The inevitable Higgs Boson post.

I’ve been meaning to blog about the discovery of the Higgs Boson since Wednesday but I’ve been otherwise engaged working on my MSc.  Anyway, there’s been loads of great stuff posted on-line since then and I can’t add any insight apart from how very excited I am that we’ve had such a massive discovery.

So here are my top picks of the Higgs press:

PhD comics explain what a Higgs’ Boson is.

The Naked Scientists do the same in a slightly different way – Awesome!

BBC News reports the story

CERN website

Cosmic Variance (a bunch of physicists) liveblogging the announcement of the discovery

Jon Butterworth (who works at ATLAS) about the discovery

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Snail competition

Exam technique – “Evaluate” questions

An evaluate question can be a lot like a compare question.  Most of your marks will be gained from comparing two different things (see Exam technique – compare questions).  However, you will also be expected to decide which of the two things is better and explain why.

Sometimes you’ll be asked to evaluate just one thing, in which case you will be expected give the pros and cons before making your final judgement.

Some useful terms to use in your evaluation…

“Overall, I think… because…”

“I believe … because”

“… is better than…because…”

“I would pick… because…”

Note that all of these have a “because” as explain your reasoning is important here.

Example: Evaluate the use of animal testing in drug manufacture.

Animal testing has various advantages and disadvantages.  It allows us to see whether drugs have any adverse effects before we try them on patients.  It also allows us to test whether the drug actually cures the disease if we test it on an animal with that disease.  However, animals have to be given the illness for this to happen so it may be considered cruel.  Overall, I think it is important to continue to use animal testing because without it many humans might die from taking untested drugs.


Create Sports Challenge

More excitement from the world of Mr Gale this week when he and a group of Year 8 boys participated in the Create Sports Challenge , run by the Institute of Civil Engineers.  They had to design a community sports venue and were in competition with 12 -13 year-olds from across the country.

Mr Gale said,

“It was really good.

They put on an excellent event for us.  We were the first to arrive and when we saw all the other models we thought we were in with a chance.  Then a couple of other models were delivered which were very good (probably too good for year 8s) and we started to get a bit worried.

We met the British Judo champion David Logan (although he just found out this morning that he hasn’t been selected for the 2012 Olympics) and then we were given a tour of the offices and model workshops of the Arup Architecture department.  Many of the boys were inspired when they saw the offices (which were beautiful) and the model workshops and are now aspiring architects.

We didn’t make it into the top three though we were given a commendation for our sketch design for which they said they would offer a job to the person that did the design!

I think we could have done better by focussing less on the design and build and more on the soft parts of the projects such as community use and after–use.  I think we probably made a bad choice wrt the venue – the arguments with the after-use of the Olympic stadium are well known.

I think it is an annual event so hopefully we’ll receive an invite next year.”

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Why supermarket tomatoes taste rubbish.

I like to grow my own food, particularly tomatoes.  I find that the ones I grow myself are much sweeter and less watery than the ones I get from the supermarket.  I particularly like a variety called Ailsa Craig.

Over at Not Exactly Rocket Science they’re revealed the reason and it turns out to be genetics.

Over the years tomatoes have been selectively bred to look good and keep for a long time on the supermarket shelves.  Farmers have been picking those tomatoes with these properties and cross breeding them, disposing of any offspring that don’t show this trait.  The tomatoes have got rounder and redder and they certainly keep for longer, but what’s most important is they ripen uniformly.

In my garden tomatoes the whole tomato doesn’t turn red at once.  The unripe tomatoes have a darker green part at the top and a paler part at the bottom.  The red then develops unevenly across the fruit.  The dark green is what is responsible for the sweetness of my tomatoes.

The green is caused by the presence of chloroplasts (and the pigment chlorophyll) in the fruit.  The darker the green, the more chloroplasts are present.  In chloroplasts, the process of photosynthesis is occurring.  This is the process by which plants turn carbon dioxide and water into sugar and oxygen.

Darker green = more chloroplasts = more photosynthesis = more sugar in the fruit.

What do we need to do to make supermarket tomatoes taste better?

Simples!  We could use genetic engineering to add the gene for the dark green pigment to the tomatoes, thus making them sweeter.

Or we could all just grow our own and reduce our carbon footprints…

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Exam technique – “Describe” questions

A describe question covers many possibilities.  You could be being asked to recall some facts (e.g. Describe the factors affecting rates of reactions) or a process (e.g. Describe how the body regulates glucose levels in the blood) in an accurate way.  Alternatively you could be being asked to state what is shown in a graph (e.g. Describe how the motion of the car changes over the first five minutes).  A describe question could be worth anything from  1 to 6 marks so it is always worth looking to see how much you are expected to write.

Whichever type of describe question it is, what is expected of you is a detailed answer given in a logical order.

Have a look at the two answers below and see if you can spot what makes the second one better than the first.

Q.  Describe your journey to school.

A1. I walk from my house to the tram stop.  Then I get the tram.  When I get off, I walk to school.

A2.  I leave my house at 7.30 am and walk to Mitcham tram stop.  I then take the tram to Merton Park.  The tram is usually very busy in the mornings and so I don’t get to sit down.  When I get off the tram, I walk down Kingston Road to get to school.  Sometimes I stop on the way to buy some crisps.  I get to school at about 8.10am.


What makes the second answer better is that it gives the names of places and times.  It also adds in detail.  These are the same things that could improve your describe answers in science.



Happy Birthday Turing!

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing.  Described by wikipedia as a “British mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist”. He is possibly most famous for his work as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the second world war and is known as the “father of modern computing”.  His ideas are responsible for the computer you are reading this on existing!

Turing also defined the test used to determine whether an artificial intelligence (AI) is truly human-like.  The Turing test places a human in a room separate from the AI.  The human then converses with the AI in an attempt to decide whether they are indeed talking to an AI or another human.  The AI passes the test if it cannot be distinguished from a human.  You can try a Turing test here.

Turing is probably as famous for his personal life as for his work though.  He was arrested in 1952 for homosexuality after having to admit to having a male lover in his house when he was burgled.  He was then forced to undertake a “treatment” of female hormones intended to make him asexual.  His sexuality is a major reason why his work wasn’t fully appreciated until long after his death.  He died of cyanide poisoning in 1954, which the inquest ruled as suicide.  Professor Jack Copeland has argued that it was just as likely to have been an accident as the original investigation was not thorough enough to make a solid verdict.

If you want to find out more about Turing’s life and work, the BBC has a lovely series of articles.  Or you could visit the special exhibition at the Science Museum.


Exam technique – answering calculate questions

Calculate questions are the ones that students tend to be pretty good at.  You need to find the appropriate numbers in the question, plug them in the right equation and off you go.  You can get marks for showing your working if you’ve followed the right method, even if you’ve got the final answer worng.

You can also sometimes get a mark for writing the units, even if you’ve got the answer wrong.  Always do this if they don’t give you the units already!


Fear of spiders

I am afraid of spiders, and for no good reason it must be said.  I’ve never witnessed my family being eaten by spiders.  The chances of a spider ever causing me serious damage are miniscule.  I am not a grasshopper.

Grasshoppers are, quite rightly, scared of spiders.

Over at Not Exactly Rocket Science, there’s a really interesting article on how the presence of spiders affects grasshoppers.  The researchers who carried out the study, not only investigated how being kept in an enclosure with or without a spider present affected the stress hormones and metabolism of the grasshoppers, but also affected how the effects on their bodies were passed on to the ecosystem after their deaths.

“When the grasshoppers died, Hawlena buried their corpses in pots of soil within his lab, and let them decay for 40 days. He then added dead plants to the soil and used lasers to measure how quickly the carbon from their sugars and proteins was transferred into minerals or other compounds. This ‘mineralisation rate’ reflects how quickly the plants were decomposing.”

They found that the more stressed the grasshoppers were, the slower the plants added to the soil decayed.

I find this study got me asking several questions

– Is it fair that the spiders used in the study had their mouthparts glued shut?

– Is it realistic to bury the grasshoppers, when in a natural ecosystem they may be more likely to be eaten or at least left to rot on the surface?

– What goes through a researchers head to make them think “right, now I know the effect on the grasshoppers themselves, lets bury them and see what happens to the soil ecosystem?”

Fascinating stuff!

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Exam technique – “Compare” questions

A compare question is asking you to describe the similarities and differences between things.  Comparisons should refer to both things that you are expected to compare.

Some words and phrases that can be useful to answer compare questions (x and y refer to the things you are comparing)

  • x is bigger than y
  • x is more/less ____________ than y
  • …whereas…
  • …also…
  • similarly…
  • by contrast…
  • …the same as…
  • On the other hand…
  • x does…. but y doesn’t

For example…

Compare Miss Jackson with Mr Gale.

Both Miss Jackson and Mr Gale are science teachers.  

Miss Jackson is shorter than Mr Gale.

Mr Gale is male whereas Miss Jackson is female.  

Miss Jackson is a Biology specialist.  By contrast, Mr Gale is a Chemistry specialist.  

Miss Jackson often wears skirts whereas Mr Gale doesn’t.

Mr Gale has less hair than Miss Jackson.


Note how each of these comparisons refers to both Miss Jackson and Mr Gale whilst using a comparative term to distinguish between them.  It is sentences like these that will get you marks in a Compare question!