My Three Positive Things: Why Does Science Make me Happy?

Ah, Facebook trends – the very essence of memetic drifting. The one currently passing through my feed consists of listing three positive things either once or over a series of days, usually about one’s own life.

The original “point” of it was long ago gobbled up during its memetic drift but I wouldn’t be surprised if it started as a response to Facebook’s “emotional manipulation” experiment earlier this year. Despite ripe opportunities for humblebragging, it is good to see some genuine positivity lighten up my feeds.

So what’s good in the world of science right about now? Many things, but a just little digging brought up three examples which represent different aspects of science which make me happy: Completion, discovery and progress.

If I haven’t picked anything that you perceive to be world-changing, a quick flick back through your feed should remind you that world-saving importance isn’t necessarily the name of the game of here :P. Positivity is a different beast entirely.

1. Completion and Fulfillment 

 Best way to stack oranges! Now more proven! Computer says Yes!

Suppose I gave you a big box of uniform oranges and told you to stack them up in the best way possible way. You would presumably, after eyeing me suspiciously, heap them into a pyramid shape. And that would be very smart of you, because that is indeed the most efficient stacking solution. Seems obvious, but it was only three days ago I could make that claim with a big thumbs up from Maths itself. 

Non-uniform oranges stacked suboptimally makes maths sad...
Non-uniform oranges stacked suboptimally makes maths sad… Click for source (Flickr)

Kepler (of planetary motion fame) figured this out in the 1600s, although he couldn’t actually prove it. At least not formally, the way mathematicians like it. Because there are infinite ways to stack infinite spheres, truly proving that a given method was the “best” in all cases needed a little more effort than “it’s obvious, right?”.

This effort spanned four centuries and culminated in a dense 300-page document by Thomas Hales of the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The work was scrutinised by twelve reviewers for four solid years, and in 2005 they found that Kepler’s conjecture was indeed proven… maybe. The reviewers could only be “99% certain” they had checked it thoroughly enough.

The problem is humans. Despite best efforts, even a maths paper can have all the ambiguities and false assumptions of everyday language, which can be misinterpreted or missed completely by human interpreters.  A computer was called for.  

In 2003 Hales initiated a project to check the checkers. Called Flyspeck, they converted the entire paper into logic which computer software can understand, process and verify or reject starting from the first axioms of mathematics. Any mistake or logical leap would throw up an error, and the proof would be invalidated. After a decade of development, on the 10th August 2014, the computer gave its answer. Yes: Oranges always, definitely stack best in a pyramid. 

I believe knowledge for its own sake should be celebrated, but this goes way beyond ball stacking. The automation of formal proof-checking is a great step for mathematics overall, and development of this system should be a huge help for the next 300-page beast of a proof that needs checking.


2. Discovery and Whimsy

Science of Disco Clams! More known than ever! Nanospheres!

Having discarded the oranges you so carefully stacked, I next show you this footage of this clam and its rather flashy lips:

“What causes such a show?” I ask. You give me that look again, and perhaps wonder if it’s bioluminescence, like that seen in anglerfish and various other glitzy underwater beasties. Like the orange problem, you sensibly thought what scientists before you had assumed. However this time you’d be wrong.

There is no actual light generation going on, just very smart reflection. In total darkness, the clam’s lips wouldn’t actually light up. Less lighthouse, more spinning mirror. Lindsey Doherty and her team at the University of California, Berkeley wanted to find out more, so they used high-speed video, electron microscopy and other techniques to discover what made this particular clam so fabulous.

They found that the lips’ structure was very different at the outside edge compared to the inside. The outside was white in colour and packed full of tiny spheres which are almost perfect reflectors of visible light, especially of blue wavelengths which predominate underwater. These spheres are made of silicon dioxide – the same substance as sand, but on the nanoscale. The inside of the lips were red and lacked any nanospheres.

When the clam ripples its lips (a pleasant thought?), the reflective and non-reflective sides alternate rapidly, which you perceive as a rolling flash. They published these results earlier this year.

The clams appear to be using these flashes as some kind of signalling, but who might be the recipient? Some clams have very simple eyes in their juvenile stages, so perhaps the flashes help these youngsters pick apart the right species? Or perhaps it’s a signal to other species like fish or crabs, either a warning or an invitation.

As always, more disco clam science is needed.

The ocean is so full of awesome things, badass, cute and goofy alike, and I applaud any attempt to understand what the heck’s going on down there! Beyond that, we’ve already gained so much from plagiarising Nature’s inventions, perhaps these nanospheres could be used in future tech?

It’s also amazing how diverse the applications of technology can be. Could the engineers who developed high-speed video and electron microscopes know they would be so helpful in the understanding of disco clams? Do they even know now? How can we let them know?


 3. Progress and Fairness

Open access! It’s getting better! Science for all!

Let’s say you weren’t convinced by the above paragraphs about disco clams and wanted to read the primary research paper to verify my claims (clams?). You click the link to the research paper below and you are presented with this less-than-friendly paywall. The very cheapest option is £23.40, just for that one article for 30 days.

disco clam paywall

If 30 days of disco clams aren’t quite enough, you’re encroaching into subscription territory at thousands of pounds per journal. So for all intents and purposes, you can’t read this paper unless you belong to a university or other institution willing (AKA forced) to cough up the cash on your behalf.

You might be willing to let the disco clam issue slide, but what if you read a science news article making bold or dodgy-sounding claims about cancer or GMOs and you wanted to check the actual findings, or at least take a look at them? More often than not, you’d be out of luck, and the journalist’s word would stand.

But times are a-changing. Far from being blindly accepting (like I was as a student) of these paywalls, the world is waking up to what the Internet can do for freedom in science publication. Particularly in the last few years, some really awesome developments have taken place that are worth celebrating (UK focus as that’s more what I know!)

  • There are very nearly 10,000 journals listed in the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and more are being added every day.
  • Individual science bloggers big and small are talking about it more and more and more.
  • Open access conferences and celebrations are now well and truly a “thing”, with Open Access Week and CoASP over five years old and exciting new ones like OpenCon starting up.
  • Major organisations such as the Wellcome Trust and the World Health Organisation have clear progressive policies regarding open access.
  • HEFCE, a body responsible for distributing taxpayer money amongst UK universities, has announced that in future research assessments (post-2014 REF), researchers’ finished journal articles must be placed in online repositories which are “discoverable, and free to read and download, for anyone with an internet connection.” This will vastly increase the number of papers the public can access.
  • The US government is also on board, making a welcome pro-open access statement last year.

The issue of Open Access is complicated, and it would be deluded to claim it is as the panacea to all publication woes. As an recent example, serious questions are being raised about the nature of a new Open Access* (*terms and conditions apply) journal from AAAS.

Yet for me, the fact that serious discussions and movements are taking place before my very eyes is exciting, and I’m looking forward to being able to link and share research articles on my blog without feeling slightly guilty that only a small percentage of my readers can see them.

For pretty much the entirely of human history, science has been (generally) locked up. But Open Access is happening and in my opinion, that’s awesome.

For an instant warm fuzzy science glow feeling, BuzzFeed has you covered seventeenfold for quick happy science facts.

What aspects of science make you feel happy and positive? Any recent developments that made you smile?



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