Posts Tagged science

Unintentional Haiku in New Scientist’s Medical Frontiers: The Movie

How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art?I’ve made a new version of Haiku Detector. The main changes are:

  • Performance improvements
  • Tweaks to which haiku are identified when punctuation is pronounced differently depending on line breaks and other factors (this includes a workaround for the ‘all numbers pronounced as zero’ bug I found in the speech synthesiser.) In my test data the list of haiku identified is better now.
  • Bug fixes.

To celebrate the new release, I fed in the text from the latest New Scientist ‘Collection’ issue, on medical frontiers. The funniest haiku arose when the last sentence of one article joined up with the headline and byline of the next. For example, this looks like the tagline of a movie about an underappreciated superhero, fighting to save anti-vaxxers from diseases of yore:

They will not thank you.
Small shot, big impact

After the opening credits, we see our hero Dan Jones in his lab, and the subtitle announcing his first challenge.

DRUG: Chlorotoxin
SOURCE: Deathstalker scorpion

His superpowers come, of course, from vaccines:

Some vaccines seem to
provide us with a host of
extra benefits

But not everybody is happy with that:

Several groups have been
trying to develop drugs
that block these signals.

These groups spread propaganda:

Half an hour or
so later, you’ll feel a lot
better. Or will you?

They work around rules:

“Because we use cells,
not field-grown plants, we don’t come
under the same rules.”

And they target humanity by zapping the very microorganisms they’re made up of. Here’s a quote from the evil mastermind:

There are more cells in
your body than there are stars
in the galaxy.

These cells can then be
killed using a laser that
penetrates the skin.

And just when Dan thought he had the solution, the problems compounded to the point of suspension of disbelief, precipitating a crisis. The mastermind had cooked up her own microbial minions:

Those microbes can be
in the environment or
a vaccine syringe.

To make matters worse,
there is a shortage of new

The sequel, which may or may not be a Doctor Who crossover, features a heroine who will live forever:

“Just endless.” Helen
Let’s get physical

Yep, it’s definitely a Doctor Who crossover. Here’s a quote from that movie:

“I’m the doctor. I’m
going to tell you what your
feelings really mean.”

She discovered that time, and specifically time travel, is the best cure for a broken heart:

If we can’t fix hearts
with stem cells there might be an
even better way

As the animal
was slowly warmed, it began
to return to life.

But however clever the TARDIS is, there’s one thing Helen Thomson isn’t sure she can do:

But can we ever
turn the clock back to a world
without HIV?

It turned out, weirdly enough, that the answer was in making sure there was enough shelf space for one’s awards. So she went home to Britain to save the Officers of the British Empire:

On her return home,
she applied those lessons in
British hospitals.

So far, two patients
have had OBEs, but neither in
a room with a shelf…

While we’re making sequels, let’s revive an old favourite, which never had any sequels:

The matrix holds a
dazzling array of future

But what is the matrix?

Normally, matrix
is harvested from human
or pig cadavers.

I guess you have to see it for yourself.

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They Might Not Be Giants Posters, now touched by my own hands

Note: I am back in Europe now, and due to postage costs I will only send the remaining posters within Europe. Anyone else can get them from Zazzle.

At the Presidential Variety Show, and later the Open Mic Night, on JoCo Cruise Crazy 5, I recited my poem ‘They might not be giants.‘ Here’s a video from the Open Mic; pretend I said that ‘I was waiting for the shaking to stop’ was the name of my Taylor Swift cover band.

I brought along some locally-printed copies of this Len-Peralta-drawn poster of the poem, since I figured people would like them, and if they bought the ones on Zazzle they’d have to give a lot of extra money to Zazzle and the postal service.

The posters I printed are 11×17 inches (approximately A3) on 300gsm silk-coated stock, which is really quite fancy and sturdy. Quite a few people wanted them, which meant (since we’re not supposed to sell things while onboard, and I was mostly able to resist the urge to give them away) I had more fruity drinks and other items than I otherwise would have, plus some cash from sea monkeys I saw on land. But some people who wanted posters didn’t manage to catch me at the right time to get one. I have some posters left, which you can order using the button below. Note, now that I am back in Austria, if you are outside Europe please contact me first to find out what the postage cost will be; you may have to pay extra.

Buy They Might Not Be GiantsI discovered how right I was to bring some with me on the ship; posting them from here (I’m in New Zealand at the moment) costs slightly more than what I planned to ask for the poster itself. I’m going to absorb some of that and charge $10 for postage and $10 per poster, which leaves the combined price slightly lower than from Zazzle while still giving me a bigger cut. It is of course better value for both of us if you order more than one at a time, since the postage costs the same amount for multiple posters unless you’re ordering a ridiculous number of them. I’m not a warehouse full of elves, nor am I on my home turf at the moment, so I can’t make any promises about how soon I will post posters after you order, but I’ll do my best. Feel free to order from Zazzle if you prefer elven reliability.

If you want me to sign it or write some kind of message or doodle in the small area or empty space, say so in the message to the vendor when you check out. Please note that I have not settled on an official famous-person-style autograph yet, so results may vary. Also, my doodles are the doodles of a poet, not those of Len Peralta, so don’t expect them to match the quality of the rest of the poster.

If I gave you a poster on the ship and you didn’t have anything to give in return, you can donate something:

Contribute to the They Might Not Be Giants Appreciation FundOr you could lend some money on Kiva and join the Sea Monkey team I created yesterday. I don’t have a day job at the moment, so I am no longer promising to lend poster proceeds on Kiva before using them, but I probably will anyway as long as I have enough savings to live on.

Many other things also happened on JoCo Cruise Crazy, which I might summarise when I have time. I have a lot of video to upload when I eventually get home. For now, here’s The Future Soon a cappella and Jim Boggia’s cover of Paul McCartney’s ‘Junk’.

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Unintentional Haiku from New Scientist on A Better You

It’s been a while since I’ve run an issue of New Scientist through Haiku Detector. Since I’m far behind on holidailies, here are some of the unintentional haiku in their collection issue, A Better You. There were 40 haiku all up, many of which were bylines or captions. Many others were rather underwhelming as haiku, but here are the at-least-passably-whelming ones. First, some about getting smart:

We kick off with the
most important organ in
your body: your brain.

These brain areas
are very active when you
play an instrument.

Then you have to have
the motivation to do
something about it.

Now some about what not to eat:

As a result, health
bodies are gearing up for
a “war on sugar”.

Its conclusion: there
is “no evidence” that food
can be addictive.

Is it simply that
too much sugar equals too
many calories?

recent research casts doubt on
their effectiveness.

Headlines have appeared
questioning the benefits
of eating less salt.

The last one on that topic echoes Hank Green’s thoughts on picking the right addiction:

Assuming you will
have some vices, the trick is
to choose them wisely.

Some about growing old gracefully:

Some think the effect
is simply about having
a long way to fall.

What you need is a
bit of excitement along
the way. Take some risks.

What on earth was he
doing differently? What was
cushioning the blow?

Not surprisingly,
one of the most important
is intelligence.

Learning like a child
is easy if you know how,
says David Robson

Whatever you want
to learn, it’s never too late
to charge those grey cells.

He recently took
up Chinese, and has no plans
to stop after that.

Some under the heading ‘Get physical’:

They just haven’t been
very good at telling us
what they’ve discovered.

Could exercise be
a killer lying in wait
for the unwary?

Pain may return on
finishing the exercise,
or the next morning.

So if exercise
is so beneficial, why
won’t people take it?

“I’m sorry,” he says
when I ask about the noise.
“I’m on a treadmill.”

and some recipes for success:

It seems that anger
can make us impetuous,
selfish and risk-prone.

Concentrating in
itself is not enough to
screen out distractions.

Instead of nuking
your friendly bacteria
you should nurture them.

Their wounds were slower
to heal, and they also caught
more throat infections.

One theory is that
CMV plays a key role
in immune ageing.

And good vagal tone
improves emotional and
social well-being.

In conclusion, a haiku from me:

I hope these will lead
if not to better haiku,
to a better you.

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‘They might not be giants’ Poster

A while ago I wrote a poem called ‘They might not be giants‘, about the famous phrase, ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’ A while later, that poem was published in Offshoots 12, the 2013 anthology of the Geneva Writers’ Group.

Ever since writing it, I’ve been thinking about how great it would be to see a picture of the tower of dwarves described. I’ve also been thinking about which plural of ‘dwarf’ is best, and a couple of grammatical and typographical decisions I made regarding the poem, but mostly I’ve been thinking about the picture. Well, I finally commissioned Len Peralta to draw that picture for me! It is gorgeous.

It is also the real reason I set up a Zazzle store; you can buy it as an 11×17 poster featuring the poem. I’ll have some printed locally as well, so if anyone near Vienna wants one they can buy one directly from me. Maybe you’d like one for yourself, or an aspiring scientist, or an inspiring teacher, or a Len Peralta fan, or an Angela Brett fan (do they exist? Edit: there is one) or even a They Might Be Giants fan who wants their poster collection to cover all possibilities. I think it’s suitable for anyone who has walls. If you know anyone who doesn’t have walls who would like some, see if you can help them find a home.

I’ve always been fascinated by Len’s videos of himself drawing, so I paid a little extra to get this mesmerising speedpaint video, which doubles as a great way to get an idea of what the poster looks like close-up. Note that the final poster has the title of the poem on it, and a few other small changes to the text.

I still can’t watch it without squeeing. It took him 2 hours, 36 minutes, which is about how long it would take me to draw a stick figure version indistinguishable from a Christmas tree.

This is actually not the first time I’ve commissioned Len to draw something for me; he also drew the picture of Jonathan Coulton transforming into an internet superstar at the beginning of a video I made to celebrate Jonathan’s Thing A Week by summarising each song in the form of a ‘roses are red’ poem. He drew most of the rest of the art in the video, too, but that was done already as part of his Visual Thing A Week project, which is the reason I know he exists.

That’s all from me. Go have fun, and tune in tomorrow for the next exciting installment of Forms and Formulae.

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Nine of Hearts: ISS vs. LHC update

ISSvsLHCsmall2A while ago I made a somewhat whimsical but as accurate as I could manage too-much-infographic comparing many aspects of the International Space Station with the Large Hadron Collider, and jokingly asking which would win in a fight. I’ve given that a bit of an update and put an annotated text version below for those whose pdf readers don’t show annotations. More importantly, since then, I’ve seen the crew of the STS-134 mission to the space station give a talk at CERN, and wanted to ask them which was more awesome, but was in one of the few spots without a microphone, and I don’t speak as loudly as my friend Hugo, who asked a question from right next to me, does. But at a later talk at CERN, I did ask NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, William H. Gerstenmaier. This was his response, which you can find at around 50:45 in the video:

Oh, man. This is a tough question; I don’t know. They’re both unique in their own way, right? Both pretty special research facilities, right? And I think that, again we often talk about, you know, human versus robotic, right, it’s really human all the time, right? Even in a robotic space, the data’s analyzed by a human somewhere, and so, I think again it’s that spirit of exploration that we’re all pushing on. We all want to understand something new, discover something that nobody’s seen before, so at CERN, damn sure, that spirit drives you every day, you’re looking for new things. I see it in your papers: what is this theory? Are we changing physics? It’s the same thing we’re doing. How can I look at a physical phenomenon that occurs in one gravity, remove the one gravity term, and now get a totally different perspective on that same physical phenomenon, that then allows me to advance in a different area. So I think it’s that same passion that drives people. But I don’t know which one’s best.

So there you go. I’ve added this comment to the notes in the TMIGraphic, and also updated data relating to the ISS’s orbit and a few other things, and added a ‘Getting to Orbit’ section, but the best thing is the update to that ‘when to see it’ bubble on the LHC. You can see it at the CERN open days at the end of September. Two full days. The LHC is shut down for upgrades at the moment, so I understand this will be another chance to actually go underground and see it, which probably won’t be possible for a while once it starts running again. And even if you don’t see the LHC or its detectors (there are only so many people that you can get up and down in a lift in two days; 23 000 people out of 53 000 visitors visited the tunnels in one day last time), there are many other things you can see at the open day. I know this because I was at the last one. Maybe I should look through whatever videos I took that day and see if I can make an interesting montage. I know I have footage from various other tours which I should put online.IF

The pdf version of the ISS vs. LHC comparison has a lot of links and extra notes in the margins detailing where I got the figures from, how I chose the sources, how I found myself gingerly plugging values into a relativistic equation at a demoparty at 1:30a.m, and so on. But I suspect not everyone who looked at the original downloaded the pdf, and those who did might not have been using pdf readers that showed the notes well. Besides that, the infographic is sort of messy (that’s why I call it a too-much-infographic), although I think it does add something to the raw text. So I’ll reproduce all of the text and notes in table format below, show a far-too-small preview of the TMIGraphic version, and encourage you to download the pdf if you like circles and crisscrossing dashed lines and things that can be read while offline.

Sorry if the line spacing is inconsistent in this table; WordPress changes the style for the second and later paragraphs in each cell no matter how I create the paragraph breaks, and it tends to delete newlines, paragraph and break tags if I ever open the page in the visual editor, so the best I can do is put blank lines before the first paragraph in each cell to give that the same style, and then try not to accidentally open the post in the visual editor.

Aspect ISS LHC Notes
Physical Characteristics

Solar array: 73m

Truss: 109m

Modules: 51m

Dipole magnets:

Cold mass diameter: 0.57m

Vacuum vessel diameter: 0.91m

Length: 15m

See the ‘Orbit’ section for the size of the entire LHC.

Source for ISS size
Source for LHC dipole vacuum vessel diameter
Source for other dipole measurements
Diagram of dipole cross-section (also shown in infographic)


419 455kg (but it depends what’s up there)

37 600 000kg

(cold mass)

35 200kg

(detector mass, not counting

The ISS mass doesn’t include the contents of the station or any spacecraft docked to it. You’ll find different masses around the place depending on what they take into account.The LHC mass is much more than that (calculated from CERN FAQ – LHC the guide: “4700 tonnes of material in each of the eight sectors”.) The 1232 35-tonne dipole magnets alone weigh 43120 tonnes, and there are another 8468 smaller magnets, and many other things. But only 30 tonnes of each of those dipoles is cooled (by 120 tonnes of liquid helium and 10 080 tonnes of liquid nitrogen)

As my friend Rob Lambert (who works on LHCb) says: It's difficult to define the mass of "the LHC", because you'd probably want to weigh the concrete in the tunnel walls […] I think the "cold mass" is the best comparison to make, since that is sort of like the LHC payload. The rest is sort of comparable to the shuttles/boosters used to get the materiel up to the space station, which weighs a lot more than the station itself, of course.


368 730 000N

(just the cold stuff, ignoring altitude)

at least 3 614 899N
(using the stated mass at 422km altitude, the point of the ISS’s current orbit where it weighs the least)

For the LHC, this is just a simple matter of multiplying the mass above with standard gravity. The exact gravity where the LHC is wouldn’t be exactly that, due to the altitude, the distance below the surface, the mountains, the tides (which the LHC itself is sensitive can detect) and all sorts of other things that I don’t know how to calculate.As for the ISS, you might think the station is weightless, but it’s not; it’s in orbit. There’s still gravity up there, just a bit weaker than on the ground (where the station would weigh about 4 109 084N.) The station’s weight keeps it falling toward the Earth all the time. It’s just moving along fast enough that the Earth curves away beneath it, so it doesn’t get any closer to the ground. Things on the station seem weightless because they’re in free fall.Here’s a website which gives the formulas to calculate the force of gravity between two objects, and will calculate it for you. I used 5.97219e21 metric tons for the weight of the Earth, 419455kg for the weight of the station, and 6800km for the distance between them (the radius of the Earth, plus 422km.) I probably shouldn’t give the result that many significant figures.

Pressure Inside:
760Torr (1 atm)

10-10 — 5×10-8 Torr

For the ISS, this is actually the pressure at 500km; the closest altitude I could find authoritative-enough figures for. Outside the station, closer to Earth’s atmosphere, the value should be toward the high end of this range.I had a lot of trouble finding an answer to this seemingly-simple question; I found figures which varied by a factor of a billion. In fact it only varies by a factor of 20 depending on the space weather.

Temperature Inside: ~24°C

Outside: -157—121°C
Inside: -271.3°C

Outside: ~20°C

Lead collision point: 5.5 trillion °C

When I first did this comparison, it was possible to check the inside temperature of the space station in real time here at the bottom right, but the temperature doesn’t show for me any more.The inside temperature of the LHC is the temperature of the cold mass of the magnets, given here.The ‘Outside’ temperature is actually the temperature of the LHCb cavern when the detector is turned off. I assume the LHC tunnel should be about the same temperature.

5.5 trillion degrees is an estimate from this Nature blog post. This CERN page says: When two beams of lead ions collide, they will generate temperatures more than 100 000 times hotter than the heart of the Sun, concentrated within a minuscule space.

Power 84kW

from solar arrays

from French and Swiss grid (including the base load for the whole site)

Of the LHC total, LHC cryogenics uses 27.5 MW and the LHC experiments use 22 MW. It’s hard to say how much of the rest goes toward LHC-related computing, lighting, coffee-brewing etc, and how much goes to the many other experiments and activities at CERN.

Orbit and Altitude
Altitude 408km — 422km
(on 2 June 2013. Has been as low as 331.5km)
175m — 50m below ground

about 450m—380m above sea level

Here is a nice graph of the ISS’s altitude from launch to 2009.

Here’s the source for the LHC depth figures, and an explanation of why it was built underground. I estimated the altitude above sea level going by altitudes in Google Earth at roughly the points where the LHC is deepest and shallowest. I need to find better figures for this.

Orbit Diameter 13 558—13 586km
(on 2 June 2013)

I used the mean Earth radius of 6371km to calculate the orbit diameter of the ISS, . I guess I should have calculated the diameter at the actual angle the ISS orbits at, but as a maths major I don’t trust my arithmetic.

Orbital Speed 7 666.2m/s
(on 2 June 2012)

protons at 7TeV: 299 792 455m/s

(3m/s slower than the speed of light)

lead ions at 2.76 TeV per nucleon: 299 792 441m/s

(17m/s slower than the speed of light)

You can check the ISS orbital speed in real time.

Protons haven’t circulated in the LHC at 7TeV yet, but they will.

I got the 2.76TeV figure from the LHC FAQ document (which is very comprehensive and interesting, by the way. I recommend it.) A nucleon is just a proton or neutron. But I couldn’t find the actual speed, so I calculated it using this formula at 1:30a.m. I’m a maths major, so I can’t guarantee its correctness.

Wolfram Alpha can calculate this by itself if you ask it ‘relativistic speed of 2.76 TeV proton’ but the answer is so near to the speed of light that it rounds it off to 1c.

Orbital Period ~92 minutes

88.928µs (11245 orbits per second)
either protons or lead ions at full energy

The ISS data used to be on the real-time tracking page listed previously, and the LHC figures were here. I’m going to need to find new sources for those.

Getting to Orbit

Zarya and Zvezda modules launched by Proton rockets

Pirs and Poisk launched by Soyuz-U rockets

Everything else launched by Space Shuttle with the help of its solid rocket boosters

Protons accelerated by Linac 2, then the Proton Synchrotron Booster, the Proton Synchrotron, Super Proton Synchrotron, and finally the LHC

It’s all about protons and boosters. I’m all about tenuous connections and dubious puns.

Particle Detectors
Detectors AMS (Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer)
Calibrated using proton beam
Real data from cosmic rays
CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid)
Calibrated using cosmic rays
Real data from proton beam

AMS was designed at CERN, and one of those proton beams came from the Super Proton Synchrotron, which also accelerates protons to inject them into the Large Hadron Collider (see also the bottom half of the too-much-infographic.) The AMS control room is also at CERN.For a while the AMS was just across the road from my office. I took a few pictures of it just before it left, with my phone since my camera was broken at the time. One is shown below. The astronauts who installed it gave a talk at CERN a year after the installation, which you can watch online.

In development
LHCb (Large Hadron Collider beauty)
Calibrated using cosmic rays
Real data from proton beam
MoEDAL (The Monopole & Exotics Detector at the LHC)
In development
ATLAS (A Toroidal LHC Apparatus)
Calibrated using cosmic rays
Real data from proton beam
LHCf (Large Hadron Collider forward)
Simulating cosmic rays
using proton beam
ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment)
Calibrated using cosmic rays
Real data from proton beam
Countries Involved 16 111

The International Space Station’s Facebook page and also the International Cooperation page say 15 nations. NASA’s Human Space Flight FAQ says 16. I went with the higher number, because people from other countries are probably involved anyway. I know that at CERN, it’s usually the countries of the institutions that are counted, when there might be people from many other countries working for those institutions.

Here is a list of countries involved in CERN. As a maths major, I don’t trust my counting abilities, so I got the 111 figure from the LHC UK site. As explained above, the real number is probably higher.


1976 (Mir-2)

1984 (Freedom)

1986 (Columbus)

1993 (ISS)


Here’s an interesting document on the conception of the ISS, which was essentially the coming together of several separate space station projects.

The idea for the LHC (sometimes called the Juratron in early papers, after the Jura mountains) had been floating around since 1977 (see this talk by Lyn Evans for a nice history of the LHC) but 1984 was the date of the first conference about it. The idea was officially approved in 1994.

On-site Assembly 1998—2013 1998—2008

Of course, this depends what you count. The LHC date is from the start of civil engineering to the completion of the beam pipe around the entire circuit including the detectors. There was a huge repair effort after the cooling leak in 2008, and there’s work going on right now to upgrade the detectors and get the LHC itself up to the original design energy of 7TeV.

Operational Since 2000
(first astronauts)
(first beam)
(first collisions)
Operational Until 2020 2022
(after which it will be upgraded)

Some sources say the ISS could run till 2025 or 2028, but for now it’s officially funded until 2020.

There are so many plans for upgrades and successors to the LHC that I’m a little confused as to when the LHC itself actually shuts off, but I’m going by the diagram in this article.

Estimated Budget

$72.4billion in 2010 dollars
unofficial calculation, not counting shuttle missions

CHF6 billion

Having a real-life space station occupied continuously for nearly 13 years, and finding out what the universe is made of? Priceless!

For the LHC, the figure of 4.6 billion is given here, but I chose the CERN FAQ/LHC Guide as the reference since it is newer and probably more carefully checked by more people. This was the booklet given out to volunteers at the 2008 open day.


Shuttles driven by ISS personnel
(Kennedy Space Center to/from ISS, 1998—2011)
Soyuz driven by ISS personnel
(Baikonur Cosmodrome to/from ISS, 2000—present)

Powered flight
(Geneva Airport to/from any airport on Earth)
Shuttle driven by ISS personnel
(Geneva Airport to/from CERN Meyrin site)

Here is a picture of an ISS employee driving a CERN shuttle:Shuttle driven by ISS personnel

Around Unpowered flight

Shuttles driven by ISS personnel between various CERN sites

Unmanned cargo transport

H-II Transfer Vehicle
(Tanegashima Space Center to/from ISS)
(Baikonur Cosmodrome to/from ISS)
Automated Transfer Vehicle
(Guiana Space Center to/from ISS)

ROCLA magnet transport robots
Magnet alignment robots

I saw an explanation of the CERN robots at an event in Microcosm years ago, but haven’t been able to find much information on them online.

Challenges Faced
  • Insulating foam from Columbia’s external fuel tank
  • Sticky bolts
  • Micrometeoroids
The bird escaped unharmed but lost its bread.
Science 121
“International Space Station” papers on
more than 1000 “Large Hadron Collider” papers on

The paper count for ISS is from August 2012; when I checked again in June 2013, the count was 116, but I assume the other papers still exist. In any case, this is only a rough idea of how much science has been done with the help of the ISS. It shouldn’t be taken as a serious estimate of the benefits thereof.


Only fictional space stations can destroy a planet with an energy beam.

Only fictional particle accelerators can destroy a planet with their energy beams.

I haven’t even seen Star Wars and I still managed to get a reference in.

  • Firefighting
  • Cleaning landfills
  • Air purification
  • Golf clubs

and more.

  • Cancer therapy
  • Sterilisation
  • Radiation processing
  • Medical imaging

and more.

You can see more about NASA technology spinoffs, search for NASA technology available for licensing, or find out about CERN technology transfer.

When to see it

As it passes overhead just before dawn or just after sunset

When it’s not running; ideally the 2013 Open Days.

If you set your location and follow @twisst on Twitter, you can be notified whenever there will be a visible ISS pass in your area.You can see CERN’s other exhibitions, or book guided tours at any time.


Most awesome man-made thing in Earth orbit. Don’t make me compare it with Mars rovers.

Most awesome man-made thing on Earth.

They’re both unique in their own way, right? Both pretty special research facilities, right? […] I think again it’s that spirit of exploration that we’re all pushing on. We all want to understand something new, discover something that nobody’s seen before, so at CERN, damn sure, that spirit drives you every day, you’re looking for new things. I see it in your papers: what is this theory? Are we changing physics? It’s the same thing we’re doing. How can I look at a physical phenomenon that occurs in one gravity, remove the one gravity term, and now get a totally different perspective on that same physical phenomenon, that then allows me to advance in a different area. So I think it’s that same passion that drives people. But I don’t know which one’s best. — William H. Gerstenmaier at CERN on 6 November 2012

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It turns out I can read fake plqaD.

21 hours and already two posts ago, I linked to my post about the program I wrote for exploring grapheme colour synaesthesia. So I happened to look at that post again, and realised that despite the fact I learnt the words to Chicken Monkey Duck without any reference to the personally-coloured lyrics (Mac users: download the file and open it in TextEdit to see the text with coloured outlines matching the initial letters, which the preview doesn’t show. Windows users: sorry, I’ve noticed Windows rtf viewers don’t show outlines) I made, I could still start to answer some of the questions. I asked, among other things:

  • Could grapheme-colour synaesthetes learn to look at a sequence of colours that correspond to letters in their synaesthesia, and read a word?
  • Could colours be used to help grapheme-colour synaesthetes learn to read a new alphabet, either one constructed for the purposes of secret communication, or a real script they will be able to use for something?

And I included this picture of some text in a supposedly-Klingon font (though it does not seem to be quite the same as plqaD; I am not sure why I didn’t find this font at the time) with the letters coloured according to my own grapheme-colour synaesthesia for the corresponding letters in the latin alphabet:


Looking at it today, I realised I couldn’t remember what the text was; I wrote that post ten months ago. It definitely wasn’t ‘How razorback-jumping frogs can level six piqued gymnasts!’ So I decided to see if I could figure it out based on the colours.

The first and second words I figured out in seconds: Swimming is. S, W and I are pretty distinctive colours, and the Ms even look like Ms. Then… teemncgc? No, that’s not a g. I can imagine a capital G in that sort of colour, but I’m using small-g colour for the ‘g’s, and anyway the letter is a different shape. It’s an H! And that’s not an n but a u; they’re fairly similar. Actually I’d say u is closer to a c-yellow than to n-yellow, so maybe I put that one in wrong. So Swimming is tee? much like (‘like’ is easy to read once I figure out it’s an l rather than a c; I love the colour of the letter K) mathing? No, bathing! M and B are pretty similar colours. So that’s not tee… it’s slightly grayer… logically it must be too. I guess I don’t think too much about the colour of the letter O, but that’s about right. Swimming is too much like… bathing. Okay, I’m googling that; I assume I took a Klingon quote from the internet. Yep, it’s Worf.

So yes, at least one grapheme-colour synaesthete can look at a sequence of colours that correspond to letters in their synaesthesia, and read a word. As for the second question, I haven’t really learnt much of the Klingon ‘alphabet’ from this, because I’ve been reading the colours and only paying attention to the shapes of the letters when two letters are of similar colour. The colours mean I can cheat and not even look at the shapes, so they might actually make it harder for me to learn the shapes in the short term. On the other hand, I can read more, more quickly, since I’ll never have to refer to a chart to look up which letters the shapes correspond to. I suspect that practice reading the colours (perhaps gradually fading to black) would help me learn the shapes in the long run.

I haven’t touched the Synaesthetist app since I wrote it; maybe I should go back and implement some of the features I was thinking about.

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Jack of Diamonds: They might not be giants

Note: this poem is now available on a poster!

“If I have seen farther,” the scientist said,
“it’s not because I am a giant.
“Great minds of the past have helped me get ahead;
it’s their shoulders on which I’m reliant.”

“Now listen to me!” said the great on whose shoulder
the first one was glad to have stood.
“I’m quite short of stature, it’s just that I’m older
and those before me were so good.”

And sure enough, this one was perched on the neck
of a giantist of great renown
who balanced in turn on another; by heck!
It’s little guys all the way down.

And some were thought giants, and some were thought midgets
and some were thought nothing at all,
but each would insist, “Those below were no idjits.
It’s them that have made me so tall.”

And scrambling around them their fans would aspire,
to see something not seen before
by climbing the tower of dwarves, ever higher
for glimpses, or footholds, or more.

Most could not scale to the summit in time,
before their peak fitness would end.
Some found it tough and abandoned the climb
while some would, with vigor, descend:

Aware that such heights were so taxing to reach,
they helped to lift people and hopes,
inventing new ladders and platforms to teach,
securing and showing the ropes.

“They might not be giants, but they must go far
and that journey isn’t for me.
I’ll boost them through science, raise them and the bar
and profit from what they will see.”

So said the teacher while lifting a child
on shoulders so humble and stressed.
The youth saw a vista that had them beguiled
and bounded straight up to the crest.

Quotes similar to “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” have been attributed to many scientists and scholars. It’s been bugging me for a while, because even if the people whose shoulders they’re standing on are metaphorically taller than average, they’re nowhere near as big as how giants are imagined today, and they’re surely standing on someone else’s shoulders. There are no giants; it’s a tower of dwarves, and if it ever looks like it’s made of ivory, it’s just because the dwarves don’t spend enough time in the sun. You don’t need to be a giant to get up onto the topmost shoulders, but you need to do an awful lot of climbing; there’s a lot to learn before you can discover something new these days. Enjoy the view on the way up.

Luckily, we have people who invent new climbing techniques and equipment, and telescopes to see more when we get up there. This poem focusses more on teachers, but they could be science writers, YouTubers, educational charities, scientific songwriters (yes, even the ones that might be giants), inventors of more efficient lab equipment (the real or metaphorical telescope), maybe even code monkeys like me. Now that I’ve listed those things, it reminds me of the song ‘Somebody Will‘ by Sassafrass.

I would love to see illustrations of the tower of dwarves.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Eight of Diamonds: ISS vs. LHC (a comparison)

Here is a handy, sometimes whimsical (but always as accurate as I could manage) comparison between two of my favourite scientific endeavours (now version 1.1, with changes detailed in a new post, along with a HTML table version with all the notes visible.) It is too cluttered with information to be a good infographic, so I’m calling it a TMIGraphic. Click on the image for a higher-resolution pdf with links and copious notes. It’s best if you save it and open it in a pdf reader rather than viewing it in your web browser, as the notes didn’t show up in the browser I tried. Click on each information box for the primary or most readable reference, and click the note icons for more explanations, references and interesting links. If you can’t see the note icons in the pdf, or if clicking on them doesn’t do anything, let me know and I’ll try to figure something out; the notes are important.

I’ve wanted to do this for at least three yearsLed by the U.S, the International Space Station will be the largest, most complex international cooperative science and engineering program ever attempted.; I think it started with wondering which was cooler, and immediately answering myself with the relevant temperatures. When I started this round of Writing Cards (and not so much Letters) I thought I’d work on it slowly throughout the year, then finish it when the appropriate cards came up in one of the NASA decks and the CERN deck in the same week. This didn’t work for two reasons: every time I started to work on it slowly (and also, when I first came up with the idea of doing it as an infographic a year or so ago) I got stuck on the vacuum pressure outside the ISS. And even though the week’s CERN card is about LINAC-1, the NASA card seemed like a challenge that I couldn’t resist. Is the International Space Station really the largest, most complex international cooperative science and engineering program ever attempted? Well, I don’t want to choose a favourite. Let’s just say the Large Hadron Collider is the largest, most complex international cooperative science and engineering program on Earth, and the ISS is the largest, most complex international cooperative science and engineering program in space.

This took longer than my usual deadline of a week, but not through procrastination. Also not so that it would be released four years and two days after the first beam went through the LHC, though I’ll use that as an excuse if it helps. Almost every one of those numbers took quite a bit of effort to get right, and you’ll see in the notes in the pdf (that’s the old pdf, corresponding to the TMIGraphic pictured; here‘s the most recent one) that most of them come with various caveats and explanations, because nothing is simple. I’ll have to update some pages in wikipedia after this. I’m certain I still have some things wrong; maybe some obvious things. Please point them out, and I’ll fix them in the next version. Also, feel free to tell me how bad my layout is, iff you have a better suggestion. I know this is not perfect yet and I intend to keep working on it. If you have ideas of information to add, I’d like to hear that too; especially if you have leads on where to get that information. I can provide the original OmniGraffle document if you want to make your own changes, but I’d have to clean it up a bit first; there are a few things that I just made invisible rather than deleting.

The vacuum pressure outside the station gave me the most trouble; I’d hoped it would be a simple equation, or a statistic NASA would publish on their general ISS fact pages, but mainly I just found statements that the pressure inside the LHC beam pipe was the same as at 1000km altitude. For ISS orbit I found values or equations around the place suggesting values that differed by a factor of a billion, and nothing that seemed convincingly more authoritative than the others. Finally, via the Wikipedia page on orders of magnitude of pressure, I found a NASA document with the numbers for 500km, so I used those. It actually varies by a factor of 20. This is still at least 70km higher than the station, so outside the station it’s more likely to be toward the higher end of that range; that is, a less perfect vacuum than inside the LHC beam pipe.

I also had some technical difficulties with the presentation (apart from the clutter and my lack of graphical talent or training.) Firstly, I’m sorry if colour-blind people have trouble distinguishing anything. I wanted to use a colour-blind safe palette, but the paler colours wouldn’t have had enough contrast with white to work with the style I’d chosen. The colours of the information boxes are not essential anyway; they just group them into broad categories and might make it a bit easier for people to find the corresponding information about the ISS or the LHC.

As for finding the corresponding information boxes about the ISS and LHC, it’s really not optimal. There’s a tangled mess of dashed lines connecting them which is really no more functional than background decoration. I thought of making each info box link to the corresponding one on the other diagram, but although that worked in OmniGraffle, in a pdf viewer it did not zoom in enough on the linked box to make it sufficiently obvious which one you’d just jumped to. I also would have liked to make the links in the notes clickable, and add images to some of them. Again, this was possible in OmniGraffle but not in pdf. I’m not sure if there’s a common format that allows all these things.

So, after all that, the important question: Which one would win in a fight?

Of course it depends what the fight is, and here’s where you can get creative. In a weight-loss competition such as The Biggest Loser, I think the ISS would win, having lost about an eighth of its weight by going up to 426km altitude. Though the LHC did lose a fair bit of helium at one point. Meanwhile, the ISS literally runs rings around the LHC, and would certainly win the high jump. If you have an idea, feel free to comment here or, as the TMIgraphic says, tweet it with the #ISSvsLHC hashtag. Maybe it’ll catch on.

As for the ultimate winner, I’ll let Wil Wheaton have the last word. Science. SCIENCE!

Update: I heard back from my friend who had information on the LHC tunnel temperature (actually the temperature of the LHCb cavern, but it should be about the same), and updated that. I also added information in the notes about the exhibition on the AMS detector which you can come see at CERN Microcosm at the moment, and nudged a few things inwards so the preview is a little narrower. If you’ve gone through all the notes in the old pdf you might already have seen this talk given at CERN by the astronauts who installed the AMS on the International Space Station. I was there, and I wanted to ask (for the purposes of this comparison) which they thought was the most awesome out of the LHC and the ISS, but I was in one of the few spots without a microphone.

One thing I’d been meaning to mention is that the path to ‘orbit’ of both things starts with a proton and continues with a booster. The first module of the ISS was put into orbit using a Proton rocket, and many of the rest were taken to orbit on the space shuttle, with its solid rocket boosters. In the LHC, it’s the particle called a proton and the Proton Synchrotron Booster which accelerates it as part of the journey to the LHC.

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Eight of Spades: The Synaesthetist

I’ve mentioned before that I have grapheme-colour synaesthesia. That means that I intuitively associate each letter or number with a colour. The colours have stayed the same throughout my life, as far as I remember, and they are not all the same colours that other grapheme-colour synaesthetes (such as my father and brother) associate with the same letters. I still see text written in whichever colour it’s written in, but in my mind it has other colours too. If I have to remember the number of a bus line, there’s a chance I’ll remember the number that goes with the colour it was written in rather than the correct letter, or I’ll remember the correct letter and look in vain for a bus with a number written in that colour.

Well, I’ve been wondering whether it could work the other way.

  • Could grapheme-colour synaesthetes learn to look at a sequence of colours that correspond to letters in their synaesthesia, and read a word?
  • Could this be used to send code messages that only a single synaesthete can easily read?
  • Could colours be used to help grapheme-colour synaesthetes learn to read a new alphabet, either one constructed for the purposes of secret communication, or a real script they will be able to use for something?
  • What would be the difference in learning time for a grapheme-colour synaesthete using their own colours for the replacement graphemes, a grapheme-colour synaesthete using random colours, and a non-synaesthete?

I know that for me, there are quite a few letters with similar colours, and a few that are black or white, so reading a novel code wouldn’t be infallible, but I suspect I would be able to learn a new alphabet a little more easily or read it more naturally if it were presented in the ‘right’ colours. I wonder whether the reason the Japanese symbol for ‘ka’ seemed so natural and right to me was that it seemed to be the same colour as the letter k.

It occurred to me that, as a programmer and a grapheme-colour synaesthete, I could test these ideas, or at least come up with some tools that scientists working in this area could use to test them. So I wrote a little Mac program called Synaesthetist. You can download it from here. In it, you choose the colours that you associate with different letters (or just make up some if you don’t have grapheme-colour synaesthesia and you want to know what it’s like) and save them to a file.

Then you can type in some text, and you’ll see the text with the letters in the right colours, like so:

But even though this sample is using the ‘right’ colours for the letters, it still looks all wrong to me. When I think of a word, usually the colour of the word is dominated by the first letter. So I added another view with a slider, where you can choose how much the first letter of a word influences the colours of the rest of the letters in the word.

This shows reasonably well what words are like for me, but sometimes the mix of colours doesn’t really resemble either original colour. It occurred to me that an even better representation would be to have the letters in their own colours, but outlined in the colour of the first letter. So I added that:

Okay, so that gives you some idea of what the words look like in my head. And maybe feeding text through this could help me to memorise it. Here’s an rtf file of the lyrics to Mike Phirman‘s song ‘Chicken Monkey Duck‘ in ‘my’ colours, with initial letter outline. I’ll study these and let you know it it helps me to memorise them. To be scientific about it, I really should recruit another synaesthete (who would have different colours from my own, and so might be hindered by my colours) and a non-synaesthete to try it as well, and define exactly how much it should be studied and how to measure success. But I’m writing a blog, not running a study, so if you want to try it, download the file. (I’d love it if somebody did run a study to answer some of my questions, though. I’d add whatever features were necessary to the app.)

But these functions don’t go too far in answering the questions I asked earlier. How about reading a code? Well, I figured I’d be more likely to intuit letters from coloured things if they looked a little bit like letters: squiggles rather than blobs. So first I added a view that simply distorts the letters randomly by an amount that you can control with the slider. I did this fairly quickly, so there are no spaces or word-wrapping yet.

I can’t read it when it gets too distorted, but perhaps it’s easier to read at low-distortion than it would be if the letters were all black. Maybe I’d be able to learn to ‘read’ the distorted squiggles based on colour alone, but I doubt it. This randomly distorts the letters every time you change the distortion amount of change the text, and it doesn’t keep the same form for each occurrence of the same letter. Maybe if it did, I’d be able to learn and read the new graphemes more easily than a non-synaesthete would. Okay, how about just switching to a font that uses a fictional alphabet? Here’s some text in a Klingon font I found:

I know that Klingon is its own language, and you can’t just write English words in Klingon symbols and call it Klingon. But the Futurama alien language fonts I found didn’t work, and Interlac is too hollow to show much colour.

Anyhow, maybe with practice I’ll be able to read that ‘Klingon’ easily. I certainly can’t read it fluently, but even having never looked at a table showing the correspondence between letters and symbols, I can figure out some words if I think about it, even when I copy some random text without looking. I intend to add a button to fetch random text from the web, and hide the plain text version, to allow testing of reading things that the synaesthete has never seen before, but I didn’t have time for that.

Another thing I’ll probably do is add a display of the Japanese kana syllabaries using the consonant colour as the outline and the vowel colour as the fill.

Here’s a screenshot of the whole app:

As I mentioned, you can download it and try it for yourself. It works on Mac OS X 10.7, and maybe earlier versions too. To use it, either open my own colour file (which is included with the download) or create a new document and add some characters and colours in the top left. Then enter some text on the bottom left, and it will appear in all the boxes on the right side. If you change the font in the bottom left, say to a Klingon font, it will change in all the other displays except the distorted one.

This is something I’ve coded fairly hastily on the occasional train trip or weekend, usually forgetting what I was doing between stints, so there are many improvements that could be made, and several features already halfway developed. It could do with an icon and some in-app help, too. I’m still working on this, so if you have any ideas for it, I’m all ears.

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Valentine Day Massacre chapbook

Just in time to arrive late for Valentine’s Day, Červená Barva Press have released a chapbook of poems mentioning the word ‘heart’, which were posted on Fictionaut in response to a Valentine’s Day challenge. I’m going to assume they removed the customary apostrophe and ensuing S in order to avoid any unintentional SQL injection. Anyhow, this book includes my scientific love poem, Chemistry, which you can see me reading while wearing two fake moustaches here:

The words and explanations of the science behind it can be found on a few previous blog posts, so I’ll just link to one of them.

Feel free to buy a copy of the chapbook for yourself or your valentine. I don’t get any money from it, and neither does anyone else except for the publisher, because apparently we did it for love, but if you buy it, you’ll get to read quite a varied set of poems, which will make you happy. Alternatively, you could read the poems on Fictionaut by searching the site for ‘Valentine’s Day Massacre’.

On the subject of fake moustaches, I recently went on a cruise with Jonathan Coulton and many of his famous friends and fans. The cruise featured a moustache formal, so if you would like to see how my moustache has changed over time, here’s a picture of me at the formal. I’ll probably post more about the cruise later, if I can come up with a sufficiently creative way of describing it. In the mean time, you could enjoy the many videos I took of the cruise.

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