Did you sleep well?

1 07 2012

Did you wake this morning feeling especially rested? Or did you toss and turn all night wondering why the night was taking so long?

Either way, you were right. Last night we had an extra-long night (30 June 2012), thanks to a leap second.

Yes, our official time (courtesy of the atomic clock which measures time via atomic vibrations) gets slightly out of synch with “real” (solar) time, by which I mean the natural time set by the rotation of the earth around the sun. Again, the moon is at fault; the tidal surges, waxes and wanes are causing a slight slowing and wobbling of the earth’s rotation. Hadn’t you noticed the wobbles?

We could adjust the length of the unit we call a second to account for this, a minuscule lengthening. But then counting “one-hippopotamus, two-hippopotamus” etc might not work so well. And it’s not even regular about how often the atomic clock needs adjusting. It has been adjusted 25 times since such accurate time measurement began in 1972. The first year saw two leap seconds (June 30 and December 30), followed by seven years of one second per year. The last three adjustments were 1998, 2005 and 2008.

So instead we wait until a whole second has accumulated and add a leap second, just as we add a leap year, thereby adjusting our inflexible human system of measuring time to the mutable system that exists in nature.

And so we got an extra second last night, to sleep, toss and turn, or party, whatever you happened to be doing at 11:59:60 last night, which fell between 11:59:59 and 12:00:00 (midnight at the International Dateline).

Hope you enjoyed it! And if you wasted it, don’t worry another one is sure to come along sooner or later!

UPDATE: Latebreaking news! While the Y2K bug turned out to be a fizzer, the leap-second has actually had consequences! For those who are too young to remember the Y2K bug, this was the predicted beginning of the apocalypse caused because computer programmes in the 1980s and 1990s apparently didn’t have the forethought to realise that eventually in the not too distant future, computers with a clock in their functioning would need to click over from 19XX to 20XX. People (who would now be called preppers) stocked up on water supplies and canned goods and built underground bunkers. Planes were going to drop out of the sky. Nothing happened. Complete fizzer.

The leap second on the other hand has managed to bring down the airport check-in system at Australian airports, resulting in airline staff having to check in passengers and luggage by hand, delayed flights and lots of irritable grumpy passengers. Also reportedly brought down, Reddit, Gawker, LinkedIn, Yelp and Foursquare. And according to news reports, this is because the computer couldn’t cope with the leap second (which was 9:59:60 in Australia EST).

Have you heard of any other effects?

Want more? Try…
Why the moon rules your life and..

Why the moon rules your life

29 06 2012

I do not believe in astrology, particularly the sort published in newspapers and popular magazines. I do not believe that constellations of burning gases billions of light years away, so far that no human can ever make the journey from earth to these constellations in one lifetime, can possibly rule my life, let alone give me a commonality with 1/12th of the population.

The moon however is a different matter. This hunk of rock is orbiting the earth close enough for its mass and gravitational field to affect the oceans and tides, and, I would argue, us.

I have previously written about the effect of the full moon on human behaviour. Personally I think the tide goes out on our collective brains – some more than others. I accept that scientists have been unable to confirm this, but attest that no scientist ever accompanied me on a full-moon Saturday night shift in the medical emergency service I used to work at. People ran screaming from the building – and that was the staff. The punters ran screaming INTO the building. All in all, a noisy and eventful experience.

My back-up hypothesis is that the additional light from the full moon means people are more likely to be out and about, or at least unsettled. This sounds more plausible, but the tide out in the brain thing is much more interesting.

And while we may not enjoy the effect the moon has on us, I have recently discovered that the moon is also not enjoying our company. Apparently it is fleeing from our orbit at the rate of 2 inches per year. Seriously. Fast enough to make a difference, slow enough for us not to notice unless we are determined to use reflectors and lasers and trigonometry. And most of us aren’t, so you and I will have to take the word of George Darwin (son of Charles) who hypothesised this and the NASA scientists who confirmed it.

Now the effect f the moon on the earth apparently has some interesting effects on the earth. It is quite well-known that the moon influences the tides. This is particularly well-known to people who read the beginning of this posting quite carefully.

But the effect of these frequent tides is to slow the earth’s rotation down. So without the moon, the earth would be spinning a lot faster and hence our “days” would be much shorter – as much as three times shorter. Imagine an 8-hour day instead of 24 hours. You’d barely get anything done when it would be night again.

This of course, would not only be inconvenient, but probably we would all have evolved differently – different sleep patterns, different adaptations. Not just us, but plants and animals as well. And given that life is thought to have originated in the oceans….well, what effect would fewer tides have had on the mixing of the primordial soup?

And then the faster the earth spins, the more winds are generated – producing waves and weather. So if the earth is spinning slower, then weaker waves and weather patterns.

In other words, a different planet entirely.

Fascinating stuff, but one more important fact: You weigh slightly less when the moon is directly overhead. No moon means it is pointless to wait until the middle of the night to weigh yourself for maximum effect.

What – you don’t do that? Just me then.

PS – enjoy the July 4th full moon!

Gamification – WTF or FTW?

9 12 2011

You may recently have seen this article or the many articles like it, on how gamers solved a puzzle regarding the shape of an AIDS-related enzyme (above) that had stumped scientists for years. The enzyme is believed to be part of the transmission process of the AIDS virus (or a similar animal virus) – knowing the shape of the enzyme means scientists can work on how to block it, hence this may be an important part of the puzzle for finding an AIDS cure or vaccine.

It took the gamers less than ten days to solve the puzzle.

So how did this happen? The scientists knew what made up the protein, but they didn’t know how the pieces fitted together and what shape they formed, an important factor in the functioning of proteins. The scientists, we can assume, were equally motivated to solve the problem, highly educated in the ways of atoms and molecules. The scientists also had computers that could turn the puzzle over and over – and even the computers couldn’t solve the problem. How did gamers do what scientists and computers couldn’t?

The answer is basic human nature. What the scientists did was make the puzzle into a game. They knew it had to be fun. They attached a points-based reward system. They set up the game so that users could collaborate or build on each others’ work. And then they set it free!

The gamers, motivated by the challenge, the fun and the reward system, worked together and competed against one another. And of course, the human brain is better at solving spatial problems than computers.

So gaming – stereotypically seen as non-productive and somewhat addictive technology – turns out to have application in the “real” world. And of course a multi-syllabic word has been invented to describe this turning of boring or non-entertaining problems into games: gamification.

Gamification is increasingly finding more and more application in the real world. Wikipedia suggests the following list of uses, some productive, some less so:

– Employee training programs
– Education (repetition is good for learning, but currently many educational games are BORING!)
– Project management
– Financial services websites
– Healthcare and wellness

– scientific problems
– engineering problems

– loyalty programs
– online shopping experiences

Membership and recruiting
– attracting new memberships
– religious
– cult or terror organisations
– I believe the US Armed Forces already use games as a recruiting tool

Gamification has many potential uses, through harnessing our innate natures to seek entertainment and continue behaviours that result in reward. The only proviso is that the program / puzzle / game needs to be set up properly to achieve the aim. If the scientists hadn’t already known the molecules that made up the enzyme, and programmed in the ways that the molecules interacted with each other, into the program, the gamers would not have been able to come up with the meaningful result.

So scientists of the world can breathe a sigh of relief. Gamers are not taking over your jobs, they are just the latest tool in your tool belt. Your knowledge is still needed to ask the questions.

And without the right questions, you can’t get the right answer.

Is hell exothermic or endothermic?

19 10 2011

photo credit: Plutar

OK – since I can’t sleep, but am too tired to write something of my own, it’s time for a classic.

This did the email rounds about ten years ago and was also printed in Australian Doctor. It’s all over the net, and each time a different person and/or university is credited, so I won’t try to do an attribution. I should also note that the name of the female student is different each time so I think we can assume that in the interests of anonymity, her name is also lost to the black hole of the internet. Enjoy!

The following is an actual question given on a University chemistry mid-term Exam paper:

Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat)? Support your answer with a proof.

Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyles Law (gas cools off when it expands and heats up when it is compressed) or some variant.
One student, however, wrote the following:

First, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing in time. So, we need to know the rate that souls are moving into Hell and the rate they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to Hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving.

As for how many souls are entering Hell, let’s look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Some of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that most people and their souls go to Hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in Hell to increase exponentially.

Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because Boyles Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand as souls are added.

This gives two possibilities.

If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all Hell breaks loose.

Of course, if Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over.

So which is it?
If we accept the postulate given to me by Ms. Celine LeBlanc during my Freshman year – that “it will be a cold night in Hell before I sleep with you” – and take into account the fact that I still have not succeeded in having sexual relations with her, then (2) cannot be true, and thus I am sure that Hell is exothermic.

The student got the only A!

Ode to the Psychic Fruit Fly

10 07 2011

Ah, the multi-talented fruit fly, staple of genetics experiments the world over…..

Now poised to take over the role of the recently departed and sadly lamented “Paul”, the psychic German Octopus, font of predictive knowledge for soccer games (although of course, being German, he would have known them as football, not soccer).

At this stage the Fruit Flies have an almost amazing ability to predict the outcome of matches incorrectly….which, as the winner of several footy-tipping wooden spoons, I contend is surely a talent. Also, as fruit flies have six legs and Paul presumably had eight, they are probably at a mathematical disadvantage. Which may or may not be relevant.

If we discover that fruit flies are in fact psychic, will that undo years of research? Maybe they knew what we wanted them to do all along…..Were they just humouring us? Will we have to reconsider how the genetic pool continues to replicate itself in recombinant forms?

Many thanks to Improbable Research for bringing this little ray of metaphysical hope to an otherwise dull logical world.

PS – OK, I accept Ode was probably false advertising. A glass of wine was possibly involved in the writing of this post.