Weekly round-up, September 23rd; also, Einstein, Chicken Licken and the bookmakers.

Author: Julian Champkin

It has been quite a week for Significance web writers. On Monday, Claire Packham got engaged. See her engagement ring here. She wrote about the chances of marital happiness. (Blissfully happy people write for Significance. We have demonstrated that correlation using a sample size of at least 1.) On Tuesday Michael Wallace was announced as runner-up in the prestigious Max Perutz award for Science Writing. It is for excellence in communicating science in a way that non-scientists can understand, and it wins him £500 and publication on the Guardian newspaper’s website (and also on ours – here)  (and other Wallace pieces here, here and here) but Significance discovered him first. Which we are proud of. Congratulations to both.

Michael’s winning article is titled Making Statistical Sense of an Imperfect World. On the news this morning is that scientists at CERN seem to have recorded particles that are travelling faster than light. They have a spread of particles speeds, and some of them seem to be contradicting relativity and going faster than Einstein say they should be able to. The scientists cannot make statistical sense of this - is it a faulty reading, a flaw in the experimental set-up, or what? They’d want a lot of statistical certainty before they say Einstein got things wrong, and do not feel they have it yet and have asked other scientists to help.

Back to earth again, Stephanie Kovalchik wrote about frenzied brides stampeding their doctors’ waiting rooms – I don’t think she had Claire in mind - in search of chocolate, on the grounds that research reported in the British Medical Journal finds that high doses of chocolate ward off cardio-vascular disease (as well as increasing happiness in this imperfect world.) Or does it? The paper is a metanalysis, which combines and analyses large numbers of other people’s research papers, and none of those other people agree on what a ‘high dose’ of chocolate is. One small bar a day? A whole box of soft centres? Ten boxes of After Eights consumed in the ecstasy of recent engagement? Presumably there wil be many willing to try the ‘high dose’ no matter how high it might turn out to be.

Plus we have had Michele Bottone on the recent UK riots – a big piece of research is about to be done to see how and whether tweets, Facebook and similar social networks correlated with the timescale of the disturbances; a statistical analysis of Libya’s trading relationships under Ghadaffi by Dominic Cortis, which led him to ask why Libya got NATO intervention while Syria so far has not. (Could the answer possibly be oil, he wonders…); and, away from riots and revolutions we have had Boeing 747s, explosions in junk yards, monkeys typing both Shakespeare AND War and Peace. Lewis Jones’ masterly exposition of the statistical flaws in creationist reasoning brought in Dr Johnson as well, and numbers as big as the number of electrons in the universe, and all in under 1000 words.

And to cap the week, today is the day that the sky is due to fall in. Or if not that exactly, it is the day that large lumps of metal are due to fall from the sky onto the place beneath. The website RealClearScience relayed a report from ScienceNow that a 6.5-ton satellite that was deployed from the space shuttle Discovery in September 1991 will fall back to earth today. (ScienceNow tells us the satellite’s size using that most traditional of all units of measurement: it is ‘the length of a small bus.’)

The sky is falling!

As many as 26 bits of it, weighing a total of 532 kilograms could survive reentry and strike Earth; potential crash sites lie anywhere between 57° N (about the latitude of Sitka, Alaska, and Aberdeen, Scotland) and 57° S (a little more than 100 kilometers south of the southern tip of South America). Ireland lies beneath the flight path of the satellite, and bookmakers there are getting in on the action: they are offering odds of 66-to-1 that any space debris lands on the Emerald Isle. The most likely sites are in the Pacific Ocean but the bookies are offering to take bets on Africa (9-to-4 odds) and South America (11-to-4 odds) and – more of an outsider, less-fancied runner here Asia and North America at 3-to-1.

Bookmakers are very good applied statisticians. They have to be, or they go out of business. I have not heard of any odds being offered on any of the chunks of space debris hitting anyone. I imagine they are pretty remote. So there is need to duck. But if you want to, please feel free to run around like a headless Chicken Licken calling out ‘the sky is falling, the sky is falling.’

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