August 28, 2012
Phil Edwards believes that, contrary to popular belief, the tomato isn’t actually a vegetable—it’s a type of nut. He explains how Moore’s law states that every two years, we double the amount of time wasted on computers, notes that Einstein used the The Theory of Relatives to prove he was his own grandpa and strongly advocates the purchase of accidental-eyebrow-removal insurance before embarking on a career in chemistry.
To complex scientific phenomena that others approach with rigorous experiments and a steadfast belief in the reliability of the scientific method, he parachutes in with a disregard for data and a love for the absurd. In other words, unlike most of the people mentioned on this blog, Edwards isn’t a real scientist. He’s a fake scientist.
Since 2010, he has produced the blog Fake Science, a “less-than-factual” site crammed with “scientifically-flavored information” that is best consumed “when the facts are too confusing.” Earlier this month, following in the traditions of the long-beloved Journal of Irreproducible Results and Science Made Stupid, he published Fake Science 101: A Less-Than-Factual Guide to Our Amazing World. We spoke with the Edwards to discuss why he started churning out such absurd science facts and how fake science can actually provide real educational value.
How did you first get into this?
I had a running joke with a friend, where he and I would walk around and explain various phenomena that we didn’t understand—anything from the weather to the reason that we weren’t getting good cell phone reception—by saying that some sort of “science” must be involved.
I realized that, even if I understood one thing very well, the world is so confusing that there are always other things that I would only have a superficial knowledge of. And I realized that this is true for experts, too—if you took James Watson, who is obviously an expert in biology, and asked him to explain, say, Skype, he probably would not have a good idea of how it works. So I thought about how this is fairly universal, and that there might be a place for fake science, where I could explain everything but not have the burden of actual knowledge to slow me down.
What’s your science background, or lack thereof?
I definitely would never have predicted I’d be so immersed in fake science! I studied history and English in college, so I feel a little chagrin at that, and I also had a few mandatory science classes. As far as my current science reading, I definitely skew towards the pop science end of the spectrum.
Do you ever encounter people who take your science seriously?
Yeah, definitely. It mostly happens when one of my blog posts diffuses out past my readers, who know that it’s a joke, and it gets off the site and maybe doesn’t have the label “fake science” plastered on the top of it. So sometimes the stupidest things will be interpreted as real. Anytime I do a cat joke, because people on the internet love cats so much, I’ll get really angry cat people writing in, saying “That’s not how cats work! What are you talking about?” So it seems like the more popular the actual topic, the more likely it is to be interpreted as real.
Why do you think people like fake science?
Science is good for satire because, to outsiders, it seems like such an authoritative source, so it lends itself to being satirized. Real scientists are not necessarily like that, but the public image of science is that it has such a stiff upper lip.
Have you ever written fake science facts that turned out to be true?
I once wrote about birds laying different color eggs for Easter, and it wasn’t even a very good joke, and then to add insult to injury, I found out that there are a lot of birds—like robins, and even chickens in South America—that lay colored eggs. I got some feedback, and I realized, “well, my science isn’t fake anymore.”
I always tread very carefully when it comes to physics, because I do not want my lack of knowledge to come back to bite me. It’s such a difficult field for someone to joke about, because the most counterintuitive-seeming ideas can end up being true.
Do you think fake science can have any real actual educational value?
Well for me, I’ve been writing the blog for two years, and now the book, so I’ve been immersed in science for two years straight—and that’s forced me to think about science all that time. I wanted the book to resemble a real textbook, so I had to look at, for example, astronomy, and learn what the most important elements of astronomy are. So ironically, I got a bit of a remedial education in all of these subject areas, just because I had to learn how to subject the parody.
Also, I’ve already gotten a few responses from teachers who are considering using the book in their curriculum, which was really cool. One teacher who wrote me, she was a high school teacher, and I think she was considering using it in an English class, but there have been lots of science teachers who have written me, saying that they might use the book to spark discussion among students—the idea that they’ll take my fake explanation to spark interest, and then ask the class to postulate possible real explanations.
Update: Since this interview, Fake Science 101 was banned by the Houston Independent School District because it “would reflect poorly on the district.” Edwards’ response? A double ban!
We have decided the ban on Fake Science 101 should be banned. Double ban! fakescience.tumblr.com/post/303186970…
— Fake Science (@FakeScience) August 27, 2012
July 3, 2012
Billions of people around the world use the Internet daily—but very few understand how it actually works. Three years ago, journalist and writer Andrew Blum set off on a journey to learn about the physical network that enables the internet to be an inescapable presence in our lives. He traveled to monumental data centers, undersea fiber optic cables and unassuming warehouses that contain crucial exchange points for his new book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. We spoke with Blum about the Internet’s coolest (real-world) sites, the connections that make it work and where it’s going next.
How did you first get interested in writing about this topic?
I was mostly writing about architecture, but I found myself going to see actual buildings less and less, and sitting in front of my screen more and more, and that seemed like a strange way of engaging with the physical world. But even more so, I got hung up on the fact that the world behind my screen seemed to have no physical reality of its own. My attention was always divided—partly on the world around me, and partly on the world inside my screen, but I couldn’t quite get those two places in the same place.
It was just about the time of the broadband stimulus funding in the U.S., when the Department of Commerce was giving away money to encourage broadband, in 2009. I went for the kickoff announcement of the funding, and it was an auditorium full of people who had owned pieces of the internet. And that made me realize that Verizon, AT&T and Comcast didn’t own the Internet, but there were all these different pieces of it. And as I started talking to the people there, I realized that there was a way of teasing out the different parts of it, rather than having to look at it as a singly monolithic whole.
If you were to describe the physical structure of the Internet to someone who uses it, but doesn’t have a great grasp of it, what would you say?
What I usually say is that there are three major parts. There are the Internet exchange points, where the networks of the Internet physically connect to each other—and, among these, there are about a dozen buildings in the world that are more important than all the rest. The second piece is the data centers, where data is stored, and those are arranged on two poles: they’re either close to us, and close to Internet exchange points, or they’re off in the boonies, where they can run most efficiently, like in Sweden. The third part is what lies in between, the undersea cables and long-haul fiber cables and all of those that connect all the other pieces.
Of all of the places that you visited in the course of writing the book, what were your favorites?
One was Ashburn, Virginia, where a compound of buildings owned by a company called Equinix is located. It’s surprising in two ways. For one, it is one of the most important places in the Internet in America, if not globally. It’s a place where more networks connect than anywhere else. But it’s also kind of an outlier. The other places that compete with it for this title are in places you’d expect, like New York, or London, or Amsterdam. But Ashburn is a place where the Internet’s geography kind of jumps the banks and goes off in its own direction. I love that.
Facebook’s data center, in Oregon, is also an amazing place. It’s one of the few places that has tried to monumentalize the Internet—to express in architecture that it is a meaningful and important place, rather than the traditional data centers, which tend to disappear into the background as much as possible.
As you went about researching the physical geography of the Internet, what surprised you?
The thing that surprised me most was how small the community was of people who are running the networks of the Internet, and interconnecting them. When we load a Web page, it feels automatic, but in fact it only does that because of the individual decisions of two network engineers to physically connect their networks to each other. What amazed me was how social that process was—how those connections only happened when two network engineers drank a bunch of beers and talked to each other, and made that decision. Or maybe one of them paid the other, maybe one became a customer, and then consummated that decision to connect their networks by physically doing it with a yellow fiber optic cable from one router to another. The fact that that social community is so small—maybe a few hundred people—was the single most surprising thing.
Going into the future, how do you anticipate the physical nature of the Internet to change?
I think the geography is mostly fixed, for the moment—the most important places will stay that way for the foreseeable future. Certainly, our speeds will increase, because we’re demanding it. We’re not going to rest until can we not only stream HD video reliably, but we can also do it two ways, so we have video walls. I do think that’s a technology that we want, and it requires one more jump in bandwidth. It’s surprising that right now, we have these huge TVs, but there isn’t really good video conferencing on them yet. There is at the corporate level, and that’s going to start to trickle down.
Which means, specifically—and I don’t know if this is a good thing or not—we’re going to start to see our Internet bills look more like our cell phone bills, with features, add-ons, caps and things like that. This is totally against the conventional wisdom of net neutrality, but you could, for example, end up paying an extra $3 to your Internet service provider for a Netflix package, to ensure that your Netflix bits are streamed properly. Or you could pay an extra $3 for a Skype package that makes sure that your Skype traffic is prioritized when you want it to be. That’s totally anathema to the way we think about it now, but I think that is an inevitable transition in recognizing the Internet as parts and pieces, and not just a monolithic whole.
April 26, 2012
When medieval Europeans read religious texts, what were their favorite prayers? Which sections did they return to time and time again, and which parts perpetually put them to sleep?
These questions have long seemed unanswerable, but a new method by Kathryn Rudy of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland takes them on with an unexpected approach: examining the dirt on a book’s pages.
Rudy hit on the technique when she realized that the amount of dirt on each page was an indication of how frequently the pages were touched by human hands. Dirtier pages were probably used most frequently, while relatively clean pages were turned to much less often. She determined the amount of dirt on each page and compared the values to reveal what passages were most appealing to medieval readers—and thus, what sorts of things they cared about while reading religious texts.
In a press release, Rudy said:
Although it is often difficult to study the habits, private rituals and emotional states of people, this new technique can let us into the minds of people from the past…[books] were treasured, read several times a day at key prayer times, and through analysing how dirty the pages are we can identify the priorities and beliefs of their owners.
To gather the data, she put a densitometer to work. The device aims a light source at a piece of paper and measures the amount of light that bounces back into a photoelectric cell. This quantifies the darkness of the paper, which indicates the amount of dirt on the page.
Rudy then compared each of the pages in the religious texts tested. Her results are simultaneously predictable and fascinating: They show us that the worries of medieval people were really not so different from ours today.
At a time when infectious diseases could ravage entire communities, readers were deeply concerned with their own health—the most heavily worn prayer in one of the manuscripts analyzed was dedicated to St. Sebastian, who was thought to protect against the bubonic plague because his arrow wounds resembled the buboes suffered by the plague’s victims. Prayers for personal salvation, such as one that could earn a devoted individual a 20,000-year reduction of time in purgatory, were much more heavily used than prayers for the salvation of others.
Perhaps most intriguingly, Rudy’s analysis even pinpointed a prayer that seems to have put people to sleep. A particular prayer said early in the morning hours is worn and dirty for only the first few pages, likely indicating that readers repeatedly opened it and started praying, but rarely made it through the whole thing.
The research is fascinating for the way it applies an already developed technology to a novel use, revealing new details that were assumed to be lost to history. Most promisingly, it hints at the many untapped applications of devices such as a densitometer that we haven’t even imagined yet. What historical texts would you want to analyze? Or what other artifacts do you think still have something new to tell us if we look a little closer?
February 27, 2012
How do scientists reconstruct the climate of the past? They often turn to ice cores or growth rings from trees or deep-sea corals. But a new study gleans a wealth of weather intel from a largely untapped source: old documents.
Researchers from Spain scoured manuscripts from 9th- and 10th-century Baghdad, in modern-day Iraq, for references to the weather. Baghdad, where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet, was at that time the new and bustling capital of the vast Islamic Empire, which stretched from India to the Atlantic Ocean. Much was written about the city and why it was chosen as the capital, including its population size, agricultural potential and climate.
In the 10 analyzed texts, most of which give exhaustive political histories of the region, the researchers found 55 meteorological citations, many of which were referring to the same event. The study points out that although the social and religious content of the documents is probably biased, the historians weren’t likely to fabricate an off-hand mention of a drought, hail storm or solar eclipse.
The researchers were shocked by the number of references to cold periods in this notoriously hot and dry region. They identified 14 chilly periods in all: five in winter, two in spring, one in summer and two that denoted cold weather for a whole year. Some of the descriptions specified snowfalls, ice and frozen rivers.
For instance, an entry from December 23, 908, noted when “four fingers of snow accumulated on the roofs,” and another, on November 25, 1007, that the snow reached somewhere between 30 and 50 inches. One particularly odd event was in July 920, when it was too cold for people to sleep on their roofs, as they did on most summer nights. This temperature drop could have been caused by a volcanic eruption the previous year, the researchers speculate.
In any case, it seems safe to say that the weather of that Islamic Golden Age was much more variable than it is today. The only time that snow has hit Baghdad in modern memory was on January 11, 2008, melting as soon as it hit the ground.
Images from Domínguez- Castro et al., ”How useful could Arabic documentary sources be for reconstructing past climate?” appearing in Weather, published by Wiley.
February 16, 2012
For years, science-fiction and fantasy authors have dreamed up magical objects—like Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak or Bilbo Baggins’ ring—that would render people and things invisible. Last week, a team of scientists at the University of Texas at Austin announced that they have gone one step further toward that goal. Using a method known as “plasmonic cloaking,” they have obscured a three-dimensional object in free space.
The object, a cylindrical tube about 7 inches long, was “invisible” to microwaves, rather than visible light—so it’s not like you could walk into the experimental apparatus and not see the object. But the achievement is nonetheless quite stunning. Understanding the principles of cloaking an object from microwaves could theoretically lead to actual invisibility soon enough. The study, published in late January in the New Journal of Physics, goes beyond previous experiments in which two-dimensional objects were hidden from various wavelengths of light.
How did the scientists do it? Under normal conditions, we see objects when visible light bounces off them and into our eyes. But the unique “plasmonic metamaterials” from which the cloak was made do something different: they scatter light in a variety of directions. ”When the scattered fields from the cloak and the object interfere, they cancel each other out and the overall effect is transparency and invisibility at all angles of observation,” said Professor Andrea Alu, co-author of the study.
To test the cloaking material, the research team covered the cylindrical tube with it and subjected the setup to a burst of microwave radiation. Because of the plasmonic material’s scattering effect, the resulting mapping of microwaves did not reveal the object. Other experiments revealed that the shape of the object did not affect the material’s effectiveness, and the team believes that it is theoretically possible to cloak multiple objects at once.
The next step, of course, is creating a cloaking material capable of obscuring not only microwaves, but visible light waves—an invisibility cloak we might be able to wear in everyday life. Alu, though, says that using plasmonic materials to hide larger objects (like, say, a human body) is still a ways away:
In principle, this technique could be used to cloak light; in fact, some plasmonic materials are naturally available at optical frequencies. However, the size of the objects that can be efficiently cloaked with this method scales with the wavelength of operation, so when applied to optical frequencies we may be able to efficiently stop the scattering of micrometre-sized objects.
In other words, if we’re trying to hide something from human eyes using this method, it’d have to be tiny—a micrometre is one-thousandth of a millimeter. Still, even this could be useful:
Cloaking small objects may be exciting for a variety of applications. For instance, we are currently investigating the application of these concepts to cloak a microscope tip at optical frequencies. This may greatly benefit biomedical and optical near-field measurements.
In 2008, a Berkeley team developed an ultra-thin material with the potential to someday render objects invisible, and earlier this year, a group of Cornell scientists funded by DARPA was able to hide an actual event 40 picoseconds long (that’s 40 trillionths of a second) by tweaking the rate of light’s flow.
Invisibility cloaks may still be years away, but it seems we’ve entered the Age of Invisibility.