want to think of themselves as correct.
Besides, with rule 2 you were willing to listen to them, you have to make sure they’re willing to listen to you. By reminding them at the start they’ve got to be prepared to admit fault, you increase the chances they might actually do so. It's also fine to ask the person: why do you believe it? Find out what convinced them in the first place and what reason, other than gut feeling or preference, actually made them confident? Just a warning; this can become a battleground because nobody likes to admit when they don’t have a good reason for something.
4. Agree who shoulders “The burden of proof”
If a person is claiming the existence of werewolves, the way the debate has to run is: they give evidence for werewolves. They are claiming the fact so it’s up to them to provide proof. You don’t have to prove the non-existence of werewolves. After all, it’s not feasible to scour every square inch of the Universe and find out if there’s a werewolf somewhere, that’s not how evidence can work sensibly. Instead you have to assume “no werewolves...until proven otherwise”. If you’re the one claiming something however, the burden of proof is on you.
Sometimes the burden of proof is on both people simultaneously because there are two facts being debated. For example, if a person claims werewolves are brown and you're claiming they're black, there are two things which need to be addressed separately. You have go through all their evidence first, then go through all of yours, or agree to take turns.
5. What would it take to convince you?
This is an extension of rules 2 and 3. In Science any claim can be accepted, no matter how ridiculous, provided there's good evidence. This means you have to agree on what exactly needs to be shown in order to prove a claim.
If the burden of proof lies with them, let them know what evidence would force you to agree. This puts an emphasis on them providing evidence rather than just insisting they’re correct. If they are unable to provide good evidence, they have to accept your position is legitimate and that their evidence isn’t as strong as they thought.
If the burden of proof is on you, ask them what it would take for them to become convinced. If they can’t think of anything, once again you need to walk away from the debate because it can’t happen. If they can’t give you a target to hit, there is no point shooting for one.
It’s up to both debaters to agree on what counts as good evidence, but remember Sagan’s law: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
If a person claims something modest e.g. that a certain politician has committed a crime, it would be unfair to ask them for 50,000 photographs of it happening. It’s setting an unfeasibly high bar. But asking them for a dozen police statements, photographs, newspaper articles etc. might be fair game.
If you are claiming something vast yourself e.g. evolution by natural selection, it’s fine for them to ask for a mountain of evidence to support it. Or suppose they’re claiming they can talk to the dead. Simply saying “I can just feel them in the room” isn’t good enough evidence. Ask them to find out the name and former address of the deceased person they claim to talk to, as well as specific details like the colour of wallpaper in their living room. What their income was. Then go check!
6. Pin things down to specifics
If you’re going to be debating something about the world, you have to agree on precise vocabulary. Vague and ambiguous claims cannot be proven or disproven. If a person claims “there’s an energy vibration around every person which we can tap and lock onto with our souls,” that’s a problematic sentence...not because it’s untrue necessarily but because people could interpret it in different ways.
Find out precisely what they mean by “energy”, “tap”, “lock onto” and “soul”. We are debating reality here, which means poetic language and metaphor are to be avoided whenever possible. That doesn’t mean reality can’t be poetic and beautiful, but if we’re trying to find objective truth, we have to use objective language.
If they modify their statement to “a living person has a region of space around their body extending by 1 meter, generated by cell tissue and I can detect it,” that’s something we can work with. You can now start asking specific questions to pin down exactly what they mean: does broccoli have this region around it as well, or only human cells? How can you detect it? How does living tissue generate it, which part of the cell is involved? Does it interact with the electromagnetic field? What happens when a cell dies? Does a cell in a petri dish have the same field?
This can often be the point where people get defensive and Scientists are accused of being limited or narrow in their worldview. Remind the person that you’re willing to believe, you just want to be sure what you’re actually signing up to believe in! It's not you being closed-minded, they are the one who hasn't made a direct claim yet. Essentially they've said "there's a blarple for every chocolate spadongus". OK fine, can you please tell me what you mean by that, before I consider whether I agree?
If they refuse to give specific definitions at this point you have to walk away. This is a sign they don't really know what they mean themselves, so there's no chance of them convincing you.
Oh and if they say things like “well that’s now how I define the word” remind them that words have to be agreed upon. Otherwise I could say “Unicorns exist” but then explain that by Unicorns I’m actually referring to “those white flakes which fall from the sky when it’s cold”. Language is malleable yes, but you can’t just repurpose words and expect everybody to agree with your definition.
You also need to ask for specific examples of evidence they claim to have. If a person says “they’ve done studies which have shown...” that’s fine, but ask them which studies. Who wrote them? When? Were they peer reviewed? Have they been cited a lot? Have they been reproduced? How big was their data sample? How good were their testing methods? Just because someone published a study claiming something, doesn’t prove the claim is true. Ask for sources and citations, get them to give dates and locations.
7. Keep it testable
This is one of the most crucial points. If you’re making a claim about the actual world, that means you have to be able to put it to actual test within the world. Any claim which is untestable has to be discarded as “might be true but no way of knowing.”
If a person claims, for instance, that there’s a Universe next to ours but we can’t see it, hear it, feel it, smell it, touch it, or detect its presence with any instrument, “I just know it’s there” this is not a testable claim. It might be true, but we cannot ever know.
Now to be absolutely clear, this doesn’t mean their claim is wrong. It also doesn't mean human feelings aren't important or worth listening to. But if a person believes something because of a feeling and nothing else, you have to walk away again. This isn't a debate that can be settled using reason, because it isn't based on reason. The person has said "I believe because I just do!"
You can of course try and point out that feeling something is true doesn't make it so. If a person believes they are Napoleon, this does not make them Napoleon. Ultimately, any claim based on faith (by definition: believing without evidence) has to be removed from the discussion.
8. Debate one thing at a time
This seems obvious but as human beings we tend to think in complicated ways and things become spaghetti with little effort. A simple e-mail from your opponent might contain five different statements. You have to agree to debate each one individually and resolve it before you move onto the next one. Don’t be tempted to start debating all five things in one go, deal with one fire before the next. This also forces them to slow down and examine each claim in scrutinising detail, rather than making sweeping statements.
9. Know your logical fallacies
There are lots of sneaky tricks people use in debates, often without realising it. These fallacies are one of the reasons arguments descend into brawls and slanging matches. There are dozens out there and I can’t possibly list them all, but here are some of the common ones to watch out for. Straw Man Fallacy – If someone makes a claim which is untrue and then proceeds to destroy it, they are building a straw man and tearing it down as an easy opponent. For example, if I said “all Christians believe God is male, but he can’t be because males don’t give birth to life, therefore all Christians are wrong” I’ve just used a straw-man. The fact is, not all Christians believe God is male, so my following destruction of the claim is irrelevant because the initial premise was false.
The Genetic Fallacy – When a person claims a piece of evidence can’t be good because the person who discovered it was a bad person or vice versa. For instance, Harry Harlow conducted awful experiments on rhesus monkeys and gathered a lot of information about them. Just because he was a monster and his experiments were cruel, doesn’t make their conclusions false. It can work in reverse too. A nice, friendly, beautiful person can still be talking garbage.
Ad Hominem Fallacy – When you attack the person rather than their claim. For example, if someone makes a spelling error and you pick up on that rather than what they actually said. You’re debating their ability to spell and trying to make them look stupid. It’s a cheap and easy point to score, but are you trying to win minor skirmishes or the entire battle?
No True Scotsman Fallacy – Also known as “moving the goalposts.” Bradley Dowden used the example of a man claiming that no Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge. If he then comes across a Scotsman who does, he responds by saying “well, no true Scotsman puts sugar in his porridge”. This kind of thing is common when a person is presented with powerful rebutting evidence. Rather than accept it, they change the definition of their words and decide they never really meant that in the first place.
Red Herrings – If you’re debating whether vaccines cause autism and they suddenly claim vaccines also cause cancer, ignore it. The agreed topic of debate is the vaccines-autism link, anything else is a distraction.
10. Disrespect the belief, but respect the person
This is perhaps the most overlooked rule for engaging in a debate. Nobody likes admitting when they’re wrong (even Scientists) and people will fight tooth and nail, digging stilleto’d heels into the ground to avoid doing so. A simple rule for life is that the more you get in someone’s face, the less they actually listen to you.
When we, or our cherished beliefs, are under attack we man the battle stations and adrenaline floods our system. Adrenaline is very good at making us fighty, argumentative, loud or rude but it doesn’t help us with critical thinking or humility.
Even if the person you’re debating is clearly wrong. Even if the person you’re debating is an idiot who needs to be tuned in about how things really work. Even if the person’s belief is potentially harmful...they won’t listen to you or to reason if they feel threatened. It’s a trap of human nature but you have to work with it.
Be nice to people, disagree with what they say, but remember they probably like believing what they believe. Don’t get in people’s faces, get in people’s minds. This is life and none of us make it out alive. And, once again to quote the master of Scientific debate, Carl Sagan: “if a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies you will not find another.”
I recently had a conversation with an art teacher in which he said there was no such thing as a bad production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. He argued that the story is just so good it doesn't matter who is directing or how it's performed, you always come away having enjoyed yourself. I'm inclined to agree. I've seen many versions of AMND over the years and I've always come away thinking "that was decent". You'd have to really work hard to make AMND poorly.
Hidden Figures, released in the UK this weekend, is very much the same. The story is so inspiring and heartwarming, it would't matter who made it. As it happens, the film really is great in its own right, but even if it hadn't been I'd probably still encourage you to see it, just because it's a story worth seeing.
If you've not come across the premise, Hidden Figures tells the true story of a group of black women working at NASA during the early sixties, mainly focusing on the real-life Katherine Goble (played by Taraji P Henson). This was a time when segregation was still a part of everyday life and women were actively discouraged from careers in STEM. These women were isolated in a way almost nobody else was. Discriminated against by white women because they were black, discriminated against by black men because they were women, and treated as essentially worthless by everyone else. You begin to realise how difficult it must have been to be a black woman in the 1960s (something I have very little experience of).
Nevertheless, Goble's mathematical brilliance led to her becoming a key figure in calculating John Glenn's flight trajectories as well as implementing mathematical techniques still used by NASA today. It's a story of triumph in the face of adversity, defying gender stereotypes, overcoming racial prejudice and...it has spaceships! What's not to like?
Taraji P Henson is superb as Goble (as you’d expect), Octavia Spencer shines with her usual underplayed comic timing as the computer programmer Dorothy Vaughn and they are surrounded by an excellent supporting cast including Kevin Costner and Jim Parsons. It’s nicely written too, with the characters' personal lives playing as minor subplots to the work at NASA. It’s hard to make a gripping film in which astrophysical equations are a central part of the story but Hidden Figures does so admirably.
It has to be said the film does Hollywood-ise occasionally and dramatises some of the events. There’s also a couple of scenes where Jim Parson’s character explains Newton’s first law of motion to NASA engineers (if you don't know Newton's laws, why are you working at NASA??). However, I think moments like this are not only acceptible in a movie like this, they are necessary.
When we go to the movies we are usually expecting to be entertained. The only problem is that real life doesn't fit into a neat three-act structure lasting two hours with a Hans Zimmer soundtrack. Real life doesn't have witty dialogue and it's often messy - even boring. As a result, I think most audiences recognise that a "true-story" on film is going to take a few liberties with reality, not because it wants to lie, but because stories are ordered; real life is not.
So while Hidden Figures manipulates the timelines a bit and creates events which never happened, the message of the movie is clear in every frame. There was rampant racism and sexism in America throughout the 1960s, NASA did make an effort to try and overcome it, but it wasn't an easy transition, particularly for the brave women who stuck by their intellectual guns throughout.
So yes, the film isn't spot-on in terms of accuracy but if that's what you're expecting you're missing the point. It's not a documentary, it's a movie. The point is that if you watch this film you're going to be moved. It’s a film set in the world of rocket Science but there’s more here than just differential equations and hyperbolic geometry, it’s a human story and I'm always in favour of humanising Scientists, particularly those who are under-represented and undervalued.
For me, the most powerful bit in the movie is something Kevin Costner's character (a mixture of two real people: Al Harrison and Rob Gilruth) says: "we all get to the peak together or we don't get there at all!" It's one of the key phrases in the trailers and it summarises the drive of the film perfectly. There is an irony in what he's saying of course because the film's story is kicked off by the successful launch of a Russian spy satellite i.e. NASA's activity is spurred by rivalry, making his statement inclusive, in a divisive political environment. The reality is that NASA's funding may have come from national pride, but NASA's heart has always been in the right place, doing amazing things for the benefit of humanity.
The message here, the one I chose to take away, is that while referring to the inclusion of black women in the space program, his words can be taken in a much broader context: when we set up barriers or walls between groups of people we don't make progress. We miss out on things. We are better when we're united. I think that's a pretty important message for the world to hear right now. Go see Hidden Figures!
I want to tell you about a debate I had last week. One that I lost.
As part of the new year 10 Physics course we have to teach the topic of gears. What do I know about gears exactly? Well, until last week I didn't even realise they came in different sizes. I don’t even know how to ride a bike. Technically I learned when I was eight but I’ve tried to do it since and failed every time. I know this is supposed to be impossible – to forget how to ride a bike - but I’m a special case of spatial incompetence. The old adage “it’s just like riding a bike” is one I only understand in theory.
But I digress.
In preparation for teaching this new topic I was trying to learn about gears, how they operated, what the different types were etc. and I came across a fiendish online puzzle showing a series of intersecting gear wheels and screws. The question was whether it would turn or not. I was pretty confident it would, one of the other teachers in the room was confident it wouldn’t. And thus the debate began. Here's the puzzle:
The movie adaptation of this thrilling battle of minds will be hitting cinema screens in 2018 with Kevin Spacey playing me and Daniel Day-Lewis playing the other teacher. Michael Bay is interested in directing.
Sure, a debate about interlocking gears is probably not the most exciting blog I’ve ever written, but these debates always seem thrilling when you’re in the middle of them don't they?
I was confident the system would work and he was confident it wouldn’t. They key thing is that we were both Scientists so only one thing mattered: what does the evidence say?
When two Scientists disagree it’s not about opinion or who is the “authority”. For example, he was a Biology teacher and this was definitely a Physics question. I could have been a jackass about it and assumed I was correct "because I'm the Physics teacher", but that would be a rookie error. There is no such thing as authority in Science – only evidence.
I’ve talked before about Hugh Longuett-Higgins; the 19 year old who solved the structure of diborane as a homework task. I love that story because it reminds me that Science is willing to accept an idea from anyone, even an unheard of teenager, if their hypothesis matches the evidence. Science isn't interested in prestige and it certainly carries no weight in a debate.
Even referring to a disagreement in Science as a “debate” isn’t appropriate. A debate implies two opposing sides trying to convince each other they've got it wrong and in Science we try avoid this kind of thing. The term for a Scientific disagreement is a “dialectic” - where two sides try and find the truth together, both accepting the possibility they could be wrong. I find it yields results far more often.
So we began discussing the problem and fairly early on I said something along the lines of “I acknowledge what you’re saying but I’m not convinced by it.” The other teacher responded by saying “well, let’s see if the evidence will convince you.” In the movie this exchange will be delivered during a gun-battle in space.
And this is the crucial thing: any Scientific conflict can be resolved by testing a claim and seeing where the evidence lies. Rather than saying “I just think you’re wrong” or “shut up and get out of my face”, Scientists know it’s unwise to reject someone’s hypothesis because we don’t like it. Instead, we test their claim and see if it holds up.
To get the solution, we began discussing the problem, sketching it from different angles and seeing what would happen. At one point he even created a makeshift model out of kitchen-paper and board-pen to help me visualise the rotations involved (seriously, this movie’s going to be a hit). I have to be honest, by this point everyone else had left the room – but we’re both geeks so we can’t let these things go.
Eventually, he began quantifying his argument using a few simple bits of math and the light began to dawn in my head. My interpretation was completely wrong because I was failing to visualise some pretty basic gear-laws. It took about twenty minutes for him to get me there but once I realised my mistake it took about five seconds for the Eureka moment to occur. And he was completely right. The above gear system will not work.
I didn’t feel bad once I realised how wrong I was however and he didn’t gloat, because in Science we understand (or at least try to) that whoever is right or wrong is largely irrelevant. All that matters is finding the truth.
And here’s the moral of the story...by realising I was wrong I learned something about gear relationships. Also, you probably don't want me fixing your car. Ultimately, I'm glad I got it wrong because I would have carried on blissfully incorrect otherwise. What I’m saying is that in Science you never really “lose”, you just learn.
That sounds like I’m trying to protect my ego and avoid admitting failure but I’m really not, I’ll be as blunt as possible: I got it totally wrong and failed to solve a problem in my own subject! I’m fine admitting that. But in making my mistake, I learned something I had overlooked and that can only be a good thing.
As Scientists we have a duty to follow evidence wherever it leads, even if that means admitting we backed the wrong horse. This can be difficult. We’re human and we like to think we’re clever. Indeed, I’m guilty of being stubborn and digging my heels in, but being a Scientist means trying to hold yourself to a higher standard. Admitting when you’re wrong is just a form of self-improvement.
To finish, here’s a wonderful story told by Richard Dawkins in chapter 2 of Unweaving the Rainbow:
One of the formative experiences of my undergraduate years occurred when a visiting lecturer from America presented evidence that conclusively disproved the pet theory of a deeply respected elder statesman of our zoology department, the theory that we had all been brought up on. At the end of the lecture, the old man rose, strode to the front of the hall, shook the American warmly by the hand and declared in ringing emotional tones ‘My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.’
If that isn't a description of Scientific integrity I don't know what is. Now I'm going to go and learn how to ride a bike.
The puzzle: cgtrader
Epic battle: acharif
10 is a magic number...apparently
The number of Science books I've treasured over the years - books which have genuinely changed my life - is pretty large. There's a part of me which wants to bang on about each one of them, but I know everybody would fall asleep. Unfortunately, we humans have become acclimatised to "top 10" lists (thanks a lot Buzzfeed) so I decided it was necessary to play ball with human psychology and stick with 10 titles only. This means narrowing down many year's worth of reading material to a mere handful. This proved difficult.
Every time I settled on a list, I felt I was cheating the books which didn't make it. Besides, what happens if I bump into the author of one of the rejected books at a dinner party and they immediately grill me on why their book didn't make it (they follow my blog obviously). After the verbal attack, they throw a carefully prepared mixture of wine and sulfuric acid in my face before killing my houseplants and stealing my shoes. What do I do then?? In order to cover myself, I decided to impose some strict rules.
1. No text books.
Contrary to popular belief most Scientists don't sit around reading textbooks. We usually read the chapters we're interested in and treat the rest as a reference. Having said that, there are a few textbooks I have a fondness for (don't pretend you're shocked, I teach Science for a living, I'm 100% geek and proud).
Engineering Mathematics by K.A. Stroud is the best Maths textbook in the world. Biophysical Chemistry by Alan Cooper and An Introduction to Quantum Theory by P.A. Cox are also fantastic reads which you can get through in a week.
I also need to mention my very first Science book, loaned to me by my Chemistry teacher at the tender age of 14: Valency and Molecular Structure by Cartmell and Fowles (I'm pictured reading it in the above picture...obviously not at the tender age of 14).
2. No biographies
A good Scientist biography manages to teach some Science as it goes, but these aren't really Pop-Sci books. They’re just books about remarkable people. In this category I recommend Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman by Ralph Leighton. Genius by Paul Gleick and A Primate's Memoir by Robert Sapolsky.
3. No Tech-Pop Books
These books are a hybrid of academic textbook and layman's guide. Written for non-experts who are still mathematically and Scientifically confident, they are essentially "Popular Science with the equations left in". If you're up for the challenge I recommend The Theoretical Minimum Series by Leonard Susskind, Six Not-So Easy Pieces, Tips on Physics, The Lectures on Physics Volumes I,II & III (all by Richard Feynman) and, if you've got the time and will-power, The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose.
4. No books by the same author
Obviously the best Science authors write many books. I decided to aim for a broad spectrum of topics and styles, so I had to avoid including the same author twice unless absolutely necessary (as you will see, it did turn out to be necessary)
So, with my rules laid out, here are my top 10 picks for best popular Science books that will make you a better person.
10. What If? by Randall Munroe
In What If? the cartoonist and engineer Randall Munroe considers ludicrous questions and answers them with real Scientific principles, teaching the reader as he goes. It's one of the cleverest strategies I've ever seen. For example: how high should you drop a steak through the atmosphere in order to cook it from air-resistance? Rather than dismissing it, Munroe goes to great lengths explaining the physics of falling, the chemical composition of meat, how cooking works and so on, until you've found the Science more intriguing than the ludicrous starting point. Munroe's sardonic and hilarious approach makes mechanics seem cool and trendy, which is not always easy to do.
9. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
Say what you like about Dawkins' fiery brand of atheism, as a Science writer he is unparalleled. The Selfish Gene is not, as the title suggests, a book about selfishness being genetic. It's about the nature of genes themselves and how quirky, unexpected behaviours arise as a result of Biological information. Why did humans evolve a capacity for kindness? Why do we take revenge? Why do some species choose aggression and some choose peace? In this powerhouse guide to evolution, Dawkins highlights what modern neo-Darwinism really says and why it's so powerful. Be warned though, it's not a casual Sunday-afternoon read. Dawkins is a fiercely intelligent man and he expects the reader to work hard. But the rewards are numerous.
8. Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
We live in a frightening age, where pseudoscience is often disguised as the real thing. Ben Goldacre swoops to the rescue in this antidote to media-manipulated Science stories and takes a look at the very nature of Popular Science itself. He examines homeopathy, spiritual healing, the MMR-vaccines hoax and nutriotinism, scrutinising everything with brilliant skepticism. But it's not a snarky book designed to attack people for believing dumb stuff. On the contrary, Goldacre considers "the person on the street" to be intelligent, sensible and capable of drawing informed conclusions (as do I). It's the Science-media charlatans who are the real villains here and Goldacre exposes them with aplomb and humour.
7. The Blank Slate by Stephen Pinker
One of the most important questions in Science and Philosophy is: how much of our behaviour is the result of upbringing and how much is the result of Biology? The infamous "nature vs nurture" debate. Most people, after grappling with the issue, decide it's too complex to settle, or that it's a 50:50 mixture and let's be done with it. Pinker, on the other hand, fearlessly tackles the issue with hard evidence and genuine neuroscience, providing honest, if sometimes shocking (even disturbing) answers. Rather than getting swayed by political opinion or armchair philosophy, Pinker writes an unflinching book which provides one of the best answers to the question I've ever read.
6. The Tell-Tale Brain by V.S. Ramachandran
Ramachandran's book is about a similar issue to Pinker’s (why humans are like this) but while The Blank Slate is a sharp and imposing read, The Tell-Tale Brain is a feel-good romp of surrealism and wit. Make no mistake, Ramachandran is a serious physician who makes significant contributions to neuroscience, but as a writer he is irreverent, mischevious and cheeky. The Tell-Tale Brain is a look at some of the weirder things the brain does and how these phenomena give us clues to the big questions about human consciousness. This is one of those jaw-dropping books which has you constantly going "that can't be true!" as Ramachandran details some of the strangest fringe-cases of brain activity in modern history.
5. The Black Hole War by Leonard Susskind
Leonard Susskind is one of the most intelligent people on the planet (that's not hyperbole, I mean that literally and can back it up). Having worked as Richard Feynman's accomplice, it's rather fitting that he inherited Feynman's skill for teaching difficult Physics concepts without the need for complex mathematics. What Susskind does in The Black Hole War - a very recent read - is to explain the complete landscape of modern theoretical physics including Quantum Field Theory, General Relativity, Black Hole Cosmology, String Theory, The Information Paradox, Quantum Thermodynamics and all the other cool things you’ve heard about. Susskind is somehow able to explain these fiendish concepts in such casual detail you feel he's telling you how to make a cheese sandwich. As someone who spends his life trying to teach people Science, The Black Hole War had me slapping my forehead endlessly and thinking "why didn't I just explain it like that?!"
4. Words of Science by Isaac Asimov
Throughout his career, Asimov wrote and edited over 500 books. Picking the best of his numerous works is tricky, but I decided to go with this one, mostly because it's so strange. Asimov described it as the most unusual book he'd written and I struggle to think of anything even remotely like it. The idea is simple enough. He goes through hundreds of Scientific words and explains where they come from. Put like that, the book sounds plain, even boring. But don't be fooled. Asimov's unique clarity and passion for storytelling makes the book whizz by and when you get to the end you're hoping for a sequel (which he did write). For someone just beginning their Scientific journey, the lingo can be tricky to grasp, so Words of Science is a fantastic jargon-buster which explains what Scientists are actually talking about.
3. Cosmos by Carl Sagan
Written to accompany what is, in my estimation, the greatest non-fiction television show of all time, Carl Sagan takes us on a tour of the Universe and gives the reader a view of what Science is all about. It also happens to be the most poetic non-fiction book ever written. Sagan's writing is so relaxing, majestic and powerful, you begin to see the Universe through his eyes and it is truly beautiful. Guiding you through everything from relativity to DNA to the brain, Sagan achieves something remarkable: rather than telling you a bunch of facts, Cosmos makes the story of how we made each discovery central. While Asimov’s Words of Science is a fantastic introduction to the language of Science, Cosmos is a fantastic introduction to its achievements.
2. QED by Richard Feynman
Feynman's nickname at CalTech was "the great explainer" because not only was his Physics unparalleled, so was his teaching. In 1979 he was given a rather tough challenge: deliver four lectures, pitched at complete non-experts, on the topic of quantum electrodynamics. Would it be possible to explain one of the most complicated and strange theories in theoretical physics to people who had never attended freshman physics? If anyone was up to the task it was Feynman.
Not only did he succeed, Q.E.D. has become one of the standard introductory books on quantum mechanical theory even by expert standards. It is a triumph of explanation because both the layman and the expert can read it and find themselves gaining new insight and understanding. Feynman never dumbs down, never simplifies, and never distorts, he just explains perfectly. Whether you're a professional or a beginner, Q.E.D. will open your mind to the wierd wonders of the world.
1. The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan
I can only state it simply: The Demon Haunted World is the best book about Science I've ever read.
Fire from the Gods
In my last blog, I talked about Scientific discoveries from 2016 which have the potential to change the world. But that got me thinking: what was the very first Scientific discovery which shaped our destiny? The answer, I'm going to argue, was the discovery of fire. Nobody knows when we figured it out, but remains of man-made fires have been found dating back at least 400,000 years. We've been Science-ing for quite some time!
Whatever method we used and however it was discovered, the invention of fire marked a watershed for humans because it allowed us to do things no other animal could. For example, early humany creatures were tree-dwellers because the ground was where the predators lived. Once we mastered fire however, we had the ability to scare other creatures off (even hunt them), and spend time on the ground, encouraging us to walk on hind-legs which changed our physiology. It also kept us warm, meaning we could expand into colder regions, gradually colonising the land and spreading out from Africa across the globe.
Not to mention the ability to cook. It sounds like a small thing but cooking meat wasn’t just about taste. Cooked meat is easier to digest so fire allowed us to increase the calorie-content of our diet, which helped our brains grow...and that's been pretty good for us. Cooked meat also lasts longer, which helped us store it for the winter months. While other species froze to death, we were able to keep ourselves healthy and fed. There’s even evidence that early humans were using fire to treat metal spears, giving us an advantage in hunting. Ever tried to take down a mastadron with a fragile spear? Exactly.
Whether it was helping us defend ourselves, expand our territory, get better food, stay warm, get healthier or increase our brain-pans, fire was one of the most important Scientific discoveries in history. The first and last word in primitive Chemistry. It may even be the reason we got such a head-start in the first place. It therefore seems only right to pay tribute to this mysterious and wonderful reaction. The classic story of Prometheus stealing fire from the Gods to give humans an edge, may have some grains of truthiness! For his troubles, Prometheus was chained to a rock where a hungry bird devoured his liver for all eternity.
What is fire?
First off, fire isn’t a substance. While some of the early Greeks believed fire was one of the elements, we now know it isn't an actual "thing". You can’t store fire in a box or pack it away when you’re done with it. It’s a chemical reaction taking place between two chemicals: oxygen and any chemical that will react with it. We call this other chemical a fuel. Since the air is 21% oxygen, there’s always a good supply so the only challenge is making it react with whatever we’ve chosen as our fuel.
Oxygen and fuel chemicals don’t normally react of course, which is fortunate because everything (including you) would spontaneously burst into flame. To get a fire going, the oxygen and fuel particles need to collide at high speeds so they can break each other up and rearrange to form new substances. In order to get a fire started you need to increase the speed of the particles, which is Chemist-speak for “heat them up”.
Temperature is a measure of how fast your particles are moving on average, so raising the temperature is really giving your particles enough energy to get going. And there’s all sorts of ways to do it.
Rubbing the fuel very fast will work e.g. scraping two bits of dry wood past each other. So will striking pieces of sharp rock. The sparks which come flying off are tiny specks of rock, rubbed so fast that they start heating up and reacting with the oxygen. Sparks are miniature fires of their own, and if you get a few dozen of them near something like dry grass, the heat can be transferred and things get going.
Once you’ve put enough movement in, the reaction begins as the fuel and oxygen shatter into each other, creating a chaotic, whirling cloud of particle splinters. Like a battle between a billion microscopic star ships, the fast-moving debris of fuel and oxygen doesn’t last long. The molecular scraps will recombine in new arrangements as they cool, releasing their energy in the form of light. This seething mess of molecular-war is a fire.
Why are fires "fire coloured"?
The shapes and sizes of different particles floating in the fire will cause different coloured light to be released, leading to different flame colours. A lot of fuels like paper and petrol contain carbon. If there’s not much oxygen around, a lot of these carbon atoms don’t get used in the reaction and clump together, forming soot. When soot gets hot, the heat energy it absorbs is spat back out as yellow, giving us the familiar glow we recognise in common fires. But other fuels release different light.
If you use copper sulfate, the flame will be green. Switch it to copper chloride and you get electric blue. Lithium chloride burns pink and magnesium burns brilliant white with a rainbow edge. Wood contains a lot of the element sodium (the same chemical used in street lamps) which gives out orange light as it heats up, which is why wood fires are the same colour as street lamps.
Of course, if you mix your carbon-based fuel with oxygen before the particles reach the source of heat, the reaction is more efficiently mixed and you don’t get much soot forming (because the carbon is all smushed in with the oxygen). These kinds of fires, called pre-mixes, glow blue.
That’s why the flame on an oven hob is usually blue at the base. There’s hardly any soot being formed. As it gets higher however, there’s a less perfect carbon : oxygen ratio and soot starts to form, making the top of the flame yellow again.
What gives a flame its shape?
The shape of a flame is the result of temperature differences and gravity. Something you’ve probably heard at some point is that heat rises. Not true unfortunatley. There’s something much stranger going on. When a group of molecules get hot they start flying in all directions, meaning a hot gas will expand as the particles spread out.
But there’s something else we need to factor in. Every particle is also being pulled toward the earth by gravity. Hot gases and vapours, like those in the flame, are moving fast enough to fly in ALL directions, including upwards, but the surrounding cold air doesn't have this option. Cold air doesn’t have enough movement in its particles to escape gravity, so it has no choice but to gradually sink. This means a cold gas can only fall, whereas the hot gas is able to trade places with it.
The cold air falls and forces the hot air upward because that’s the only place left for it to go. It’s not really hot air which rises, it’s cold air which falls better. Now let's consider our flame. We’ve got a bunch of hot gases and vapours tangling round each other. The cold air is constantly being pulled down and clumping at the bottom of the flame, where it suddenly gets heated up by all the fast moving (hot) chemicals already there. This means oxygen is constantly being pulled down into the hottest part of the flame.
As the chemicals are heated, they are forced up by the constantly sinking cold air, but by the time they’ve gotten a few inches away from the fuel source, they’re moving too slowly to keep reacting, so the flame won’t go on forever, and it dies out at the top. These combined effects of gravity, cold air sinking and oxygen being sucked in, give us the familiar tear-drop shape of a controlled fire.
If you create a flame in a place where gravity isn’t behaving in the usual way however, it won’t be the usual shape. You can actually create spherical flames in a spaceship because the gravity is constantly changing direction as you move around the earth.
Why are fires hot?
Remember earlier when we said that when chemicals rearrange they often give out light? Well not all of that light is in the visible region. In fact, a huge amount of it comes out in the form of infra-red light, which our eyes can't see, but which cause molecules to vibrate. In other words, the chemical reactions in a fire tend to give out heat rays. These heat rays transfer energy from the chemical reaction to the surrounding molecules in a process called "radiation".
There's also the fact that particles in the fire are moving fast and battering into the surrounding air, making them move faster too. This hot air hits your hand and your skin absorbs the shock, which you interpret as heat. This process is either called convection or conduction (depending on how pedantic you want to be).
Different chemicals will give out different amounts of energy when they react with oxygen, so different fuels will produce different flame temperatures. Jet fuel, for example, burns at around 800 degrees C, while an acetylene torch burns closer to 3,500 and a bunsen-burner flame at 1,500.
Oh, and just in case anyone ever told you the hottest part of a flame is the top, this isn't true at all. The hottest part of a flame is the point where the fuel and oxygen are meeting and moving fastest. Make no mistake, the bottom of a flame is the hottest part.
Why does water extinguish fires?
To stop a fire we’ve either got to remove the fuel, remove the oxygen, or stop the particles vibrating fast (cooling it down). If we put a lid over the flame or squish it between our fingers, we’re cutting out the air supply and removing the oxygen. You’d think, therefore, that water should keep a fire going because every water particle contains oxygen. But obviously the reverse is true for some reason.
Every water particle is made from an oxygen atom bonded to two hydrogen atoms and the bonds between these atoms are incredibly tough to break. The bonds in a petrol particle are very weak by comparison. You only have to get petrol up to about 126 C in order to make it catch. Water just keeps absorbing the energy with no sign of the bonds breaking, making it an excellent heat sponge. In order to burn water you have to heat it to about 12,000 C, anything below that and it will just vibrate faster.
If you put water on a fire, the water molecules absorb the vibrations from the fuel and oxygen, meaning the fuel and oxygen molecules lose their speed, killing the reaction and stopping the fire. The water you throw on a fire will definitely heat up a little itself, but not enough to split the oxygen from the hydrogen.
Why does blowing on a fire put it out...but also start it?
If you blow on a flame gently, you’re supplying oxygen and a little bit of movement (heat) to the fuel so it can start breaking up. If you blow hard and fast you do something else. Provided the gust of air coming from your mouth is bigger than the flame, you end up making the fuel and oxygen spread out in all directions. They get thrown out into the surrounding air and immediately lose their energy to the particles there. Without that tight mixture of fuel, oxygen and movement, the flame can’t keep going.
And the mysteries continue
It's worth finishing off by saying that a lot of fire Chemistry is still unknown to us. The above explanations are simply our best theories, but there are many aspects of fire which are still unaccounted for. Precisely why certain particles give out different colours of light is still under investigation. The reason some fires spread and others don't is also unknown. Not to mention the fact that nobody has a clue why the temperatures right at the centre of a fire are often colder than the outer edge. It's a powerful reminder that although it was out first big breakthrough, it's still an area of much debate and discussion. Viva la Science.
P.S. Fire conducts electricity
Electric Six album: Junostatic
Prometheus Movie: amazonaws
Burning Man: business insider
Spherical Flame: cloudfront
Chris Evans: becoming the muse
No need to feel down
It’s been an interesting year hasn't it? England chose to sever its ties with the European Union and America decided to elect a former celebrity-businessman as the new president. Many famous and talented people died including Vera Rubin (discoverer of dark matter), Walter Kohn (inventor of density functional theory) and of course, Lemmy (inventor of Motorhead). OK, technically Lemmy died in 2015 but the pain's still real for me.
And, as if all this death wasn’t enough, we had the killer-clowns, the Dakota access pipeline fiasco, exploding phones, and I had to organise a school trip to London.
But while the news has been dismal and grim and miserable and doom-spreading (as it usually is) Science has made some awesome, uplifting, optimistic and life-changing discoveries (as it usually does).
There may be tough times ahead for Scientific literacy (link here) but we can never lose hope in the ingenuity and brilliance of our species. So, for the sake of everybody’s sanity, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the inspiring, mind-bending or just plain fascinating stuff Science and Technology achieved in 2016. In approximately chronological order.
Planet 9 (January 20th)
Michael Brown is the man responsible for demoting Pluto to dwarf-planet status (rightly so). But for those who objected, don’t hate the man too much - he's just brought the concept of a 9th planet back, only this time it's a lot bigger. Brown published data this year showing how some of the asteroids in the Kuiper belt are being pulled at a strange angle by some enormous mass floating in the darkness. We don't know what it is, but there's a very good chance we could be on the brink of discovering a whole new planet...ten times the size of the Earth. None of your wussy Pluto nonsense. #planetFeynman #planetSagan #planetAsimov
First Human Thought Transplant (February 10th)
This story was overshadowed by gravitational waves the following day, but I considered it one of the most remarkable discoveries of the year. Thought transplants had been achieved with mice in 2013 by Susumu Tonegawa at RIKEN-MIT, and in 2016 Matthew Philips of HRL laboratories reported the first rudimentary human version. By recording the electrical activity of a pilot’s brain, Philips was able to effectively ‘beam’ the thought-patterns into the brains of people learning to fly. The research showed that students receiving these ‘thought-beams’ picked up the skills much faster than the control group. It’s hardly The Matrix but it’s an exciting step.
Gravitational Waves Discovered (February 11th)
Physicists at the LIGO observatory announced the long-anticipated discovery of gravitational waves. I’ve done a video explaining it here, but the short and tall is that not only do gravitational waves confirm a century-old theory, they open up a new era of cosmological exploration. Probably the "biggest" story of the year - certainly one that future history books will record.
Humans and Neanderthals Interbred (February)
In mid-February (appropriately around Valentine’s day) we discovered, thanks to Sergi Castellano of the Max Planck Institute, that early humans were having sex with Neanderthals about 100,000 years ago. This is interesting because Neanderthals mainly occupied Europe and humans, it was thought, were still hanging around in Africa. To find human DNA in the Neanderthal genome suggests we may have left Africa a lot earlier than people thought, changing what we knew about human evolution.
Stem Cells for Stroke Patients (Early June)
Gary Steinberg of Stanford University published preliminary findings on the use of stem cells in stroke-victim therapy. Although the results are moderate and involve only a dozen patients, the use of stem-cells seems to have led to record-breaking recovery times for stroke victims, particularly in helping them regain mobility. Also, I have a confession to make regarding the picture above: the caption isn't true. Nobody enjoys the novels of Nicholas Sparks.
Biological Life After Death (June 11th)
This was another criminally under-reported study led by Alexander Pozhitkov at the University of Washington. While studying the death of mice and zebrafish, Pozhtikov discovered that death is not necessarily the end, in fact, for some parts of the body it is the beginning. Certain genes, associated with birth, cell-growth and cancer, are actually switched on 24 hours after the host organism dies. We have no idea why.
Juno Enters Orbit (July 5th)
After a five-year journey, the Juno probe successfully entered a stable orbit around Jupiter. Over a period of 37 rotations, the probe will gather data on the gas giant before its descent into Jupiter’s atmosphere (February 2018). This will give the human race our first glimpse inside a gas-giant planet. Hooray for Juno (the probe, not the Ellen Page movie).
Proxima b (August 24th)
In January, the European Southern Observatory launched the Pale Red Dot program to investigate the possibility of a planet orbiting our Sun’s nearest neighbour. On August 24th, they confirmed that not only does Proxima Centauri have a planet going around it, Proxima b, but it sits smack-bang in the goldilocks zone (more explanation here). In other words, rather than having to scour the Universe, it turns out there is a potentially habitable world in the next star-system! If only we had the means of getting there…
Breakthrough Starshot (April 12th)
I know this one should go earlier in the timeline, but it seemed like a nice way of linking the two stories. Mark Zuckerberg and Stephen Hawking announced the beginning of project Breakthrough Starshot, a new type of spacecraft based on solar-sail technology which, when built, will be able to reach Proxima b in 30 years, rather than the proposed hundreds of years it would take using conventional fuel-rockets.
Three-Parent Baby (September 27th)
Researchers led by John Zhang of New York helped deliver a baby boy containing genetic material from three adult humans. The couple who underwent the procedure suffered from a rare genetic disease which they would have passed to their son. By carefully altering the child’s DNA, Zhang was able to introduce DNA from a third parent and create a perfectly healthy baby, opening up a new realm of possibilities for parents who would otherwise be unable to have healthy children.
Robot Arm which can Feel Touch (October)
Nathan Copeland, who was paralysed after a road accident, volunteered for a revolutionary new technique in which a robot arm was wired directly into his brain. Not only does this arm respond to his thoughts and move as if it were his own, it feeds back sensory information, giving him back the sense of touch. I wanted to make some reference to the Transformers movie here about "you got the touch" but I realised there was a more obvious comment to make. We have just given a human being a fully-working, fully-sensing cybernetic limb.
First Successful Paralysis Cure (November 9th)
As if giving a paralysed man his sense of touch back wasn't enough, we've also made our first breakthrough in curing paralysis altogether. I'm not joking. Gregoire Courtine was able to successfully restore movement to previously paralysed monkeys by implanting wireless devices into their central nervous systems. One implant sits inside the brain of the monkey and wirelessly transmits a signal to the other implant in their legs, allowing the signal to bypass the damaged spinal column entirely, creating a newly reanimated cyborg-monkey! Human trials are a long ways off, but Courtine’s team has begun preparation at the CHUV University Hospital of Lausanne.
The EM-Drive Might Work (November 17th)
By far the most controversial discovery of the year, I’ve written about the EMDrive in detail here so I won’t go on. But there’s a possibility Harold White of the Eagleworks lab may have uncovered a new form of locomotion for spacecraft, as well as maybe settling the longest-standing debate in quantum mechanics. That’s if his research holds up to scrutiny of course.
Evolutionary Speciation Observed (November 28th)
One of the cornerstones of Darwin’s evolutionary theory is that a species can, over a long period of time, split into two forms of creature - a process called ‘speciation’. Unfortunately it usually takes such a long time that it’s not something we can observe (giving anti-evolutionists a pretty reasonable objection). However, thanks to Justin Meyer’s team at San Diego University, the process of speciation was finally observed for the first time in an extremely fast-breeding species of virus. It’s as if Darwin was onto something.
Psilocybin may help Cancer Depression (Early December)
Stephen Ross and his team at New York University announced the remarkable finding that administering psilocybin (the active ingredient in ‘magic’ mushrooms) to patients with cancer may significantly improve their depression. To be clear, this doesn’t mean magic mushrooms cure depression, but it’s certainly an avenue for investigation.
Preserved Dinosaur Feathers (December 19th)
Lida Xing from the China University of GeoSciences announced the discovery of a perfectly preserved dino-feather. Just like in Jurassic Park, a bit of fossilised tree-sap from 99-million years ago was unearthed containing a fully preserved feather. And now, I highly recommend you listen to the epic Jurassic Park theme by John Williams. In fact, as you listen, go back through my list and remember how wonderful we truly are.
In 2016 we carried out thought transplants, created cyborgs, discovered life after death, cured paralysis and invented new ways of improving people’s lives and helping people bring healthy babies into the world. Don’t feel down-hearted when you look around, my fellow humans. We’ve done a lot of great things, and we will continue to do great things because we are the human race and we invented Science. Take it away John...
We are not alone
In my last blog I calculated that the chance of life on other planets is very promising. But is that really something to get excited about? I mean, has anyone seen Independence Day? In that movie an advanced race called "the harvesters" (there's your first clue) discover our planet and attack. Their technology is so sophisticated that the entire human race is almost wiped out in 24 hours. We're only able to defeat them because we have Jeff Goldblum, American Flags and Apple product placement. God bless Hollywood.
It's a valid point though. Let's say there are thousands of civilizations out there. It's unlikely we'd be the most advanced one. There's a chance of course, someone has to be, but it's more probable other races would be ahead of us. And this could be a problem.
Imagine if the 21st century decided to declare war on the early 20th. That would be us with nuclear weapons, airplanes, radar, submarines, drones, chemical warfare, guided missiles and satellites against the bayonets and horses of the first world war. It would be a massacre (just like the real first world war).
The technology at our fingertips is unprecedented. Even within my lifetime I've found it hard to believe how quickly things have developed. 20 years ago the concept of video-calls, ipads and mobile phones was the realm of sci-fi. I still find chess-playing computers a bit spooky, let alone thumb-print recognition on Samsungs and a freaking space station orbiting the planet!
An alien race, even a few decades ahead of us, would appear like Gods. If they decided to attack us, have no illusions; we wouldn't save the day thanks to plucky human determination. We'd be trampled.
Many have even suggested that this is the most likely scenario. Look at how the conquistadors treated the native Americans or how the British treated the aboriginal peoples of Australia. The British "Empire" has a long history of landing in a place, enslaving/exterminating the locals and claiming the land simply because they could. Wouldn't there be a risk of aliens doing that to us?
As it happens, I don't think we have anything to fear. The idea of aliens declaring war on us is a bit far-fetched. Any species arising on another planet will face the same trials and challenges we do on Earth, which means we can look at how life evolves here to get an idea of how it would evolve there. And there are four basic truths which suggest we don't need to be afraid.
Reason 1: An advanced species won't be evil
People are fond of bleating on about how awful humanity is. We're the only species to invent war, the only species to invent racial genocide, the only species to knowingly pollute the environment etc. Give me a break. The tune is getting cliched and the lyrics are fundamentally wrong. Humans aren't the most evil species. We're just the most powerful.
Chimpanzees are known to form raiding parties and launch attacks on the next tribe over, killing the young and claiming the females for breeding. That's war, genocide and slavery right there. Orca whales have been observed catching sea-lions and, rather than eating them, tossing them back to freedom for a few seconds before capturing and repeating the process. That's torture for no reason other than sadism.
Point is, other species show exactly the same streaks of cruelty, greed, pre-meditated aggression and selfishness we do. Humans have not invented the concept of violence, we just use better tech. But I'll tell you something which does set us apart. We're the species who donates aid to countries hit by natural disasters. We're the species who volunteers to build schools in disadvantaged communities. We're the species who invented the concept of "peace-talks". Think about that. We're the species that goes out of its way to avoid conflict.
The vast majority of people, when they learn about slavery, the inquisition, the holocaust, the crusades, respond in the same way: horror. We're capable of awful acts but we're also capable of feeling shame. We are becoming self-aware because we can look back at dreadful things we've done and recognise them as such.
Thanks to the internet, today's youth are so much more savvy than I ever was. They've got friends all over the world, followers in different cultural pockets and they read blogs with views different to their own. Today's generation are more globally aware and more atuned to the big issues than any in history. And this is important. As a species advances technologically so does its quality of education and so, therefore, does its culture.
Yes, there are still yobbos who spew conspiracy claptrap on twitter and yes, there are still people who work in advertising. I'm not saying we're a perfect species, but I am saying "look how far we've come!"
I can't pretend we're living in a utopia of course. I know there's fighting going on. You can probably name several countries without even trying. But do you know why your brain can do that? Because the countries at war stand out...they're rare!
The human brain is very good at noticing things which stand out but we're not so good at putting that information in context. For example, there are currently around 16 countries locked in major wars. There are 196 countries in the world. Do the math. That's 92% of countries in the world currently NOT at war.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to downplay the fighting currently taking place. But remember the job of the news is to focus on stories which stand out. News coverage highlights the extremes - and rightly so. We should all be aware of wars taking place. But the flip-side is that watching the news can give us a warped picture of what the world is actually like. Because you never hear about the peaceful countries your brain fuzzes them out. And so you start thinking of the world as a war-torn place. It's not. It's pretty peaceful.
When two countries disagree, the most you usually get is "tensions rise" or "heated political crisis". All-out war is something we usually try to avoid because we've been there and it's not nice. We're so lucky to live in these times and we ought to remember that more often.
And the further you wind back, the more sophisticated you realise we've become. Today we have institutions like Guantanamo bay and they get media attention because of how medieval they are. When we look at prisoners being tortured and brutalised, we are shocked that it's happening "in this day and age" because we know, deep down, that things are better today than they have ever been. We have an unspoken understanding that these violent acts are wrong because, as time passes, the human race is slowly getting over its desperate need to kill.
Slavery has been abolished in the Western world. Women have the right to vote and get educated. We look after the elderly rather than leaving them to die in workhouses. There are child labour laws. The Court of Human Rights exists, as does the Geneva Convention. We have healthcare, affordable electricity, heating and clean water for many. Point is: the more advanced a civilization, the more civilized its members.
An alien species may have a similar violent past to us but they will also have developed education, technology and Scientific understanding. Aliens might be cautious of humans, but I don't think they would attack and brutalise us...because we wouldn't do that to them.
If you've seen Avatar you'll remember the film has lots of gung-ho maniacs hell-bent on forcing the aliens out of their territory and I accept this may happen (I don't know which side of the film's analogy represents us) but there would also be people like Sigourney Weaver's character - people who want to learn and build bridges. There would be people like Jake Sully (the protagonist) who go in with a militant attitude, but who are willing to learn and change. An advanced race is an educated one and an educated race is, by its nature, peaceful.
Reason 2: An aggressive species doesn't last
You hear people talk about nature being red in tooth and claw and sometimes you hear them talk about how animals and plants live in harmony with nature. You want to grab them by the scruff and shout "make your mind up!" The reason people have a confused picture of nature is because nature isn't simple. There is no such thing as an aggressive or peaceful species, the reality is that every species has the capacity for both.
A crocodile who attacks a gazelle is rewarded - it gets a meal. But a crocodile who doesn't chomp down on a plover bird is also rewarded - it gets it teeth cleaned. Thing is, a planet has limited resources so every species has to learn coping strategies. And being constantly aggressive isn't a good one.
Take the Xenethsis immanis tarantula. It has learned to keep tree-frogs as pets - the frogs then consume insects who attack the spider's eggs. As a result the frogs get a meal and the spiders don't lose any young. If the spider had been more aggressive it would have eaten the frog and lost out.
Being aggressive also makes you more vulnerable to retaliation. If you fight everyone, you get attacked all the time and eventually you'll meet someone who can break you. Take the footage of the lion attacking a giraffe we all saw on Planet Earth 2...the lion got battered. The "peaceful" creature actually did more damage to the "violent" one. Because the truth is that giraffes aren't peaceful and lions aren't violent. They are both a mixture.
Any species learns this lesson by accident/instinct/inheritance etc. but a self-aware species like humanity has learned this lesson as an actual fact: don't go around attacking everything, you miss out on stuff. An alien race will have discovered the same optimal strategy. They will know that attacking a less-developed species might not be a sensible default position. Again, they might be ready to blast us out of the sky if we pose a threat but an alien species is (like us) going to have the capacity for cooperation as well as for aggression.
By contrast, a species who attacks everything will ultimately become extinguished. Either due to in-fighting or picking a fight with an equally capable enemy. Only a species capable of taking a step back and not pushing the button is going to survive. Alien races stumbling across Earth will have faced their own Cuban-Missile-Crisis, their own World War and they will have survived just as we have. Only a species capable of holding back on aggression will be around long enough to make contact with others.
Reason 3: Empathy
This is a small point, but a crucial one. A species that has the ability to learn is a species who can emulate creatures around them. This ability to "put yourself in another's shoes" gives rise to the most wonderful quirk of mental evolution: empathy.
Take the recent public outcry regarding the turtles on Planet Earth 2 (seriously, if you haven't watched that show, I'm ordering you to, it will make you a better person). We have no reason to feel empathy for turtles and yet we do. Because we're an intellilgent species we're capable of mentally synching with other creatures. We can recognise a common "desire to live" and we can respect it.
Some people are psychopaths, missing the capacity for empathy - these people often do will in business or marketing (for obvious reasons) - but most of us, when we see someone suffering, feel bad. Most of us, if handed a gun and told to shoot a puppy in the face, couldn't. I'm not even a dog person and I wouldn't pull the trigger. If the dog were attacking someone I cared about that might be a different story, but shooting a weaker creature for no reason just isn't something I feel any reason to do.
An advanced species is likely to be the same. They wouldn't attack us because they would empathise, even a little. They would recognise us as fellow travellers in this vast Universe, flawed just like everyone else. They would remember a time when they too were lonely, confined to their own world and they would take pity. They would see a commonality and would hesitate about pressing "fire" on the plasma cannon. Same way we would refuse to shoot a defenceless puppy.
Reason 4: There is no need to attack Earth
The first place a fledgling species is going to get its energy from will be the planet itself. Humans do this by extracting old bits of plant and fish from the ground, but it's no secret we can't keep doing it forever. The reason is simple: the population is increasing and the fuel is decreasing. Sooner or later we'll run out and we'll have to look elsewhere for our demands to be met. And any advanced species will face the same puzzle: adapt or die.
Fortunately, the Universe provides every planet with a quick-fix. We all come fully equipped with a burning Sun right on our doorstep. The Sun is a nuclear reactor and its output is enough to power thousands of Earths for billions of years...for free. All we have to do is use it. We wouldn't even have to go to war with anyone. Nobody gets exploited, we just switch on our solar panels and capture the light! Arguing over fossil-fuels while the Sun floats nearby is like sitting beside a bonfire and arguing over who owns the biggest mathstick. It's illogical.
Thing is, we have the technology and know-how to power the Earth from the Sun right now, we're just dragging our feet because it involves change. One thing which is definitely true of humans is that we don't like to change unless we're forced. We don't adapt until the very last minute and technically, right now, there isn't a pressing need to switch to a solar economy. There will be soon, and I'm hoping we've got the sense to actually do so, but right now we're getting away with being sluggish.
Every other species will face the same problems of course: switch to a renewable energy source or become extinct. So, it stands to reason that an advanced alien species will be a sustainable one. The only way to become a space-faring species in the first place is to switch to harvesting solar energy. A species which can't be bothered to make this change won't last.
And this is the ultimate reason we'd be safe...if an alien species is technologically advanced enough to provide for itself and go on adventures around the Universe, why would they possibly want to attack the Earth? We don't have anything an alien species would want! We've got water, various minerals, a molten core and a few other sundries, but (as I explained in the earlier blog) those things are found everywhere. The Earth is not even remotely unique or special.
Flying across a galaxy takes considerable effort. There is no reason to do that unless you're going to get something valuable. An alien race declaring war on us would be like us declaring war on penguins. They live far away, in a place we're not interested in, which takes effort to get to, and they don't have anything we need. They've got ice, water, rocks and a bit of algae but we can get those things at home with minimal effort. Why go to all that trouble?
Imagine if Trump decided to gather the united forces of the U.S. military to march on Antarctica and declare war on penguins. People would just laugh...I hope. Aliens would feel much the same about Earth. Interested maybe, but certainly not envious or threatened. So that's us - the Universe's penguins. And penguins are never dangerous.
The Earth from above
Once again, I think the Sc-fi franchise which best captured the future of alien contact was Star Trek. In that show we go touring the galaxy "to seek out new life and new civilizations". Our whole reason for exploring isn't for warfare or profit, it's to learn. Sometimes there are conflicts, even battles. But Star Trek depicts a galaxy full of races at different stages, trying to make their way in the Universe. Ultimately the goal of every living thing is just to get by. We will learn to cooperate. We will live long and prosper.
Dalek: Forbidden planet
Independence Day: srcdn
Scrappy: See earlier blog
The last few weeks I haven’t had a chance to write anything on the website, answer any of the questions or make a youtube video. The reason is because every year the Institute of Physics gets me to do a Christmas lecture on “big” Science topics (action shot from this year's event pictured above). It’s great fun, but most of my recent spare time has been spent researching, planning and organising that. But now I’m done for another year I can continue writing, so I thought I’d do a couple of pieces summarising the talk for those who weren’t there. Enjoy…
The man who invented Star Wars
The first person to suggest the idea of alien life (and therefore a huge amount of Science fiction) was Giordarno Bruno in the 16th Century. He reasoning was that the Universe is so vast, it's ridiculous to suggest our planet is the only one with life. Unfortunately, this didn’t go over too well with the Roman Catholic church because it presents a few sticky issues for crucifixion theology.
For example, in Romans 6:10 and Hebrews 7:27 we are told Jesus’ death happened once and “for all”. If there are aliens on other worlds we have to wonder: are they included in the “all”? If not, God doesn’t value and forgive every conscious being, if they are included, then how do they learn the Christian message? Jesus only dies once, so he can’t visit lots of alien worlds and preach to every being out there. These are fascinating questions, but they were uncomfortable in the 1590s.
So, naturally, the church had strong words with Bruno. Those words were: we’re going to burn you alive. Giordarno Bruno was, in a sense, the first martyr for Science because he was put to death for his commitment to astronomy. Today it’s perfectly legal to talk about the possibility of aliens however, so let’s do just that.
What is life?
Defining life is tricky. In the Star Trek episode The Tholian Web, the enterprise crew meet beings made entirely of crystal. In the episode Charlie X, they meet creatures who exist as disembodied faces. They meet sentient clouds of light in Metamorphosis and so on. Life is such a varied thing on Earth, how can we possibly define it for the rest of the Universe?
Perhaps there could be creatures made of plasma living in the hearts of stars. Perhaps there are beings living in extra dimensions of spacetime who inhabit the cores of black holes. Perhaps we’re being visited by alien life all the time but it’s so different to what we expect we don’t even recognise it.
If we say “life comes in an infinite variety of forms” then by definition, the Universe is full of creatures. We could argue that stars are living, as are nebulae and pulsars. Indeed, they might be, but that answer isn’t useful. If we want to discuss the question practically then we need to limit our scope.
For my money, NASA has come up with the best definition of life so far: “a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”. That’s a mouthful but it simplifies to: “very, very complicated chemistry.”
On Earth and other planets, we notice there are lots of simple chemical substances lying around. Crystals, rocks, gases, liquids etc. In fact, there’s more of these simple chemicals to be found than complex ones. Most of planet Earth is made up of things like molten iron, nickel, rocks and discarded Coldplay albums. Interesting chemically, but too structured to be considered "living".
Thing is, simple chemical substances are very regular. Rows and columns of atoms stack up to form crystals, metals and rocks, or they float about freely to make liquids and gases. Simple structures aren’t capable of doing anything interesting because they’re so organised. Chaotic structures like gases have the opposite problem – things float around so easily it becomes a chemical free-for all, nothing is stable enough to interact and evolve. So we have to rule out simple Chemistry and simple chemical reactions…they aren’t living in a meaningful sense.
All life on Earth (over 1.7 million different species discovered so far) is complicated. Atoms arrange in chains, spirals, sheets, clumps and clouds. Molecules are specifically shaped to fit through certain gaps and not others. Particles carry each other from place to place like nanoscopic machines, structures are pulled apart, rearranged and even self-constructed. The Chemistry of life is like an insane factory, and this is what we need…intricate, complicated and varied chemical reactions.
Chemistry is a bit like Lego. Atoms and molecules come in lots of different shapes and sizes, some more complex than others. Suppose you had one of those simple pieces which was just a single bump and hole. If your planet is supplied with these pieces only, all we get are chains varying in length. There is nothing more complicated or interesting possible. They either stack together in short chains or in long ones.
Well, most atoms are like that. The majority are shaped to accommodate one or two bonds and that’s it. If all your planet has to play with are simple atoms, life isn’t going to arrange itself into existence. All you can hope for are crystals, rocks, gases and liquids.
Some atoms, on the other hand, are capable of forming several bonds. Carbon and Silicon can form four, Phosphorus can form five and some of the metals go even higher under the right conditions. Out of all these multiple-bond atoms, Carbon is the smallest, making its bonds the tightest and strongest. This means Carbon atoms are really the most versatile out there. Although it has been suggested that life could arise from Silicon.
You do need lots of other elements besides carbon of course; Carbon atoms on their own tend to form simple crystal structures, but if you start throwing in other elements, you start creating complicated structures. There’s all sorts of analogies for this, here are two I’ve thought up.
When you’re making a soup, Carbon is like the water. On its own, pretty boring, but if you chuck in bits of vegetable, spices, stock etc. (other elements) you get something much more interesting. Or, if you prefer a more Christmassy analogy, Carbon atoms are like the branches of a Christmas tree and the other elements are the decorations. On their own, nothing happens, but put them together and pow!
One of the really exciting things we’ve discovered in recent years is that the chemicals found on Earth are not unique. In fact, the elements needed to form complex structures are found throughout the galaxy. The reason we know this is that different elements give off specific frequencies of light. If you look with the right kind of telescope you can analyse the light signatures of different parts of space and find out what chemicals they’ve got. And it turns out that the Earth is not rare at all.
Actually, the chemical building blocks used for Earth life are absolutely abundant wherever we look. Not only that, but the more advanced chemical structures (things like amino acids, which the elements combine to form) are also found elsewhere. The whole galaxy has the ingredients for life readily available.
If your complex chemical building blocks are all packed together in solid form, life doesn’t arise because they can’t move around and exchange information. Likewise, if your building blocks are floating freely and not coming into contact for any length of time, reactions are rare. Chemical processes, particularly complicated ones, really need to be sitting in a liquid.
Ideally this liquid should be unreactive so it doesn’t interfere with the chemicals floating in it, but it should be good at dissolving the ingredients. There are only a handful of such liquids known, the most common being water. We don’t know for definite that life needs liquid water but it’s a good candidate. Every time we find water on Earth, we find life, so it’s definitely favourable. Life might be able to form in other liquids like ammonia or hydrogen sulphide, but seeing as all those chemicals pretty common to the Universe it’s largely immaterial which one we pick.
Most planets probably have the right starting point for life but we need to address the other crucial factor: temperature. If your planet is too close to the sun it orbits, the liquids boil away and all those complicated chemicals burn up. If your planet is too far in the other direction things get cold. The liquids freeze solid and chemicals don’t have enough energy to react successfully.
In order for a planet to have liquids on its surface and keep the chemical ingredients from breaking apart, it has to be just the right distance from its star, orbiting in what’s called the Circumstellar Habitable Zone or…Goldilocks zone. Not too hot, not too cold. In our solar system, Earth is the only planet in the Goldilocks zone for definite (Mars might be, there’s a debate over how wide a goldilocks zone should be). And lo and behold, life has arisen.
To be clear, we don’t know how life actually got started and what else might be necessary (although the field of abiogenesis is yielding some intriguing clues). Perhaps you need a planet with a moon to set up stable tides for rock-pool formation, perhaps you need a magnetic field to protect you from cosmic rays, perhaps you don’t need either and life just “finds a way”. What we know with confidence is that life needs the right ingredients…which are found everywhere…and the right temperature to put them together.
Crunching the Numbers
Now we’re finally at the stage where we can do a back-of-the-envelope calculation on how likely life might be in our galaxy. First, take the number of Suns. It’s estimated to be between 200 and 400 billion. Let’s take the lower number to please the cynics. How many of those 200 billion Suns are like ours?
This is importanht because some Suns are less genteel than ours (particularly those near the core of the galaxy) and they’re so “bright” they destroy complex chemicals. But, fortunately, those evil Suns make up about a quarter of the galactic composition. Three quarters of the Suns in our galaxy are exactly like ours. So that’s 150 billion Suns. Right, how many Suns have planets going round them?
Well, the answer seems to be all of them. Planets always tend to form as a byproduct of star-formation (the dust which doesn’t get pulled into the Sun ends up orbiting in a disk until it starts clumping together to form planets). In fact, we’ve discovered over 3544 planets orbiting other suns – what are called exoplanets. So if we want to be realistic, we’re probably talking about 150 billion planets as well. Let’s be pessimistic though and assume only 90% of all suns have planets. Let’s also assume only one planet per Sun. That gives us 135 billion planets in our galaxy…minimum.
And how many of them are in Goldilocks zones? Well, of the 3544 we’ve discovered, about 7 of them are clearly in Goldilocks zones (that’s being really stingy with how narrow we make our goldilocks zone though). So that gives us 0.3% of planets forming inside Goldilocks zones. And what is 0.3% of 135 billion? 405 million.
There you have it. By limiting ourselves to carbon-chemical-based lifeforms only, the minimum amount of Suns, planets etc. we end up estimating that our galaxy should contain around 405 million possible worlds. Even if life is a tricky process to get going, those numbers are good. Life could be a 1 in a million shot and we’d still get 405 civilizations arising. And that’s just in our galaxy – which is but one of millions of billions.
Giordarno Bruno was right. It is statistically bizarre to suggest the Earth is the only planet with life. There's a possibility it might be the only planet of course, we don't know for definite yet, but the odds are very much in our favour. So, is there anybody out there? According to Science the answer is...probably!
George Lucas: amazon
Ian Malcolm: carboncostume
I love science, let me tell you why.