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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

The Science of Seaweed

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Dr. Frithjof Küpper cites one of his research interests as lying in the "chemical ecology of marine algae and microbes." Basically, Dr. Küpper researches seaweed. However, as Radio 4's recent Material World programme on the subject indicated, the science of seaweed is a highly significant research area.

In a co-authored paper entitled "Iodide Accumulation Provides Kelp with an Inorganic Antioxidant Impacting Atmospheric Chemistry," Küpper and his collaborators published their finding that large brown seaweed releases a form of iodine to protect itself from sunlight or low-lying atmospheric ozone. Consequently, iodine emissions may cause localised clouds to form. Harnessing this effect may make it easier to seed rain clouds in drought-ridden areas, and appreciating the global extensiveness of this biospheric feedback loop may have implications in understanding and tackling climate change.

My reason for this brief post is to highlight the anarchistic nature of scientific discoveries. For whilst the public may respond positively to news about breakthroughs in cures for cancer (the Daily Express carries headlines about one nearly every week) or more fuel efficient cars, they probably care little about the science of seaweed. However, the story admirably picked up by Material World indicates that the majority of science is not headline-grabbing stuff. It is often conducted in niche areas, that may at first glance appear to have no relevance to human society, with the science itself being done purely to satisfy the curiosity of those involved.

This, then, exemplifies one of the myths of scientific research. For asked which project they would prefer to fund, I expect most lay people would choose the cancer cure option. However, science is a holistic enterprise. You cannot necessarily have the cure for cancer, or the solution to the climate change crisis, without understanding esoteric processes in apparently unrelated fields. Although with a limited pot of money funding bodies necessarily prioritise and exclude some research proposals, it is not always possible to predict from which area vital findings are going to emerge.

Indeed, one suspects that many people will have been balked at the $8 billion cost of the new Large Hadron Collider at CERN. What need for an expensive camera designed to take pretty snapshots of elementary particles? Sure, it may provide newspaper editors with impressive photos of small men standing in giant machines (The Guardian recently ran a supplement feature on the LHC), but surely there are cheaper ways to spark the imagination than by producing particulate fireworks? Well, probably the same questions were raised in 1990. Then a chap called Tim Berners Lee came along and, faced with the need to share data among research groups, invented the World Wide Web, by which you are reading these very words. The sciences of seaweed or particles indicate that whilst some sciences may not be appreciated in anticipation of great discoveries, their inestimable value often emerges through hindsight. I suspect that when it becomes operation in August, along with its terabytes of data the LHC will continue to prove this one, vital rule.

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Posted by Alistair at 7:52 am


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Zealots Playing God! - 'The World is not Enough'
Nobel Prize hungry Physicists are racing each other and stopping at nothing to try to find the supposed 'Higgs Boson'(aka 'God') Particle, among others, and are risking nothing less than the annihilation of the Earth and all Life in endless experiments to try to solve theoretical problems when urgent real problems face the planet. The European Organization for Nuclear Research(CERN) new Large Hadron Collider(LHC) is the world's most powerful atom smasher that will soon be firing subatomic particles at each other at nearly the speed of light to create Miniature Big Bangs producing clouds of Micro Black Holes, Strangelets and other potentially cataclysmic phenomena.
The CERN-LHC website Mainpage itself states quote: "There are many theories as to what will result from these collisions,..." This stunning admission is because they truly don't know what's going to happen. They are experimenting with forces they don't understand to obtain results they can't comprehend. If you think like most people do that 'They must know what they're doing.' you could not be more wrong. Some people think the same thing about medical Dr.s but consider this by way of comparison and example from JAMA: "A recent Institute of Medicine report quoted rates estimating that medical errors kill between 44,000 and 98,000 people a year in US hospitals." The second part of the quote reads "...but what's for sure is that a brave new world of physics will emerge from the new accelerator,..." A molecularly changed or Black Hole consumed Lifeless World? The end of the quote reads "as knowledge in particle physics goes on to describe the workings of the Universe." These experiments to date have so far produced infinitely more questions than answers but there isn't a particle experimentalist physicist alive who wouldn't gladly trade his life to glimpse the "God particle", and sacrifice the rest of us with him.
This quote from National Geographic exactly sums this "science" up: "That's the essence of experimental particle physics: You smash stuff together and see what other stuff comes out."
For more information visit;
Popular Mechanics - "World's Biggest Science Project Aims to Unlock 'God Particle'" - http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/extreme_machines/4216588.html"

2:30 pm  
Blogger Ishmael said...

A fascinating cross-post from SaneScience.org, whose tagline reads: "Imagination is more important than knowledg" [sic.]. Need I reply further...?

2:38 pm  
Blogger Ishmael said...

Actually, in case you are worried about the risk of the LHC, Sane Science can help. From the bottom of their website:

"Did you help create a Black Hole? Know someone who did? Speak Up!
Whistle Blowers Wanted! Anonymity Guaranteed. SaneScience@Gmail.com"

Naughty Tommy physicist! Have you been playing with your chemistry set again? What did mummy say about playing with those black holes?

2:42 pm  
Blogger Robert I. Marsh II said...

The Looking Glass Window to CERN LHC/ALICE/ATLAS: Unless the schedule changes again! August 2008: LHC begins safety 'ring tests' of the Cryonic Superconductor Magnetic Dipoles (Super-cooled magnets), that are supposed to keep the proton particle beams on-track! This phase of testing, including the October 2008 initial collisions, will only use lower energy-packet pulses. This reduces the possibility of disaster! At this time, the schedule reveals total full-power capabilities will not be attempted, until after an operational slow-down 'break' set for sometime after October. LHC will re-start in early 2009, and not only full-power collisions, but ALICE & ATLAS experiments shall begin. These two projects use different types of particles, such as ALICE: heavy lead(Pb) ions. This type of collisions are far more dangerous, because it creates hyper-density plasma luminosities. The LHC has two 7 TeV (Trillion Electron Volts) circulating proton beams, that shall collide at a specific 'impact moment', at a combined 14 TeV collision magnitude (strength). The scientific community is uncertain about the outcome potentials, concerning ALICE & ATLAS in 2009, once financed! The disaster scenarios: (MBH) Blackholes, Expanded Quantum Wormholes, Time-Distortions, Strangelet Transitions, and Protonic Reversal. The driving force behind this entire project-set, is the hope for: A Nuclear/Plasma Fusion (controllable and sustainable) process. If this foundation technology is discovered, then it shall be sent to a seperate fusion facility, for further testing results! Nuclear Fusion could meet our future world, desperate energy needs! Astrophysics would get the answer to the Accelerating Universe questions. These project discoveries are intended to be applied to ALL BRANCHES of science and technology, at all levels! Half of the current 'Standard Model' is just a mere theoretical mathematic representation, and it will take these experiments, to complete this model. Remember, the LHC/ALICE/ATLAS are based/built upon these antiquated precepts. It all boils down to 'faith', and depends on your faith in the scientific community of mathematicians and physicists. If there has been at least one misinterpretation, then there could be unexpected reactions! CERN LHC/ALICE/ATLAS already has a pre-planned decade (2009-2019) of precision energy upgrades to come! I sincerely hope you share this info with a friend! Thank You!!!

3:42 am  

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