Is that Mars? The UK’s new space minister tackles the solar system

Space politics

The UK is successfully playing catch-up with the US in boosting politicians who speak knowingly of the vast, mostly empty depths of the universe.

The UK’s new space minister, Andrew Griffith – his official title is minister of state for science, research and innovation – granted an interview to Tali Fraser of The House magazine.

Griffith apparently gave her a demonstration of how education happens: “He points to the suspended sphere in the Science Museum that switches appearance from planet to planet and declares ‘now we have got Mars!’ only for an employee to gently tell him it is, in fact, the Sun. Undeterred, Griffith exclaims ‘that one is Saturn!’ as the planet changes. The employee interjects: ‘No, no, that is Jupiter’.”

Back in 1991, one of the very first Ig Nobel prizes was awarded to then US vice president Dan Quayle. Quayle had been given extra duties, becoming chair of something called the National Space Council. He was often in the news for educating the public with statements such as the following:

“[It’s] time for the human race to enter the solar system.”

“We have seen pictures [of Mars] where there are canals, we believe, and water.”

“People that are really very weird can get into sensitive positions and have a tremendous impact on history.”

The Ig Nobel citation described Quayle as a “consumer of time and occupier of space” and lauded him “for demonstrating, better than anyone else, the need for science education”.

Feedback is heartened to see educational vim spread from nation to nation. The sky, wherever that might be, is the limit.

Bass notes

Andy Howe sings praise of a somewhat musical discovery about a fish that spends much of its time at the muddy sea bottom. Does Andy Howe find joy in the details? And how! He says: “I draw your attention to ‘Midbrain node for context-specific vocalisation in fish’ (published in the journal Nature Communications) which concerns the distinctly fishy noises of Plainfin Midshipman, the species which is also known as ‘Californian Singing Fish‘. Blessed with a ‘sonic swim bladder’, they can communicate with modulated, trumpety hums or grunts. There’s a double resonance here, as the lead author is A Bass.”

“A Bass” is Andrew Bass, a professor of neurobiology and behaviour at Cornell University in New York. When not at sea in pursuit of fishes, A Bass spends time in his office, which is in Mudd Hall. A Bass, Feedback cannot help but note, steeps in nominative determinism.

Light amusement

Retired physician John Innes rallied to Feedback’s call (9 December 2023) for first-hand testimony that refutes or confirms the old saying “the art of medicine consists mostly of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease”.

He first sets the scene: “In the 1890s a Faroese/Danish physician, Niels Finsen, showed that UV light could cure tuberculosis (TB) of the skin. For this work Finsen was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1903. Finsen’s original work used artificial UV light and this was widely used in TB treatment in the 1920s and 1930s.

“But it was already known that natural UV light was present in sunshine. This was one of the factors which promoted the development of sanatoria for TB treatment. Once the introduction of antibiotics in the 1950s had transformed treatment for TB, UV light treatment was consigned to history.”

John then relates his experience in the 1980s as a physician in Birmingham, UK, specialising in infectious diseases: “I was asked to see a 17 year old who had recently started training as a nurse. At that time all new entrants to nurse training would be offered a vaccine against TB, if they hadn’t already had it. In her case an ulcer appeared at the site of her injection and it gradually enlarged over two months to a width of about 8 cm. I advised a course of antibiotics. But she was going on holiday the next morning and didn’t have time to collect a prescription. So I told her to put off her treatment and come back to see me in four weeks.

“She returned after spending two weeks sunning herself on a beach near Tangiers. The ulcer had healed and nothing more was needed. So, she amused herself while nature cured her disease.”

Loop soup

What is loop soup? Hard to say. Hard to say concisely, that is.

Wojtek Furmanski and Adam Kolawa at the California Institute of Technology apparently injected the phrase into the physics world in 1987, in the middle of a 35-page paper called “Yang-Mills vacuum: An attempt at lattice loop calculus“, published in the journal Nuclear Physics B.

They mention loop soup only once. These are their words: “The medium is still very far from the asymptotic ‘loop soup’, intractable by our methods.”

That sentence may be inscrutable to anyone without a deep education in nuclear physics. Yet the phrase did catch on. Just 33 years later, Valentino Foit and Matthew Kleban at New York University wrote a paper called “New recipes for Brownian loop soups“, which sounds positively possibly appetising.

Marc Abrahams created the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony and co-founded the magazine Annals of Improbable Research. Earlier, he worked on unusual ways to use computers. His website is improbable.com.

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