Category Archives: Science Communication

The Chaotic Pendulum

Double pendulums are pretty awesome. Funnily enough, they’re pretty much what they sound like – a pendulum, with another one attached to the bottom. But the cool part is come from their twin nature, but the type of motion they exhibit – chaotic motion.

People often confuse chaotic behaviour with random behaviour; random behaviour has no deterministic qualities (so you can’t tell from previous physical conditions what is going to happen), whereas chaotic behaviour is actually deterministic, meaning it is possible to predict. The difference between chaotic deterministic behaviour and regular deterministic behaviour, however, is that tiny, tiny changes in initial conditions in a chaotic systems can bring about massive changes, unlike a normal deterministic system, where tiny changes in initial conditions will bring about tiny changes overall. You may have heard of something called “the butterfly effect” – where a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world can cause a hurricane on the other. This is a chaotic system, as even something as small as the miniscule breeze from a butterfly flapping its wings can cause massive changes in weather, which may at first appear random but actually do have a deterministic cause.

The fact that double pendulums are chaotic is that go can set two different pendulums up to be almost exactly the same, but not quite, and after a period of time they’ll be totally different from each other. It also makes the path a double pendulum traces out amazingly beautiful and crazy, almost like those geometric roses, or the drawings you made using spirographs as a kid.

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There are chaotic systems everywhere in nature, from geology to robotics, and biology to economics. Chaotic systems can be very difficult to detect, because they can appear so similar to random systems unless you measure them closely. Because of this, there are certain traits of dynamical systems that scientists will look for to see if a system is chaotic. These are things like the fact that there isn’t any periodic (repetitive) behaviour in time, but there  is in something called phase space, which is a bit like the variation of the speed of the pendulum with its displacement. Also, the fact that tiny initial differences between two pendulums will grow exponentially with time. There are other chaotic properties, like the fact it’s nonlinear, and that it must have at least three independent, first-order autonomous differential equations which describe it, but those are harder to explain within bringing up the ridiculously long and complicated equations of motion, which are what you use to describe how the pendulum moves (funny that, what with their name).

Chaos is such a wonderful thing, because at first it appears completely crazy, and random, and completely unordered. However, if you have the ability to actually look close enough, it’s perfectly deterministic, and not at all unpredictable. A bit like so many messy things in life, if you have the patience and the time to look for the source, and untangle the enigma, you’ll be able to to decode the whole thing, and know what’s actually going to happen.


 

Okay, so this week, I’ve been very busy with my summer project – building a simulation of a double pendulum. Double pendulums are pretty damn cool, exhibiting chaotic behaviour and being hypnotising to watch. So, I thought it’d be more interesting to write a quick thing about them (and a lot easier for me, given that I’ve got my final report deadline on Monday, so am spending most of my time thinking about them), and also show you guys some of the simulations I’ve built. It might be a little bit more mathsy that usual, but I’ve tried to keep it so that the majority of it is all understandable.

 This does mean that I don’t actually have a shoot to go with this piece, and given that I’ll be working on the project till the end of Monday, I probably won’t have time to do one. Don’t despair, though, I’ll still be giving you pretty pictures! You like that one gif up there? Well, on Wednesday you’ll get to see gifs of double pendulums on all the different planets and more – it’s pretty cool. My favourite one is the moon – it’s much slower than the pendulum on Earth, and really relaxing to watch. 

Also, I must give credit to my amazing project partner, Kiyam Lin, who pretty much did all the confusing code whilst i just sat there learning all about chaos. Everything would have been far more confusing without him. 

 

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Emotional Evolution

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Many would argue that it is our emotions that make us human – that the complex and entangled nature of our internal lives is what separates us from other animals. True, other animals seem to have some emotions – your pet greets you happily when you get home, dogs get excited about going on walks, animals seem to get angry, and can love their young. But so far, most animals don’t seem to display the complex internal struggles that we humans experience. And it is easy to see how this emotional nature separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Our emotions allow us to make art, not just for purely decorative purposes, or as some type of mating call (as seen in the lavishly decorated nests of bowerbirds for example), but as a way to try and express ourselves, a vehicle of passion. And passion is very important here, as that is definitely not usually seen in other species. This is especially clear when we look at some emotions that haven’t been recognised in other species.

One of these? Spite. Spite is a purely human emotion, a form of hatred which is hatred for hatred’s sake, where we derive pleasure from seeing other man is pain. It is not a practical emotion, and we gain no evolutionary advantage from it – it is not revenge to gain something new, like land or riches, but a way of seeing our fellow man suffer. And spite can create some of the greatest art, and drama of all time. Look at Shakespeare’s Othello, with the horrifically spiteful Iago. His destruction of Othello’s marriage, causing him to kill Desdemona, was as a form of revenge (for not being promoted when Cassio was), but it is not a revenge which brings him anything apart from pleasure at another man’s suffering. There were no real or practical rewards, only the resolution of his own jealousy. We see in Iago something that at once feels horrific and evil, and yet is at the same time all too familiar and human.

Humanity may be redeemed, however. Spite is not the only unique human emotion – gratitude is as well. Not the selfish gratitude, where you know someone has done something for you in return for something else (which we do observe in the animal kingdom), but gratitude that truly fulfils the old “it’s not the gift itself, but the feeling behind it” adage. Whilst we may be spiteful, we can also be kind for kindnesses sake – these are emotions whose only purpose is emotion itself, bringing us back to passion, for is that not in a sense what passion is? Large outpourings of emotion, without any real practical use, but that inspire creativity, and love, and our humanity.

These emotions are what make us human – they are both what make us fallible and strong. It is hard to imagine a world without them, and you would not want to – whilst some may argue we would be better off without spite, it would be a cruel world if we lost gratitude too. These emotions are the ones that can cause some of the worst conflicts in our lives, but also create some of the happiest moment. They are what make our lives real and human, and what make us, us.


This blog post was inspired by an amazing discussion panel/talk I went to at the Natural History Museum called ‘Emotional Evolution’ (where I stole the name from, funnily enough!). There were three speakers, who were all fantastic and very interesting – Dr Geoff Bird, Alastair Gill, and Dr Penny Spikins who I must pay special thanks to as she’s the one who talked about spite and gratitude being uniquely human (but they all said so many interesting things that I could probably write ten blog posts about all the different things they looked into!). The event was linked in with the ‘Britain: One million years of the human story’ exhibition, which I desperately need to go see myself, but recommend purely on the basis of the glimpse into it that the talk gave me, and was also part of the ‘After hours‘ late nights at the NHM, which (like the ones at the Science Museum) are so much fun, and I also recommend.  Thanks so much also to all the hosts of the ‘Emotional Evolution’ panel talk – I had so much fun, and learnt so much! 

The Da Vinci Code

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The general understanding of science in society heavily influences where and how science turns up in art. However, often that understanding is flawed, with many misconceptions. Whether it be the fact that here in Britain we start academic specialisation very early (first GCSEs, then A-levels, before down to usually a single subject at university), or simply the way that art and science are taught as mutually exclusive subjects, most people in the artistic community have little core knowledge of science through no fault of their own (although many do hold pet interests in the topic).

One of the major problems faced with people trying to get their heads around science isn’t even a problem of academic knowledge; it’s one of definition. Too often scientific terms lack clarity; the Big Bang wasn’t actually a big bang, the ‘God Particle’ doesn’t have many religious properties (apart from the fact it holds mass, hah!). If you don’t know the details of the theory (as most don’t), terms such as this can really throw the whole concept into confusion – I’ve had a number of people ask me questions about the Higgs boson, having heard of it as ‘the God Particle’, who are severely disappointed when I inform them that it isn’t actually the be-all and end-all of particles. Yeah, it’s pretty damn important, but it’s more part of a pantheon than the One True God.

Even if you do happen to understand all the terminology, you could still be doomed if you wanted to try to understand the science in more detail. Ever tried reading a scientific paper? I wouldn’t recommend it – they’re usually dry and boring, filled with equations and without any human touch. The reasons behind this writing style are valid – it can reduce bias to remove the human elements – but it creates a form which makes the media very hard to access, and difficult to get used to. The whole thing makes papers read like all experiments were performed by some kind of magic science fairy, who makes things happen with a puff of their wand, instead of actual human involvement having happened.

All this opacity within science added to the general misinformation and ignorance surrounding scientific topics means that effective scientific communication is absolutely crucial. This has been getting better in recent years – we’ve got all of Brian Cox’s programs, and then we’ve got David Attenborough as always – but there’s still a long way to go. For one thing, whilst we love our mainstream science celebrities, they don’t truly show the great variety of people who love science – that science isn’t just for scientists, it’s for artists, and musicians, and dancers, and writers: it’s for everyone. We need to demystify the language of science – to clear up the hazy metaphors, and inject some life into the whole thing. We’re in luck though, because there are people out there who do that, people who show just how varied science can be. When I went to Imperial Festival this weekend – a festival held by Imperial College London (my uni!) to showcase and celebrate so many really cool scientific things –I had the privilege of encountering so many people who went outside the stereotype of scientists being maths geeks who never leave the library. I met a doctor of material sciences who does ballet on the side (and she’s pretty damn good – she’s en pointe) with whom I made cocktails with in the name of science, a science songstress with the voice of an angle (get it???) who did the same course as I’m currently doing at Imperial, and shares my interest in the bizarre sexual habits of animals (definitely look up angler fish – you may be scarred for life, but it’s worth it!) and so many others. When people try to portray science as some dull, textbook filled subject, it might be a good idea to remind them that one of the greatest artists to walk this Earth was also one of the greatest scientists – Da Vinci! Maybe we should try and take a leaf out of his book, and add some science to the art, or perhaps some art to the science.

 


Being a student of Imperial College, I felt that this week I definitely had to write something up on the Imperial Festival, so I have! I saw so many wonderful and interesting things there, and unfortunately I haven’t been able to mention them all, as that would have become extremely cluttered. The en pointe materials scientist I mentioned is the lovely Dr Suze Kundu, whilst the science songstress is the amazing Helen Arney, who was joined by Simon Watt (Life President of the Ugly Animal Preservation Society) and Gemma Arrowsmith as part of The Science Comedy Collider. The other group of people who really helped with this piece are the wonderful Science Communications MSc students, whose talk ‘Playing with Perception’  informed the topics discussed above. 

Although Imperial Festival only happens once a year, there are events going on at Imperial College throughout the year, and at the Science Museum and Natural History Museum right next door. If you want to keep on top of all the events going on, I recommend following them on twitter at the links I’ve just given. I particularly recommend the Lates at both museums, and also the Imperial Fringe events (mini themed versions of the festival) which’ll be starting back up again in September. In the meantime, you can keep on top of imperial events by following Imperial Spark