Movie adds insult to injury in the Turing story

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in the Imitation Game. [Credit: 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in the Imitation Game. [Credit: 

Some disturbing news is emerging about the upcoming film The Imitation Game, about the life of the brilliant mathematician, cryptanalyst and pioneering computer scientist, Alan Turing.

Despite his brilliant performance at Bletchley Park, Britain's code-breaking HQ – Winston Churchill said that Turing made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory – was later treated appallingly by the British establishment.

He was prosecuted in 1952 for then-illegal homosexual acts and accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison. Two years later two weeks before his 42nd birthday, he was found dead from cyanide poisoning. 

It has long been thought he committed suicide, although recently some doubts have been raised about that.

Whatever the truth, it is unarguable that his treatment at the hands of the authorities was disgusting. 

So much so, that even the British Government recognised it as such. In 2009, following an long campaign, then-prime minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology for "the appalling way he was treated" and Turing was posthumously pardoned the following year.

Now, a film about his life, The Imitation Game, has apparently decided that this patriotic, brilliant man didn't suffer enough, and has decided to brand him a traitor.

According to The Guardian, the movie insinuates that he agreed not to unmask a Soviet spy in order to keep his sexuality a secret. Guardian reviewer Alex von Tunzelmann writes:

The Imitation Game puts John Cairncross, a Soviet spy and possible “Fifth Man” of the Cambridge spy ring, on Turing’s cryptography team. Cairncross was at Bletchley Park, but he was in a different unit from Turing. As Turing’s biographer Andrew Hodges, on whose book this film is based, has said, it is “ludicrous” to imagine that two people working separately at Bletchley would even have met. Security was far too tight to allow it. In his own autobiography, Cairncross wrote: “The rigid separation of the different units made contact with other staff members almost impossible, so I never got to know anyone apart from my direct operational colleagues.” In the film, Turing works out that Cairncross is a spy; but Cairncross threatens to expose his sexuality. “If you tell him my secret, I’ll tell him yours,” he says.

In fact, according to Von Tunzelmann, the rest of the film is littered with historical inaccuracies and silliness, even if not as defamatory as the claim that Turing was a traitor.

Historically, The Imitation Game is as much of a garbled mess as a heap of unbroken code. For its appalling suggestion that Alan Turing might have covered up for a Soviet spy, it must be sent straight to the bottom of the class.

RiAus launches new science channel – videos, live streaming and audio content

RiAus has launched RiAus TV, Australia's first dedicated science channel, providing free high quality science-based content.

The RiAus TV platform provides videos, live streaming and audio content. You can get started at

Presenters include Brian Cox, Adam Spencer and Tanya Monroe.

RiAus is Australia’s national science hub, with a mission to promote public awareness and understanding of science through online content, public events, and education and teacher support programs. 

What happens to all the charcoal after a bushfire?

Wildfires can devastate a forest, but the burnt organic matter they leave behind can provide soil benefits for centuries. [Credit: iStock]

Wildfires can devastate a forest, but the burnt organic matter they leave behind can provide soil benefits for centuries. [Credit: iStock]

Bushfires have a big impact on the environment, but maybe less obvious is the impact on the soil in the devastated area. This year's Leeper Memorial Lecture at the University of Melbourne sets out to answer the question. The build-up of burnt and partially burnt organic matter after a bushfire changes the nature of the organic matter in soil, and increases its potential to capture carbon.

Taken overall, the effects on soil quality are probably more good than bad. The build-up increases the soil carbons aromaticity – and therefore stability – which decreases the rate of decomposition. That means the charcoal can remain much longer in the subsoil – centuries in some cases – and so acts as a sink for atmospheric carbon. 

The carbon helps also helps with soil structure, and improves water holding capacity, making the soil less drought prone and therefore more productive. Fraser Island, the world's largest sand island, is a common example of a place where the build-up of organic matter in the sandy subsoil allowed enormous forests to grow.

The Leeper Lecture, named for pioneering Australian agricultural chemist Geoffrey Leeper, will be presented by Professor Heike Knicker, a German biologist specialising in physical biochemistry at the Institute of Natural Resources and Agrobiology of Seville, Spain.

Her main research interests are in the field of soil biochemistry, the carbon and nitrogen cycle in soils and the impact of vegetation fires and biochars on soil organic matter. She has published approximately 160 publications in the field of soil science and NMR spectroscopy in peer-reviewed journals

The lecture, presented by the Victorian branch of Soil Science Australia and the University of Melbourne's Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, will be held in the Agar Lecture Theatre of Melbourne University's Zoology building in Parkville from 5-6:30 Friday 21 November. Followed by free drinks and nibbles!

New software to help with Parkinson's study

A young Michael J. Fox at the Emmy Awards in 1988 before his Parkinson's disease diagnosis.

A young Michael J. Fox at the Emmy Awards in 1988 before his Parkinson's disease diagnosis.

A research project into Parkinson's disease is gathering data from sufferers by way of smart wristbands able to detect hand tremors or changes in a patient's gait.

The wristbands are linked via Bluetooth to smartphones, and then sent over the mobile phone data network to the cloud for analysis.

Researchers from the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research and Intel have the daunting task of analysing the data gathered in the study, which has the potential to reach 365 terabytes a year. (Actor Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, established the foundation in 2000.)

Another challenge for the Parkinson's researchers is the need to respond to the data as it comes in – a task beyond the capacity of traditional data analytics software.

Patients in the study have been given a diary app, and asked to record how they feel when they take medication. As well as providing research material, the aim is to allow doctors to monitor and advise them in real time.

This level of response is possible because of new software technology called Lambda. Traditionally, a software designer knows what amount of storage of computing power an application needs in advance. With Lambda, a programmer allows the cloud to decide. 

The technology has been devised by Amazon Web Services. Lambda allows programmers to concentrate on their ideas - in this case how to help Parkinson's patients - says AWS chief technology officer Werner Vogels. 

Netflix is also using Lambda to encode movie files and manage its network.

Neuroscientist says young brains being reshaped by technology

Is there a danger kids will stop using their imaginations? [Credit: iStock]

Is there a danger kids will stop using their imaginations? [Credit: iStock]

Oxford University neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has warned that people's brains could be being reshaped by digital technology.

In a public lecture at the University of South Australia, Baroness Greenfield said the impact on young people in particular was a concern as they were growing up knowing nothing else but a wired world.

But if you were bombarded with data and information there was a risk you couldn't work out which were important and which weren't.

"The issue is that information isn't knowledge. Of course you can be bombarded with endless information, endless facts, but if you can't make sense of them one fact is the same as any other fact," she told ABC radio.

Baroness Greenfield: 'Information isn't knowledge."

Baroness Greenfield: 'Information isn't knowledge."

She said that, confronted with on-screen information that other people provided, there was risk that children would stop using their imaginations.

Online "friends" were often people more like an audience.

"You are out to entertain and seek their approval and the danger lies then in constructing an artificial identity that's not really you at all," she said.

"As a neuroscientist I am very aware that the brain adapts to its environment ... all these things will inevitably shape who you are," she said.

She said it was important that we had a wide discussion over the issues.

"What we need to decide - and there's not an easy answer, there never is - is what kind of society we want, what kind of world do we want to live in?" she said.

Small volcanic eruptions might help to slow global warming

The Sarychev Peak Volcano on Matua Island in the northwest Pacific erupting in June, 2009. According to new research, small eruptions such as this may have contributed to a slowdown in global warming. Credit: NASA

The Sarychev Peak Volcano on Matua Island in the northwest Pacific erupting in June, 2009. According to new research, small eruptions such as this may have contributed to a slowdown in global warming. Credit: NASA

Scientists have long known that volcanic eruptions can cool the atmosphere. For instance it has been estimated the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 corresponded to a global temperature drop of 0.5 degrees Celsius.

But the Pinatubo eruption was massive, ejecting an estimated 20 million metric tonnes of sulfur into the atmosphere. (Sulfur in the upper atmosphere reflects sunlight away from the Earth and lowers temperatures.) Previous research has suggested that smaller eruptions do not contribute significantly to this phenomenon.

But new ground, air and satellite measurements show that small volcanic eruptions that took place between 2000 and 2013 have deflected almost twice as much solar radiation as previously estimated. According to a new study in Geophysical Research Letters, the data could explain why increases in global temperatures have slowed over the past 15 years, a period called the "global warming hiatus".

The warmest year on record is 1998. After that, the steep climb in global temperatures appeared to level off. Scientists have previously suggested weak solar activity or heat uptake by the oceans could be responsible.

Climate projections don't typically take volcanic eruptions into account, because of their unpredictability. The new study combined observations from ground, air and space-based instruments to better observe the fine suspended particles, or aerosols, that erupting volcanoes spew into the atmosphere. The researchers from MIT found the aerosols from volcanoes may have been sufficient to lower global surface temperatures by 0.05 to 0.12 degrees Celsius.

Effects of cocaine and fear mapped on transparent brains

CLARITY – the technique that gave us the transparent mouse – have used the technique to show the effects of cocaine and fear on the brain.

The technique uses acrylamide to create a matrix in the cells and preserve their structure along with the DNA and proteins inside them, while the opaque lipids in the organs are dissolved to leave perfectly transparent cells.

Now it's been put to use to show how the brain reacts to stimuli. As Nature reports:

...neuroscientists Li Ye and Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University in California engineered mice so that their neurons would make a fluorescent protein when they fired. (The system is activated by the injection of a drug.) The researchers then trained four of these mice to expect a painful foot shock when placed in a particular box; another set of mice placed in the box received cocaine, rather than shocks.
Once the mice had learned to associate the box with either pain or an addictive reward, the researchers tested how the animals' brains responded to the stimuli. They injected the mice with the drug that activated the fluorescent protein system, placed them in the box and waited for one hour to give their neurons time to fire.

They were then killed, their brains removed and treated with CLARITY. The resulting images were combined by computer which, as seen in the video above, shows the pathways that lit up when mice were either afraid or expecting cocaine.

Deisseroth says that experiment highlights the complex "connections and cross-talk between different parts of the brain" that occur in behaviours such as addiction.


How the big polluters send CO2 swirling round the world

NASA has released the video above, showing a dramatic visualisation of how carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere and quickly travels around the globe.

Striking is the extreme difference between carbon dioxide levels in the northern and southern hemispheres and the dramatic change in global carbon dioxide concentrations according to seasons, which NASA attributes to the growth cycle of plants and trees changes.

The visualization was produced by a computer model called GEOS-5, created by scientists at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Global Modeling and Assimilation Office.

It is a product of a simulation called a “Nature Run” The Nature Run ingests real data on atmospheric conditions and the emission of greenhouse gases and both natural and man-made particulates. The model is then left to run on its own and simulate the natural behavior of the Earth’s atmosphere. This Nature Run simulates January 2006 through December 2006

Philae detects organic molecules on comet

A mosaic of a series of images captured by Rosetta’s OSIRIS camera over the 30 minute period of the lander's first touchdown. The time of each of image is marked on the corresponding insets and is in GMT. The images were taken with Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera when the spacecraft was 15.5 km from the surface. [Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA]

Philae has detected organic molecules, essential for life, on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The data were collected by the Philae lander's COSAC instrument and beamed back just before the lander went into hibernation.

It is unclear how complex the carbon- and hydrogen-based molecules are, but it could be evidence to support the theory – one the mission is designed to test – that life on Earth may have been seeded by comets.

“Cosac was able to ‘sniff’ the atmosphere and detect the first organic molecules after landing. Analysis of the spectra and the identification of the molecules are continuing," the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), which built the Cosac instrument, said in a statement.

The lander, however, appears to have failed to drill into the comet's surface. The thermal and mechanical MUPUS probe, one of Philae's 10 onboard instruments, discovered the comet was "a tough nut to crack", the DLR said.

"Although the power of the hammer was gradually increased, we were not able to go deep into the surface," research team leader Tilman Spohn said.

Acoustic experiments appear to suggest that the comet, beneath a surface layer of dust, is hard water ice.

Scientists also want to test the hypothesis that water was freighted to Earth by comets.

BMW trials Google Glass to record workers' movements

Quality testers at BMW are trialling Google Glass to record their procedures to analyse how they might be improved. [Credit: BMW]

Quality testers at BMW are trialling Google Glass to record their procedures to analyse how they might be improved. [Credit: BMW]

Carmaker BMW is running a pilot project with workers using Google Glass to record their workflows, with a view to improving quality control and processes.

The high-tech specs  take photos or videos of the work as it is done to document potential deviations from normal practice and a means to review and analyse procedures.

The project is being carried out at BMW's US plant in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

If it improves communications between quality testers and the analysts, then it could be rolled out in other production areas and sites.

The project is an part of the BMW Group’s current Industry 4.0 campaign, set up to evaluate how new technologies can be applied to provide optimum support to workers in production and production planning.

The company's media release about the trial can be found here.


Microbes with mind control

The Smithsonian has released this video of a snail infected with sporocysts of the parasite Leucochloridium paradoxum. When the larvae migrate to the snail's eye stalks and builds fat, throbbing brood sacs, turning the stalks into bright green-banded, pulsating beacons that mimic caterpillars, attracting birds.

That's fitting, as the snail picks up the parasite by eating bird droppings.

Cosmos published a piece about this and other ways microbes can affect animal and human mental health - Microbes with mind control - in July.

An array of microbes including viruses, bacteria and single-cell protozoa have been found to get into the heads of their hosts and alter their behaviour. The more we look, the more cases we find. So why should human minds be immune?
Of course they aren’t. 

Read more here.