Latest from Birmingham Post science...
To someone like me, for whom science is a way of life rather than a job, or simply a passing interest, I shouldn't have been surprised when I heard about the next generation of particle accelerators. Every month, I organise the Birmingham Café Scientifique series of events where we have an invited speaker come in for some pub based banter about their work. This month, our speaker was Dr Nigel Watson from the University of Birmingham and he has one of those great job titles: Particle Physicist. I think he was as surprised as anyone about the standing room only audience that was attracted to the event, and he talked us through the current particle accelerators as well as what the future holds whilst also discussing the subtleties of neutrinos, muons and antimatter.
News reaches us, this time from Facebook, that we cannot really cope with having more than 150 "friends" on social networking sites - any more than that number and our "networks" become meaningless and even a psychological burden. Having more than 150 "friends" causes us to feel stressed at the prospect of fighting to maintain something, anything, to keep the "friendship" going. Like a casual acquaintance we hardly know, who we may meet at a wedding, the strain of keeping the social interaction going can be excruciating.
Firstly, I have no problem with the work of the anthropologist Robin Dunbar who first published his theories about the magic 150 in 1992. He is a very nice man apparently, with lots of people claiming nice things about him. His work was preceded of course by a psychologist called Dennis Fox who published similar findings in 1985 concerning political influence. But do we really need watered-down anthropology courtesy of Facebook, to tell us that having too many friends and the responsibilities they bring, can become a burden?
Choice. We hear it from politicians all the time. Whether it's giving people choice in healthcare or parents a choice in schools, it's a dangerous perspective. Choice sounds like a good idea. It sounds like something we should all want.
Last week in Nature there was a very illuminating paper, called "Controllability of complex networks" by Liu, Slotine and -- particularly -- Barabasi.
Albert-Laszlo Barabasi has been in the complexity field for many years, and has brought illumination to many areas, from engineering and natural systems like ecology to complex social systems. (He also writes compellingly good books for the non-scientist.)
The idea of 'controlling complex systems' seems much too general to do any real mathematics with, but the authors of the Nature paper show very clearly that
I have a confession to make. I am a proud geek. I have recently been preparing for some events that we are running at Thinktank over half term called 'Meet the Scientist' and in preparing all of the necessary materials, I came across some scientific Top Trumps cards. For those of you who are under the age of thirty, you may not be aware of the phenomenon that are Top Trumps (even though you can still get them) but it is a very simple game in which you have a set of cards all relating to a particular topic (e.g. supercars). Each player then compares their top card in terms of engine size or price etc and then the player with the highest score takes both cards. It is that simple! I have however come across Cells Top Trumps and even Virus Top Trumps in which I find myself playing Ebola virus off against Varicella Zoster virus! Brilliant!
Twitter is in the news, but not in ways it particularly intended. Caught up in a media storm about the naming of footballer known only as
Ryan Giggs #ctb, it hit the big time when #ctb's lawyers served it with a notice to reveal the identity of people revealing his identity.
This protein is found on our T-cells which are, in his words "the command centre of our immune response" -- they're at the forefront of attacking invading infectious agents. But without some kind of damping down system, our T-cells attack our own bodies with potentially dangerous if not lethal impact. (Rheumatoid arthritis, Type-1 diabetes and inflammatory bowel syndrome are all thought to be autoimmune diseases; i.e. when our immune system attacks our bodies in some way.)
It's been known for some time that CTLA-4 is needed to prevent our immune system from attacking ourselves, how it works has been a mystery. Until now.
A tragic case in Braintree, Essex in September 2010 involved a double-suicide. Stephen Lumb travelled from Yorkshire to meet Joanne Lee in Essex, after she posted adverts online asking for a "suicide partner". They carried out their suicide pact in a car park by poisoning themselves - having only met online not long beforehand. The instantaneous and real-time nature of social networking allows a distressed person to meet another person online and, instead of finding help, support, or time to reflect on their distress, they can end up being encouraged to do something they might not have done alone.
Suicide is currently slowly on the rise in the UK, after consistently falling each year since 1991. Since 2007 an overall increasing trend has been occurring, with approximately 5,500 suicides occurring each year. Internet-based suicide support forums, and social networking media as a whole, clearly play a role in this. The Bridgend suicide "cluster" in Wales was closely related to the phenomenon of copycat suicides and social networking among young people, only stymied by a voluntary news blackout on the topic. Although many feel uneasy about news blackouts in principle, Norway has a scheme where news media reporting of suicides is prohibited, and this no doubt helps make it the only Scandinavian country to have an average suicide rate amongst its citizens, as opposed to a much higher rate found in Denmark, Sweden and Finland.
This week, a former nurse from Minnesota, William Melchert-Dinkel (aged 48) was recently found guilty of aiding and encouraging the suicide of two individuals after meeting them in internet suicide chat forums. He entered into fake suicide pacts with the victims, because he was fascinated with, and motivated by hanging and death. He was sentenced this week for aiding the suicide of a male from Coventry who hanged himself (which Melchert-Dinkel had asked to be allowed to watch via a webcam), and a female in Canada who drowned herself after his encouragement. He was sentenced to 320 days in prison, as well as 40 extra days to be served in two day "stints" over the next ten years, on the anniversary of his victims' deaths. He was also ordered to pay 18,000 dollars in fines, and a further 29,000 dollars in restitution. He will be on probation for 15 years with a suspended six-and-a-half year sentence and will also be banned from using the internet without approval. Melchert-Dinkel will appeal on the grounds that he was exercising his rights of free-speech on the internet. He has admitted using the internet and a variety of suicide forums to encourage twenty or so people to commit suicide online, as well as entering into fake suicide pacts with ten other people, five of which he believed went on to kill themselves. That Melchert-Dinkel was a nurse who admitted being obsessed with hanging and death was worrying enough, having overtones of the UK's Colin Norris, Beverly Allit and Harold Shipman. The presiding judge compared Melchert-Dinkel's conduct with stalking, describing it as calculated, intentional and fraudulent, with even his own defence team describing his acts as "sick" and "abhorrent". Melchert-Dinkel has not yet shown any remorse for his actions. It begs the question as to whether this could be a form of vicarious serial murder. The mother of the deceased man in the case, Mark Dryborough from Coventry, who was 32 at the time of his suicide, has accepted the sentence as being reasonable, and has shown considerable grace as well as empathy and understanding to Melchert-Dinkel in her words.
I have been wondering if technology is helping us, or not. A colleague told me that using email during the day equates to about a 10 point reduction in IQ, because of the interruption and change of focus and reduced concentration time - and whilst I can't find the source to back this up, it wouldn't surprise me. Now, whether it's actually true for a younger generation, more used to technological multi-tasking, is another issue, but it's certainly an indication that technology causes problems as well as solving them.
It's fitting that there's now a Science blog in the Birmingham Post, and for me it's interesting to speculate what it may cover in the future. However, one thing that is guaranteed is that it's not just going to present scientific advances, technological achievements, and new knowledge in an abstract manner.
No - science and technology is now an integral part of our everyday lives; most obviously, most people have mobile phones that do so much more than make and receive calls, yet making these work requires technological wizardry and scientific magic that would have had people dunked into the fountain as witches not so long ago.