Mini Stories from Science

Ultrashort stories about how scientists think and what goes on behind the scenes. To receive notification of updates, go to :

128. Penile frostbite: an unexpected hazard of jogging.

Posted on February 13, 2017

The following wonderful letter appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine forty years ago. If the IgNobel Prizes had existed then, it would surely have been a leading candidate for the medicine prize. Who says that scientists don't have a sense of humor?! Penis frostbite reference

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18. The UNscientific method. Part 1.

Posted on February 3, 2017

(Feb 3, 2017) I temporarily removed this early post because it seemed to be attracting spambots. Now re-posting. Enjoy! I am often asked the question “Is there a scientific method?” If the question means “Is there just one method that all scientists accept and use by consensus?” then the answer is clearly NO. As this series has shown, and will continue to show, there are many, many methods that scientists use in their efforts to ...

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127. How can we cooperate? A new lesson from the bees.

The world is rapidly going down the road of competition rather than cooperation. In doing so, as I have shown in previous posts and in my book Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life, its citizens face the deadly dilemmas exposed by game theory – in particular, the ongoing circular dilemma that: cooperation brings rewards but if our minds are set on competition, it appears in many situations that we can do better for ...

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126. The ethics of game theory: Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby & Mrs Bedonebyasyoudid

I avoid political commentary on this website , but in the current climate (31st January, 2017) I believe that it is very important for as many of us as possible to look dispassionately at what is happening and  try to understand what is going on below the surface rhetoric. The tool for this is game theory, about which I have written a book Rock, Paper, Scissors: Game Theory in Everyday Life.In it, I emphasize the paradoxes that scientists have ...

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125. The Chinese tea ceremony

Posted on January 30, 2017

The Chinese New Year, which began this year on January 28th, is a big deal in Sydney, which has a large and vibrant Chinese community, some of whose families go back to the gold rush days of the 1850s. As part of the celebrations, the Art Gallery of New South Wales hosted a demonstration of the traditional Chinese tea ceremony. The ceremony predates its better-known Japanese cousin, and goes back to the 9th century. By pure chance, I was in ...

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124. Trump, Russia and Lysenko: A cautionary tale

Submitted to Washington Post just before Christmas 2016. Nearly made it, but eventually missed out, The message for science is sadly stark. The U.S. should learn from Russian history “Are you now, or have you ever been, a climate scientist?” Donald Trump’s recent demand that the Department of Energy provide the names of all staff who have been involved in climate research smacks of McCarthyist paranoia, but this worrying aspect of ...

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123. What’s that smell?

What’s that smell? A school playground joke from my childhood concerns a new deodorant called “vanish”. It makes you invisible, so that no one can see where the smell is coming from. But how can we seriously get rid of bad smells? One way, which makes the manufacturers of air fresheners a lot of money, is to mask it with a more pleasant smell. Another, considerably less expensive, is to bind the aroma molecules to a solid surface so ...

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122. Are there ghosts?

Posted on October 25, 2016

In an earlier post ( I wrote about necessary mysteries – concepts and ideas that are beyond our direct experience, but which scientists have been forced to accept in order to make sense of that experience. Note that word “forced”, because it is key to the way that scientists think – a way that would greatly benefit politicians, economists, and indeed most of us in facing up to the ...

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121. Popular mechanics and popular maths

Posted on October 23, 2016

I must have been just nine or ten years old when I discovered the American magazine “Popular Mechanics” in our local library. It was the stuff of dreams. My real world, where my parents could not afford to buy me a bicycle, let alone own a car themselves, was replaced by a fantasy world where people (and, in my imagination, myself) built and flew model aeroplanes, owned workshops equipped with lathes and all manner of power tools, drove ...

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120. Joseph Priestley’s imaginative political justification for the pursuit of pure science.

A great deal of nonsense is currently being spouted by people who believe that the days of unfettered “fundamental,” “pure,” “blue-sky” research are over – or, at least, that they ought to be, and that scientists should come out into the “real world,” whatever that may be. It would be interesting to see the same arguments being applied to religious practitioners, or politicians, or even some businessmen. Be that as it may, I ...

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