Mini Stories from Science

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

119. Science in the real world: predicting society

If you think that science, and scientific thinking, have little to do with the rough-and-tumble of the real world, think again – and take a look at this wonderful paper by a group of psychologists and mathematicians from the Cornell-Princeton-Yale triangle ( that I recently had occasion to revisit. As with many scientific papers, it will probably put you off at first glance. Like the plain front door of a ...

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118. Gassing on about neon

Posted on July 26, 2016

A recent article provides an exciting glimpse into one way that scientists think, although you might not think it is so exciting at first glimpse. Let the scientists speak for themselves: Neon is an abundant element in the atmosphere, but it is much scarcer on Earth due to its chemical inertness. Discovered in 1898, early studies of neon contributed greatly to our basic understanding of the nature of atoms, giving us our first observations of ...

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On the Fat-Headedness of Crowds

July 25th, 2016 The result of the recent UK referendum on whether to stay in or to leave Europe has come as a shock to many of us. More than one correspondent has asked me “I thought there was this thing called group intelligence which said that, the larger the group, the surer they are to get the right answer?” I wrote quite a lot about this in my book The Perfect Swarm, and there are two points to be made: Group intelligence ...

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117. Global Governance of Slowly Developing Catastrophic Risks

Early in 2015 I was invited, together with co-authors from the International Risk Governance Council, to write a review on the above topic for a special issue of the journal Ecological Economics. The referees liked the writing, but wanted us to add more economics before they would recommend it for publication. This we could not readily do, since we are not economists and would have had to add an economist to the author list and rewrite the whole ...

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116. Einstein’s sock (continued)

My latest 15 min radio broadcast in the Ockham's Razor series begins with the story of why Einstein decided not to wear socks (see Mini Story #7), but goes on to encompass how we can make the best decisions in our complex world and how Governments and big business are using automated decision making processes to make decisions vital to our future, and what we can do about it. I have to say that I am rather pleased with how it came out. You ...

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115. A New Theory of Vacuum Cleaning

It is said that Pierre Curie could never enter his own laboratory while an experiment was in progress, because his body had become so radioactive that his mere presence discharged the sensitive electrometers. It was while pondering this story that I came up with my new theory of vacuum cleaning. You know the scenario. You run your vacuum cleaner over a carpet, removing every particle of visible dust. Then you look behind you, and the carpet ...

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114. Mastering complexity – I’m going to give it a try

Posted on February 23, 2016

In story fourteen I argued that science, like sex, thrives on diversity. I quoted from Peter Medawar, and the quote is worth repeating: There is no such thing as a Scientific Mind. Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others ...

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113. How and why did Galileo calculate the dimensions of the roof of Hell?

In my latest broadcast for Australian ABC Radio's "Ockham's Razor" programme, I reveal how (and why) Galileo calculated the dimensions of the roof of Dante's Hell, and how this led to his discovery of the laws of mechanics that engineers use to this day (Hint: He messed up the calculations first time round, but never let on until he had found and published the right solution late in life, when under house arrest by the Pope). You can hear the ...

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Posted on January 14, 2016

    Why Newton added Two Colours to the Rainbow     Two Fingers to Newton     Newton’s Missed Chance     History’s Most Boring Scientist makes Waves     Light Relief     Tibetan Medicine and the Passage of Light     Einstein’s Socks: A Clue to his Thinking about Relativity     What If? How the Special Teory of Relativity was Discovered     Einstein’s Toolkit     How Many Critics does it ...

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112. If you want to survive a lightning strike, be a redhead

A picture has been circulating ( of a bison that survived a lighting strike. The thing that struck me particularly was that the bison had red hair. “So what?” you might ask. The answer lies in serendipity – a word coined by the English statesman Horace Walpole in 1754 to describe the art of making discoveries by happy accident. My own happy ...

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