Monday, 30 December 2013

How I'll be spending New Year's Day

New Year's Eve is here, and for many of us, that means a night of heavy alcohol consumption, leaving behind a torturous headache by which to make the most of the first day of the new year. So, in festive spirit, I'm taking a quick look at why we get some of the symptoms that constitute a hangover at all.

Like many ailments, the hangover certainly has its own set of characteristic symptoms: headaches, dizziness, nausea, fatigue and thirst are amongst the most common. Whereas the causes for the first three are less clear, the last two of these symptoms have the fairly straightforward explanations.

We feel thirsty simply because we are dehydrated. Alcohol is a diuretic, making us need the toilet more. In fact, for every standard unit (UK) of alcohol drunk, urine excretion increases by around 80ml. Note that this means that if I drink a pint of beer, I will not only lose the amount of liquid that I would if I were to drink the equivalent of water, but I would lose more, thanks to the alcohol - so the water content in the beer does not replace the water that is lost due to the alcohol content in the beer.

Similarly, we feel fatigue simply because we lack proper sleep. Though alcohol can put us quickly into a deep sleep once we hit the pillow, it significantly disrupts sleep later in the night. Moreover, it cuts the amount of time we spend in REM sleep, important for the proper functioning of our brains. Also, heavy drinking is likely to mean you'll need to wake up a couple of times in the night needing the loo, which certainly doesn't facilitate effective sleep. All this leaves us rather tired.

So what about the headaches, dizziness and nausea? These symptoms are in part due to dehydration and lack of sleep, but beyond this, explanations become much more hazy. These other symptoms may also be due the side effects our bodies experience in clearing up the mess we've made: our bodies break alcohol down into acetate, so that it can be removed from the body; but it is thought that the alcohol may be broken down into the chemical 'acetaldehyde' first, a chemical that is much more toxic than alcohol, thus worsening hangover symptoms. More commonly quoted hangover culprits are 'congeners', since they tend to be found in those darker alcoholic drinks that reportedly lead to worse hangovers. These are just a few of the speculations amongst researchers and the media, but, overall, there seem to be no conclusive explanations here.

So we have some clear answers and some other vague speculations. What we do know is that I, along with many others around the world, shall be facing a splitting headache, a nauseous disposition and the acrid taste of wine at the back of my throat on New Year's Day. Lovely.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The lives of honey bees

Ever since a bee-enthusiast told me a few facts about the lives of honey bees, I've wanted to write about them. If it made sense to describe the behaviour of the honey bee using terms from human sociology, I think something along the lines of 'fascist matriarchy' might be suitable: the queen bee seems to yield a rather authoritarian power, and the males seem to get a rather rough deal.

There are three 'castes' of honey bees in a hive: the queen bee, the worker bee and the drone.

The queen bee: there is only one queen bee in a hive. When she hatches, she will go and kill off all other unhatched or hatched queens, so assuming her right to the throne. Soon after birth, she goes on her one and only ever mating flight, mating with multiple male bees. Her primary purpose in the hive is the lay eggs.

The worker bee: worker bees are all female. They lack the ability to reproduce themselves, and devote their lives to foraging and storing nectar and pollen, cleaning the hive, feeding the male bees and the unhatched eggs, and servicing the queen with all her needs.

The drone: drone bees are the male bees. Their primary purpose is to mate with the queen bee. However, those that are successful unluckily die in the very act. Male bees are the first to be expelled from the hive when winters are harsh and honey reserves are low, left to starve without food.

So why have honey bees evolved to behave in this way that I rather ridiculously call 'fascist matriarchy'? Thanks to evolution, this behaviour must be to their benefit, but I found hard at first to see how.

In the animal kingdom, this type of behaviour is known as 'eusociality'. Eusociality is different to other social systems in the animal kingdom because, in eusocial animals, different castes of the animal perform functions that other castes of the animal cannot perform. Because of this, a single honey bee, whether it be a queen, worker or drone, cannot survive for very long by itself; it needs the rest of its hive to live. Because it is the hive rather than individual that is self-sufficient, such eusocial groups are often referred to as 'super-organisms'.

When considered as a super-organism, the behaviour of the honey bee makes much more sense. Just like organs in a self-sufficient organism, the bees each have different functions in the running of their self-sufficient hive; so, for example, only one female in the whole hive need have reproductive organs, because she reproduces on behalf of the whole hive. Furthermore, since bees do not mate in winter, the drones are of no use to the hive at this time, and are thus expelled in favour of the workers and the queen, needed to care for the hive and produce its next generation.

At the level of the individual, their lives seem starkly different to ours, but at the level of the super-organism, this difference is less stark. I think they're a great example of how varied the workings of the natural world can be, yet how life ultimately works in very similar ways.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

How we might make physics lessons a bit more exciting

A lot of people are put off by physics - it can come across as dry and tedious, where the content is too abstract to be interesting and the calculations involve too many numbers. I am somewhat of a physics-lover, and even I found physics at school quite a chore.

From the little I know about what it is to teach, I have no doubt that the national curriculum is very stringent, allowing little space in which teachers might inject excitement. Even if there was the space, teachers tend to be so over-worked that it's hard to see where they could find the time. However, there is something I think that could make a difference; something that teachers could do that would attract students' interest, creating a foundation upon which learning physics could be more engaging.

Students listen when they see things they don't expect, whether it be their teachers put on a ridiculous Christmas pantomine or something less excusable such as their peers creating class mayhem. Physics has the advantage of lending itself to demonstrations with impressive, and often unexpected, results. So perhaps physics lessons could involve a few more things like that.

I was watching a QI repeat quite recently and Stephen Fry was describing a rather fantastic demonstration he was privy to in one of his school science lessons. His teacher brought into his class a single, red rose. Rather dramatically, the teacher whipped the rose into a bucket of liquid nitrogen and then flung it against the wooden desk, causing it to shatter, like glass, into a hundred pieces. Watching a rose shatter on impact is definitely something you wouldn't expect to see, and would have definitely got my attention in a lesson. After a short discussion on the exciting properties of liquid nitrogen (nitrogen - liquid? etc.), perhaps this demonstration could be an introduction to a GCSE lesson in cooling and heating.

I know that there are so many reasons why this, in general, couldn't be a solution to the lack of interest in physics lessons. Obstacles show up in their plenty, from the limits of technical support available to teachers to having a class disciplined enough to perform demonstrations of this kind. But the point here is that physics lends itself to eye-widening phenomena, and enabling students to realise this might make them a bit more excited about it.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Explaining the weird world of quantum mechanics

Quantum mechanics tells us things about the world that are impossible to make sense of. For example, it seems to tell us that a particle can be in more than one place at once. In fact, so the maths suggests, it can be in infinitely many. But then, putting aside the fact that this sounds ludicrous in itself, why is it that we only ever measure a particle to be in one place?

Human kind has always wanted to make sense of the world around us. When the ancient Egyptians saw the sun move through the sky, they understood it to be their god "Ra" travelling across the sky with the sun on his head. Thousands of years later, the Greeks, and later Copernicus, made sense of it by proposing that the Earth revolves around the sun.  Of course, these two theories are very different from each other, with the latter justified by a lot more evidence than the former. But they both try to explain.

Similarly, physicists and philosophers of physics are trying to explain quantum mechanics, but it is proving impossible to do so conclusively. According to the most widely accepted theory, a particle is in infinitely many places at once only until the moment it is observed or measured. At this point, it instantaneously and unpredictably takes up one position. A less conventional but increasingly popular theory proposes that when the particle is measured, our universe actually branches off into infinitely many others universes, with the particle assuming a different position in each of the universes. Thus, we only ever measure the particle to be in one place.

Neither of these theories seem very intuitive; rather, they both seem utterly fantastical. But when Copernicus proposed that the Earth revolved around the sun, that didn't seem very intuitive to his contemporaries either. What I think is really exciting is that something has to be right, and whatever it is, I feel quite sure, is going to be weird.

Friday, 25 October 2013

The reasons behind our fundamental constants

I've just watched an interesting talk by Gian Giudice. In this talk, Giudice presents his hypothesis that the value of the Higgs boson mass, which is approximately 126 GeV, is special: it is special because it falls within the small range of critical values that mean that the structure of our universe is on the brink of collapse. Luckily, the probability of such a collapse happening is so small, that this is only likely to happen inconceivably far into the future (phew!).

Of all the values the Higgs boson mass could take, why is it this one, one that puts the fate of our universe on knife-edge? Giudice believes that there could be a reason, using an effective analogy to explain why. Consider the much less mysterious phenomenon of sand dunes: the slope of sand dunes generally take a value between thirty and thirty five degrees, because the effects of the wind and the effects of gravity upon the sand mean that the slope is simply statistically likely to be within this range. And so the same can be said for the Higgs boson mass: there is a high statistical probability that its mass takes a value within the range that it does, due to two competing effects. What these effects might be caused by pose further questions to be explored.

This got me thinking about the other fundamental constants of the universe: Planck's constant, a fundamental constant of quantum mechanics; the speed of light in a vacuum, the constancy of which is the insight of Einstein's theory of Special Relativity; and the fine structure constant, which, if it were just four percent larger, would prohibit the formation of carbon and life as we know it. Do the values of these constants have reasons? Or are some of them simply what they are by pure chance?

My intuition has been that they have reasons. Our world is so intricate that I can't imagine that, when the universe was born, light simply took on a value of 3x10^8 m/s for its speed by chance. But until now, I couldn't understand what a reason might look like; what would possibly cause any fundamental constant to take on the value it does? I liked Giudice's talk because it helped me to understand how there could indeed be reasons behind such things.


Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Two theories of almost everything

The standard model of particle physics constitutes a huge development for modern physics, going a long way to fulfilling the physicist's ultimate dream, a 'Theory of Everything'. It describes all of the fundamental building blocks of matter known to exist, three of the four known forces that determine how they interact, and it even tells us how matter has mass at all. This last feat, of course, is achieved by the Higgs Boson.

The force that the standard model notoriously finds too challenging to describe is the very first force we learn about at school, gravity. Our best theory of gravity is Einstein's general relativity. Unifying the current standard model with general relativity would successfully create a Theory of Everything.

It seem rather simple then, doesn't it, to fulfil the physicist's dream? However, the current standard model and general relativity have proven horrendously difficult to unify, with attempts resulting in 'complete nonsense'. Physicists have turned their hopes onto other theories (including the commonly cited string theory), in the hope that these new routes will be more fruitful.

There, for now, the standard model remains: alongside Einstein's general relativity as one of two theories almost everything.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Higgs boson and the Nobel prize

Congratulations to Francois Englert and Peter Higgs for their Nobel Prize achievement, and congratulations too to Robert Brout (post-humously), Tom Kibble, Gerald Guralnik, Richard Hagen, Philip Anderson, Jeffrey Goldstone and the thousands of technicians and experimentalists who have been part of the multi-decade long project to find the Higgs Boson at the LHC, CERN. 

As in almost any discovery, a lot of people have played a part in the discovery of the Higgs Boson. I've found it very satisfying to read about the story of the theoretical discovery that happened almost fifty years ago, the planning and construction of LHC and the very recent and momentous experimental confirmation; how lovely it is to recognise the small but hugely significant step that the human race has made in search of truth.

I wrote an article back in February, when the nominations for the 2013 Nobel prize winners came in; it talks a little about the history of the Higgs boson discovery and speculates upon who the winners might be. Read it here, if you're interested.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

It's a fascinating world

The world is a strange place, and the more I learn about it, the stranger I think it is. 

I've just finished a degree in Physics and Philosophy, and unfortunately have forgotten a great deal of the content I learnt (I'm not entirely sure what a capacitor is at this moment in time). However, I spent a lot of time studying the the bizarre behaviour of the world at the quantum level, and at the very least my enchantment with this has remained. The theory of quantum mechanics is both beautiful and mind-boggling: beautiful because it falls out so perfectly from the mathematics, and mind-boggling because it seems near to impossible to build a conclusive picture of what is actually going on. The maths simply does not fit our intuitions about the way things work.

As such, it was this particular area of science that captivated me during my degree. But of course there are many fascinating things to learn about in this world, from the physics of our universe at the smallest and the largest scales to the science behind man's inventions and the biology of the living world around us. Now that I'm no longer consigned to physics alone, I hope to read and learn about the vast number of fascinating things in this world, and, as I do, I will try to write about them here in a simple and accessible way, yet keeping true to the science.

Do comment and send me feedback!