New project: I Don't Understand on YouTube

Hello hello. I've just started a new project -- an educational channel on YouTube.

The first episode of I Don't Understand is now up, featuring an interview with Dr. Elizabeth Smith at the Australian Opal Centre in Lightning Ridge, NSW, Australia. Dr. Smith explains how crayfish (yabbies) use secret stores of calcium that they keep inside their heads to allow them to generate new exoskeletons as they grow.

You can find I Don't Understand in various places, including YouTubeTwitter and Facebook.

Heroes of Science Volume III, now +21

I've just posted the third edition of Heroes of Science, which features another 21 science heroes, including Brian Greene, Peter Higgs, Lawrence Krauss, Wolfgang Pauli, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley, Andrei Sakharov, David Hilbert, Lord Kelvin, Emmy Noether, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Andrew Wiles, Norman Borlaug, Barbara McClintock, Tim Berners-Lee, Steven Pinker, B F Skinner, Konrad Lorenz and Edward O Wilson!

You can check it out at DeviantART, and there's an FAQ over here.

Thanks, everyone, for your support and comments on the various incarnations of the Heroes of Science figures. You can find more posts on about them by clicking this linky thing here.

On climate change, because nothing's sacred

Opinions. They're like arseholes: everyone has one, and they all stink. For what it's worth, here's mine, vis-a-vis climate change. You can take it or leave it. It's pretty brief. I don't care if climate change is 'real'. The net outcome of having people, in general, do the correct thing outweighs any political shenanigans that are going on behind the scenes.


Let's suppose that climate change is real. What's the best we can hope for? The best we can hope is that people will comply with the basic instructions they're being not-so-subtly given. Look after the environment. Switch to alternative fuels. Be energy efficient. Waste less. Use less. Be, in general, healthier -- both in your life, and for the planet you live on. What's the worst we can hope for? We're screwed.

Now let's suppose climate change is not real. I don't have an opinion either way. As I said above, I don't care if it's real or not. I do believe, however, that the underlying issues are very real: We will, one day, run out of fossil fuels. It's inevitable. They're non-renewable. Once they're gone, there are no more. We need to find alternative energy sources, and if they're ultimately renewable ones, they'll eventually end up cheaper, more reliable, and more efficient than what we're currently using. We need to look after our environment. Whether all of the crud we're pumping into the atmosphere is causing climate change is entirely moot, the point is: we're pumping it into our atmosphere. We're having small-scale, detectable effects on our immediate surroundings. We live in smog-covered cities. We need to, generally speaking, clean this shit up. So, supposing climate change is not real, our best-case scenario is a cleaner, more efficient, more advanced world than the one we live in. What's the worst we can hope for? Well, I suppose we can live in shit.

It's an option.

As an addendum: I find the whole climate change debate to be akin to the argument than man never walked on the moon. At the end of the day, unless you're a climate scientist in your own backyard, you're relying on other people to supply you with the data you're basing your argument on. Often, those people are the ones you're arguing against, a task that has some pretty obvious flaws. You can believe what you please when it comes to man walking on the moon, at the end of the day, the people holding all of the proof are the ones trying to convince you. Unless you've got a spaceship of your own, you'll never know for certain. I'm starting to think climate change is an awfully similar argument from the average Joe's perspective.

Seeing colours: I am a synesthete

Synesthesia is a neurological condition wherein one associates abstract, intangible things such as numbers, letters, words, musical notes or chords with sensory information usually associated with something physical, like colours, tastes or physical sensations. The most common form of synesthesia is grapheme-colour synesthesia. In this condition, one associates numbers, letters or words with colours. I have this condition. I've always had it. I assumed it was normal. I thought everyone saw colours when they thought of numbers, letters and words.

Wikipedia's page on synesthesia is fairly in-depth. There's also a website called the Synesthesia Battery which has an online test you can take to determine if you're synesthetic or not. (I took the test, and its results weren't as conclusive as I'd hoped for my own experiences. I feel that the test relies more on the user being able to repeatedly recognise fairly similar colours with very little margin for error than actually acknowledging when two quite similar colours are selected. I'm sorry, my brain doesn't function in HSV values.)

This is my alphabet. I own it. Hands off.
This is my alphabet. I own it. Hands off.

Whack the link below to keep reading, if you're into numbers and colours, and the unnatural marriage thereof.

Brady Haran's Numberphile, one of my favourite YouTube channels, recently posted a follow-up to their previous video on the subject of synesthesia. I've embedded both episodes below for your perusal:

And the follow-up:

I notice that these videos tend to avoid the subject of grapheme-colour synesthesia for letters and words, but I suspect there's a conscious decision at play considering the YouTube channel hosting them is dedicated largely to numbers.

I've included my own synesthesia alphabet above, for fun. It seems to me that my perception of grapheme-colour tends to be related largely to the geometric shape of the characters, with the following specifics:

  • sharp angles seem to tend towards green and olive
  • right angles lean towards brown, with "F" and "T" being very specifically brown. "L" strikes me as green, though
  • Rounded shapes tend to take on a yellow hue
  • "A", as recounted by many synesthetes, is almost always represented as red
  • The three middle vowels are very neutral

My perception of numbers is more interesting:

Numbers ahoy!
Numbers ahoy!

There's less consistency, here. But, surprisingly, there's actually some logic, and much like Alex in the Numberphile videos, it seems to be largely factorial.

  • One and zero are neutral, much like the vowels in the alphabet
  • I have a suspicion that four is red largely because of its resemblance in form to the letter "A". If this is the case, my own mental association made this connection many years before Leetspeak was ever a thing
  • A similar thing no doubt applies to five and its resemblance to "S"

The factorial nonsense comes into play when you organise the numbers:

Two, four and eight are warm coloured numbers.

Three, six and nine are cool.

I've found limited practical applications for my "abilities". One of the few is that in data entry work, I find that I can error-check data fairly efficiently by relying on the colours associated with figures. If a figure is supposed to be the same in two different locations, it's plainly obvious to me if it's not the right "colour".

Larger numbers are generally a gestalt of the colours represented by the figures that comprise them, with the hues blending across the figure. Some specific really big numbers have weird habits: One million (1,000,000) appears blue, presumably due to the connection with the letter "M", and one billion (1,000,000,000) appears green, again because of the letter "B".

Musical notes and chords also have coloured connections for me, again largely governed by the letters that associate with them.

When notes become flat or sharp, they change their appearance slightly. Flat notes (or chords) become darker. E flat actually becomes darker than its default state, black, but I can't represent this in a picture because there's nothing darker than black! Sharp notes and chords take on a desaturated look, with an ethereal kind of rusted vomit colour that I've been unable to represent graphically. (Come to think of it, I'm appalled by my description of it, too. Rusted vomit? Nice.)

Minor chords reflect a paler, ice-cream texture. Other chord types, 7ths, augmented chords, diminished chords, etc, have their own peculiar qualities.

I find it exciting to think about the possibility that synesthesia may be the only quantifiable example of qualia at work. Qualia is a collective term for all the little things that happen inside your mind, that you can't directly share with another person. For example:

  • The age-old psychological litmus test: Do you see colours the same way I do? Is my red your blue? Does it matter?
  • What does a strawberry taste like to you?
  • What does a noise sound like to you?

Sensory information is fickle, and the idea that we all sense things the same way is largely untestable. The most frustrating (or perhaps relieving) thing about this problem is that it makes no difference in the end. If I see a stop sign as what I call "red", and you see it as what I call "blue" (but what you call "red"), it makes no difference, because we both call it "red" and stop at it.

Synesthetic responses could be the missing link for qualia. Many synesthetes report similar associations between colours and characters. Brady's second video (embedded above) includes a chart of reported synesthetic connections from his readers. It may be possible that this kind of information proves the existance, and uniqueness of qualia.

Oh, and Porcupine Tree have an awesome song from their 1992 album Up The Downstair entitled Synesthesia. You should go buy it from Burning Shed.

Heroes of Science: Norman Borlaug

We are the Borlaug: Resistance is....fertile? Click to enlarge. Continuing the Heroes of Science series, here's Norman Borlaug. An agronomist, humanitarian and Nobel laureate, Borlaug has been labelled the "father of the Green Revolution" and the "Man Who Saved A Billion Lives" for his work in developing high-yield and disease-resistant varieties of wheat. Borlaug took home the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

For more heroes, click here. For the original, click here. For frequently asked questions and answers, click here.

Heroes of Science: Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz: Geese not included. Click for bigger image. It's about time the Heroes of Science included an ornithologist. Here's Konrad Lorenz, ornithologist, zoologist and ethologist. He's the guy who (along with Douglas Spalding, a century beforehand) developed the idea of imprinting in birds, and was awarded the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discoveries in social behaviours.

More heroes here, FAQ here, thanks for your support!

Twitter: Gibson & Atwood like Heroes, disagree about clothing choices

It's been a while since the Heroes of Science gathered any attention, so I was surprised to be informed that William Gibson and Margaret Atwood had a brief discussion about them over Twitter:

..I did say it was a brief discussion.

Extra love to the others who joined in on the conversation to point out the lack of women in the original image. Check out the FAQ for reasoning behind this, and also check out the sequel for more scientists (and more women!).

Thanks for your continuing support, folks!

(Thanks to Derek for the tip.)

Heroes of Science: Edward O. Wilson

Edward O. Wilson: Click to make bigger-ish. Still continuing the Heroes of Science series: Here's Edward O. Wilson, biologist, sociobiologist, theorist, naturalist, myrmecologist and author. And probably the world's number one authority on ants. (No, he probably didn't wear a tie with ants on. Sorry. Artistic license.)

More about Heroes of Science on the FAQ. Thanks for your support!