Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Signal Generator

March 16, 2012
Signal Generator

Who wouldn't want to turn their iPhone into a Signal Generator for 69p?

Signal Generator is an app I have actually used more than once!

  • In the lab we were testing an acoustic thermometer (as you do) and we wanted to test the effect of white noise. I realised that Signal Generator was on my iPhone and in a trice our problem was solved.
  • In the last couple of talks I have given about acoustic thermometry, I have been able to allow people to experience 7.5 kHz  – thanks to this little app

So if your line of business involves acoustic thermometry, or acoustics, or music, or you just want to know low the upper limit of your hearing has fallen, this is a great little app. It does use up a lot of power, but that is about the only bad thing I can think to say it about it.,

  • Frequencies can be entered on a key pad or on a dial
  • Frequency range is from 1 Hz to 20 kHz with 1 Hz resolution
  • Musical tones can be selected
  • Sine wave, square wave or triangular waves are possible, as are ‘white’ and ‘pink’ noise.
  • One channel or two can be selected

So if you want an audio signal generator in your pocket: this is the app for you.

Have a nice weekend.

I love/hate Apple

February 3, 2012

I am writing this on an iMac computer, the fourth iMac I have owned. This Christmas, I bought my family three iPods – yes three. And I think I may have mentioned once or twice that I recently bought an iPhone. But over the Christmas break I read Steve Jobs biography and after reading it, I think these may be the last Apple products I buy.

I learned to program on early Apple II computers and I loved the straightforwardness of the process, and the sense of empowerment it gave me. In 1981, my final year as an undergraduate, I programmed the computer to display images of wave functions of particles approaching barriers and being reflected. I was amazed at what this machine enabled me to do – things even my lecturers had never done!

When Apple only made computers they constantly struggled at the interface between creating products that were easy to use – and products that restricted user choice. As an Apple –aficionado I was familiar with this and accepted whatever balance his-Steviness thought appropriate.  And as Apple evolved into a consumer -electronics company, they have remained close to that interface. Crudely speaking it’s the interface  between empowerment and enslavement. Sometimes they get it right and sometimes they get it wrong.

My assessment of Mr Jobs based on this biography was not that he was a ‘quirky visionary’ as I had previously imagined, but that he was seriously disturbed: the book uses the phrase ‘narcissistic personality disorder‘. The company he built reflected his personality while he was alive and he has tried to make sure that the company will continue to embody his vision. However as a potential customer, I worry that their astonishing success has led them to embody a kind of ‘corporate narcissism’.

When I read about iBooks Author – a tool for creating rich text-books on an iPad – I was thrilled. At last, I thought, I can re-purpose my book and keep it alive. But as the restrictions of the product became clear, I began to feel uncomfortable. It only enabled me to write books for the Apple iPad – fair enough. But if I wanted to charge for my work – I would have no choice but to ask permission from Apple whether or not I could publish it. This doesn’t feel like Apple wants to empower me: it feels like they want to exploit me.

I hope that Apple have incorporated enough of the wisdom of Jobs to know when to back down. Historically, when they get things wrong they do relent. But in the absence of the one true Steve, it may be harder for people who have inherited his mantle to admit when they get it wrong.

The Elements versus The Periodic Table

January 27, 2012
Elements versus PSE

Two iPhone Apps. Theodore Gray's 'The Elements' (left) or Merck's PSE-HD (right). Both apps are shown displaying basic information for Technetium.

Did I mention I had a new iPhone? Well obviously the first kind of app I downloaded was a periodic table of the elements – it just gave me a comfortable feeling knowing that I had that information close at hand. And what could be better than a Periodic Table app? Well, obviously two Periodic Table apps! And so here I compare the free Merck(TM) PSE HD app with the £6.99 app called ‘The Elements’.

Elements Technetium

'The Elements' page for Technetium. Touching the image allows you to rotate it and the text scrolls for an engaging description of the element.

The Elements is an app written with love by Theodore Gray, co-founder of Wolfram Research who make Mathematica. It is a simple app to understand and navigate. It has an introductory essay, a picture of the periodic table with animated pictures of each element, and splendid animation of the ‘The Elements’ Song by Tom Lehrer. Tapping on an element brings up a screen with a rotatable picture of the element, and an engagingly written essay by the author. I did find a tiny error on the page about Helium, but Theodore said he would fix that in the next release. Each essay links the physical properties and the history of the element and has links to the pages for other relevant elements (this makes it easy to browse and ‘get to know’ the elements).

The main attraction of this app is its accessibility – it is simple to use and a pleasure to interact with – one of those apps you will show your friends to make them think that your insanely expensive mobile phone might not have been a complete waste of money. On the down side, it is a bit limited and expensive as apps go. It does have links to Wolfram Alpha’s database on the elements, which is nice, but then you are back to browsing web pages.

Link to UK App Store

The Merck PSE (HD) has more data built-in to the app than The Elements, and it has many different ways to display and interact with the data. The main screen is a picture of the periodic table, and touching an element brings up a panel with basic information. Touching the panel causes it to flip and on its reverse are different categories of information shown in considerable detail, from the history and discovery of the element, to technical data. At this point the app is just ‘really useful’. But there is more: touching the Merck ‘M’ on the home screen brings up a new way of viewing the data where one can view how a property varies across the periodic table.

PSE Melting Temperature

Turning the control increases the temperature, and the periodic table graphically shows which elements are solid, liquid, and gas at that temperature.

For example, selecting ‘state at room temperature’ allows one to view the periodic table colour-coded as to the state (solid, liquid or gas) of the elements. A rotary control allows one to change the temperature and see visually which parts of the table melt and then vaporise in which temperature range: it is delightful. Similarly, selecting electronegativity shows how this property varies across the periodic table. Not sure what electronegativity is? Then select the glossary tab to find out.

PSE Electronegativity

The periodic table graphic shows how the electronegativity of a substance varies with position in the table.

My favourite is the discovery tab which allows you to scroll back through time and see when each element was discovered – and the app displays an image of the discoverer. And there is lots more too.

PSE Discovery

The faces of the people who discovered each element.

This app is data rich and carefully thought out. Having it on your phone gives you that comfortable feeling, knowing that even when your network connection is down, you will still have access to melting point data for the elements

Link to UK Apple App Store and  Android marketplace

Which is best? For people who enjoy tech lore, or if you’re studying Physics or Chemistry, then the Merck PSE app – for free – is a must have . For people who have £6.99 to spare – and are perhaps curious about science – but not professionally involved, ‘The Elements’ is a real pleasure to own.

Spectrum View

December 25, 2011
Scale on a flute

A spectrogram or sonogram. It shows the frequencies present in a sound. In this graph a flute is playing a rising and a falling scale over a single octave. Click for larger image

Spectrum View: Wow! How can this app exist on a phone? The app digitizes sound from the microphone, computes the frequency spectrum about 100 times a second, and displays a graph showing how the spectrum changes with time. This particular app is free, which means I shouldn’t complain. And I’m not. But since the app doesn’t provide any way to export the data, it is really nothing more than a fascinating toy. But I think it is fascinating enough to earn a place in my ‘Science’ folder. While looking around I notice that there are several semi-professional apps that will export spectra, and function as oscilloscopes as well. I will review them when I pluck up the courage to blow £15 on an app!

A constant note (F) on a flute.

A constant note (F) on a flute.

Atom in a box

December 8, 2011
Visualisation of the 4 p orbital in hydrogen.

Visualisation of the 4 p orbital in hydrogen.

Did I mention I had a new iPhone? Well the other day I found out that one my favourite pieces of software was available now as an app: Atom in a Box. The app is simple – it shows the shapes of the electron orbitals in a hydrogen atom. And that’s all!

What I love about it is that it works at multiple levels. To a student learning about physics they can appreciate that these are just the shapes of the orbitals. They can look at the orbitals from all angles and see the shapes of the lobes. When I was a student I had to try to imagine what these things looked like!

But if they want to delve a bit deeper,  application shows the mathematical function that generates the orbitals. And so if you are interested you can make connections between the physical form of the function and its mathematical representation. It also uses colour cycling to show the phase of the wave function, an especially difficult-to-describe aspect of complex functions.

So if only to remind yourself of what these wave functions look like, IMHO this is worth 69p of anybody’s money. (App Store Link)

TOP TIP: To take a picture of the screen hold down the HOME and the SLEEP buttons at the same time. An image of the screen will appear in your camera roll.


October 14, 2011
Still from the Movie Rocket Science

Still from the Movie Rocket Science. Click the Image to link to the O2Learn Site

The Huffington Post report the news that Sharmila Hanson (aided and abetted by her husband Andrew) have won a staggering £150,000 in the O2Learn Film Competition! This is just great news, well deserved, and couldn’t have happened to a nicer couple. In this era of austerity and bad news, I was reminded of the poem Sometimes, by  Sheenagh Pugh which includes the lines:

Sometimes things don’t go, after all, from bad to worse.
Sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
Sometimes our best intentions do not go amiss.
Sometimes we do as we meant to.

The Sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen; may it happen for you.

Good Science on TV

May 19, 2011
The Oscar for Best Science Programme

The Oscar for Best Science Programme

I have been fast enough to criticise poor science programming in the past, so I feel obliged to praise good programming when I see it. And I would just like to call out four very different examples of science programmes, all of which I feel succeed. And so the nominations for the Oscar for Best Science Programme are:

 Inside The Human Body is a 4-part series about the human body. It has a presenter (Michael Mosley) who is eloquent, opinionated, clearly flawed in many ways, and obviously knowledgeable. Each programme simplifies the story, focussing on perhaps 5 key themes in the one hour slot. Repetition of graphical material is subtle, leaving one feeling grateful rather than bored., and live material often focuses on named individuals and borders on the prurient, but generally stays focussed on the topic at hand. And centrally it is gloriously enthusiastic about all that being human involves.

Bang Goes the Theory  is a 30-minute popular science magazine programme shown at 7:30 p.m. on BBC1. It is hosted  by a pretty boy, a pretty girl, an apparent geek and the genius Jem Stansfield who is the actual star of the show. If you asked my children they would tell you that I shout at the TV during these shows, but the truth is: this programme is not made for me! And I admire its ability to present real scientific topics in prime time  and still make it to series 2 – and now series 4!

Science on Science is a new magazine programme on Discovery Science and so is under considerably less pressure to keep an audience than Bang Goes The Theory. The hour is divided into typically four segments which are narrated but we never see the narrator. The characters are the scientists and engineers who present their own work through the frosted glass that is the modern style of  television presentation. Seeing the actual scientists and engineers brings this programme alive and makes it more ‘real’ than many of the presenter focussed shows.

Mythbusters is now in its gallizionth series and has gone global. The two presenters Adam and Jamie were special effects designers before creating this programme, and they use their very practical skills and scientific intuition to design and build experiments to test urban myths.

  • Goldfinger Movie Myth: Do you suffocate if painted all over in gold paint? Glorious Jamie was painted and – with paramedics attending – he did not suffer at all.
  • Poppyseed drugs test myth: Do you test positive for heroin if you eat a poppyseed muffin? Amazingly, you do!
  • Cement Mixer Myth: Can you use dynamite to clean out the inside of a cement mixer in which the cement has solidified? No, not without evaporating the cement mixer.
From a scientifically pedagogical point of view, this programme is flawed because they rarely make any calculations. But in televisual terms, this programme is golddust and encapsulates the joy and pleasure and occasional pain of experimental science. It is just great TV.

And the winner is… we all are. These programmes all make you want to stop watching and … well DO something. These programmes all bring the genuine joy of discovery and understanding into people’s lives, and for this I am genuinely grateful to them all.

Dr Who has lost the plot

May 2, 2011
Dr Who and companion Donna - with a Dalek

Dr Who and companion Donna - with a Dalek © BBC 2008

Since I was a child, I have watched Dr. Who – a simple tale of time-travelling folk. Uniquely among children’s programmes, it is explicitly designed to ‘scare the pants off’ children. My brother even remembers the first episode in 1963 – which was repeated in the second week to help an astonished audience cope. Sadly ‘time shifting’ of programmes would not exist for a few decades, even for a time traveller, which made Saturday tea-time a must not miss slot for much of my childhood. And even more sadly, for much of my adult life too.

The most recent revival has moved the series on, to match the sophistication of a modern audience. But in the latest episodes the writers have simply lost the plot :

  • Episodes ending with “But Doctor… I’m pregnant…” belong on East Enders: They do not belong on Dr. Who.
  • Episodes where aliens are killed with guns do not belong on Dr. Who.
  • Episodes where the Doctor is passionately kissed by women who hint at future (or past?) intimacy do not belong on Dr. Who.

Which brings me to the plot. Dr. Who has always been ‘loosely’ plotted – often things didn’t quite tie up. But the current impenetrably entangled plot-lines are over indulgent in the extreme. By chance (while clearing the HD recorder) I came across an episode a couple of series back – Planet of the Dead. In 45 minutes it covered:

  • The theft from an Art Gallery of an ancient Chalice.
  • The thief’s escape on a bus and meeting with the Doctor.
  • The passage of said bus through a wormhole to a distant desert planet.
  • Stranded, the Doctor had to return to Earth before a vast storm of metal-clad, all-devouring flying monsters reached the bus. This is all foretold by ‘clairvoyant’ on the bus.
  • He managed to do this by helping stranded aliens repair their ship, and then borrowing their anti-gravity clamps (after the aliens were devoured by the metal monsters) to fly the bus back through the wormhole, just in time.
  • The use of the chalice to repair the clamps.
  • Did I mention that all the time he was liaising with Earth to co-ordinate the closure of the wormhole after his return?
  • The thief then escapes from the police on Earth with the aid of the Doctor and the flying bus.
Now by any standards, that is pretty dense plotting. But that episode was a model of simplicity and transparency compared to the over-stylised nonsense that passes for the current ‘story’. I love Dr. Who. My children love Dr. Who. But IMHO, the writers have currently lost the plot.

The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds

March 30, 2011
The effect of gamma rays

Movie Poster for ‘The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds’

A long time ago – perhaps more than 20 years – I saw a film on television called The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds. The film bowled me over when I saw it, but with the passage of time I forgot exactly why it had affected me so. All I remembered was a single scene in which a mother, overwhelmed with conflicted pride for her daughter, utters the words ‘My Heart is Full’. And for many years this phrase has haunted me, and I intermittently tried to locate the film so I could find out why it affected me so. Recently I succeeded, but I haven’t had a chance to watch the film until this evening.

It is now just gone 3 a.m. and I have been up nursing the Boltzmann constant experiment to the correct temperature. The temperature has been wiggling by several thousandths of a degree (!) but now seems to have settled down – the last wiggle was only 0.5 thousandths of a degree – and I hope I can kick off the experiment soon and get to bed. I have been monitoring the two computers which control the experiment remotely from home, and I took the chance to watch the movie. I was not disappointed.

The 50 year old script chimed with so many themes which are completely contemporoary in this new millenium . The concepts of radiation and mutation are particularly  arresting, but I was also taken by Matilda’s lesson about atoms and their history

He [my teacher] told me to look at my hand, for a part of it came from a star that exploded too long ago to imagine. This part of me was formed from a tongue of fire that screamed through the heavens until there was our sun. And this part of me — this tiny part of me — was on the sun when it itself exploded and whirled in a great storm until the planets came to be.

And this small part of me was then a whisper of the earth. When there was life, perhaps this part of me got lost in a fern that was crushed and covered until it was coal. And then it was a diamond millions of years later — it must have been a diamond as beautiful as the star from which it had first come. Or perhaps this part of me became lost in a terrible beast, or became part of a huge bird that flew above the primeval swamps.

And he said this thing was so small — this part of me was so small it couldn’t be seen — but it was there from the beginning of the world. And he called this bit of me an atom. And when he wrote the word, I fell in love with it.

Atom. Atom. What a beautiful word.

It’s a great film. Catch it if you can.

Onkalo: Into Eternity: A warning

February 18, 2011

Some time ago I wrote admiringly of Finnish progress in dealing with their nuclear waste. And I mentioned that a film had been made about the project and that it had excellent reviews. Based on these reviews I bought the DVD. Having watched the film, I wouldn’t like you to make the same mistake.

The film is called ‘Into Eternity’, which is a good name, because the indulgently… … … slow… … … pace. … … of. … … the … … film makes one feel as if one is on one’s way to eternity. Indeed it makes the option of being buried in a deep landfill and never being disturbed for 10,000 years seem like an interesting option. The film has no narrative or position and very little in the way of relevant facts. It does have facts, but they are sprinkled in like mustard into a cup of tea: they make no sense! So we have someone explaining what happens when one receives a whole body dose of radiation. Which is relevant exactly how? And over and over again people repeat that no one has ever made any structure which could last 10,000 years. Well, that may be true, but no one had ever been to the Moon before 1969.  No one had ever built tunnels under the English Channel or through the Alps. And there are around a million and one things that our culture has achieved that have never been done before, including quite relevantly here, the construction of nuclear power stations. And there is absolutely no reason to doubt that we can do these things if we choose to address the challenges involved. It’s a serious business. But this film is not. It is indulgent, pretentious, and portentious nonsense. Avoid.

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