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Archives for December 2009

Making a good video game

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David Gregory | 17:04 UK time, Tuesday, 22 December 2009


Gamer playing Mario KartWill you be giving or unwrapping a video game this Christmas? Well scientists have been studying what makes a game fun.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham have been combing through the reviews and sales for video games to tease out what makes a great game. According to researchers;

"variety, cohesion, a social element, and good user interaction"
are the most important points for developers to cover.

In other words a game should have a few twists and turns in it but nothing so surprising it stops making sense. That it should be fun to play with others, either in your living room or online. And finally the controls should make sense, harder than you might think.

Although the research is a little rough and ready it does show that this social element is more important than previously thought. And also that gamers will forgive a game plenty if it's cheap enough. Which is very interesting because the price we pay for games is changing.

Traditionally you bought a game from a shop. Today you are just as likely to download it from the internet. And that means smaller, cheaper games have become cost effective for games companies to produce. A low enough price-point and gamers will forgive plenty of problems, including it not touching on all of what the research identifies as the best attributes of a good game.

The aim of all this is to help video game companies design games that get better reviews which should lead to higher sales and happier customers. And professional reviewers can make sure they've reviewed all the areas of a game that people think are important.

Interestingly a game heavily hinted at by my other half as the perfect Christmas present, "FEAR 2: Project Origin" features in the research. Apparently it's a game that "has storytelling and environment problems, but these are overwhelmed by the excellent variety and cohesion demonstrated." Which means scientifically there's a high chance it will make an appearance under our Christmas tree.

Have a Happy Christmas!
Happy Christmas UK:R!

The Matthew Boulton Challenge

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David Gregory | 15:10 UK time, Thursday, 17 December 2009


King's Norton Boys SchoolMeet the winners of the Matthew Boulton School's Challenge. A competition where the aim was for school children to come up with an invention inspired by the great man himself. The idea to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Boulton's death.

I've blogged before about the achievement's of Matthew Boulton and as a judge I wanted to see some of his inspiration, commercial savvy and artistic style in the presentations.

There were plenty of good ideas, prototypes and even a working model of various gadgets. The winners were a team from King's Norton Boys' School with a paper-recycling machine for the home. Since Boulton himself invented one of the world's first copying machines he would have appreciated this idea.

Four Dwellings SchoolI also want to mention one of the runners up, Four Dwellings School with their idea to generate power from the fat extracted during liposuction. I think with a bit more development there might be something in this. Hopefully next year we can have a bit of number crunching and some lab work to see if the idea has potential. Though I think it might be easier to experiment on lard rather than the by products of liposuction on people!

The aim is for this event to become an annual event. Encouraging school children from across the region to think like Matthew Boulton. Personally I believe if he was alive today he would certainly be working with computers. Quite likely finding ways to make paying for online content like newspapers as easy as possible.

Thanks to Aston University for organising the event and to Edward Moss for the pictures. Congratulations to all those schools who took part. The judges in action

Fixing chronic back pain with just one injection

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David Gregory | 16:37 UK time, Tuesday, 15 December 2009


Injection into segment of cow spineIt is such a simple sounding idea but one that could have real benefits. Researchers at Aston University have created an injection to relieve chronic back pain.

It's award winning.

Computer simulation of spine showing discIt's a new way to effectively replace the degraded discs inside the spine that are the source of the pain.

At the moment patients with this problem are offered fairly invasive surgery to try and correct it. That could mean implanting metal rods into the spine or even fusing the vertebrae.

But this new approach uses some very clever chemistry instead. Two liquids are simultaneously injected into the space where the degraded disc sits. At this point the liquids are thin enough to travel down a normal sized hypodermic needle. But once inside the spine the liquids mix and form a thick gel.

This gel exactly mimics the behaviour of the degraded discs. It effectively "re-inflates" the spine of the patient relieving the back pain. It can even absorb water to copy the way discs expand at night after a hard day of supporting our weight.

So the inevitable question I get asked at this point is when might it become available? Well the researchers at Aston are talking to several large American companies. The materials used are well understood so it's possible a commercial product might be available in three to five years.

Interestingly it may well be used in animals first. The route to approval for veterinary medicines is shorter than for human medication and using this treatment in animals would also provide valuable data for the scientists.

Science and politics

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David Gregory | 17:44 UK time, Friday, 11 December 2009


Elmley Castle Village HallWe're half way through the Copenhagen Climate Summit so this week I've been working for The Politics Show navigating the choppy waters where science and politics meet.

From expensive new medicines, the problems of bovine TB and the cancer risk posed by mobile phones I've covered plenty of stories where understanding science is important for politicians. They have to take action based on research. But for the most part they're not scientists themselves.

So how do you take a decision based on science when you don't understand it? How far do you go when you have to take something on trust?

And what about the flip-side? Scientists are certainly not politicians. How frustrating is it to see a complex scientific argument boiled down to a simple question that is easily understood by voters? At what point does simplification become distortion?

The politicians I've spoken to are remarkably pragmatic. When it comes to the science of climate change the green agenda can create jobs and save money. Local councillors like Anna Mackinson explained green policies mean free electricity for Elmley Castle Village Hall from newly installed solar panels.

And in Birmingham the council say the bright-green "Birmingham Declaration" will attract investment and create jobs.

Spitfire at Thinktank, BirminghamBut in this highly technical age our political masters are going to be taking more and more decisions based on information they don't understand in depth.

On Sunday after the report we'll be live at Thinktank in Birmingham directly below one of the greatest examples of politicians trusting scientists and letting them get on with the job, the mighty Spitfire. Join me on BBC One at midday.

The state of science on climate change

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David Gregory | 16:17 UK time, Monday, 7 December 2009


One polar bear definately not threatened by climate changeThe motto of this blog is "science is the answer". So in this brief post I'll just pull together the best links and thoughts about the science of climate change.

It's been triggered by a couple of interesting internet discussions I've been following where two people independently posted the same link. Detailing 450 papers that "support Scepticism of "Man Made" global warming".

Or perhaps not.

There are plenty of other arguments about climate change, some very scientific and others less so. This is a list of some very common arguments put forward and what our current understanding of climate science actually is.

There's a useful page on the BBC website. Scientific American tackles what it calls the "seven answers to climate contrarian nonsense". And New Scientist has an entire section devoted to all the latest research.

Or if you prefer you could examine all 928 papers published on "Climate Change" in the decade between 1993 and 2003. Fortunately someone has already done that for you.

"This analysis shows that scientists publishing in the peer-reviewed literature agree with IPCC, the National Academy of Sciences, and the public statements of their professional societies. Politicians, economists, journalists, and others may have the impression of confusion, disagreement, or discord among climate scientists, but that impression is incorrect."

Understanding the science can help you short-circuit some heated climate-change debate around the turkey this Christmas.

Climatic Research Unit emails: Update

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David Gregory | 16:34 UK time, Wednesday, 2 December 2009


As an update to my post about the Climatic Research Unit emails I thought it worth mentioning the response from the original poster after my blog went live;

"Crumbs, the carpet is looking quite bulky with everything you've swept under it."

And that's it. In the end it does illustrate something about this clamour for scientists and experts to explain more about what they do. For some people that isn't really the point. A quick quip and it's on to picking the next delicious looking cherry from the data or emails.

As I said in my orginal post I'm surprised the emails are as temperate as they are. This nicely illustrates the point.


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