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Archives for January 2010

Overdosing on homeopathy

David Gregory | 14:44 UK time, Sunday, 31 January 2010

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Arsen is a homeopathic rememdy derived from arsenicWhat happens when you neck an entire tube of arsenic homeopathic pills as sold by Boots? Well according to Adrian Bailey of the Birmingham Sceptics you need a strong cup of coffee because eating 84 grammes of sugar is pretty unpleasant.

But that's it.

There's no risk because with homeopathic remedies the active ingredient is diluted to the point where it is no longer present. Arsenic homepathic pills are just sugar pills. So if you do "overdose" you'll need a coffee to take the taste away but you won't need a doctor.

So when groups of protestors staged mass homeopathic "overdoses" outside Boots stores this weekend for the 1023 campaign they were totally safe. But they were making a serious point. What is such a large chain of chemists doing selling something that can't work beyond perhaps a simple placebo effect?

We asked Boots why they sell these remedies and here's what Paul Bennett, Professional Standards Director and Superintendent Pharmacist had to say;

"Homeopathy is recognised by the NHS and many health professionals and our customers choose to use homeopathy. Boots UK is committed to providing our customers with a wide range of healthcare products to suit their individual needs, we know that many people believe in the benefits of complementary medicines and we aim to offer the products we know our customers want. Our Pharmacists are trained healthcare professionals and are on hand to offer advice on the safe use of complementary medicines. The Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain issues guidance to pharmacists on the correct selling of homeopathy which our pharmacists adhere to. We would support the call for scientific research and evidence gathering on the efficacy of homeopathic medicines. This would help our patients and customers make informed choices about using homeopathic medicines''

What people choose to buy and what shops choose to sell is really a matter for them of course. But the NHS also spends money on homeopathy. According to freedom of information requests around £4m a year. With the prospects of tighter budgets in the next few years that's money that could buy a lot of real drugs.

Frost paintings

David Gregory | 16:24 UK time, Friday, 29 January 2010

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This is a frost pattern frozen in paintThese are details from some extraordinary paintings created by Wolverhampton artist, Geoff Pope. Well actually he sets the materials up but then Mother Nature does the rest carving these patterns in the paint using frost.

All Geoff has to do is paint a sheet of glass with his secret mixture and leave it outside on a frosty night. That's the theory.

But it took Geoff over four years to get his first image after noticing a tiny pattern in a recently painted gatepost. After more than two decades of experience he still finds most of the images fail.

It's been 10 years since Geoff managed to capture anything at all because we've had a series of mild winters and the conditions just haven't been right. But with the recent cold snap he's once again been wandering around his garden in the dead of night with sheets of glass covered in wet paint.

He managed to capture some beautiful images he told me, but before the paint could dry it began to rain and the images were washed away.

so is this
Frost formation is a fascinating area of science. Frost is water vapour that condenses out of the atmosphere into solid ice without turning into a liquid dew first. If dew forms then you probably won't get frost even if the temperature drops below zero.

What surprised me is just how different all the patterns are. The shapes produced can be large or very small. Extremely regular or just a single slash of crystals across the glass. A speck of dust can make all the difference since it provides a starting point for the crystals of ice to begin to form.

This weekend the forecast is looking good and Geoff will be trying again and we wish him luck.

and this

I see a pattern emerging

David Gregory | 16:36 UK time, Thursday, 28 January 2010

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This is The Daily Mail's mapHumans like to find patterns in things. And sometimes that leads us into strange places. For example this story in the Daily Mail complete with the interesting graphic you see above which poses the question;

"Stone Age satnav: Did ancient man use 5,000-year-old travel chart to navigate across Britain."

"Obviously not" would be my answer and that would be that. But some people enjoy crafting a much more elegant response to this sort of thing. Which brings us to this amazing new discovery;

"Locations of Ancient Woolworths Stores follow Precise Geometrical Pattern"

This is the headline of an email sent out by Matt Parker and reproduced on his blog by Ben Goldacre. Here's a taster;

The results revealed an exact and precise geometric placement of the Woolworths locations. Three stores around Birmingham formed an exact equilateral triangle (Wolverhampton, Lichfield and Birmingham stores) and if the base of the triangle is extended, it forms a 173.8 mile line linking the Conwy and Luton stores. Despite the 173.8 mile distance involved, the Conway Woolworths store is only 40 feet off the exact line and the Luton site is within 30 feet. All four stores align with an accuracy of 0.05%.

Matt's mapIf you think ancient man had a "Stone Age satnav" then you can't but fail to be impressed by the spooky goings on around the Pallisades in Birmingham city centre. Matt has also produced a map and it would appear Birmingham is the centre of something extraordinary. Well possibly. Matt goes on;

"These incredibly precise geometric patterns mean that the people who founded the Woolworths empire must have used these store locations as a form of 'landmark satnav' to help hunters find their nearest source of cheap sweets that can be purchased in whatever mix they chose to pick. Well, that or the fact that in any sufficiently large set of random data it is possible to find meaningless patterns of any required accuracy."

And that's the rub. In fact on Midlands Today we've come across this sort of thing before. So as a treat here's a "World of the Strange" report when I was a lot thinner, but just as scientifically sceptical about this sort of thing.

This hdlne is sign I am v liter8

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David Gregory | 14:06 UK time, Friday, 22 January 2010

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Car advert using Driving along the Aston Expressway this morning I passed an advertising hoarding blaring a slogan that included "OMG" and "LOL". It would seem text speak is now so familiar you can find it looming over our cityscapes and flogging us cars.

This is usually assumed to be a very bad thing and it doesn't take long to unearth worries associated with "textisms" especially when it comes to children and "hmwk". This is an example from a notorious essay handed in by a school pupil that began;

"My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we usd 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kds FTF. ILNY, it's a gr8 plc."

Which according to The Telegraph translates as;

"My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face. I love New York, it's a great place."

Cue much worry about the impact of texting on kids.

But is texting reducing the literacy of our children? Well on this blog science is always the answer and today it so happened I was driving back from interviewing one of the scientists who've been researching this area. Dr Bev Plester works at Coventry University where they have been looking a texting for around five years now.

The latest paper [168KB PDF] published in the British Academy Review (Issue 14) reports the results of a year long study conducted by Dr Plester, Dr Clare Wood and Samantha Bowyer. They measured the intelligence, literacy, spelling and general English abilities of a group of around 60 children. They also examined their text messages. Then at the end of the academic year they returned and repeated the tests.

And once they analysed the data they discovered a link between those who used text speak and their literacy skills. But not the one you might expect. More "textisms" didn't make things worse. If fact the more text speak used the better the level of literacy.

Now chatting with Dr Plester over coffee she made it very clear this doesn't mean there isn't a problem with literacy in our children or that young people can use text speak in the wrong context, like the essay above.

But as the paper concludes;

"if we are seeing a decline in literacy standards... it is in spite of text messaging, rather than because of it."

Children who text are writing and having fun with language and communication and that seems to be having a positive effect.

The fifty trillion particle question

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David Gregory | 10:04 UK time, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

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This is a computer display showing the path taken by a neutrino through a detectorThanks to CERN we're used to the idea of physicists sending stuff whizzing about in giant circles. And thanks to journalistic cliché we know they want to do this to "unlock the secrets of the Universe."

But CERN isn't the only place in the world where scientists gather, pushing particles to the limit to expand what we know.

Researchers from the University of Warwick are taking part in a £15m experiment to study mysterious fundamental particles called neutrinos. They're part of an experimental group involving scientists from the Rutherford and Daresbury Laboratories and Queen Mary, Imperial College, Sheffield, Lancaster and Liverpool Universities. You can read more about it here.

There are a lot of neutrinos about, but we know remarkably little about them. As you read this 50 trillion neutrinos from our sun are passing through you every single second and there are more streaming through you from elsewhere. But despite the fact there are so many you've never noticed them of course which gives you some idea of just how hard they are for scientists to detect.

Diagram of the neutrino beam between two Japanese labs 295km apartBut what if you could generate a beam of neutrinos rather than relying on studying the ones from the sun? That would give you a degree of control that would help your research.

And that's what's happening in Japan at a laboratory on the coast called J-Parc. Here they accelerate protons into a target and use them to produce a beam of neutrinos. The scientists then measure the behaviour of the beam at another laboratory almost 300 kilometres away towards the centre of the country called Super-KAMIOKANDE.

As you can see from this diagram because the beam of neutrinos that J-Parc produces travels in a straight line it actually passes right through the earth. At its deepest point a kilometre under ground.

Detector crated up to begin its journeyThe aim of the experiment of is to measure neutrinos at the start of their journey and then again at the end 300 kilometres away and see how they've changed. The result will tell us much about the universe including helping to answer the vexed question of why things are usually made of matter rather than anti-matter.

The team at Warwick have built the detectors which measure the beam as it starts on its journey through Japan. These pictures show the detectors crated up and starting out on their long journey. As you can see it was a squeeze getting them out of the lab at Warwick.

It was a tight squeeze getting the new detector out of the labThe detector on the other end of the neutrino beam at Super-KAMIOKANDE is even bigger though. It's a cylindrical tank, over 40m tall, which contains 50,000 tonnes of ultra-pure water located a kilometre underground in a disused mine. You need a rubber dingy to cross it!

At the moment not all the detectors built by Warwick are in place but the scientists believe they will get useful results in the next run of experiments. Unlike most large scale physics experiments (CERN I'm looking at you) once it's all working we should get a result in a few months. So I can confidently predict in a years time we will know much more about how the universe works.

Or at the very least, we'll know we have to build an even bigger experiment!

This really isn't the most depressing day of the year

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David Gregory | 10:15 UK time, Monday, 18 January 2010

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This is the This morning Jim Hawkins and his listeners on BBC Radio Shropshire will be battling back against the blues on what scientists tell us is the most depressing day of the year derived via a formula and everything.

Well I'm happy to do my part by revealing that actually today is no more depressing than any other Monday and in fact the "research" behind this story is more than a little flimsy.

Believe it or not the "formula" that lead to this amazing discovery... hang on. I'm going to end up sprinkling inverted commas throughout this post like confetti. I apologise in advance.

The "formula" was in fact created by a PR firm who put out an email looking for scientists who were prepared to put their name to it. You can find the email and much more on the blog of the ever excellent Ben Goldacre who also runs the Bad Science Blog.

Turns out this isn't the most depressing day of the year, but it is the day of the year when a travel company might want to nudge us into thinking about booking our summer holiday.

That said it's Monday and who wouldn't want cheering up? So tune into Jim on BBC Radio Shropshire. And you can follow him and me on Twitter.

When some of us see people in pain, we feel pain too

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David Gregory | 17:39 UK time, Friday, 8 January 2010

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New research from the University of Birmingham suggests about a third of us have more than an emotional response when we see people in pain. Some people actually feel the pain themselves.

More than that the scientists believe that if these people are shown a picture of a diver accidentally hitting their head on the diving board then this group of people will actually feel the pain in their own head.

The ringed area shows the pain centres responding in the brain of the top subjectThe researchers have discovered this by showing pictures of various injuries to volunteers while scanning their brains. This is a scan of the brains of two different subjects who are looking at pictures of injured people. The coloured areas show brain activity.

Both are having an emotional response but notice the difference. The red area we've ringed in the top scan is activity in the brain's pain centre. It's not in the bottom scan. The subject in the top scan is having an emotional response and feeling pain too.

In evolutionary terms this makes sense. An emotional response to seeing someone in pain helps us understand they are in a situation we should avoid in future. Adding in pain as well is just icing on the evolutionary cake.

Psychologist Dr Stuart Derbyshire admitted to me he and his team were surprised so many people experienced pain just from seeing images of crunching football tackles and the like. Further questioning revealed these people take care when watching the news and also tend to avoid horror films. More seriously in the long term this research will help scientists understand more about people who are living with chronic pain.

In the meantime here are some of the pictures the researchers used. You'll have to click on the links if you chose to look at them. View image, View image, View image Be warned they're not pleasant to look at, but for one in three of us they're even harder to deal with. And all those people on the news slipping over on the icy pavements aren't that funny either.

More than you ever wanted to know about dimmer switches and energy efficient light bulbs

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David Gregory | 09:09 UK time, Friday, 8 January 2010

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Thomas Alva Edison, who developed the first electric light bulb, is shown in his laboratory in this undated photoClearly viewers of Midlands Today are a romantic bunch. Following our story about npower's energy-efficient light bulb giveaway we asked for your thoughts. And overwhelmingly your emails were about using these greener light bulbs with dimmer switches. Here are just a few you sent us;

Jayne in Wolverhampton points out;

I have dimmer switches in quite a few rooms and the energy saving light bulbs don't work with them. I have had a pack of these light bulbs from npower and I have given them away. Total waste of money.

And Sam Forrester in Uttoxeter said;

We think that the energy saving bulbs are very good but they dont work very well with dimmer switches. Please mention this on the show.

But Laurie Loy from Derby reveals;


We received the energy saving light bulbs from npower and we are using a couple of them around the house. The only problem we have with energy saving light bulbs is that they don't seem to work well with dimmer switches. The light constantly flickers and sends out a really dull light.

So do energy efficient light bulbs work with dimmer switches or not?

Well you can certainly plug them into your existing light sockets and control them with a dimmer switch. But as Laurie points out the light will flicker. Indeed not only are the results poor you will also shorten their life.

The glowing wire inside a traditional light bulbThe modern energy efficient bulb is a compact fluorescent lamp which works in a completely different way to the traditional incandescent bulb. A traditional bulb gives out light because a current passes through a wire inside it. Vary the current with a dimmer switch and you vary the light given out. (you also get lots of heat but we'll come back to that.)

A florescent bulb is filled with gas rather than a filament and has an electrode at each end. A current of electrons passes through the gas from one electrode to the other exciting mercury atoms in the gas which then give out light. Unfortunately this is ultraviolet light which we can't see. So the inside of the tube is coated with a florescent powder that efficiently turns the ultraviolet light into visible light.

It's a much more efficient process than the traditional bulb. But one big disadvantage is it just won't work that well with a dimmer switch. As you turn down the current it becomes harder and harder for the bulb to kick-start itself into life. If like Laurie your bulb is flickering than it hasn't got enough current to work and that continual sputtering on and off is damaging the inside and reducing it's working life.

You need special energy efficient bulbs for use with dimmer switchesThe solution is to buy a special energy-efficient light bulb designed to be used with a dimmer switch. They tend to cost more because they have extra electronics to enable the dimming effect. A modern energy-efficient bulb already has electronics inside it to help regulate that current passing through the gas. This is called the ballast. In a dimmable bulb extra electronics allow the ballast to work with less power and deliver less power to the bulb itself.

That's probably more than you every wanted to know about this, but the important lesson is that Laurie needs to get some proper dimmable energy-saving bulbs.

Final point from Cyril Kitchen which touches on that heat energy given out by traditional bulbs I mentioned earlier;

I am completely amazed at the number of people who are taken in by this farce of (so-called) "Energy efficient" light bulbs which can only save energy on a warm summer evening.

That's because Cyril maintains the extra heat the old bulbs give out are important for warming our homes. Take that away and we just turn up the thermostat which uses more power anyway. It's a nice idea and certainly there's a lot of waste heat. As my BBC colleagues on "Bang Goes the Theory" showed recently two traditional light bulbs put out enough heat energy to cook a chicken in 90 minutes! But sadly it isn't enough to make much of a difference to our heating bills. Lights tend to be high up so any heat is usually wasted. And if it really was a noticeable effect then we'd all be turning out old fashioned light bulbs off on a hot summer's night and turning on all the lights in this cold snap. And I don't know of anyone who does that.

Climate Change? Work it out for yourself

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David Gregory | 16:39 UK time, Monday, 4 January 2010

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Close up of Birmingham weather station thermometerFollowing on from today's look back at the last decade of climate change you might want to examine the temperature records yourself. Including those from the Birmingham weather station we filmed this afternoon.

After the recent furore over climate change research the Met Office lets you do just that because it has released all its temperature data. You can find it here.

While it's fun to play with numbers (although as Science Correspondent I would say that) there are some pitfalls to be aware of. And shortly after this data was released there was a loud noise from the internet as several people fell into them.

This post on Iain Dale shows some of the problems people can run into. It sounded quite reasonable to many of Iain's readers and indeed the man himself. But a quick google will throw up several nice explanations of what has gone wrong.

Of course the question of how to treat data is a very interesting one. For example the Birmingham temperature record may go back to 1881 but the equipment and even location of the station has changed over that time. If a weather station is to be moved the scientists will run the two stations, old and new, in parallel over a year or more to see if there are any variations between the two sites and adjust things accordingly.

It's just one example of the care scientists take with their equipment and data. Thanks to the internet we can all examine the numbers for ourselves. But we need to treat data with the same respect scientists do.

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