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Friday, 19 June 2015

Holly Godwin

Hi, I’m Holly, and I’m working as part of a SEPnet placement at Things We Don’t Know this summer. Firstly I would like to introduce myself and give you a bit of an overview to explain how I got into physics and why this website is different to any other.

Photograph of Holly Godwin at Things We Don't Know
Holly at work in the TWDK offices. Photograph ©TWDK

Monday, 15 June 2015

Joshua Fleming

First of all hi, my name is Josh and I’m the new summer intern at Things We Don’t Know (TWDK). I’m studying Biology, Biochemistry specifically, at Leicester University and have just completed my first year. To give you a better idea of who I am, I thought I’d give you a bit of background information about how and why I started studying Biology, and what I hope to achieve this summer.
Photograph of Joshua Fleming, copyright TWDK
Josh hard at work in the TWDK offices in London. Photo ©TWDK

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Teaching Climate Change greetings cards

We're very happy to report that the artwork for the greetings card from We Are Stardust is now available - and it looks fantastic!

Preview of Teaching Climate Change greetings card by We Are Stardust
The cover artwork and inside text for the greetings card. Image ©We Are Stardust/Things We Don't Know
The cards will be made from sustainable materials, in keeping with the theme of our project. The cards are Forestry Stewardship Council certified, so you can be sure you are not contributing to the destruction of the world’s forests, while the envelopes are made from recycled paper and the cellophane wrappings are biodegradable.

The cards are available through our Teaching Climate Change crowdfunding campaign, and are priced at £5 for a single card or £15 for a pack of 5 (just £3 each).

Thursday, 21 May 2015

Cheltenham Science Festival

We are pleased to announce that TWDK will be at Cheltenham Science Festival in June. Our Natural Sciences Editor Ginny Smith will be there from 4th-7th to talk to speakers and create content for our website.

Since the first event in 2002, Cheltenham Science Festival has grown into one of the most important science festivals in the UK. The 6 day schedule is packed with talks and interactive, hands-on activities covering a huge range of scientific topics, including plenty on active areas of research.

While there, Ginny will talk to as many scientists as possible, and ask each of them one simple question: “what is the most important Thing We Don’t Know in your area of research?”. Their answers will become part of our database, and will appear on the main website once it launches.

With some of the more high-profile speakers, she will also record this discussion and produce a podcast so you can hear their answers. The podcast will be made available as one of the perks for contributing to our Indiegogo campaign “Teaching Climate Change

Of course, she will also be attending some of the fantastic talks, and tweeting from @TWeDK, so if you want to find out what she is up to, follow us on twitter! And if you're going to the festival yourself, we'd love to hear from you.

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