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An emotion is running high as around the world physicists are bracing themselves in anticipation of one of the biggest events of the decade. That emotion is dread, and what they’re bracing themselves against is an enormous flux of annoying questions, because the event is the release of the the movie version of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons.

The worst part is that, no matter how bad the movie is, we’ll have to see it just to understand the questions.

Fortunately for me Luke McKinney has put together a run-down of the problems with the story at The Daily Galaxy.

The fact that antimatter can create huge explosions is accurate, a rarity in Dan Brown novels…The problem is, if your terrorist organisation has a kilogram of antimatter you’re invincible anyway – because you can fly past security checkpoints on your quantum unicorns and hypnotize targets using The Force.

Read the rest to find out how re-evolving dinosaurs fit in.

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Chirs Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, among others, are organizing a conference on “The Two Cultures in the 21st Century”, in honor of the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s famous lecture of (roughly) the same name. The two cultures in question are the sciences and the humanities. Snow began an exploration of why there is such a gulf in thinking between people with those backgrounds and what the consequences are. That’s not nearly as academic as it looks: poverty and social policy was the example he chose. Today that’s just as much an issue and we can add things like climate change to the list.

The conference should be fascinating, with speakers like E.O. Wilson, Ann Druyan, and Carl Zimmer. I’ll be there, and hopefully live-blogging.

In the meantime, Chris and Sheril are running a couple book readings to prepare. Chris is hosting a discussion of the “Two Cultures” essay itself. Sheril is leading one on Bonk, Mary Roach’s tour through the science of sex. Both should be a lot of fun.

Here’s a paragraph from a recent Scientific American article on the interpretation of statistics:

…only about one out of every 10 women who test positive in screening actually has breast cancer. The other nine are falsely alarmed. Prior to training, most (60 percent) of the gynecologists answered 90 percent or 81 percent [chance that the woman actually has cancer], thus grossly overestimating the probability of cancer. Only 21 percent of physicians picked the best answer—one out of 10.

The context here is false positives; the chance that the test will indicate a problem even if there is no cancer. The false positive rate is small, but since mammograms are recommended as a routine screen there are vastly more healthy patients getting them than ones with cancer. The result is that even with a positive test, there’s only a 1 in 10 chance that the patient has cancer. (Which is, of course, why further tests are done at that point.) The same reasoning applies to any screening procedure.

Now for the scary part: read that paragraph again. It’s not just that only 21% of physicians could pick out the right answer; these were gynecologists being asked about one of the most common tests they perform. The fact that statistics are badly understood is routine, but professionals misunderstanding one of the central statistics of their discipline is both surprising and horrifying.

The authors of the Scientific American article advocate a different way of presenting the statistics. So instead of saying “1% of women have breast cancer”, they would recommend “10 out of every 1000 women have breast cancer”. This apparently had good results.

After learning to translate conditional probabilities into natural frequencies, 87 percent of the gynecologists understood that one in 10 is the best answer.

I’m not sure if I should be happy about this, or incredibly sad that 13% still couldn’t.

Emily Levine

Blending philosophy, science, and a rare medical condition is a tricky proposition. Doing it in a way that is both engaging and hilarious takes extraordinary skill. Luckily for the rest of us, Emily Levine has that skill. She’s currently running a one woman show in New York, “Emily at the Edge of Chaos”, which unfortunately closes this weekend. (There’s a review at Talking Science, so you can see what you missed.)

The point of all this, though, is that her TED talk from 2002 is now online, and it’s just as incredible (if a bit shorter).

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Arp 274 Wins!

I know you were all on the edge of your seat to find out the winner of Survivor: Universe. It was a long, drawn-out drama-fest, but in the end it was everyone’s favorite galaxy group Arp 274! I shudder to think about the riot that would have accompanied an NGC 4289 upset.

The NASA site has the larger image and a video about how it was made.

ZapperZ points to this outreach question from the APS:

How long would you have to yell to heat a cup of coffee?

It’s a neat question. The idea is that sound transfers energy. That energy will hit the coffee and dissipate as heat, so by yelling at a cup of coffee you could heat it up. Except of course that you can’t. The coffee will be losing heat as you yell at it, and will cool from hot to room-temperature in a couple hours. And yet, the APS site gives this answer:

In other words to heat up a quarter liter of coffee 50 C it would take: 1 year, 7 months, 26 days, 20 hours, 26 minutes and 40 seconds

How did they get that? The answer, of course, is that they used a spherical cow.

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I talked about how Neil deGrasse Tyson gave a performance that was close to a stand-up act. That isn’t quite what he was doing; he gave a very funny lecture about his experience with the Pluto controversy. There are, however, a few people around who do a science-fueled stand-up act.

Brian Malow is a San Francisco based comic who does “Full spectrum, high-energy comedy”. Here’s his best-of video: