Feedback is our weekly column of bizarre stories, implausible advertising claims, confusing instructions and more
1 December 2021
Load of old…
The stereotype of scientists as unfeeling automatons is lazy and, in Feedback’s experience, entirely inexplicable. On the contrary, the passions the pursuit of knowledge bring to the boil often froth over in raw, all-too-real emotion.
We feel this with a 2020 paper in the journal ACS Nano from Martin Pumera at the Center for Advanced Functional Nanorobots at the University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague that our science fiction columnist Sally Adee sends us, entitled “Will any crap we put into graphene increase its electrocatalytic effect?”
Ah graphene, that two-dimensional carbon wonder-repository of hopes, dreams and the UK government’s entire industrial strategy. As far as Feedback can discern, the bone of contention this paper is tearing hunks of raw meat off is whether you can boost energy-producing chemical reactions within hydrogen fuel cells and the like by adding a pinch of other chemical elements to their graphene-surfaced electrodes.
“To make our point of the meaninglessness of efforts to co-dope graphene with various elements experimentally, we evaluate in this work if guano-doped graphene poses any advantages over nonguano-doped graphene,” the researchers write, with forthrightness of both word and intent. Having basted graphene in bird poo, they conclude that it does.
Feedback is impressed, although not entirely surprised: after all, back in the day nations went to war over guano for its nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur content, prized for making fertiliser and gunpowder. Now just add it to the list of clean energy’s potential dirty secrets (13 November, p 38). Unless of course the whole thing’s a pile of old crap. We say this entirely without feeling.
Joyously, Lars Chittka, professor of sensory and behavioural ecology at Queen Mary University of London, takes to Twitter with a picture of a subscription communication from chez nous. “For years, the New Scientist addressed me as Queen L Chittka – probably an AI conflation of my name and address,” he writes. “Now some automatism has added ‘Her Royal Highness’.”
We ascribe this not to automatism, Lars, but the ghost in our machine’s appreciation of your cutting-edge research on the sensory and navigational capabilities of bees, a world in which there is only one description for the top, errm… dog. We think it’s rather sweet, but if you want us to try to unjam said machine, do let us know.
Many thanks to most of Canada, and also, pleasingly, John Burman of Port Macquarie, Australia, who write in pointing out the only news of real significance last week: Air Canada’s announcement that, in response to the devastating floods that cut key supply links to southern British Columbia, it would be temporarily adding goods capacity into Vancouver airport “equivalent in weight to approximately 860 adult moose”.
We add this to our towering pile of “Culturally relevant measurement units (Canada)”, while idly wondering what 43 score moose translate to volumetrically. This raises the interesting problem of optimal moose tessellation, which may require more mathematical firepower than our speculative doodles of interlocking antlers. The related question of how many adult male African elephants the moose convert to is of course only relevant if they are flying in a jumbo jet.
Feedback understands that the nature of quantum reality and the location of the boundary between its fuzzy realm and our solid, classical world are active areas of research, if only for a certain, small value of “understands”. Seeking further enlightenment, we have for many years been an eager student of quantum overspill effects into the classical realm.
“Please enter thru both doors,” a board with arrows pointing right and left instructs Jonathan Stoppi in the Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney, British Columbia. “Please have your proof of vaccination and photo ID ready to present.”
This second part in particular rather puzzles us. Even supposing an individual’s quantum trajectory can be recombined behind the doors, what does a positive proof of vaccination there tell us about vaccination status before they pass through the doors? Possibly for the purposes of the Mary Winspear Centre this doesn’t much matter, but we think we should be told.
More signs of the times, as a paper in PLoS One details a robot than can enforce social distancing. Using lidar and a depth camera, Soditbot – as no one has called it, yet – can remotely detect groups of people breaching a safe 2-metre distance in crowded environments and glide in, displaying a stern message on a laser display screen.
This is admittedly not an entirely new idea – Feedback recalls the robodog that patrolled a Singapore park broadcasting social distancing messages via a loudhailer last year, and similar, less cute robot enforcers in the island city state. Nevertheless, we agree with a colleague who suggests that if this is really to work, the robot needs to be equipped with a water pistol or Nerf gun. We just hope Soditbot is regularly wiped, so as not to become a vector itself.