Blog Space 29 July 2014

Hawaii's 30-metre telescope will be able to view forming galaxies at the very edge of the observable Universe, near the beginning of time. [Image: 30-metre telescope][/caption]

The 30-metre telescope planned for Hawaii is three times the size of today's most powerful, but it is just one of five massive new instruments on the way.

The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) is even bigger at 39 metres in diameter, letting in more light than any other telescope on Earth. It will focus on exoplanets and the search for dark energy.

Sarah Zhang over at Gizmodo has a good rundown of all the projects which she describes as "the biggest building boom in the history of astronomy".

While I was researching for a review of Standard Deviation, a book by Gary Smith which explains how statistics can be used - or misused - to support more or less any argument, I came across this website devoted to spurious correlations.

The website's author, Tyler Vigen, wrote a program to find correlations between completely unrelated sets of data. The resulting charts are hilarious. This one "correlating" the number of people who died tangled in their bedsheets with the per capita consumption of cheese.

Smith's book is a great primer if you don't want to be baffled by "science". I particularly like the quote from Nobel Prize winning economist Ronald Coase, who said: “If you torture data long enough, it will confess.”

Blog Physics 23 July 2014
Michio Kaku has turned his hand from physics to philosophy.

Rapid advances in neuroscience have allowed us to look with ever-greater sophistication into the workings of the brain. This has inevitably led to an increasing focus on the mind. The more we understand how the brain works, we reason, the closer we should come to understanding what makes us conscious, sentient beings.

It is an approach that has led many scientists to move into an area traditionally occupied by the philosophers. The latest to join the discussion is physicist Michio Kaku, the co-founder of string theory, who we profile in the current issueof COSMOS.

There is no doubt that Kaku is the possessor of a first-rate mind indeed, but he makes clear it is one of a physicist and not of a philosopher, even if “quantum mechanics is perhaps the most philosophical of all sciences”.

As Kaku says, we can thank physicists (along with engineers and neuroscientists) for the development of the new brain-probing tools. But he believes physics has more to bring to the question of mind than that. The mind is, to him, a physics problem from top to bottom with little room for philosophical speculation.

But the distinction between the two disciplines may not be as great as Kaku believes. For decades now philosophers have believed that the mysteries of the mind will eventually succumb to a completely scientistic approach. But many question whether physics has the conceptual resources to ever provide a full account of the mind.

The battleground now is over consciousness. While philosophers generally hold that the mind’s ability to have thoughts and desires about the world can be explained in terms of information processing within neural networks, no one, they say, has the least idea where even to start to make a link between the firing of neurons and the experience of having a mind. While Kaku dismisses the question, believing it will become as irrelevant as the conundrum “what is life?” that dominated biology for decades, we are not sure philosophers will...

Blog Society 23 July 2014
The memorial service for the victims of the Malaysian plane crash, during the Opening Session of AIDS 2014.
AIDS 2014

AIDS 2014, a global conference bringing together thousands of the world’s top AIDS researchers, community leaders, people living with HIV and policy-makers, is currently under way in Cosmos’ hometown of Melbourne.

Our reporters and writers are at the event, which we are covering in detail.

But the event is a time for sadness, too, after six HIV researchers and lobbyists were killed when travelling on Malaysian flight MH17, which was shot down over Ukraine.

Last night in Melbourne’s Federation Square, hundreds attended a candlelight vigil to remember those delegates, as well as the 35 million lives lost to HIV-AIDS-related illnesses.

Among the passengers of MH17 was a giant of the HIV research community, Dutchman Joep Lange. He was travelling with his partner, Jacqueline van Tongeren, who worked at the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development.

Lange was one of the pioneering Amsterdam researchers who helped us understand how HIV disrupted the human immune system and how we could turn that knowledge into effective treatment. Andrew Sullivan has a good post rounding up some of the tributes to Lange and his legacy here.

Blog Archaeology 04 February 2014

The largest of the 82 fragments from the Antikythera Mechanism, an ancient device that was used to calculate and predict astronomical events.
London Science Museum

A team of archeologists have returned to the remote Greek island of Antikythera where they have used the most sophisticated robot and submarine technology to search for one of the technological wonders of the ancient world.

The Antikythera shipwreck site was found by accident by sponge divers blown off course by a storm in 1900. Diver Elias Stadiatis told his shipmates he had seen corpses beneath the waves - the bodies were found to be a pile of bronze statues from an ancient shipwreck. The sponge divers became part of the world's first large scale underwater archeological expedition. They retrieved a remarkable haul, including a glass bowl and a 1.8 metre statue known as the Antikythera youth - one of the finest bronze figures from the ancient world.

But it took several decades before the most extraordinary find from the wreck was understood. Item 15087 was a lump of bronze about the size of a shoebox. It looked like a mechanical clock and was dubbed the Antikythera Mechanism. Originally believed to be from the first half of the first century BCE, a more recent view dates the mechanism at 205BCE.

In 1958, Yale physicist and historian Derek de Solla Price examined the mechanism for himself. He believed its 30 meshing bronze gears were used to calculate astronomical events, such as solar eclipses, or the next full moon, or the dates of the Olympic Games. In 1974, after an X-ray examination of the mechanism revealed missing gear teeth. Price wrote:

"Nothing like this instrument is preserved elsewhere. Nothing comparable to it is known from any scientific text or literary allusion. On the contrary, from all that we know of science and technology in the Hellenistic Age we should have felt that such a device could not exist.
"It must surely rank...