Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Astrology and the Absurd

Have you ever been amazed by the 'accuracy' of your horoscope? No? Me neither. However, in high school I read my astrological profile in a random book and recall being quite amazed at the number of personality traits that actually applied to me. Scratch it down to generalisations and lucky guesses, I said (and still do). But there is something more there, known as the Forer effect, that makes some sense of this, well, nonsense.

Named after the psychologist Bertram R. Forer, the Forer effect is the observation that people will generally rate their personality descriptions as being accurate when they are under the impression that the description only applies to them, while in reality the description is incredibly vague and applies to a broad range of people.

In 1948, Forer brought light to this human tendency when he issued a personality test to his students, and subsequently gave them a personality description, supposedly based on the test's results. The students were asked to rate their respective personality descriptions on a scale of 0 (very poor) to 5 (excellent). The average was 4.26. Forer then revealed that each student had been given the same analysis:

"You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. Disciplined and self-controlled on the outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure on the inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You also pride yourself as an independent thinker; and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. But you have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, and sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, and reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be rather unrealistic."

Forer had assembled this text from horoscopes.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Haggis Hunt

Ladies and gentlemen, it's on again. The Great Scottish Haggis Hunt has commenced. Although, I have no experience in hunting Haggis per se, I am quite confident that I can apply my superb Drop Bear hunting skills at capturing this very elusive creature. Apparrently, the mysterious animal resides in the Scottish Highlands and has adapted to living in this moutainous region by having two legs on one side slightly longer than the other two. Additionally, it is well-documented that Haggis come in two breeds: clockwise and anti-clockwise (depending naturally on the direction they climb their moutain home).

Armed with this invaluable knowledge, I bid you good luck at capturing a Haggis and thus, dining like a Scottish king. God speed.

Note: be careful of any hostile Hoop Snakes.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


Science has won a small, but important battle against Intelligent Design advocates in the U.S., ironically the science capital (or Mecca?) of the world. In Pennsylvania, eleven concerned parents sued the school administration for introducing this pseudo-science into their local school. The judge had these words to say about this fiasco:

"...this case came to us as the result of the activism of an ill-informed faction on a school board, aided by a national public interest law firm eager to find a constitutional test case on ID, who in combination drove the Board to adopt an imprudent and ultimately unconstitutional policy. The breathtaking inanity of the Board’s decision is evident when considered against the factual backdrop which has now been fully revealed through this trial..."

The parents called Dr Kenneth Miller, a biologist from Brown University, as a expert witness. Miller, a Catholic who has written a number of books on how religion and evolution are not mutually exclusive, was a wise choice as he deftly showed that one doesn't need to abandon their faith in order to believe in science.

Nicely played.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Artistic Ape

This tale sums up the main reason for my utter contempt of modern (or rather post-modern) art.

A German art expert was fooled into believing a painting done by a chimpanzee was the work of a master.

The director of the State Art Museum of Moritzburg in Saxony-Anhalt, Katja Schneider, suggested the painting was by the Guggenheim Prize-winning artist Ernst Wilhelm Nay.

"It looks like an Ernst Wilhelm Nay. He was famous for using such blotches of colour," Dr Schneider confidently asserted.

The canvas was actually the work of Banghi, a 31-year-old female chimp at the local zoo.

Unfortunately, amusing anecdotes like this one aren't uncommon which displays how today's art scene is such a scam. I say bring back the days when artists painted beautiful French gardens (and women) and melting clocks.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Studious Scholar - Complex Numbers

I'm currently completing a summer scholarship in applied mathematics. The project involves modelling ship-generated waves in two-dimensions using complex analysis. Say what? Let's start at the beginning.

We are all familiar with numbers from our everyday lives. You may have 2 apples, be 1.97 metres tall or have -21.58 dollars to your name. Normally, these regular or real numbers work fairly well. However, for mathematicians these numbers weren’t enough so they conceived a number such when multiplied by itself yields negative one. That is, a number, i, exists so i * i = -1. With the birth of this imaginary* number mathematicians suddenly had solutions to previously insolvable equations such as a*a = - 16 where a = 4i.

Mathematicians decided to combine our familiar real numbers with these new imaginary numbers to obtain complex numbers such as 4+2i or -10+16i. Complex numbers, such as 3+4i, have a real part and an imaginary part (in our example 3 and 4 respectively). Amazingly, complex numbers are more than just a mathematical curiosity. Their applications are wide and varied. In fact, complex numbers are used to model electronic circuits, predict atomic and chemical reactions, and even explain the mysteries of the cosmos.

In addition to these applications, when you combine complex numbers with old high school calculus (an algebraic approach to geometry), you obtain the very elegant field known as complex analysis – a powerful branch of mathematics that behaves differently to regular calculus.

And it just happens that complex number-based equations behave exactly like the equations used to model the flow of heat, electricity and fluid in two dimensions – where the real part (of the complex number) represents one dimension, say width, and the imaginary part represents the other dimension, say height.

Since mathematicians have studied complex numbers and their equations rigorously for the last couple centuries, there is a wide range of handy tools available for solving equations that describe physical systems. Thus, mathematicians can solve fluid mechanics 2-D problems (admittedly, our spatial universe is 3-D but suprisingly, often 2-D models are sufficient).

My summer project involves deriving and solving these complex number based equations, and subsequently simulating on a computer the flow of water in an attempt to gain some insight on how to design a more efficient ship stern.

*Imaginary and real are poor terms as students tend to think that real numbers exist where imaginary numbers are purely inventions by mathematicians. In fact both real and imaginary numbers are inventions by mathematicians.

Monday, December 05, 2005

What Global Warming?

Over the weekend the international “Walk Against Warming” protest, an effort designed to persuade governments to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, was held in various cities around the world. We frequently hear both sides of the political spectrum argue the merits of signing or not signing this international agreement. In my mind, there are two main aspects to the Kyoto Protocol debate, namely:

a) Recognising whether global warming is occurring and whethere it is an actual threat to the Earth.
b) Evaluating the effectiveness of the Kyoto Protocol in curbing the global rise in the Earth’s temperature.

In the name of brevity, we shall focus on the first aspect, leaving the second for another day.

Ever since the famous (or infamous) "hockey stick" graph was published indicating a sudden increase in global temperature that started during the industrial revolution, it has become pretty well accepted throughout the scientific community that global warming is happening. One doesn’t have to look far to find an article on a weekly basis strongly suggesting that global warming is happening. However, many a politician and right-leaning pundit continue to deny its existence and rebuke the various models and techniques employed by scientists. Thus, whenever a study is published suggesting nothing is out of the norm temperature-wise, the non-believers celebrate it as proof.

In fact, the usually very scientific author Michael Crichton recently penned the ecoterrorism-themed novel “State of Fear” that references many of these so called studies in an attempt to persuade people that global warming is all spin and hype. In 2003, Crichton gave a speech at CalTech where he assured people there was no need to worry about global warming. I find it a great shame that Crichton is deluding himself in this way. As intelligent and well-read as old Crichton may be, he has some temerity to argue against world climate experts who refute his claims here and here.

Although it would appear fairly evident that global temperature of the Earth is on the rise, one must also acknowledge that the Earth’s, and indeed the Sun’s, temperatures go through various cycles, both short and long term, and that global warming is nothing knew to the Earth. However, the main concern that scientists have is the sudden rapid increase in the Earth’s temperature and how, for instance, the current melting of the Greenland Icesheet could affect the flow of the Gulf Stream, thus plunging places like Ireland and Britain into a deep freeze in a matter of decades (naturally you can see how this is a horrible catastrophe as millions of Irish and English would subsequently flock to Australia).

Additionally, there are a number of feedback systems on the planet that do control the Earth’s temperature. Unfortunately, the actual effectiveness of these control systems has been affected by human activity, and the scale of their response times does not look favourable for us mortal humans.

At the risk of sounding hackneyed, somewhere amongst all the spin and biased reports, the truth exists. Be you an advocate of the Kyoto Protocol or not, one must acknowledge that global warming is actually happening. The questions remain: will the Kyoto Protocol effectively solve the problem and is the problem worth solving?

Update: A Republican senator has called Crichton to a senate hearing.