Archive for the ‘Essays’ Category

Shedding light on astrological nonsense

Dec 17th, 2010

Last night I was directed towards an article claiming that scientists had inadvertently found evidence to support astrology:

Principle of astrology proven to be scientific: planetary position imprints biological clocks of mammals

(NaturalNews) Mention the word “astrology” and skeptics go into an epileptic fit. The idea that someone’s personality could be imprinted at birth according to the position of the sun, moon and planets has long been derided as “quackery” by the so-called “scientific” community which resists any notion based on holistic connections between individuals and the cosmos.

Skeptics must be further bewildered by the new research published in Nature Neuroscience and conducted at Vanderbilt University which unintentionally provides scientific support for the fundamental principle of astrology — namely, that the position of the planets at your time of birth influences your personality.

As a member of the “so-called “scientific” community” I admit that I immediately suspected quackery, or woeful misinterpretation on the part of the astrologers writing the article. However, were I to write off their claims entirely based on this suspicion, then I would be guilty of the close mindedness that they accuse me of. So, in order to dissect their claims, I had to go back to the primary source, the paper they were referencing1 .

What do the astrologers claim?

Before we take a look at the original paper, lets have a look at what the astrologers claim. I’ll only concern myself with the claims directly relevant to the paper they are discussing; their claims regarding scientific arrogance, their straw-man scientists, and cold fusion can be left for someone else to tackle.

The first claim is that “according to the conventional view, your genes and your parenting determine your personality, and the position of planet Earth at the time of your birth has nothing to do with it.” This attempt to set out the conventional scientific viewpoint ignores the large number of other environmental effects that scientists accept can influence development. These environmental effects can be influenced indirectly by the position of the earth, as it is the movement of the earth that is responsible for influencing the seasons.

The astrologers then make the following claims regarding the findings of Ciarleglio et al.:

  1. That the position of the planets at the time of your birth influences your personality.
  2. That mice born in the winter show a “consistent slowing of their daytime activity”
  3. That mice born in the winter are more susceptible to Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

They then summarise by claiming that “one of the core principles of astrology [is] that the position of the planets at the time of your birth (which might be called the “season” of your birth) can actually result in changes in your brain physiology which impact lifelong behavior.”

So, does the paper actually support the claims they make of it?

The Paper

Unfortunately the writers of the article don’t actually provide a link to the original paper, something which is sadly all too common . However, they do provide enough information to let us find the paper:

Perinatal photoperiod imprints the circadian clock

Christopher M Ciarleglio, John C Axley, Benjamin R Strauss, Karen L Gamble & Douglas G McMahon
Nature Neuroscience (2010) doi:10.1038/nn.2699
Received 24 August 2010 Accepted 21 October 2010 Published online 05 December 2010

Using real-time gene expression imaging and behavioral analysis, we found that the perinatal photoperiod has lasting effects on the circadian rhythms expressed by clock neurons as well as on mouse behavior, and sets the responsiveness of the biological clock to subsequent changes in photoperiod. These developmental gene × environment interactions tune circadian clock responses to subsequent seasonal photoperiods and may contribute to the influence of season on neurobehavioral disorders in humans.

As far as I can tell, the paper is open access, which means that anyone should be able to read it. I’m afraid the same can’t be said for all the papers I’ve referenced here.

What do they do?

The Circadian Rhythm

That nature responds to the cycle of day and night is easily observable, flowers track the sun, people and other animals sleep and awake, and other behaviour seems to correlate with the time of day. What is perhaps more surprising, is many of these behaviours continue to show a daily cycle, even if the sun is removed from the equation. For example, flowers will continue to track the position of the sun for several days after being placed in a dark room. Typically the cycles shown during these ‘free-running periods’ (either of constant light, or constant dark) are either slightly longer or slightly shorter than twenty-four hours, and the regular light-dark cycle is necessary to maintain calibration.

The impact of circadian rhythms on human behaviours should be apparent to anyone who has ever experienced jet lag, and the depression that can follow the shorter winter days (SAD), has been linked to the circadian cycles. In humans and other mammals, this internal biological clock has been tracked down to a region of the brain known as the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN), in which the expression of a number of genes, or associated hormone production, vary on an approximately twenty-four hour cycle. These cycles continue, even when exposed to constant light, or constant dark, thus providing an internal ‘body clock.’

The ‘clock genes’ are those whose expression (the level at which the cell makes protein from a given gene) varies over the cycle. For example, the gene per1 is most active during the day. By genetic manipulation, is is possible to ensure that per1 produces a product with a fluorescent tag, allowing its activity to be measured by monitoring cell florescence.

Mice were exposed to either short-day or long-day light cycles (8 or 16 hours of ‘daylight’ respectively) from before birth until weaning (The perinatal phase). Following weaning, mice were either maintained under the same light cycle, or were stitched to the opposite cycle for a further 28 days (The continuation phase, Figure 1). Experiments were repeated in both winter and summer, to take into account variations that may be induced by the actual season.

Figure 1: Mice were expose to either long or short day light cycles prior to weaning. Subsequently mice were either maintained under the same conditions, or were switched to the opposite cycle.

Following this treatment, the circadian rhythms of the rodents were studied, either by tracking the expression of specific ‘clock genes,’ or by monitoring rodent behavioural activity2.

What do they find?

The authors found that the ‘day length’ at birth continues to have an impact on the circadian rhythms of the mice, even after they have been shifted to a different cycle. In particular, long-day born mice, showed a narrower peak of activity in the SCN, and in addition showed a shorter internal clock cycle, this resulted in more consistency between subsequent exposure to either long or short day cycles. In contrast, short-day born mice generally showed wider peaks of activity, and longer internal clock cycles. They were also subject to more variation in circadian rhythm behaviour between subsequent ‘summer’ or ‘winter’ cycles.

What does this mean?

This indicates that the day length at birth may have long term effect on subsequent circadian rhythms, even when the day length changes. In particular, mice born during a ‘winter’ cycle seem to show more variation in subsequent seasonal changes. The authors indicate that this may have implications with respect to previous findings, which show that mice born during winter-like cycles show increased levels of depression like symptoms, and that winter born humans show increased levels of SAD, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. However at this stage it is not possible to draw a firm link between the findings.

What are the limitations of the study?

One of the primary limitations of the study is that it only addresses a short time span, and the authors acknowledge that they have no indication as to how long the effects may last. This may be especially relevant when attempting to translate the results to humans: not only a different species, but one with a significantly longer lifespan.

Additionally, I am also concerned that the study only considered two phases, the perinatal phase, and then either a continuation of the initial levels, or a switch to the opposite seasonal cycle. The possibility remains that exposure to a long-day cycle outside the perinatal period is sufficient to, at least partially, imprint the same pattern as seen in the long-day born mice. In support of this possibility is the considerably lower variation between short-day and long-day born mice under long-day conditions. However it should be pointed out that there are still significant differences between shot-day and long-day born mice.

Does the paper support the claims of the original article?

In short no.

Firstly, the only planet whose position has effect on day length is planet earth, where the orientation of its axis relative to the sun determines the season, and hence the day length. The other planets have different orbital periods, which means that Mars won’t be at the same point in the sky on December 17th 2010, as it was on December 17th 2000. Furthermore, while the northern hemisphere is in the grip of winter, the southern hemisphere is in the middle of summer, meaning that any seasonal effects are going to depend on the hemisphere, as much as the location of the earth.

But importantly, the researchers have been careful to isolate day length as the variable, separating other seasonal effects, such as temperature, or indeed the earth’s location. Furthermore, by conducting the experiment in summer AND winter, the effectively prevent any actual seasonal variations from having an effect.

In short, the findings have nothing to do with astrology. Ironically, the ‘tabloid horoscopes’ derided in the article have more to gain; your star sign is correlated with day length when you were born, at least assuming we confine ourselves to a narrow latitude.

Oddly the article also ascribes the findings regarding depression like symptoms in winter-born mice to this study, when in fact they were conducted separately. But again, these findings were purely associated with day length, not planetary position.

So in summary we have either a gross misrepresentation of scientific findings, or a major misunderstanding. We also have a paper which is potentially interesting, although I’d like to see how stable the effects are through multiple changes in day-length. If the effect is isolated to a short period of possible imprinting, then it will be interesting to narrow this period down in different organisms.

  1. Ciarleglio, C. M., Axley, J. C., Strauss, B. R., Gamble, K. L., & McMahon, D. G. (2010). Perinatal photoperiod imprints the circadian clock. Nature neuroscience. doi:10.1038/nn.2699. []
  2. Wheel usage []

Mitochondrial proteins at the proteasome, are you MAD?

Dec 16th, 2010

About this post

This post was originally written for a job application, however I was never able to use it. It covers a growing field closely related to the subject of my PhD. As the article was originally intended to be written for a blog of a biology journal it is primarily written for those with training in the biological sciences, although I also tried to make it accessible to an informed lay audience. Unfortunately I think this attempt at pitching the article at a wide audience hasn’t been entirely successful, at times seeming too simplistic fro the primary audience, and at others too inaccessible to a lay audience. I also feel the article could do with being less formal, however given the original purpose of the article I felt it was better to lean towards too formal, than risk being perceived as too informal.

I should clarify that I don’t discuss any of my work in this article.

When proteins become damaged or are no longer required by the cell, they can be broken down into their component peptides, allowing these resources to be reclaimed. Much of this recycling occurs at proteasomes, hollow barrel like structures located in the cytoplasm and nucleus of the cell. Breakdown of proteins occurs in a catalytic chamber at the centre of the structure, and entry of potential substrates is tightly regulated by caps at either end of the chamber.

In most cases, a protein’s fate at the centre of the proteasome is determined by the attachment of a chain of ubiquitin: a small protein, which can be covalently attached to lysine residues on other proteins. This chain is recognised by components of the proteasome, as well as by shuttle factors, which help recruit substrates to the proteasome.

Proteins within the cytoplasm or nucleus have easy access to the proteasome, however those within membrane bound organelles must first be translocated into the cytosol. The first evidence for such processes occurring was found in association with the endoplasmic reticulum.

Endoplasmic reticulum associated degradation, or ERAD, describes the process by which unwanted proteins within the endoplasmic reticulum are retro-translocated to the cytosol. Here they are tagged with ubiquitin, and delivered to the proteasome. ERAD relies on the co-operation of a large number of factors. A series of chaperones identify proteins which are undergoing difficulty folding and in turn they deliver them to complexes in the ER membrane. From here, proteins are transferred to the cytosolic face of the organelle, and chains of ubiquitin are attached, marking them for proteasome mediated degradation. The hydrolysis of ATP by the hexameric Cdc48/p97 provides the energy to extract ubiquitinated proteins from the membrane, and co-factor proteins ensure efficient delivery to the proteasome or its shuttle factors.

For a long time it was assumed that no such system existed in mitochondria, the respiratory centres of the cell, as they have their own complement of proteases. However, increasing evidence is suggesting that the proteasome may play an important role in the degradation of some mitochondrial proteins, leading to the proposition of mitochondria associated degradation, or MAD.

Traditionally, the degradation of mitochondrial proteins has been seen to be the domain of the mitochondrially localised ATP dependent proteases. The inner mitochondrial membrane contains multi-subunit proteases with their catalytic activity orientated to face either the inter-membrane space, or the mitochondrial matrix. Additional proteases, such as Lon/PIM and ClpXP, are found within the mitochondrial matrix. This collection of proteases is sufficient to provide protein degradation in the mitochondrial matrix, inner mitochondrial membrane and the inter-membrane space, however analysis of the products of proteolysis indicate that inter-membrane space proteins are under-represented.

Some of the earliest evidence of proteasome dependent degradation of mitochondrial proteins came in 1985, when Rapoport et al.1discovered that some mitochondrial proteins were ubiquitinated, and degraded in an ATP dependent manner. Subsequent to this, other ubiquitinated proteins have been found to localise to the mitochondria, and appear to undergo proteasome mediated degradation.

More direct evidence arose when Margineantu et al.2 found that the heat-shock protein Hsp90 appeared to promote ubiquitination of OSCP, a matrix localised subunit of the mitochondiral F1F0-ATPase. Further investigation revealed that disruption of Hsp90 resulted in reduced turnover of OSCP and other mitochondrial proteins, resulting in accumulation on the outer mitochondrial membrane; similar changes were observed on proteasome inhibition. This accumulated protein appeared to be a result of retro-translocation of mature mitochondrial proteins, indicating that mitochondria possessed a pathway of retro-translocation and proteasome mediated degradation, analogous to the ERAD pathway.

Dissection of the mitochondria associated degradation pathway is still in its early stages, and as yet many of the required components remain speculative. Comparison with the better characterised ERAD pathway is inevitable, and it remains to be seen if any elements will be shared between the two pathways. Recent work by Heo et al.3 discovered that Cdc48/p97 was recruited to mitochondria in a stress responsive manner by a protein they called Vms1 (VCP/Cdc48-associated mitochondrial stress-responsive). Disruption of this process resulted in a reduction in ubiquitin-dependent degradation of mitochondrial proteins, leading the authors to propose that Cdc48/p97 may perform a key role in MAD, as well as in ERAD.

The highly oxidative environment of the mitochondria means that its proteins are particularly prone to damage. Mitochondrial proteases have long been known to provide one line of protein quality control, and it is increasingly apparent that the proteasome dependent degradation of the MAD pathway may provide another. Dissection of the MAD pathway will be essential for forming a complete picture of the mitochondrial protection against damaged proteins, and may provide insights into diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, which are associated with an accumulation of misfolded proteins in the mitochondria.

  1. Rapoport, S., Dubiel, W., & Müller, M. (1985). Proteolysis of mitochondria in reticulocytes during maturation is ubiquitin-dependent and is accompanied by a high rate of ATP hydrolysis. FEBS letters, 180(2), 249-52. Pubmed. []
  2. Margineantu, D. H., Emerson, C. B., Diaz, D., & Hockenbery, D. M. (2007). Hsp90 inhibition decreases mitochondrial protein turnover. PloS one, 2(10), e1066. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0001066. []
  3. Heo, J.-M., Livnat-Levanon, N., Taylor, E. B., Jones, K. T., Dephoure, N., Ring, J., et al. (2010). A stress-responsive system for mitochondrial protein degradation. Molecular cell, 40(3), 465-80. doi: 10.1016/j.molcel.2010.10.021. []

Where now for a liberal-leftie?

May 11th, 2010

So, the bird has gone to roost in the tree; it remains to be seen whether it will prune back the branches to make a nest, while proudly displaying its plumage, or if it will soon give leaf itself, and become indistinguishable from its new home. While the former situation may make me feel happier in the vote, it also increases the chance that tree and bird will fall out, possibly bringing the whole metaphor down with them.

When the prospects of a Liberal Democrat – Conservative coalition first began to become a practical possibility, rather than a theoretical one, I was initially horrified that the paint may have been flaking of my yellow vote to reveal the blue underneath. It was a popular sentiment. When I tweeted “If the Lib-Dems do team up with the Tories, it will be like a twist in a film when you realise one of the heroes is the bad-guy.” It was rapidly picked up and re-tweeted (forwarded) around the Twittersphere by over 160 people. Clearly many like me felt betrayed, and worried that all the talk of “A vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for the Tories” would turn out far more literally than they may have expected.

However, as time passed it became clear that options were few. While many of the left looked on at a prospect of a grand liberal coalition, the numbers would have been tight, and an already aggressive right wing press would have been attempting to destroy the coalition before parliament was even seated. It was also clear that several senior members of the Labour party were opposed to the proposition, raising the prospect that internal rebellion would seriously threaten the stability of an already precarious position.

The battle was enough to secure a key concession from the Conservatives though, matching Labours offer of AV. With that my most major opposition to the Lib-Con pact was abolished, although I hope the Liberals keep the pressure on to ensure that the changes go through. The situation wasn’t ideal, and I wasn’t about to pretend I was happy with it, but when the cards are dealt you have little choice but to play.

I still worry though. The Conservative party holds vastly more seats than its little pet bird, and I fear that they may get dragged into the fold. Sacrificing ideals for stability, for want of being heard, or for want of power. Furthermore, it is hard to deny the rightward drift of economic policy in the party over the past few years, and it seems possible that the shelter of the leafy boughs of the Conservatives will catalyse this further. Which leaves a problem, if yellow and blue become indistinguishable, either through incompetence or power-grabbing, where next?

Labour may seem an obvious choice, however their dubious record on civil liberties leaves me concerned. While a few back bench rebels still buck the authoritarian trend, the ability to vote for one of them will largely depend on which consistency I end up voting in.

The Greens are considerably to the left of most the mainstream parties, both socially and economically. However, the party occasionally allows its policies to be driven more by ideology than evidence, leaving a few dubious decisions in their science policy. Fortunately they do appear to be attempting to address these in response to criticism in response to their European Election manifesto. Additionally I can’t help but feel that some of their policies seem impractically naive, however this may just be a side effect of their considerable contrast from the mainstream parties. That said, after the election I discovered that my local Green candidate was following Ben Goldacre on twitter, something that had I realised before-hand would have likely persuaded to switch my vote to her.

So where does that leave me? If the AV vote system does get introduced, at least I will be able to vote for who I want, even if they are a minority party. I must admit I am unfamiliar with many of the other minority parties, although know I rejected the Scottish Socialist Party on the basis of their belief in an independent Scotland. (I rejected the SNP on similar principals) It also doesn’t help that most discussion of neo-liberal economics, Keynsian economics etc. just causes my brain to melt. To actually try and work out if it a) is ‘morally’ acceptable and b) will work, is sadly a bit beyond me.

And that’s that, an entry that tails of into navel gazing hand-wringing. How fucking Lib Dem of me. If you want to preach your party, you are welcome to do so in the comments. I’m genuinely interested.

(Note: First time comments will need to be approved manually. I’m not blocking, I’m just being slow.)

Tips On Finding Cheap Rail Tickets

Jan 3rd, 2010

Over the past four years I have been a regular user of the British rail network. During this time I have regularly been frustrated with the pricing, which can vary from guilt inducing cheapness, to exorbitantly pricey, even for exactly the same journey. Finding the cheapest tickets isn’t easy, and it seems that every time I’ve traveled home, or to see a friend I’ve had to use a different technique at reducing the price from something that makes me reconsider my plans, to something more affordable.

The following post was made by me on a message board, but I have reproduced it here in the hope that it may be of use to someone else. It already assumes that the reader is familiar with sites such as thetrainline and knows that advance purchase of tickets can save them a lot of money. Advance tickets are made available at some indeterminate time before travel and will often sell out quickly.

I’m assuming that when checking for advance tickets you are looking at the price for singles, rather than returns? If not you’ll want to do so, as thats where the savings are.

I’ve had a lot of experience trying to book cheap rail tickets, and it seems I’ve used a different method each time. However most of my tips are better suited for considering long distance travel. However, In case they are of use to anyone:

1) is great for travel between major stations, assuming you are flexible about travel times. The also provide coach travel, which might be worth a look. Particularly consider it in concert with the next tip.

2) Split tickets. For reasons that are beyond me, cheap advance tickets aren’t always available for the entire route, even on services with no changes. Try looking at splitting the journey. I’ve always had most luck when splitting at major stations, such as Birmingham. I’m not entirely sure of liability should you miss a connection on a split ticket. You’ll obviously avoid this issue is the two tickets are for the same service, although it’ll require you to change seats. In other cases I’ve got an open return for the second half of the journey, which has been short enough that its not a significant enough cost.

3) Buy from the appropriate website. is great for finding tickets, but once you know who runs the service you need, try looking at the operators website, as they may offer discounts if you buy direct.

4) Keep an eye on prices. Tickets are made available three months before the date of travel, however the cheapest tickets will not be available at this stage. Instead, the train operator seals a cat in a box with a vial of cyanide gas, which will be shattered by a hammer on the decay of a radioactive isotope. On the death of the cat the train operator also releases the cheap tickets. However, as no one can know when the cat dies without opening the box they instead end up resorting to the point at which they know they’ll be able to annoy the greatest number of people possible. Co-incidentally this ends up coinciding with the point of radioactive decay, as physics is shifty like that. To avoid being disappointed, check regularly. The trainline can actually notify you for popular routes. Once the cheap tickets are out the prices will slowly tick up as each price point sells out, however on journeys with multiple routes different operators will make their tickets available at different times due to their use of different cats. I’m not sure how the hell you are supposed to deal with this. I just stop looking at the prices the moment I jump in to buy a ticket and remain in ignorance.

4) Be flexible. Make sure you check every time, and every route, because the cheapest tickets are elusive and like to hide.

5) A tip which is probably not available to you: Buy a Railcard. You’ll save 30% and can regain your investment. But remember, when searching for tickets to also have a look without your railcard. Some tickets are stubborn and are scared of discount cards. This’ll sometimes mean that you need to buy the tickets separately if the return is cheaper with a railcard. Also, while you only get a Young-persons railcard up to the age of 25, you can buy one on the day before your 26th birthday and it’ll be valid for a whole year.

6) Goat sacrifices may help your cause. However the public transport gods are fickle. Prices may go up, as well as down.

Edit: Just thought I’d clarify, that all by talk of the advance tickets being sneaky tricksy buggers was not exaggeration. Often I have sat back distraught, thinking I’ve exhausted all avenues and will have to pay almost £100 to get to see my family. Then, just as I’m about to give up and throw it all in a tiny change in search parameters, such as using a different website (despite the fact they all go through the same system) and then suddenly a ticket appears for a tenth the price, with no obvious rhyme or reason why it didn’t show up before.

Oh, and be wary of clicking ‘back’ once you’ve selected a ticket. I did that once, and it seemed that it allocated the last cheap tickets to me, and failed to release them when I went back to change seating preferences. I then had to wait a tense half an hour while the system sorted itself out, during which it would just produce an error if I tried to select said tickets, even from a different browser. Finally the system reset itself. Seemingly the tickets I was initially going for had sold out in the meantime, but the band B cheap tickets were available for only a couple of pounds more, instead of the £20 more of the standard tickets.

In addition to the recommendations here, I’d also suggest playing with some of the fare finding features over at, it requires a bit of patience, and doesn’t always make it apparent as to exactly when the cheapest tickets are available, but should give you indications as to what prices you can expect for the route.

In other news, I have take todays and yesterdays photos for the twenty ten photo project, however will be waiting until I get my desktop set up again before I upload them.

I invite any further tips in the comments.

Bean had?

Jun 9th, 2009

You may have noticed reports in several newspapers and tech sites today of the Heinz Beanzawave, a USB powered microwave. In total, according to Google News, the story appears to have been covered by over fifty different outlets including the UPI, CrunchGear, Cnet and the Daily Mail. Not to mention a number of popular blogs, such as BoingBoing. While some of these articles have users raising criticisms in the comments, none of the news sources I checked bothered to run a critical eye over the story. (If you find one, please post it in the comments so the good guys can get some acknowledgements.)

The news seemingly originated from a press-release form the ‘Microwave Association,’ working in association with Heinz. Unfortunately for fans of beans and fancy USB gadgets the story appears to be, well, a load of old beans1.

Even a quick critical eye will spot some key flaws. The average modern microwave has an output of 850W, with even weaker models outputting at least 650W. By comparison, the USB 2.0 standard provides a maximum current of 500mA, at 5V; which works out as a maximum power output of just 2.5W2. The former figures should be familiar to anyone who has cooked something in the microwave, as the output is printed on the front, and you are expected to adjust cooking times accordingly. The latter meanwhile should be obvious in part to anyone who has hooked up a printer. While simple devices like mice can obtain sufficient power from a USB socket, the same can’t be said for more power-hungry devices such as printers, which need their own power supplies. Indeed, the power supply units of most computers aren’t certified to deliver 850W of power, with possibly only high quality gaming rigs fitted with a hefty enough PSU; even then, powering a microwave would leave scant remainder for the processor and graphics card.

So we’ve already seen that such a device would have to operate at a significantly lower power output than most modern microwaves. Such a device would be unlikely to be marketed as a novelty, and instead would be positioned to replace most standard microwaves. However is it possible that such improvements have been made, and we are in fact looking at vastly superior technology. In short, not likely, unless they have also managed to break the laws of thermodynamics in creating this miracle microwave.

In demonstrating how truly impossible their claims are we need to consider some physics.

The specific heat capacity of a substance is used to describe how much energy is required to raise its temperature; for water, this is given as approximately 4.2 joules per gram per kelvin. This means that for every gram of water, you must supply 4.2 joules of energy, to raise the temperature by 1 kelvin, or 1 degree Celcius3. Therefore, for a 200g tub of beans (which we shall approximate by assuming it is all water.) it takes 4.2 x 200 = 840 joules to raise the temperature by a single degree.

So how does this translate to our microwave? Well fortunately, the measurement watts tells us how many joules of energy are transferred each second. In other words 1 watt = 1 joule per second. So if we are to assume that our microwave is 100% efficient, that all energy it uses goes directly into heating the beans, we can discover how long it will take to deliver the required 840((And here is a good illustration of the inefficiency of standard microwaves. As by this calculation the beans should be ready in just under a second.)) joules to raise the temperature of the beans by a single degree. Simply divide 840 by 2.5 and… oh dear… 336 seconds. Five minutes, 36 seconds to warm the beans by a single degree. If you want them boiling hot4, then you are going to be waiting over 7 hours.

What bothers me most about this story isn’t the dubious nature of the original press-release. It was clearly constructed by marketing bods in an attempt to gain free column inches. In that respect it worked, and I’m only adding to the effect by writing this. What bothers me is the way the press regurgitated it, unthinkingly, unquestioningly, delivering advertisements as news. Not only this, but it is clear that in most cases, they didn’t even stop to pass a critical eye over it. This isn’t just churnalism, this is factually incorrect churnalism. When the media sacrifices its credibility in terms of fact checking, and ends up falling slave to marketing, what does it have left? And when we lose one of the key methods of fact distribution, of investigation and exposure, what do we have left? Blogs and citizen journalism go so far, but an effective and trustworthy media is is important for everyone; this story is only one of many that makes me wonder how much of one we have left.

I have already contacted the Microwave Association in the E-mail provided in the press-release, and have invited them to respond. I’ll update this entry as soon if I hear anything from them, and leave the comments open if they wish to contribute there. (Although I encourage you do do so via my E-mail, as that way I can be sure the response is genuine. Also, please bear in mind that comments from new users will be held for moderation, and may not get published immediately.)

  1. See, you don’t have to be part of the tabloid press to make terrible puns []
  2. Power is the product of current and voltage []
  3. The scale of Celcius and kelvin is identical. Only the position of the zero position changes, with 0 kelvin being equal to -273.15 °C []
  4. Assuming room temperature 20 °C and a boiling temperature 100 °C []