All posts by Matthew Powell

Matt is a graduate from Oxford, who is interested in the universe and has spent many a night in the bar trying to explain space to disgruntled students. Besides being the meanest ukulele player to grace the English countryside, Matt spends his time reading, writing and walking. He’s also the intern…

Why do you gag at foods you dislike, even when they’ve never made you sick?

Humans had it pretty rough in the beginning; a group of (semi-)sentient beings who understood so little of their world, and had to traipse around in their Birthday suits. To make matters worse, they had a world of flavours, both fatal and fantastic, which they couldn’t tell apart. The gagging or retching feeling we get when we think of foods we don’t like (or foods that have made us sick) is the culmination of millions of years of evolution – and is there to stop us eating poisonous foods.

It’s called taste aversion and is a tool our ancestors used to protect them from harmful foods. Understandably, our ancestors’ culinary adventures led them to foods that killed them, or at least left them voiding their bowels (sorry for the graphic imagery). So, in future, their brains set up a conditioned response to stop them from sampling the same poisons (providing they hadn’t died). Today this is pretty much the same story. Our brain remembers the tastes or smells of certain foods that have made us sick in the past and mentally scribbles it down as ‘never to be ingested again’. Personally, I once ate a white chocolate flavoured yoghurt and found a large black hair at the bottom of the container, which kicked my taste aversion into overdrive, and now I can’t bear the taste of white chocolate without haunting memories of the hidden hair.

Taste aversion is a bit of pain sometimes, in fact, your taste aversion can go a little haywire. Your brain can create a conditioned response to food that’s never disagreed with you. One good example of this is a published paper that observed children undergoing chemotherapy. The children were all fed a specifically flavoured ice cream before treatment. When offered the ice cream again, they refused – having mentally associated the ice cream with feeling unwell..

So in answer to your question: the reason you gag at food you don’t like is because your brain has decided they are poisonous substances. Maybe you’ve had a bad experience with certain foods that has caused your brain to pair that food with the negative memories even though you haven’t eaten it before. Taste aversion doesn’t have to be with food you’ve eaten (quite annoyingly) and your brain can easily overreact. It’s like an overprotective mother, it has all the best intentions – even if it can be annoying. .

Answer by Matt Powell
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Article by Matthew Powell

September 26, 2013

Matt is a graduate from Oxford, who is interested in the universe and has spent many a night in the bar trying to explain space to disgruntled students. Besides being the meanest ukulele player to grace the English countryside, Matt spends his time reading, writing and walking. He’s also the intern…


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How many solar panels would I need for all my household electricity?

This is definitely a question that environmentalists have asked themselves. If we were able to power every household with a solar panel then we would dramatically reduce, but not completely stop our carbon emissions. A solar panel (commonly referred to as a photovoltaic solar panel or PV) converts sunlight into electricity through the ‘photoelectric process’. Essentially, an electrical current is generated in semi-conducting materials (usually silicon) when they come into contact with sunlight.

Importantly, the process of making solar panels is incredibly toxic so if every household were fitted with PVs, we would have to come up with new ways of getting rid of all the toxic waste. Nevertheless, let’s imagine we live in a world where the government has enough money to supply every household with a solar panel. How powerful, and how many would each of us need?
Solar panel 2 by Photo Mojo Mike, on Flickr
A ‘low user’ of electricity would expend an annual 1,650 kWh (Kilowatt hours), a ‘medium user’ would use 3,300 kWh and a ‘high user’ would get through 4,950 kWh. For argument’s sake let’s say that your household consumes about 3,000 kWh. Under ideal conditions, this would need a 3.5kWp solar panel setup to provide for your needs (kWp is the unit for solar panel energy output).

However, weather is never ‘ideal’, so you need to make allowances for it. Using data for the UK: if you live in the South of England and position your solar panel on a south-facing roof then a 4kWp solar panel system would cover your energy costs. Such a solar panel system would be 28 metres square (about half a basketball court) and is likely to set you back a hefty sum.

There are ways to reduce your daily uses of electricity, simple stuff like, switching off your lights before you leave or living in the woods and hunting to eat. Did you know that iPhones use as much energy as a refrigerator? In a world where carbon emissions are a hot topic, we are finding more ways to use electricity but not enough ways to produce it in an environmentally-friendly way. I think that nuclear power is a good solution, but don’t get me started on that. We’ll leave that discussion for another day…

Answer by Matt Powell

Question from ‘Mad Moules’ via Facebook

 

 

Some maths (for good measure):

1kW = 1000J/s (energy per second – wattage is actually a unit of power)

4000 kWh is a reasonable estimate for a mid to high energy using household (between 3300-4950kWh)

4000kWh = 3600s x 4000kW = 14,400,000kJ (14.4GJ) energy required by our household each year

At absolute peak performance (i.e. kWp), a 3.5 kWp PV generates 3500J/s (though this will only really happen in a lab environment)

It would take a 3.5PV working at absolute max capacity (14,400,000/3.5)/3600 = 4,114,285.71/3600  = 1,142.85714 hours to meet annual household energy demands (at 3 hours peak performance a day, that works out at approx. 381 days (close to a year) to generate the necessary energy.

The PV will rarely operate at peak performance (but this figure will become more accurate in sunny climates – for example, Dubai)

Energy Saving Trust claim that a 3.5 kWp PV can generate c.a. 3000 kWh/year.  Our mid to high energy-using household would therefore need to upgrade to a 4kWp PV (costing around £9,500).

Article by Matthew Powell

September 3, 2013

Matt is a graduate from Oxford, who is interested in the universe and has spent many a night in the bar trying to explain space to disgruntled students. Besides being the meanest ukulele player to grace the English countryside, Matt spends his time reading, writing and walking. He’s also the intern…


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Something to Harp(er) on about: we’ve got a new Deputy Editor!

Ross HarperHe’s got a face worth paying good money for; in fact, Ross used to sell his face for advertisements! (It’s not as sordid as it sounds.) A Natural Sciences graduate from Cambridge turned entrepreneur and science writer, Ross seems to be pretty good at whatever he turns his hand to. It’s great news, then, that Ross is now a fully-fledged member of team Guru and has become Deputy Editor (alongside Jon Crowe). It hasn’t gone to his head yet but he has given up his last name and replaced it with “The Deputy Editor”. (Kidding of course, he is still legally known as Ross Harper, but he does sport a badge that says “I will edit you out of existence”.)

Without further ado, let’s find out about Ross, what his secret agent name is, and how he will overcome the zombie apocalypse.

Guru: Hey Ross, welcome to the team. What were you doing before you joined Guru?

Ross:  I was born in a quiet little town called London, and, like most young boys, when I grew up I wanted to be like my dad.  It just so happened that my dad was a scientist.

[Rest of life story edited]

In 2011, I graduated from the University of Cambridge with a degree in Natural Sciences.  At this point, I threw off the gown and labelled myself an entrepreneur, starting up two businesses: a viral marketing website, BuyMyFace.com, and an app-development company called Wriggle Ltd.  I had two years of fun – skydiving, skiing, TV appearances, and even at one point I was appointed ‘Youth Ambassador’ by the International Olympic Committee – but I could never quite shake my passion for science.

To satisfy my erm… urges… I tried writing articles in my spare time, but it wasn’t enough.  Science is a merciless vice.  Eventually, I decided to jump on board with Guru and I haven’t looked back since!
Guru: What was it about Guru that got you to start contributing?

Ross: Hmmm, I should probably talk about how I’ve always loved writing, and how for as long as I can remember, I’ve had a natural drive to communicate and share scientific knowledge with others.  But that would be misleading.  The truth is I’m a latecomer to this game. Granted, I was always one of the more creative scientists in my class. And it’s true that I enjoy communicating and having my voice heard.  But I left university with no formal journalistic training.

That’s why Guru is so great.  Very few publications offer the same level of care and support to their contributors.  It isn’t just a magazine; it’s a community of like-minded people working together to produce something truly unique.  The fact is I can write – I know that.  But you can bet other publications wouldn’t have been so welcoming.  Guru looks at the person, not the CV, and it certainly pays off when you consider the quality of our magazine!

Ah shucks, I’m just going to say it.  Guru, will you marry me?

Guru: Unfortunately, we’re married to science, Ross. She’s a harsh mistress. Getting back to the topic at hand with an easy question, which season is better, winter or summer?

Ross: Winter.

Guru: What would your secret agent name be?

Ross: I’m currently using my first choice of secret agent name, so I’ll give you my second choice:

“Señor Butterfly”

Why?  Because no one suspects the butterfly mwahahaha! (Points awarded for getting the reference.)

Guru: Run us through your zombie apocalypse plan? Don’t worry, we won’t plagiarise any of your ideas but we will judge you for not having a plan at all.

Ross:  A valid request – I’m glad you brought this up.

Given the sudden appearance of zombies without any prior warning, I think it’s reasonable to assume you’re at Ground Zero.  In which case, the zombies probably came from a fairly well funded laboratory somewhere in the immediate vicinity (we all know it’s going to happen eventually).  So first things first, we need to burn down every lab within a 20-mile radius.  I think this would be best achieved through vigilantism, although I’m open to suggestions.

Once all the labs are gone and the mad scientist who caused all this trouble has been held accountable, it would be time to deal with the remaining zombies (who will most likely have been chowing down and multiplying during the first stages of my plan).  No problem, of course, because that would mean more zombie heads for us ‘norms’ to bash in.  A baseball bat will be my weapon of choice, but I’m anything if not diplomatic, so I would grant people the right to choose their own implement of zombie-pummelling awesomeness.

Then it’s just a case of ‘going nuts’.  I suggest trying to make a game out of it: How many undead corpses can you re-kill in 5 minutes? – or perhaps – Zombie Double Kill (where you have to take out two zombies in one fluid swing).  This final part of the plan shouldn’t take too long.  The fact is, nature dealt zombies a pretty bad hand – both their food source and method of reproduction involve trying to take down an animal of equal size with superior intellect, which is also armed to the teeth and present in greater numbers.  The odds don’t look good for our grey-skinned friends.

Article by Matthew Powell

September 2, 2013

Matt is a graduate from Oxford, who is interested in the universe and has spent many a night in the bar trying to explain space to disgruntled students. Besides being the meanest ukulele player to grace the English countryside, Matt spends his time reading, writing and walking. He’s also the intern…


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What caused the Big Bang?

That’s a good question, but more importantly, it’s one of the biggest, most soul-searching questions we could ever ask. It’s also a question that doesn’t have an answer… yet (unless you’re religious of course). The exact origins of the Big Bang remains a mystery in the scientific world but there are plenty of theories – let’s take a look at them.

The Big Bang theory is used to explain the growth of the universe. However, there are a lot of things it doesn’t explain; such as, why are so many unconnected parts of the universe so similar? Add to that the fact that we don’t even know what happened in the instant after the Big Bang, and we find ourselves in the worst kind of pickle – an existential one.
bottle of dreams by David Urbanke, on Flickr
The theory that is used to ‘wrap’ these problems up is the ‘inflationary model’ of the universe. It states that the universe went through an intense period of expansion very early in its life, like a chubby cosmic baby or an ever-expanding balloon. Other scientists prefer to believe that there was nothing, and the big bang was an event that just occurred out of nowhere. A more recent theory proposes that our universe isn’t the first and we’re one of many universes in a continuous cycle of expansion, then collapse. In fact, in 2011 a group of scientists won a Nobel prize for proving that the universe’s rate of expansion is accelerating. It implies (but doesn’t prove) that the universe will get too big for its boots and collapse (or alternatively grow gradually colder and die). Not a very cheering thought, but we’ll hopefully be long dead before that happens…

How about more sci-fi-esque theories of the universe? ‘String theory’ presumes that our universe has more than the three dimensions we can touch and see – maybe even ten or more that we can’t see. Unless you’re taking substances you shouldn’t, we can only perceive the universe in a three dimensional space. Scientists have taken this theory and argued that the universe exists within a three dimensional space (or ‘brane’) and it can’t interact with other universes that exist within a different dimensional space. Occasionally though, universes in different dimensions but next to one another would collide, causing a Big Bang.

There are many more theories concerning the beginning of the universe, each incorporating elements of one another or shooting off on tangents. What I’ve tried to highlight is this: there are still no answers that can explain what set off the Big Bang.  Scientists have spent their lives trying to work it out, and many more will do the same. Maybe we’ll never know.

How tragically romantic.

Thanks for your question!

Answer by Matt Powell

Question from Jodine via Facebook

If you want a comprehensive (if somewhat complex) explanation of pre-Big Bang theories, read it here: http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/2012/10/15/what-happened-before-the-big-bang/

Article by Matthew Powell

August 29, 2013

Matt is a graduate from Oxford, who is interested in the universe and has spent many a night in the bar trying to explain space to disgruntled students. Besides being the meanest ukulele player to grace the English countryside, Matt spends his time reading, writing and walking. He’s also the intern…


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