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Saturday, 25 April 2015

Teaching Climate Change

Last September, we announced that we are one of 200 British businesses that are pledging their support for the Your Life campaign, with the purpose of inspiring young people to study maths and physics as a gateway to exciting and wide-ranging careers. One of those pledges was to produce a series of downloadable materials highlighting current real-life research issues for use with the KS4 curriculum.

And now we're making it happen.

A cartoon showing a school class of polar bears learning about climate change, with a frozen Earth being heated over a fire.
Our first downloadable materials for teachers will be about Climate Change

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Male vs Female Brains

Women are from Venus and men are from Mars, or so we have long been told. There are obvious physical differences between the sexes, but do these disparities extend to our brains? And if there are sex differences to be found in the brain, are they there from before birth, or are they a product of our upbringing? As well as being interesting areas for scientific study, these questions open up some ethical conundrums - if we did find robust, biological sex differences in the brains of men and women, what would this mean for how we should treat the sexes, and how we should raise our children?

Artist's impression of the cerebrum, with the temporal lobe coloured
We all have one of these - but are men's and women's brains different?
Image credit: Anatomography, via Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 2.1 jp]

The first, and probably easiest, question to answer is whether there are physical differences in men's and women's brains. We know that males tend to have larger brains than females, and this has been confirmed by a recent meta-analysis[1]. But do these physical disparities correspond to a difference in ability, or function? Some have argued that larger brain volume suggests greater intelligence, but it is now widely accepted that total brain volume is not a very good indicator of intelligence - Einstein’s brain was actually found to be slightly smaller than average[2]. A criticism of many studies on brain volume is that they fail to take into account that women, on average, have smaller bodies than men - so it seems reasonable to expect their brains to also be smaller. However brain to body size ratio can’t account for the dissimilarities completely - the correlation between the two is not strong in humans, and boys’ brains remain bigger even at age 11-13, where their bodies are, on average, smaller[3].

As well as looking at the brain as a whole, researchers look at specific structures inside the brain to see if there is divergence there. The same meta-analysis found size differences in a huge number of structures in the brain, including the amygdala, which is involved in emotional processing and the hippocampus, which is important for memory. Again, these differences weren’t adjusted for the overall distinctions in size between men & women, but as the variations in size and connectivity differed by region it seems it is not just as simple as every area being bigger in men. Discrepancies have also been found in the percentage of grey matter and white matter in the brains of men & women[4].

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Technicolor theory and the Higgs

Earlier this year, claims have been bouncing around the internet about the results of the biggest discovery in particle physics. That the Higgs boson, the boson meant to help us understand where the origin of mass in particles comes from, is not actually the Higgs boson and that Peter Higgs should have his Nobel Prize whisked away from him quicker than you can say ‘Large Hadron Collider’.

Photograph of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) at CERN in Switzerland
The Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) is one of the detectors in the Large Hadron Collider where the Higgs boson has been detected (the other is ATLAS). Data from this is processed by supercomputers which produce the beautiful collision diagrams for scientists to pore over and deduce what particles have been detected. Image credit: CMS/CERN

But surely the Nobel committee can’t have given away such a prestigious award so carelessly, without having checked the integrity of the results particle physicists have spent years working on? I spoke with Dr Alexander Belyaev from the University of Southampton, who explained how these articles have somewhat missed the point, and how it relates to his research into Technicolor theory. So what is a Higgs boson anyway?

Monday, 16 March 2015

Questions science can’t answer

There are some questions science can’t answer. But how well does this define what should, and shouldn't, be on the school science curriculum?

There is a requirement in the UK school science curriculum which states pupils should be taught that there are some questions that science cannot currently answer, and some that science cannot address. I showed this to a bunch of people (in a very non-scientific manner) and was surprised at how many immediately got upset at the concept.

One person equated this with teaching children that there are things “we should never attempt to know”, and many saw it as a conflict between science and religion, particularly related to the teaching of evolution.

This surprised me because, to a scientist, the statement should be obvious. If there were no questions that science cannot currently answer, then every scientist in the world would be out of a job - hence the name of this website. Yet there is a deep seated association in all of us that science is about proven facts - when really it’s nothing of the sort. Even the most well established scientific Theories remain open to question, representing our best understanding so far.

The second part of the statement, that there are some questions science cannot address, is typically what drew the comparison to religion. In a way they were right about there being a link, but perhaps not to be upset by it. Indeed, there are some questions that will never appear on the pages of Things We Don’t Know, because they are not questions that science can answer. In other words, because they are not scientific questions.

“Does God (or gods) exist?” is just one such question. For a question or hypothesis to be scientific, it must be falsifiable. It’s easy to hypothesize that one or more gods may exist, but it’s impossible to measure or disprove the existence of such a being. Consequently, it is not a question that science can, or should even attempt to, answer.

Similarly, anything related to ethics cannot be answered scientifically. Consider the ongoing debates over assisted suicide, or abortion. Science can measure and predict impacts of policy changes on society and individuals, but whether it’s right or wrong is ultimately down to the moral code against which the decision is to be judged - and there is no scientific measure for morality. Science can tell us whether capital punishment reduces the crime rate more or less than life imprisonment, and whether torture is more likely to yield information from a prisoner than verbal interrogation - but it cannot tell us whether it is morally right to adopt such techniques.

There is, however, a very clear and important distinction between these two scenarios. Questions that science cannot answer are not science, yet questions that science cannot currently answer are the very purpose of scientific research. So perhaps the emphasis should not be on the statement itself, but on understanding the difference.

In September, TWDK made a commitment to produce a series of downloadable materials highlighting current real-life research issues for use with the KS4 curriculum. Today, I’m very happy to announce our first step to realising this. We will soon be launching our flagship project in this area - Teaching Climate Change, and I look forward to telling you more about it very soon.

Teaching Climate Change teaser/concept image, copyright Things We Don't Know
What are we up to? Here's a teaser of our concept artwork for the upcoming Teaching Climate Change project, by Frank Stark. ©Things We Don't Know

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

What is Epilepsy? [Science Video]

Epilepsy affects 1% of the population, and 10% will have a seizure at some point in their lives. But what is epilepsy, what causes it, and how can we treat it? Neuroscientist Dr Ali Jennings (Aliheartscience) interviews neurologist Dr Umesh Vivekananda for TWDK.

Video screencap of Dr Ali Jennings presenting about epilepsy in London for TWDK

Monday, 23 February 2015

Are Nanomaterials Toxic?

There's a lot of concern about the potential toxicity of nanomaterials, intensified by the absence of regulatory standards. This means they aren’t currently required to be safety tested before being used in commercial products. So are nanomaterials toxic, what limits our understanding and how big are the risks to our health?

What are nanomaterials?


Nanomaterials are defined purely in terms of size - they are between 1 and 100 nm in at least one dimension. 1 nm is one millionth of a mm in length, and may be occupied by as few as three atoms, depending on their kind. Nanomaterials can be sheets, wires, rods, particles or platelets, and can be made of any material and have any other properties. Natural nanomaterials include spiders' silk and cotton, and manufactured nanomaterials include carbon nanotubes, metal and metal oxide particles and soots. They occur in paints, fabrics and cosmetics, food packaging and drug delivery medicines. More than a dozen new consumer products containing nanomaterials enter the market every month[1].

Sunday, 15 February 2015

TWDK Receives All Star Award For User Engagement

Constant Contact logo
TWDK Receives 2014 Constant Contact All Star Award
Recognized for achievements using online marketing tools to drive success

[London, UK][12 Feb 2015] — Science education and communications organisation Things We Don't Know C.I.C. has been named a 2014 All Star Award winner by Constant Contact®, Inc., the trusted marketing advisor to more than 600,000 small organizations worldwide. The award, given annually to the top 10% of Constant Contact’s international customer base, recognizes these select businesses and nonprofits for their significant achievements leveraging online marketing tools to engage their customer base and drive success for their organization. TWDK is one such exemplary organization.

Since 2012, TWDK has helped scientists from across the UK, USA, Europe and Australia to explain the problems they're working on in simple, understandable language. By explaining the things we don't know or understand, how we know there's a problem with our current knowledge and why we haven't been able to answer it already, TWDK aims to improve the public understanding of and engagement with science.

We’re delighted to be recognized by Constant Contact for the way in which we engage with our users, said Ed Trollope, TWDK's founder and CEO. We strive to offer the maximum flexibility for users who wish to be notified of our latest updates - we don't want to send you emails you'd rather not get, and Constant Contact provides an easy way for our users to decide which notifications they wish to receive.

Friday, 6 February 2015

How big are atoms?

You may have heard someone mention the size of atoms, in the media or at school perhaps, and you’ll certainly have heard people talk about how small atoms are. So you may be surprised to hear that we don’t know how big atoms are - not exactly, only approximately. But why not?

There are two main problems with measuring the size of atoms - other than the fact that they’re definitely too small to measure by eye, even through a microscope:
  • Atoms don’t have defined edges
  • Atoms can change their size and shape

Atoms don’t have defined edges


We normally talk about electrons in “atomic shells”, which gives the impression of hard, discrete surfaces, like the kernel of a nut. Sometimes, instead, we say electrons travel in “orbitals”. But this conjures up an image of planetary orbitals - specific lines that electrons are restricted to, like a running track. This isn’t a good model. A better description of electrons around a nucleus is “electron clouds”. These clouds describe fuzzy areas of electron density with difficult-to-determine edges. Electron density is the same as negative charge if you assume an electron is a goo smeared out like a cloud, rather than a particle which inhabits a distinct space. This is exactly what an atom is like. We have a fancy name for it: electron density probability distributions.