Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

The Secrets that gravity holds

Since time began mankind has had a fascination with gravity and how to defy or even control it. The dream of flying was at one stage just that, a dream, considered impossible. Nowadays however people can fly around the world to visit exotic countries around the world at their leisure and think that it’s a normal thing. So what comes next?

Well the obvious answer that comes to mind is antigravity as we are drawn to memories of science fiction writing and movies, but what about super gravity? Or even being able to create gravity beams?

Today that may also just seem like a dream that people discount as impossible or stupid, but all scientific discoveries were once considered impossible. I mean if you went back in time and told people they would be able to watch moving people inside tiny little devices we carry around would they believe you? I don’t think so, they may even go so far as to lock you away as crazy or burn you for being a witch. But many people now watch YouTube on their phones when they are bored and its we think nothing of it.

Antigravity in a sense isn’t the means of resisting gravity however, because many different methods of levitation and flight are now possible. Antigravity is the act of eliminating gravity altogether and not needing to use force to propel something from the ground.

In the news of late is the Higgs Boson, the elementary particle which supposedly gives matter mass. If this particle could be manipulated like electrons, protons or neutrons the possibility of a Higgs Boson beam wouldn’t be unexpected. If that were the case the possibility of controlling gravity doesn’t seem so far fetched.

The proportion of Higgs Bosons, if controlled could make matter have more or less mass without the use of an outside force. And as gravity’s strength is proportional to the mass of matter, the gravity of an object could be controlled at will. This would have enormous implications in the development of new technology.

Not only would planes be able to be feather light and use less fuel, but also athletes would be able to train in multiple times gravity conditions. Or even further into the future a small device which would allow your weight to be controlled for those times you want to be able to just float away. Who knows what the future could hold.

You may have thought in the previous paragraph, hey that sounds a lot like the stuff that happens in dragon ball z. (It’s a popular anime if anyone doesn’t know what I’m talking about.) And yes super strength, flight and training at 100 times gravity are all featured, but maybe it’s all just the work of new technology using Higgs Bosons. Super strength: By decreasing the mass of the things around you, you can display miraculous feats of strength with minimal effort. Flight: By decreasing your own mass to zero you would merely need to kick off the ground and float away. And the training, well that’s to develop muscles so people don’t suspect you of being aliens with amazing new technology.

Just a link to a video showing some super gravity and antigravity in dragon ball z:

Four ways that your brain is being irrational

So you think you’re a perfectly rational decision-maker? Well, science says otherwise. The human brain, for all its complex brilliance, has a number of traps into which it falls with astonishing regularity. Behavioural Economics is a relatively recent integration of economics and psychology, which tries to understand the irregularities of human decision-making. Are you guilty of any of these?

Source: Wikimedia Commons

IRRATIONALITY #1: The Endowment Effect

People tend to value something more highly simply because they own it. This has nothing to do with sentimentality; it can involve even the most mundane of household objects. The endowment effect was shown most famously in the “mug experiments” of Kahneman et al. (1990). In a class of students, half were randomly allocated a mug. The group were then asked to trade mugs for cash if a mutually-acceptable value could be agreed upon. But barely any trades took place: those with a mug almost always valued it more highly than those without.

And there’s a science behind it. Item-holders with high electrical activity in the right insular cortex were most likely to jack-up their asking price. Intriguingly, the endowment effect disappears if you use tokens that can later be exchanged for a mug, suggesting there’s something about actually seeing the object that makes us tick.


Consider the following:

Scenario one: You buy a $50 ticket to the footy, but somehow lose it on your way to the venue. Do you buy another ticket?

Scenario two: You are planning to buy a ticket to the footy, but on the way to the venue you lose a $50 note in the parking lot. Do you still buy the footy ticket?

If you answered “no” to the first scenario and “yes” to the second, then you’re not alone. People don’t like double-dipping, even though both scenarios will cost you $100 for the same reward. A sunk cost is one that has already been spent, regardless of any further decisions you make – hence it should be ignored when making future decisions.

A friend of mine battled through the most horrendous-smelling cigar because he “didn’t want to waste it.” If he’d considered the cigar a sunk cost, its purchase price already spent, then he’d have gained more enjoyment from not smoking it.

Our complete disregard for sunk costs could be linked to regret avoidance, and feelings of regret have been correlated with activity in the orbital frontal cortex.

Sometimes a bad cigar isn't worth finishing. Source: Wikimedia Commons

IRRATIONALITY #3: Long-shot bias

In a nutshell, nobody should be buying Tattslotto tickets. Given the gastronomically small chances of winning, the expected return from a single ticket is always less than the price of the ticket (for this reason, lotteries have been called “a tax on the mathematically inept”). But lottery tickets still sell like hot-cakes, because people tend to overvalue low-probability events. It’s the same reason you put that “sneaky $10” on Greater Western Sydney to beat Collingwood… just in case. Dollar for dollar, it’s completely irrational – although we do like it when Collingwood loses!

The taking of such risks has been linked with electrical activity in the striatum, suggesting that we are neurologically wired to give undue weight to unlikely events.

IRRATIONALITY #4: The Ultimatum Game

Consider this game, which is conducted in pairs. $10 is placed in front of you. Your partner (the proposer) is instructed to make an offer on how to split the money, and you (the responder) can

1) accept the offer –  the money is divided accordingly

2) reject the offer – nobody gets anything.

Now imagine the proposer offers you only $0.50 out of the $10. Do you accept or reject?

Rationally, you should accept every time, since 50c is better than nothing. But experiments tell us that, in this situation, responders are more likely to reject such an ungenerous offer. This decision is preceded by activity in the anterior insula cortex, an area of the brain that controls negative emotional responses such as disgust.

Better than nothing? Source: Wikimedia Commons

An important part of these phenomena is not only identifying them, but trying to understand why they are seemingly hardwired into our brains. We can, for example, propose evolutionary explanations. Across evolutionary time, even low-probability events become likely selection pressures, which perhaps explains why our lottery-loving behaviour is so deeply ingrained.

So… how rational are you?

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously

This blog is all about communicating science and technology; how about applying science and technology to communication?

Language is fundamental to communication. It’s safe to say that communication is most effective when all sides are speaking the same language.

Linguistics, the scientific study of language, is an ancient field possibly traceable to 500BC. So after all this research and study, how good is technology at understanding language?

A typical conversation with a computer.

Most computers and programmes don’t speak our languages; we have to speak theirs.

So why is it so difficult for computers to understand humans? The answer is simple: context. Computers have no clue about the context of a sentence.

When you google Pink do you mean the colour or the band? Human languages are ambiguous.

Over the years, many approaches have been developed to attempt to mechanically understand languages. In fact, in the field of computer science, theory of computation revolves around whether a computer can correctly recognise a word in a formal language.

To make these concepts slightly easier to understand, I’ll invoke a formal language that we should all know: maths.

What’s the value of x in the following equation?
x = 2 + 4 ÷ 2 × 3 – 5

The simplest class of computers, the finite state automaton – think a simple calculator – would answer 4 erroneously.

A better class of machine, the pushdown automaton, could answer correctly with 3. Why is that?

It’s because there’s two dimensions of information encoded one dimensionally. That is to say, that there’s an order of operations, or precedence.

Order of operations. The lower ones come first tighter. (Own work)

To understand the structure of the equation it’s useful to create a parse tree in order to make sense of it. We see this in natural languages like English too.

The sentence “John hit the ball” can be interpreted as in the following.

Creative Commons Author: Tjo3ya

Feel free for your eyes to glaze over the technical stuff.

However, English is also full of ambiguous sentences, a famous one is: Time flies like an arrow. We don’t usually mean that the time species of flies is drawn to a particular arrow.

Let’s take a look at Groucho Marx’s famous joke: I shot an elephant in my pajamas. Most people would assume Groucho is wearing his pajamas, so would parse the sentence in the following manner:

(Source: Natural Language Toolkit, Licence: Creative Commons)

But then comes the punchline: How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know. So that means the correct parsing is:

(Source: Natural Language Toolkit, Licence: Creative Commons)

This is ambiguity, when at least two parse trees can be constructed for the same sentence. There are many algorithms for parsing to construct parse trees, from left to right; right to left, or all trees at once; but, unless there are some quantifiable rules, a computer wouldn’t know which to choose. Although it might not always be clear, humans are smart enough to use context to work out which are the correct ones.

It also contains idioms like All that glitters is not gold; literally translating that into first order predicate logic would yield ∀x(Glitters(x) → ¬Gold(x)), meaning everything that glitters is not gold. However, the real meaning in fact is: Not all things that glitter are gold, which instead is ¬∀x(Glitters(x) → Gold(x)).

You can only imagine how a computer might handle metaphors. Activist and linguist Noam Chomsky proposed a sentence that a computer would blindly accept but is completely meaningless: Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

Public Domain

According to Wikipedia In 1985 Stanford University ran a competition to attempt to find meaning of for the sentence. One of the entries was:

It can only be the thought of verdure to come, which prompts us in the autumn to buy these dormant white lumps of vegetable matter covered by a brown papery skin, and lovingly to plant them and care for them. It is a marvel to me that under this cover they are labouring unseen at such a rate within to give us the sudden awesome beauty of spring flowering bulbs. While winter reigns the earth reposes but these colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

Somewhat poetic huh?

As much as grammar police may try to enforce the rules of the language, natural languages defy logic. While from time to time I’m also a grammar nazi, I feel it’s important to understand the rules so we can appreciate when to break them.

We don’t need information theory to tell us that as a means of transmitting data and information, natural languages like English are horrendously inefficient and verbose, but computers miss out on all the things that make language into literature.

Is your video taking a long time to load? Take that time to think about this.

In the current day and age, the video sharing site YouTube has probably become the the second best procrastination method behind Facebook and its library of millions of videos can have a person captivated for hours.

One aspect of this online database is videos of cute, furry, funny and adorable animals, I myself am a victim to spending numerous hours scrolling through BBC’s talking animals. Unfortunately however, I feel ashamed to say that the internet, in which my generation has contributed to most, is spreading more than just viruses to unprotected PC’s.

These videos are prompting many people around the world to seek out wild animals as pets and the popularity of animals through online videos has caused the illegal animal trade to sky rocket, the major victims being the Slow Loris species. .

Unfortunately, clips which feature these big eyed primates, have attracted millions of views around the world on YouTube and lead to the demand for them as pets to increase.

These poor animals, many which are no bigger than a kitten, are native to South East Asia where they are being taken from the wild and being sold for about $20 Australian in markets, only to be shipped over to Japan, US and Europe and resold for up to $6000-7000.

Many of the Slow Lorises do not survive this trip and if they do, they are often in a state of shock, suffer septicaemia, placed in conditions which do not suite there native ways under severe heat and in blinding sunlight, a contrast to their natural nocturnal ways.

Once they do arrive at there destination, the Slow Lorises will have their teeth removed to ensure they cannot bite there new owners (as pictured) and this is often done using nail clippers without anaesthetic. A secondary effect of this action comes into play when or if the animal is ever rescued, as it can no longer be returned to the wild due to the fact that it lacks the ability to consume hard foods.

A slow loris having its teeth removed with nail clippers
Photo credit: Dr. Karmele Llano Sánchez under the Creative Commons license

I am ashamed to admit that I have watched these videos but with no cruelty in mind. It makes bothers me that people would persecute these animals for their own gain. In some ways though, I feel like this is due to a lack of education about the need for animals to be within there natural environment and not distributed all around the world, especially in such horrific conditions. In this way, I feel privileged, but many people do not even understand the concepts of how this animal trafficking may affect the future of the species.

This is not an article to preach my opinion, but I think it is necessary to understand some of the consequences that the internet has caused in a relatively short period of time. The advance in technology which has occurred over the last decade is amazing, and the scientific and technological development is an incredible feat. As a global society, however, there is a need to understand its consequences…with advancements come new responsibilities that need to be taken on-board.

I think to be able to adapt to the ever changing technological world is an important aspect of living in the world today and as this world become somewhat “smaller”, with communication and sharing between people becoming easier, we have a great platform for combating issues like this one

The Exotic Trade; Rescuing Slow Lorises. Shared through

I was unable to upload the entire episode, but please take the time to watch the rest at
The full video is much more informative


An unbeatable rock-paper-scissors robot?

Paper-scissors-rock chart

Most of us if not all think that the game of rock, paper, scissors is in fact a game of chance. Few however such as Douglas Walker the co-author of the Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide, believe that it is a game of physical and psychological skill.

Then come the scientist specifically scientists of University of Tokyo’s Ishikawa Oku Laboratory scientists. They built a robot a robot called the Janken (means rock, paper, scissors in Japanese) robot, this robot made the game impossible for players playing against it since it wins 100% of the time. Yes you read that correctly a solid 100% of the time the robot will no doubt beat its opponent.

The main question that comes into mind, how does the robot win? Does it read your mind with x-ray goggles? Is it filled with Douglas Walker’s strategic tips on winning the game with coding written by programmers? Does the robot trick your mind with a subliminal technique that only the designers of the robot know about?

No not really, the robot basically cheats. Although you might not notice that the robot cheated but basically the robot cheats in a fraction of 1 millisecond and that’s all the robot needs to have an advantage over you.

The robot uses high-speed video processing power to analyzes the shape of the opponents hand mid-swing of play and counters with the winning hand in 1 millisecond. This happens each and every time you play.

The researchers did not want to just build this robot as a prank for rock, paper, scissors hardcore fans (if there were any) but it was a research about human-robot work cooperation and how to minimize the time delay between the two.

Of course other research has been done to other methods of reducing time delay for human-robot work cooperation such as the robot BERT1 (Bristol Elumotion Robotic Torso 1) introduced at London’s Science Museum in 2009, where the makers of BERT1 showed their own rock, paper, scissors robot and concluded on how this technology can help people with Parkinson’s disease or people who suffered from a stroke.


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