Archives for posts with tag: Science

Over the last few years, at the kinds of conferences where the world’s technological elite gathers to mainline caffeine and determine the course of history, Google has entertained the crowds with a contraption it calls Liquid Galaxy. It consists of eight large LCD screens, turned on their ends and arranged in a circle, with a joystick at the centre. The screens display vivid satellite imagery from Google Earth, and the joystick permits three-dimensional “flight”, so that stepping inside Liquid Galaxy feels like boarding your own personal UFO, in which you can zoom from the darkness of space down to the ocean’s surface, cruising low over deserts, or inspecting the tops of skyscrapers. (The illusion of real movement is powerful; your legs may tremble.) You can swoop down to street-level in Cape Town, spot ships in the Mekong river, or lose yourself in the whiteness of Antarctica.

But you don’t, of course. What you do – or what I did, anyway, but watch anyone using Google Earth for the first time, and you’ll see they do the equivalent – is to hurtle across continents to the semi-detached house on the outskirts of York where you grew up, to peer down at a street you know well. In an era of previously unimagined opportunities for exploring the far-off and strange, we want mainly to stare at ourselves.

Doubt is the lifeblood of the academy. Historians and political scientists try never to take on trust any public statement that cannot be independently verified. Scientists look for every possible alternative factor and explanation before claiming that there is a causal link between A and B. Philosophers have even been known not to take their own existence for granted. An attitude of radical scepticism is essential for most serious research.Yet there is also a point at which such scepticism becomes pathological and irresponsible. 

Interest in teaching also suffers because of the fact that the career advancement (promotions, awards/recognitions) are almost entirely based on research productivity with quality of teaching having little consideration. Although the students’ evaluation of teachers is in principle a necessary requirement (at least in departments/universities recognized by UGC-recognized under the SAP or UPE programs or those accredited by the NAAC), this very constructive activity is rarely undertaken and even if undertaken for record sake, the students’ assessment of teachers is very rarely actually utilized for faculty assessment. Unfortunately, the current UGC guidelines for teachers’ eligibility for promotions etc also do not provide any incentive for teaching! The UGC and the university governance system must rectify this serious lacuna.

I personally believe that teaching does not really hamper research, rather it helps generate newer ideas/questions. Teaching requires much wider reading and interactions with a large number of creatively active students. Both these provide opportunities to think of one’s own research in seemingly different backgrounds, which may be expected to foster better integration. Thus if good facilities and congenial environment is created in the universities, the faculty members would have the double advantage of good research and satisfaction/pleasure of teaching.

 If people are seen as major contributors to the problems of climate change and loss of biodiversity, then people’s behaviour and attitudes must be a major part of the solutions. That view makes both the problem and the solution more fuzzy and less susceptible to standardization, but it perhaps also makes the problem more realistic and the solution more practicable.

Discussion of values, stakeholders, community partners and engagement — the language of the social sciences — can make some traditional scientists uncomfortable. So what does this approach mean in practical terms for the IPBES? On one level, as the Comment authors suggest, the answer could be as simple as broadening the criteria of what counts as admissible material — learning to value local knowledge and expertise. The challenge of protecting biodiversity from a cumulative death by thousands and thousands of cuts is surely a good place to test this approach. One size cannot fit all. And it does not need to.


There remains something about the evolutionary account of our origins that sounds a little like a just-so story. Until a century and a half ago it would have been regarded by the most educated person as just that – a witty tale in slightly poor taste; science fiction perhaps, but not science. This incredulity lingers: although now firmly established in the minds of most Europeans, evolutionary theory remains highly contentious worldwide. Notoriously, this includes in the US. According to a Gallup poll conducted this year, nearly half of Americans believe we humans were created by God just as we are today, whereas a further third believe in a process of “intelligent design” guided by a divine hand. Only 15 per cent accept that we evolved unaided from some surprisingly upright apes.


A surprising number of these mysteries concern female sexuality. The male orgasm, for example, serves a rather obvious seed-sowing function – but what is the point of its female equivalent? The popular hypothesis that such ecstasy enhances the likelihood of a subsequent pregnancy is, Barash informs us, entirely without evidence. The idea that it might motivate reluctant ladies also seems flawed: other animals don’t require an eruption of bliss in order to continue the family line. Perhaps it is simply a “non-adaptive by-product” – an incidental development to which evolution is indifferent?

Barash doesn’t think so, preferring to believe that it is more important than that. But in what way remains a riddle – and only one of many posed by the female body. Scientists cannot explain, for example, why women have prominent breasts even when they are not suckling children. Other mammals don’t. Yes, of course, men are drawn to these protruding sacks of fat – but why? No one knows, though theories abound.

As Barash points out, most books about science are accounts of what we know – threatening to give the impression that all the hard work is done. In doing the opposite and writing about the gaps in our knowledge, he hopes to inspire the next generation of Darwins and Dawkinses to take up lab coats in the pursuit of truth. The book is not a white flag in the face of the unknown but a call to arms, suffused with confidence that nature will ultimately give up all her secrets.

«What would it be like to fly through the universe? Possibly the best simulated video of this yet has been composed from recently-released galaxy data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. Every spot in the above video is a galaxy containing billions of stars. Many galaxies are part of huge clusters, long filaments, or small groups, while expansive voids nearly absent of galaxies also exist. The movie starts by flying right through a large nearby cluster of galaxies and later circles the SDSS-captured universe at about 2 billion light years (a redshift of about 0.15) from Earth. Analyses of galaxy positions and movements continues to bolster the case that our universe contains not only the bright matter seen, like galaxies, but also a significant amount of unseen dark matter and dark energy

See also here

This image is a slice from a large simulation called ‘GiggleZ’ which complements the WiggleZ survey. It shows a snapshot of the large-scale matter distribution as studied in Morag Scrimgeour’s research. Image Credit: Greg Poole, Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, Swinburne University ( — We know that stars group together to form galaxies, galaxies clump to make clusters and clusters gather to create structures known as superclusters. At what scale though, if at all, does this Russian doll-like structure stop? Scientists have been debating this very question for decades because clustering on large scales would be in conflict with our ‘standard model‘ of cosmology. The current model is based on Einstein’s equations assuming everything is smooth on the largest scales. If matter were instead clumpy on very large scales, then the entire model would need to be rethought.

 Thirty years ago radioastronomy did not exist. Astronomers gathered their information, as they had for three centuries, through optical telescopes. Methods had of course become much more refined and the instruments had grown enormously since Galileo first poked a small brass tube filled with two glass lenses in the direction of Jupiter and the moon to see what he could see; but telescopes remained effective only in penetrating the optical window of the earth’s atmosphere—that part of the spectrum in the visible region between the ultra violet and the infra red to which our eyes are sensitive.