Us academic types just love to procrastinate, which is probably why there are so many of us to be found on twitter. This means that occasionally, twitter can be a geeky comedy goldmine. The latest source of 140 character hilarity? #AcademicValentines.

These are a few of my favourites. I literally laughed out loud at a few of these. Let the interdisciplinary nerd lulz commence!

Love knows no limits. Unlike research budgets.

Now that is smooth.

If anyone ever says this to you, it can only be true love.

Now that’s just totally adorable.

Easy, tiger!


Wow, that one actually makes me slightly flustered…

Bah. If you really loved someone, you would be their second author.

You know, this line might actually work on me…

I didn’t even realise you could find citations for those!

In the immortal words of George Takei – Oh myyyyy…

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❝ The more we learn about the world, and the deeper our learning, the more conscious, specific, and articulate will be our knowledge of what we do not know, our knowledge of our ignorance. For this, indeed, is the main source of our ignorance — the fact that our knowledge can be only finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.❞

Karl Popper

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Stellar Relic

The Universe is old. 13.798 billion years old, to be precise (give or take about 37 million years or so). That’s so old, it’s genuinely a little tricky to wrap your head around – 200 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed planet Earth. 580 million years ago, complex life emerged on our world. The earliest known evidence for life on Earth dates back to 3.7 billion years ago, a few hundred million years after the planet formed around 4.54 billion years ago. This, in turn, was shortly after the Sun itself formed, 4.57 billion years ago. But compared to some stars out there, the Sun itself is still young…


The unassuming little point of light in the centre of this image is something really quite special. Just 6000 light years away, it’s the oldest star ever discovered. Going by the designation of SMSS J031300.36-670839.3, this star is older than the very galaxy which we live in, and formed when the Universe itself was still young.

I’m not going to give an actual age for the star because, the thing is, we simply don’t know. Quoting Anna Frebel, a Stellar Archaeologist (which has to be one of the coolest job titles ever) – we don’t actually know the star’s age… quoting any age is pretty much made up. So how do we know this star is so old? Well, the thing about astronomy is that all we ever really have to go on are photons, but photons can tell us an awful lot…


This is a spectrum of this star (corrected to give a flat baseline). Spectra like this can show you an awful lot about a star – and in this case, it tells me that this star contains a lot of hydrogen and not a lot else. Those lines are absorptions, coming from different elements which make up the star – the more elements, the more lines. Stars like the Sun are full of all sorts of interesting chemical elements. Astronomers call anything heavier than helium a “metal”, and a star like the Sun, with all of its metals is said to have a “high metallicity”. This spectrum, however, shows a very different creature. There’s barely anything there. Stars like these are termed “metal-poor”.

The thing is, in the billions of years the Universe has been around, stars have been industriously forming heavy elements from hydrogen. Inside the Sun right now, even as you’re reading this, 9 x 10³⁷ nuclear reactions are happening every single second. That’s ninety billion billion billion billion reactions. All of those nuclear reactions convert 620 million metric tons of hydrogen into heavier atomic nuclei. Every second! And right now, there are 300 billion stars in our galaxy doing exactly the same thing. When stars die, they cast all of those metals they’ve created out into interstellar space. Metals are everywhere, and any new star which forms takes in whatever elements are in the clouds it forms from. To find a star which is so devoid of metals, it would need to have formed from clouds which were similarly barren. In other words, it must be old. Very old.

In fact, the venerable SMSS J031300.36-670839.3 shows all the hallmarks of being one of the second generation of stars ever formed. The first ever stars formed quite soon after the Universe was born. They were composed of little more than hydrogen and helium. As a result, they were massive, fast burning, and rapidly died as supernovae. Known as “Population III” stars, these mysterious primordial stellar beasts have never actually been observed. However, we know they must have existed. All of those metals must have come from somewhere.

Immediately after these first stars died and exploded, they seeded the surrounding primordial gas clouds with the very first metals. Those clouds then began to collapse into the second generation of stars. Careful examination of the star you see above shows that it is indeed one of this second stellar generation – incorporating material from the first stars the Universe ever saw. And it’s one of no more than a small handful of such stars which are still burning. One of the last survivors of a bygone age of the Universe.

As with so much in science, these were named in the wrong order and the names have stuck. Calling them population I stars would be less confusing, but trying to change established nomenclatures is a little bit like trying to stop a runaway freight train.

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Twinkle Twinkle Stormy Star

The weather here on our little blue world has, of late, been somewhat turbulent. Storms lash my hometown on the UK’s Southern coast, Australia slowly bakes under oppressive heat, North America is deep frozen by the errant polar vortex, and here in Tokyo we’ve seen the heaviest snow in over a decade. At this point, I think it would require some degree of active ignorance to still be denying climate change on our world. Though while it may be little comfort to those of us plagued by violent weather, Earth isn’t the only place in the galaxy which has chaotic weather systems…

I'm genuinely curious about what a brown dwarf may look like from up close.WISE J104915.57-531906.1B (mercifully nicknamed Luhman 16B) is a tiny brown dwarf star. A failed stellar ember which never caught aflame. At just 6 light years distance, this tiny gas-ball is right on our galactic doorstep, the closest brown dwarf to us. Close enough that astronomers using the VLT (Very Large Telescope) in Chile can actually see weather systems on its surface!

If you could sit and watch Luhman 16B through a telescope for a few hours, you’d see that its brightness varies a lot. It gets dimmer and brighter as the hours go by. Regular stars don’t work this way – stars which vary in brightness typically do so fairly predictably, and not nearly as quickly. The reason is that brown dwarfs have active weather systems, and the variations in brightness are because of clouds in the star’s atmosphere – not entirely unlike those here on Earth.

Well, I say not entirely unlike. They follow similar patterns, but the rains and snows on brown dwarfs are nothing like those on a planet like Earth. Instead of water, these clouds are made of hot silicates, salt, and molten iron. The snow on a brown dwarf is technically made of sand. And using infrared telescopes like the VLT, we can actually watch these curious clouds forming, growing, and dissipating. This was the principle used by a group of astronomers led by the Max Planck Institute’s Ian Crossfield to create a weather map for a brown dwarf star! Yes, you read that correctly!


And there it is! Ok, so it isn’t as detailed as the weather maps you might find on Weather Underground, but that’s still pretty amazing. Those three pictures you see there are maps showing the varying luminosity across the surface of Luhman 16B (there’s a video you can watch too). You’re looking at clouds in the skies of a star. Personally, I think that’s pretty amazing.

Apparently, using Crossfield’s techniques, you can even watch clouds and weather patterns move over the star’s surface. Astrometeorology could even become a new scientific field, as we learn how to predict weather patterns on these stars. This would tell us a huge amount about how things work on brown dwarfs, and younger gas giants (which appear to work in much the same way). After all, while we understand fairly well, the things which drive weather patterns here on Earth, weather patterns in a place so different as a brown dwarf must have entirely different mechanisms behind them.

It’s been known for quite a while now, that brown dwarfs have weather systems. Some are even expected to have one or more vast storms in their atmospheres, much like Jupiter’s great red spot. In fact, a study performed with the Spitzer space telescope, poetically entitled “Weather on Other Worlds” suggests that most, if not all, brown dwarfs are stormy little stars.

I’ve long been amazed by exactly how much detail modern technology can see at such huge distances. Amazed and excited. It looks like it won’t be too long before these mysterious objects elsewhere in the galaxy won’t be quite so mysterious anymore…

Better stay indoors today. It looks like rain...

The Crossfield et al paper was published in Nature at the end of last month.

Top – Brown Dwarf artist’s impression. Created by yours truly.
Middle – Stellar weather maps, created by Crossfield et al.
Bottom – Artist’s impression of a stormy brown dwarf atmosphere, by NASA-JPL/Caltech.

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❝ The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; they study it because they delight in it, and they delight in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living. ❞

Jules Henri Poincare

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Science Penguin

Science penguin gives helpful advice on how to go about applying for your next postdoc position!

Welcome to the internet, where "science" may be freely used as a verb.

Hope everyone’s having a nice Monday…


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Tea Pharmacology

I always enjoy good tea. This seems perfectly logical when you consider than I’m a British person living in Japan (apparently ocean island nations have a predisposition towards drinking tea). Interestingly though, it seems that tea is good for your brain…

I'm compiling a list of favourite molecules, aren't I?This lovely little molecule is theanine. It was first isolated at the tea laboratory of Kyoto back in 1950, from a high grade type of Japanese tea called gyokuro♣︎. In fact, aside from a certain species of mushroom and an Amazon rainforest plant, this little molecule is only known to be found in tea (where it provides the nice rich umami flavour of many tea varieties).

Theanine does more than simply provide flavour, however. It can cross the blood-brain barrier and has mild psychoactive properties, being considered by many to be a nootropic – i.e., a chemical which improves brain function. Nootropics are compounds which can not only assist cognitive ability, but also act as protective agents for brain neurons. In humans, theanine has been implicated in alleviating physical and mental stress, boosting mood, and improving cognitive performance. While I don’t believe any proper large scale studies have been carried out yet, a number of smaller ones have evidently shown some success in proving this.

Theanine also acts synergistically with caffeine (arguably the most widely used nootropic in the world). The two together are apparently great for alertness and focus, which may explain why monks out here in East Asia have been using tea for centuries to aid their meditations. It may also have something to do with that old myth that tea contains more caffeine than coffee – for the record, a typically brewed cup of coffee most certainly contains more caffeine, but also contains no theanine at all (tea also contains a caffeine-like molecule called theophylline, but in such small quantities as to be practically non-existent).

Gyokuro is one of the loveliest teas I've ever tasted!Interestingly too, there seem to be no ill effects from theanine consumption. In fact, quite the opposite. While it acts synergistically with caffeine, it also serves to take the jittery edge off excessive caffeine consumption. Studies have even supported that it may have neuroprotective effects, helping to prevent memory impairment. Additionally, it can increase your dopamine levels, and promotes production of alpha waves.

A good reason to drink more tea, right? Well… The thing is, in most tea there isn’t a huge amount of theanine present. Most teas, both green and black, are relatively low in theanine, meaning that you’d need to drink an awful lot to see much effect♥︎. However, certain teas are particularly rich in theanine. In particular, the finer varieties of Japanese tea are shade-grown. Gyokuro (玉露) and matcha (抹茶) are shaded prior to harvesting, causing the leaves to develop a deeper colour. The tea bushes produce a greater amount of chlorophyll in their leaves, and start to produce a much higher concentration of amino acids. This gives these teas their unique flavour and aroma. It also yields a much higher level of theanine (itself a variety of amino acid). Those monks I was saying about before? In Japan, they were particularly fond of brewing matcha.

Matcha is something quintessentially Japanese, and it’s quite deeply ingrained into the culture over here. It’s used to give both flavour and a bright green colour to all sorts of things, from chocolate, to sweets, to ice cream. It’s also, since moving here, rapidly becoming my favourite beverage. I didn’t think anything could top coffee as my morning drink of choice, but I think matcha just might. Needless to say, discovering that it’s apparently good for my brain is certainly another point in its favour…

Yes, Kyoto has a tea laboratory. This makes me happy.
♣︎ The somewhat poetic literal translation of the name is “jade dew”. This is widely regarded as the finest tea in Japan. And very tasty it is too!
♥︎ I errr… should probably confess to the fact that I do drink an awful lot of tea…

This was a particularly nice tea shop in 表参道, which I really must go back to sometime...

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Mars Doughnut

So the Mars rover drivers are apparently slightly perplexed over a bizarre rock which seems to have appeared on the surface of our planet’s little brother.


This funny-looking white rock has been likened to a jelly doughnut by the folks at NASA. Personally, I don’t really see it, but maybe I don’t eat enough doughnuts. In any case, where this rock came from exactly is still something of a puzzle. It seems to have appeared in that spot sometime between December 26th and January 8th. The most likely explanation (put forward by Steve Squyres, Curiosity mission lead scientist) is that the rock must’ve been kicked up by one of the rover’s wheels.

It gets more interesting with the finding that this rock is seemingly unlike any of the others examined so far on Mars, containing a lot more Magnesium and Sulfur than the others around it. Curiouser and curiouser…

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.

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In UR bibliography checking UR citations

As everyone knows, Saturday is Caturday. And todays amusing feline fact relates to a paper published in Physical Review Letters back in 1975. The paper’s title was “Two-, Three-, and Four-Atom Exchange Effects in bcc ³He”, which is already pretty cool. So what was odd about this paper? Well you see, one of the authors was a cat.

Physicist Jack Hetherington had prepared his manuscript using the typical formal writing style used in many papers. He used active voice but avoided singular personal pronouns. Unfortunately, at the time, using plural pronouns in a single author paper was grounds for rejection from Phys. Rev. Lett. (apparently, they disapprove of people using “the royal we”). In those days, Hetherington had used a typewriter to compose his manuscript, so changing all the pronouns in the paper would have been immensely troublesome♠︎. Instead, as ever-pragmatic as many physicists are, he simply decided to include his siamese cat Chester as a co-author.

Reviewer comments? Kitteh casts a scornful eye over your reviewer comments.Because a single name would never suffice, and doubtless to prevent colleagues from recognising who this extra author really was, Chester was given the full name of F.D.C. Willard, Short for Felis Domesticus Chester Willard (Willard having been the name of the cat’s father).

The paper, Hetherington & Willard (1975), was published and does indeed have Chester the cat listed as Hetherington’s co-author! He’s therefore the only cat to have ever published anything in the field of low temperature phsics. Amusingly, this also means that this Cat has an Erdös number of 7, which I’m pretty sure is lower than mine. He probably has a lot more citations too.

There are a couple of stories as to how the fact became known that F.D.C. Willard was actually a cat. Rumour goes that a professor visiting Hetherington’s University asked to see Willard. Another says it was because of telephone enquiries asking to speak to the coauthor when Hetherington was absent. A third says it happened at a 1978 conference on low temperature physics in Grenoble. Either way, Willard was evidently a talented cat. Shortly after that conference an essay was published in the French publication La Recherche, entitled “L’hélium 3 solide. Un antiferromagnétique nucléaire.” with Willard as the solo author!

Lower Erdös number, awesome research topic, higher citation count and better at speaking French. This cat was clearly a better scientist than I am.

Hetherington himself had this to say on the matter:

“Why was I willing to do such an irreverent thing? Against it was the fact that most of us are paid partly by how many papers we publish, and there is some dilution of the effect of the paper on one’s reputation when it is shared by another author. On the other hand, I did not ignore completely the publicity value, either. If it eventually proved to be correct, people would remember the paper more if the anomalous authorship were known. In any case I went ahead and did it and have generally not been sorry. Most people are amused by the concept, only editors, for some reason, seem to find little humour in the story.”

Sadly, following his debut in France, F.D.C. Willard retired from the academic world. However, if you know where to look in the scientific literature, you might occasionally see F.D.C. Willard, private communication pop up in the bibliographies of some journal papers. Occasionally you might also see his name in the acknowledgements, thanking him for “helpful discussions.”

I hope I can get a cat autograph someday...Click the image to see a scan of the entire first page

 Because solid helium is a cool thing to study. No pun intended.
♠︎ Somedays, we really don’t appreciate how difficult life would be without being able to use find and replace. Or ctrl-z.

Image credits:
Upper – Sadly not an actual picture of Chester. Credit: stefan_fotos/Wikimedia Commons
Lower – Source unknown, a scan of one of 10 printed copies of Hetherington & Willard (1975) signed by both authors.

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Pseudonymity versus Anonymity

Let’s talk about pseudonyms, shall we? Because interestingly, the recent debacle concerning Dr Isis has highlighted something. Most people out there have no idea what the word “pseudonym” means, and how it differs from being anonymous. Because I find this rather jarring, I’m going to ask you all very nicely: please learn the difference between using a pseudonym and being anonymous.

Pseudonymous commentary and anonymous commentary do share one thing in common. In both cases, you do not know the real name of the person making the comments. Therein, the similarity ends.

Homer Simpson: Unexpected role model.Anonymous comments let people feel like they can get away with saying ridiculous (and frankly horrifying) things. While not all anonymous comments are bad, per se, some of the most insidious, bile-ridden, festering carcasses of statements come from anonymous authors. On the other hand, anonymous comments allow people to speak freely without fear of comeuppance, because there’s nothing to tie them personally to the comment that was made. And that’s just the point. An anonymous comment, by definition, gives no connection whatsoever to the author.

Pseudonymous comments are different. A pseudonym is an entire persona. Like a pen name or a stage name, an internet pseudonym can be (and frequently is) someone’s entire online personality. Please let me be clear – writing under a pseudonym is not working “without allowing your own record to be transparently assessed” as a friend of mine so eloquently, albeit misguidedly, put it. It’s just that it’s taking irrelevant parts of your record out of the equation.

To use myself as a fairly obvious example here, I’ve been using this pseudonym for a long time now. Long enough that quite a few people now know who I really am. It’s only a mask, not a suit of armour. All the same, my record as a blogger under this name is perfectly transparent. Just ask Google and you can see all of my (alarmingly plentiful) internet activities laid out plain as day. In fact, my pseudonym is one of Google’s suggestions! I guess that’s some vague and tenuous form of internet fame right there:

I literally found this out as I was writing this post. Genuinely not sure how I feel about it, TBH...

To clarify, pseudonyms have existed for a long time before the internet. They define the persona you operate under, without allowing people to pass judgement on you based on irrelevant matters such as race, gender identity, professional status, etc, etc. People have many reasons to adopt a persona in this way, and staging hate campaigns or verbal assaults is not one of them. Whatever the reason, for pseudonym users who take things seriously, to all intents and purposes it is their name. Mark Twain was Mark Twain. Freddie Mercury was Freddie Mercury. George Elliott was George Elliott. Malcolm X was Malcolm X. Coco Chanel was Coco Chanel. Beyoncé is Beyoncé. Dr Isis is Dr Isis. I am Invader Xan. Pleased to meet you. I hope you’re getting the point here.

Now, working under a pseudonym takes effort. It takes time to build up a reputation and an audience, just as it does with anything else. It’s added to with a pseudonym, because you need to start from scratch.You might be a tenured professor in the real world, but on the internet you’re just a name. You need to prove that you know what you’re talking about. As a result, in my experience, no one drags their pseudonym through the mud. Well, not unless they happen to be a blithering incompetent.

Yes, this is a bathroom selfie. Yes, it's also the closest you'll ever get to an actual picture of me on here.Pseudonymous bloggers are accountable for our internet activities. You think we just take the mask off and pretend it all isn’t real? No. The pseudonym is a big part of our personalities. Just as people representing large organisations in a professional capacity must care about their reputations (and not make unsavoury comments about people with whom they work), so must we. Righteous indignation is one thing, but if you genuinely make an ass of yourself, you won’t be taken seriously anymore. If that happens, you may as well simply quit.

Internet pseudonyms are important because the world in which we live has an ever decreasing number of whistleblowers. People in positions of power are intimidating, especially when they have the potential to derail your entire career if they so choose. And we’ve all seen what happens when whistleblowers use their real names. A pseudonym gives enough protection that, when those powerful individuals are misbehaving in one way or another, people feel they can actually speak out rather than remain silent.

Which brings us back to Dr Isis who, in her inimitable style, is one person who is never afraid to come forward and tell people bluntly when they’re being jerks. I’ve always respected that. If not for the pseudonym, I doubt she’d be able to get away with being the person she is online. And if she was, I wonder if people would pay as much attention. Honestly, I think the world (or at least the internet) needs more people like Isis, in order to keep things in check. Long may there be pseudonymous bloggers!

EDIT –– I just stumbled across a brilliant post all about the importance of pseudonyms, by Neurobonkers at Big Think. Far more eloquently written than mine here and well worth a read!

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