Category Archives: science

Dirty Job


You know, I was not always the handsome, debonair, upwardly mobile, world dictator wannabe.  Oh no.  Like everyone else, I had to start from the bottom and let’s face it, your bottom and my bottom may not be the same!

Errr…..what I mean is that some lucky sods start at the bottom of the pile but I had the fate of starting even further below that …….underground, so to speak.

My first job could be described as that of a “fecal surveillance hydrologist technician”.  But of course, I never heard anyone refer to me as that despite all the fancy name cards I handed out with that title proudly emblazoned.

No.  Instead I was kind of known as the Sewage guy or worse, the Shit Guy.  (…Cable Guy doesn’t seem so bad now, does it?).   You see, my job was to develop tests and to use them to detect the presence of water borne, disease causing pathogens in drinking water and since most of the nasties originate from the feces or shit of infected people, I was really looking out for traces of shit.

Yup, that was my job.  It involved taking water samples from all sort of water sources.  At the clean end, I collected tap water from a city distribution system.  But I also collected water samples in bottles from clear mountain streams,  less clear rivers, deep wells, aquifer pumps, shallow wells, muddy holes in the ground and at the other end of the spectrum, from sewage ponds.

In fact, I remember that my boss had a framed photo of himself in his office proudly showing him squatting next to a stinky sewage pond and reaching out to get a sample of dark, suspicious looking water.  I, on the other hand have burned all such photos of me doing that.  I have also over the years had to burn or bury many of my stinky work clothes!  Needless to say, my social life in those dark times was zilch.

But on a serious note, waterborne disease are estimated to affect billions and kill about 2.2 million annually.  In many countries,  clean treated potable water is still a privilege rather than the norm.  It is in these countries, that the need for simple, quick, portable  and cheap tests for monitoring water quality remains high.

To summarise, finding shit in drinking water……bad.  Doing something to remove the shit in drinking water ……..good.

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LGS is still testing water for your safety.

What was your “start at the bottom of the pile” job?

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Embarrassing Moments in Science


Regular readers will know that the Realm of the Lone Grey Squirrel loves to celebrate excellence……….excellence in failure, that is!  Yes, there is something about epic fails that fills the heart with soul healing mirth and with admiration for the gumption of those who dared to try and fall flat on their faces.  That is why, the IgNobel Awards are frequently feted here.

But recently, the Squirrel had been alerted to a new source of inspiration.  Fieldwork Fails is a book that has a collection of stories of scientists hard at work in the field collecting data and making a fool of themselves in the process.  Kind of a tribute to those who push the boundaries of science and find that the sometimes the boundaries push back.

Here is a couple of examples from Fieldwork Fails which is compiled and illustrated by Jim Jourdane.

science fails 1

science fail 2.jpg

Now I have a few personal examples that I could add to the compilation on account that I am a scientist, have done fieldwork and have experienced epic fails.  But the following is one of my favorite, true, “cross my heart and hope to die” yarns.

This was early in my career as a conservationist and I joined a scientific expedition to a part of the Malaysian jungle that had been relatively poorly investigated by science.  I was really inexperienced at that time but had the wonderful privilege of being in the company of some very respected biologists and botanists and learning from them.  In return, all these eminent scientists asked of me was to carry all their heavy gear through the hot, steamy jungle.

We operated out of a base camp that was almost totally constructed of jungle material.  We slept on stretcher like cots made out of wooden poles and canvas under a shelter that was constructed from various palm leaves laid over a wooden frame.

On one occasion, I had a chance to follow a group of three entomologists who were leaders in their field.  (Entomologist = someone crazy about insects).  After a long day out in the field collecting insect specimens from various traps, we returned to camp and plopped our tired bodies down on to adjacent cots.

It was there, while we lay in the fading light, nursing our sore muscles, that one of the guys spotted an extremely large stick insect up in the rafters of our crude shelter. Now, Malaysia is famous for its many species of stick insects – some of which are very large.

Cameron Highlands - Stick Insect

Anyway, all four of us continued to lie on our cots exhausted, observing the creature from afar and there then ensured an academic debate as to the identity of the curious visitor in our rafters.  One was sure that it was a rare species.  Another disagreed, citing the proportion of the body to the head did not fit the species characteristics.  The third insisted it was yet another species based on the structure and positioning of the legs.  For once, I was wise enough to keep silent and let the experts argue it out.

After, about 15 minutes of heated discussion, one of the experts declared, “There’s only one way to settle this!”.  With that, he got up, reached for his butterfly net and scooped the insect from the rafters for closer examination.  With the prize in hand, all three gathered round to make the final identification.

That’s when they realised that it wasn’t a stick insect at all, it was a …..stick.

Knock, Knock


I was deciding what to post today and lacking any particular inspiration, I just closed my eyes and moved my mouse cursor over my categories cloud list on my blog sidebar.  I decided to write on whatever category topic the cursor ended up resting on.  Guess what!?!?  It landed on “horror”.

Now this was a bit strange and eerie as my topic selection method was not too different from the Ouija board method.  Was I “guided” by unseen forces?  hahaha -hahaha (nervous laugh).

Actually, I do enjoy tales of the supernatural and the unexplained and I have posted about this before under “horror” and “folklore” categories.  However, I was surprised to find out, when I checked, that I hadn’t done a post on this theme for almost 3 years.  So it seems that such a post is due.

Now, strangely enough, I just had someone tell me about a story yesterday that I had not heard of previously and was quite interesting.  Coincidence?  Anyway, here is the story:-

In 1972, the Toronto Society for Psychical Research (TSPR) decided to carry out an experiment to research into contacting spiritual beings.  Dr. A.R.G. Owen, a member of the Department For Preventative Medicine and Biostatistics at the University of Toronto, assembled a  team of people who were considered prominent or respectable members of society and who did not have any particular previous interest or involvement in the paranormal.  In all, there were three men and five women in the group and included a housewife, a bookkeeper, a sociology student, an accountant, an industrial designer, a psychologist, and a former chairperson of MENSA.

Together they met regularly to contact the spirit of one “Philip Aylesford”.

Philip was an English aristocrat who lived sometime in the mid 1600’s.  He lived at his family home, Diddington Manor and had a wife named Dorothea who was the daughter of a neighbouring nobleman.  The marriage was not a happy one.

 

Then, one day Philip came across a gypsy encampment near the boundaries of his lands and met Margo, a dark haired gypsy beauty.  He fell in love with her and set her up to live at he gatehouse of his estate.  In this manner, they maintained their liaison in secret.

 

However eventually Dorothea, found out about Philip’s affair and publicly denounced Margo, accusing her of witchcraft and stealing her husband.  Being a nobleman and a Catholic, the scandal was a great shame and a smear on his family name.  In fear of losing his reputation and his possessions, Philip did not protest or come to Margo’s aid during her trial.  Finally, Margo was convicted of witchcraft and burned to death at the stake.

 

But guilt and remorse would plague Philip after Margo’s death and unable to sleep, he would often pace the walls of Diddington Manor at night, until one day, his broken body was found at the foot of the walls – an apparent suicide.

As you can see, Philip’s tragic story seemed to make him a perfect subject in an experiment trying to make contact with the spirit of the deceased.

Anyway, the team tried to make contact with Philip’s spirit in a laboratory setting with equipment to record sound, photos and video.  Nothing much happened initially.  They tried for several months and apart from a couple of participants saying that they felt a presence, there was no tangible evidence of anything supernatural.

The team re-evaluated and one member suggested that they try to get away from an academic environment and mimic a seance where they would sit around a table in a dimly lit room with their fingers placed lightly on the tabletop.  Objects from the 1600’s were also placed in the room.  It was thought that this might be a more conducive environment for their goals.

It did not take long for strange things to occur.  It started with a loud rapping sound which was repeated on many occasions.  This sound was recorded and analysed and it is said that nothing found in the room created a sound that matched what was heard.  They were then able to communicate with the spirit by asking the spirit to rap or knock once for ‘yes’ and twice for ‘no’.

In this way, they were able to confirm that the spirit was Philip and were able to receive answers to many questions that they asked Philip about his life and the period that he lived in.  Interestingly when asked if he loved his wife, Dorothea, he replied with a very loud double rap.  At other times, when Dorothea was mentioned, the team heard scratching sounds rather than raps.

philip experiment

As the sessions progressed over many months, the manifestations grew stronger.  Some members began to hear answers to questions asked being whispered in their ear.  There were also occasions when the table tilted to the side, or jumped or spun on one or two legs and even rising up and sliding across a carpeted floor.  Lights would go off but come on again when asked to do so.  Strong wind could be felt.  Once a member was trapped in a corner by the moving table.  Every attempt was made to rule out that someone in the group was perpetuating a hoax and no evidence of a hoax was found (Skeptical Squirrel: “although that doesn’t necessary mean that a hoax is completely ruled out”).

This seems to be one of the best documented cases of communication with the spirit of the dead. Are you convinced yet?

Unfortunately, there is a problem; a fly in the ointment in what became known as the Philip Experiment.

The problem was that Philip never existed.  Philip was a fictitious character that the team was asked to create.  Before doing the experiments, They came together and helped write the life-story of Philip.  They even had an artist do a portrait sketch of the imaginary Philip.  Some true facts were included but “traps” were also set so that a trickster may be caught.  For example, Diddington Manor does actually exist but the description of the manor given to the team was incorrect.

The “Philip” that communicated with them during the experiment gave answers that fit the story that they had collectively concocted, including facts and factual errors that had been included.

So what is the conclusions that we can draw from this strange set of events?  Firstly, the team was in fact trying to “create a ghost”.  They were testing the hypothesis that ‘ghosts’ could be produced somehow by the human mind, as in this case, it would seem they could even create a ghost of someone that never existed.

However, the phenomena that they witnessed both surprised and even terrified them.  It exceeded anything they imagined they could achieve and to the best of our knowledge, no scientific explanation has been forthcoming as to how they were able to create those phenomena with stories in their minds.  Some say that the Philip experiment does prove the power of our minds in creating the paranormal.  Remembering though that seances were originally conceived by people attempting to contact their dead relatives, others suggest that the phenomena may indicate malicious or at best mischievous spiritual entities that try to deceive us by giving us what we want to hear.

Two interesting footnotes to the Philip Experiment story.  First, all phenomena came to an abrupt end after one of the team members said, “we only made you up, you know”.  Secondly, the experiment has been repeated around the world with different groups trying contact  Lilith, a French Canadian spy;  Sebastian, a medieval alchemist;  Skippy, an abused Australian 14 year old girl and even Axel, a man from the future. All of them were completely fictional, yet all produced similar unexplained communications with an entity/entities claiming to be them.

Any thoughts on the matter?

Where Babies Come From


Regular readers of this blog will know that my chosen profession is that of “mad scientist”.  Now, while no one seems to dispute the “mad” part, some of you continue to doubt my scientific credentials.  So I have decided to demonstrate my scientific prowess with this post on some fascinating scientific discoveries made with through the magic of statistics.  For an earlier post on a similar topic, go to 100% of All Statistics.   Here are some interesting scientific facts…….

Storks deliver babies.

We have all heard the old wives’ tale that storks deliver babies.  Scientists had previously tried to explain babies by some obscure reference to birds and bees but now it seems the old wives were right.   Research in Germany demonstrate that the drop in the numbers of babies born is correlated to the number of nesting storks.  Clearly, when there are less storks, they can’t deliver as many babies.

From Sies, H. Nature (1988) 332:495.
From Sies, H. Nature (1988) 332:495.

 

Butter is Better

From Spurious Correlations (http://www.tylervigen.com/)
From Spurious Correlations (http://www.tylervigen.com/)

I think we can all agree that butter tastes better than margarine.  The research above shows that margarine is also a leading cause of divorce – as margarine consumption dropped, so did the divorce rate.  While the reason for this correlation is still debated, a leading theory is that most husbands prefer butter and resent being forced by their wives to eat margarine instead.  The resentment will build and grow until there is an argument over money or the kids or the mistress but it all started with margarine.  So remember, butter oils the marriage better.

 

Dangers of the Internet

We have all been warned about the dangers of the internet but honestly, it has been too much fun for us to take the warnings seriously.  However, it can no longer be ignored.

From "From Quarks to Quasars" (http://www.fromquarkstoquasars.com/correlation-vs-causation/)
From “From Quarks to Quasars” (http://www.fromquarkstoquasars.com/correlation-vs-causation/)

Hmmmm.  Let’s just say that it might be a good idea to start using Chrome or Firefox instead.

And finally,……….

Sweet Success

Screen-Shot-2012-11-20-at-4.46.58-PM1
(Image credit: New England Journal of Medicine) Franz H. Messerli, M.D.                                                                             N Engl  J Med 2012; 367:1562-1564

This last one is really relevant to me.  I have been trying for years to win a Nobel Prize but now I know that I have not been eating enough chocolates.  This graph is interesting in that the correlation is good for all countries except Sweden and Germany.  This can be easily explained.  Sweden has higher number of Nobel laureates than their chocolate consumption would indicate but then, let’s remember that the selection committee is based in Sweden (enough said!  Don’t want to prejudice my chances of winning).  And Germany’s poor performance?  Perhaps the result of too many hangovers from Oktoberfest?

So in summary, don’t let the storks roost, eat butter, use Firefox and gorge yourself on chocolates.  I hope knowing these scientific truths will help you improve your lives.

Editor’s Note:  This parody post was inspired by the website Spurious Correlations which was recently featured on the BBC.  This and other sources seek to demonstrate that correlation does not mean causation.  And oft quoted example is that there is a correlation between the rise in ice cream sales in a city with an increase in drowning incidents in swimming pools.  A spurious conclusion would be that eating ice cream increases your chance of drowning.  In actual fact, people tend to eat more ice cream during a heatwave.  The heatwave will also cause more people to go swimming which in turn will result in a higher incident of drowning.

Nocturnal Squirrel


When I saw this article, I immediately thought of Mago.

According to the article,  a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania looked at lab mice that were kept awake to replicate the kind of sleep loss common in modern life, through night shifts or long hours in the office.   After several days of sleep patterns similar to night workers pulling three days of night shifts with only four to five hours sleep in 24 hours – the mice lost 25% of the brain cells in part of the brain stem.

Dear brother Mago, I remember when you did some night shift work some time ago.  So this is bad news for you …………and for me too.

This new research may finally provide a rational explanation why I have failed to win the Nobel Prize so far.  Several times in my life, I have kept those anti-social hours.  But if I do say so myself, I haven’t done too badly with the 25% loss of those brain cells or maybe I just don’t know any different.

My first bout of pulling all-nighters was when I was studying for my finals at University and I am sure many students over the years can tell the same sorry tale.   As the exams got closer, I found that I could concentrate better at night.  First of all, there were far less distractions at night than during the day.  While the sun was up, I might be tempted to leave the books and go enjoy the great outdoors.  But at night, it felt good to stay in with the books by the warmth of the table lamp.  Secondly, I told myself that I just enjoyed sitting at my table and looking out the window to see the darkening twilight and the lightening dawn.

However, I did take it to the extreme.   I took to studying after dinner at 7 pm and carrying on through the night until about 10 am the next day.  Then I would go out to do errands like grocery shopping, have my lunch and then sleep from about 1 pm to about 6pm.  Repeat cycle.  I did this for about two months.

I made it through my exams but there was a toll.  It  made me vulnerable to depression and for a long time after, I suffered from insomnia.

At the time, flushed with the confidence of youth, I thought I was being smart but I guess the sleepless mice experiment shows that I was probably getting dumber by the day.

So my advice is don’t skimp on the good night sleep.

Nuts to Nuts!


It is a common misconception that elephants will work for peanuts or that squirrels will work for nuts.  While that might have been true during a simpler bygone age, the world has changed.  The impact of rampant inflation (which for elephants is particularly large and rampaging and for squirrels means that buried nuts shrivel in value) as well as the modern culture of capitalism and consumerism means that ” enough is enough” or more accurately, “what we have been getting is no longer enough!” Nuts to Nuts!

We, humble, honest, industrious, working-class squirrels will no longer accept mere bland and tasteless blanched peanuts while the privileged upper-classes dine on Macadamia Nut Gateau with Coffee-Praline icing.

It’s all about fairness and equality. Why must there be the rich and the poor and why must the gap between the two continue to widen?  No! It must end!  As all good Socialist Squirrels know, just as greed is the root of all evil, inequality and injustice is the cause of all strife.  For this world to have peace, there must be equality and justice for all peoples.  One way is to reduce or even eliminate the gap between the rich and the poor.  Preferably, we could work to raise the poor to the same level of the rich.  That would be ideal.  In reality though, it would probably be easier to reduce the rich to the level of the poor!

But seriously, this is not just the rantings of a rabid, capitalist turned socialist, squirrel who failed in his dream to be a gazillionaire by the age of 21.  As a certified mad scientist, I offer scientific evidence for the link between inequality and strife.  Behold, the excerpt below from a TED presentation by Frans de Waal, a primatologist from Emery University. The evidence is compelling.

Science – A Funny Old Thing


In the little spiel that I have “About Me” on the sidebar, I mention that I am a scientist.  Now some of you career skeptics have in the past questioned my scientific credentials.  How shocking! But at any rate, I have had to dazzle readers from time to time with my scientific knowledge just so as to dispel these awful allegations.  I assure you that I am a scientist; an absent-minded mad scientist in fact!

However, I realise that it has been sometime since my last scientific post.  So here it is.  I present to you the newly discovered element as reported on the internet………

 

Element ah

 

 

 

Ah!  The Element of Surprise is evidence that science can be a funny old thing and that most scientific discoveries involve the element of surprise.

 

As Isaac Asimov  once quipped, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka” but “That’s funny…””.