ScienceSeeker is a site where the team have collected and organized over 2,000 science blogs from all over the world. Each week, their expert editors hand-pick the best of the best in each major scientific field.
There's a lot of good astronomy writing this week, on weird stars, Jupiter's weather, and why all the solar system's planets can be found along the same flat plane. But these are just some of the many topics tackled by ScienceSeeker editors' favourite posts within their respective areas of interest and expertise for the past seven days. Here is the full round-up of the ScienceSeeker Editors’ Selections:
No, it's not a space pizza. This is a picture of cyclones on Jupiter. Credit: NASA
This week's best science posts include new ways of looking at this year's bad flu outbreak, wound healing and archaeology myths. But these are just some of the many topics tackled by ScienceSeeker editors' favourite posts within their respective areas of interest and expertise for the past seven days. Here is the full round-up of the ScienceSeeker Editors’ Selections:
There were lots of exciting findings about our brains this week, and much was said about ice. But these are just some of the many topics tackled by ScienceSeeker editors' favourite posts within their respective areas of interest and expertise for the past seven days. Here is the full round-up of the ScienceSeeker Editors’ Selections:
In a Spanish cave set of lines painted by Neandertals was amended by later artists. Credit: Pedro Saura
There were lots of exciting space data this week, while physics posed some fascinating puzzles. But these are just some of the many topics tackled by ScienceSeeker editors' favourite posts within their respective areas of interest and expertise for the past seven days. Here is the full round-up of the ScienceSeeker Editors’ Selections:
SpaceX's exploits last week were exciting, which says a lot about humanity, and there's also a lot of science involved in the Winter Olympics. These are among the topics tackled by ScienceSeeker editors' favourite posts within their respective areas of interest and expertise for the past week. Here is the full round-up of the ScienceSeeker Editors’ Selections:
A car flew into space this week - but what does that say about us? Credit: Elon Musk/SpaceX
Even though there have been many lottery winners, the chances of any one of us winning are hard to think about. Credit: adrigu, used via Flickr Creative Commons licence.
by Gaia Cantelli, PhD
What are your chances of winning the lottery? How about of making it big in Hollywood, transmitting a genetic disease to your child or dying of cancer? Some would say it’s 50:50, you either do or you don’t. But they’d be wrong.
Many decisions in life, big and small, are based on understanding probability. But how well do you really know how probability works? Taking the time to understand it could change your life.
Probability 101 We are all familiar with the idea of probability as the likelihood that any given event is going to happen. In mathematical terms, however, it is defined as the ratio of “favourable” cases, or the scenario whose probability you are measuring to the whole number of possible cases. This sounds complicated, but it’s really not. Say that you have a drawer full of pens and you know that ten of them are blue and three of them are red. You want a red pen – this is your favourable case. What’s the chance of getting a red pen?
The probability of you putting your hand in the drawer blind-folded and pick up a red pen is the number of red pens – three – divided by the overall number of pens – the three red pens plus the ten blue pens, which makes thirteen pens. Three divided by thirteen is 0.23, or 23%. So you have a 23% chance of picking up a red pen if you stick your hand in the drawer.
A simple calculation of probability is very useful for some events where everybody’s chances are the same, like buying a lottery ticket. For example, the US Lotto sells about 30 million tickets every draw. Therefore, if you only buy one ticket your probability of winning is one over 30 million, which computes at about 0.000003%. That’s much, much less than 50:50. But what does such an extreme number actually mean? Hold on, we’re getting to that.
Understanding strange numbers There are many ways to understand numbers that are either very small or very large – and are therefore outside what we usually experience. The easiest way to deal with them is to think in ratios. As we said, 0.000003% is about one in 30 million, which is pretty self-explanatory: for every 30 million who enter the lottery, one will win. 30 million’s still hard to imagine though.
So, another good way is to compare very large numbers to something you are familiar with. For example, Yankee stadium at full capacity fits about 50,000 people. 30 million people is 600 full Yankee stadiums all together. That means that out of 600 Yankee stadiums’ worth of people, only one is going to win the lottery. As you can tell, the odds are not good.
When things get a bit more complicated Things get a bit more complicated when more than one thing is happening at the same time. A famous example used in statistics is the probability of two people on a room having the same birthday. Imagine the scenario: a small house party, about 20 people in the room eating and drinking and chatting to each other. You run into somebody who shares your birthday. That’s crazy! You’re instant best friends. What are the odds?! Let’s find out.
To calculate the probability of two events taking place at the same time, you need to multiply the probability of each individual event happening. Calculating the probability in the case of the shared birthday will give you a surprising result – if there are 23 people in the room, there is a 50:50 chance that two of them will share a birthday. It seems crazy, but that’s because there are a lot more than two events happening in this case. What really matters is not so much looking at the chance of sharing your birthday, but rather the chance that any two people were born on the same day. The lesson to learn from this example is that your instincts can easily be wrong when understanding probability – so looking up the actual figures is really important.
Another factor that complicates understanding probability is what happens when you take a particular chance a lot of times. A good example of this is betting on a single number at the roulette table. There are 36 slots on the wheel, which means that betting on a single number you have a one in 36, or 2.8%, chance of winning big. So betting 36 times in a row on the same number guarantees you a win at the roulette table – that lucky number is bound to come through at some point, right? Wrong! It could take a lot longer. Each independent roulette spin separate from every other, so every time the wheel spins you only have a 2.8% chance of winning! Based on similar maths to the birthday paradox, after 36 bets on the same number, you’d still only have a 64% chance of having won.*
Real life is not quite so simple Most of the big problems that we are faced with are even more complicated than this, probability wise. The big question everybody asks me is what your chances are of being diagnosed with cancer. Just looking at the numbers – how many people there are in the world and how many people are diagnosed with cancer, women do have about a 50:50, or one-in-two, chance of being diagnosed, while men have a one-in-three chance. However, the issue with cancer as well as any other medical probability is that these numbers are very misleading. Cancer is not, in fact, as random as winning the lottery.
First of all, your chances of getting cancer depend on your genetic makeup. For example, if you estimate the chance of any woman being diagnosed with breast cancer by assuming every women in the world is the same, you find that any woman has about a 12% chance. However, women who inherit a specific mutation in the BRCA1 gene have about a 60% chance of developing breast cancer. What’s more, women who inherit mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes have up to an 80% chance of being diagnosed with the disease. This means that that 12% is not distributed equally – with some women actually being at much higher risk and other women being at much lower risk of having breast cancer.
Secondly, and most importantly when it comes to making decisions, your probability of getting many diseases is directly related to choices you make in how you live your life. This is in fact true for any type of probability. If you think back to the lottery example, you can in fact only win the lottery if you buy a ticket. Similarly, there are certain things you can do that dramatically increase your risk of being diagnosed with cancer or other serious diseases.
The classic example is smoking. About 60% of smokers will die of smoking-related diseases, including heart disease, strokes and cancer. These numbers get interesting when looking at the chances of lung cancer. Lung cancer is a very rare disease in people who have never smoked: if you are a man who has never touched a cigarette you have about a 0.2% chance of getting it – that is about 1 in 500. However, if you are currently a heavy smoker you have about a 24% chance of being diagnosed with the disease – that is, about 1 in 5. This means that by smoking heavily you have multiplied your chance of getting lung cancer by 100-fold.
Making simple decisions using complicated statistics Of course, the bottom line of looking at statistics is “What do I do now?” Let’s look at the example of smoking. If you smoke, there’s a 6-in-10 chance you are going to die because of it. Is the risk worth it? That decision is up to you. Another dramatic example is being overweight. Being clinically obese carries a much increased risk of being diagnosed with a variety of diseases, including cancer. In fact, obesity is the second highest behavioural risk factor for cancer after smoking. Being obese quadruples your chances of developing endometrial cancer if you’re a woman – that’s a 300% increase. It doubles the chance of diagnosis with stomach, oesophagus, liver and kidney cancer, a 100% increase. These odds would be a strong encouragement to make lifestyle changes necessary to lower your risk of getting cancer.
However, not all decisions are so potentially clear cut. A classic example is hormonal birth control for women. Being on the birth-control pill increases your chances of being diagnosed with breast cancer by about 30% - which is a relatively small increase compared to the examples above. On the other hand, birth control can actually decrease your chances of being diagnosed with cervical cancer by about 30%. What’s more, hormonal birth control can make a huge difference to your life if you are a woman of reproductive age. In this case, breast cancer risk, ovarian cancer risk and the social and economic benefits of birth control are all factors in a decision that is more complicated than simply tallying up numbers.
Understanding statistics is the first step to use science to making informed choices. However, most life decisions are not just a matter of weighing percentages against each other. Understanding what the real odds are is the first step towards weighing them against other factors in your life. Taking risks is a part of life, but being aware of the size of the risk is the only way you will ever be fully in control the decision you are making.
Gaia Cantelli is a postdoctoral associate at Duke University, studying the mechanisms that regulate cancer cell metastasis to the bone and she regularly blogs over at scienceblog.com.
*Or at least that's what ScienceSeeker's editor-in-chief Andy Extance and mathematics editor Peter Krautzberger reckon. Andy's happy to explain or to hear from anyone more expert if they think this is wrong.
If the prospect of dentists regenerating teeth rather than just filling cavities makes you swear it's OK - it's good for you. Swearing and tooth regeneration are just two topics tackled by ScienceSeeker editors' favourite posts within their respective areas of interest and expertise for the past week. Here is the full round-up of the Science Seeker Editors’ Selections:
Did people want owls as pets because of Harry Potter? Public domain via Wallscover.com
Big news in evolution and genetics this week, with pioneering primate cloning, work on genetically engineering corn for nutrition and a rethink of humanity's history. These are just some of the ScienceSeeker editors' favourite posts within their respective areas of interest and expertise for the past week. Here is the full round-up of the Science Seeker Editors’ Selections:
Fossils at Jebel Irhoud in Morocco suggests humans left
Public service announcement: Get a good night's sleep, don't eat detergent, and be aware that last year was still one of the three hottest on record, despite being in a cool part of the El Nino cycle. Those are just some of the ScienceSeeker editors' favourite posts within their respective areas of interest and expertise for the past week. Here is the full round-up of the Science Seeker Editors’ Selections:
Adriana Bankston talks about discovering her own life path
We are pleased to announce that, after a five year break, the ScienceSeeker Awards has returned!
We hope that these awards will be a way to feature several of the most outstanding blog posts, podcasts, or videos from the past year, and highlight the widespread talent in the science blogosphere that ScienceSeeker seeks to promote.
There will be a total of nine categories, from each of which there will be one winner. We will then pick the overall winner from among the winners from each category. The posts will be judged by the ScienceSeeker editorial team. There will be no prizes other than a badge for your website and the kudos of knowing that the ScienceSeeker team liked your post most. The categories are:
General science posts and graphics: Including posts from sites that correspond to our art, photography, general science and science communication bundles
Cells and molecules: Including posts from sites that correspond to our biotechnology, cell biology, chemistry, and microbiology bundles
Humanities: Including posts from sites that correspond to our development, economics, ethics, gender, history, language, law, philosophy, policy, political science, religion and atheism, social science and sociology bundles.
The environment and our place in it: Including posts from sites that correspond to our anthropology, archaeology, climate science, conservation, evolution, geography, geosciences, oceanography, palaeontology and oceanography bundles.
Health, medicine and brain science: Including posts from sites that correspond to our clinical research, clinical psychology, health, medicine, neuroscience, nutrition, psychiatry, psychology, public health and veterinary medicine bundles.
Academia: Including posts from sites that correspond to our academic life, student life, grants, career, education, publishing and library science bundles.
Podcast: Including posts from sites that correspond to our podcast bundle.
Physical sciences and technology: Including posts from sites that correspond to our artificial intelligence, astronomy, computer science, energy, engineering, mathematics and physics bundles.
Big biology: Including posts from sites that correspond to our behavioural biology, biology, ecology, marine biology and plant science bundles.
How does the nomination process work?
The nomination process will run from January 18, 2018 through midnight Pacific Standard Time on March 1, 2018, so, really, the evening of February 28 is the time for last minute nominations.
Individuals can nominate their best post of the year in only one category. The first nomination received from any individual will be the only one considered. Multiple posts can be nominated from the same site – prizes will be awarded to the individuals that created the post. In the event that there is a joint post, that will be the only post considered by the individuals involved. So, you can submit a post you created by yourself or jointly, but not both.
The ScienceSeeker team will collectively determine the winner for each of the nine categories, as well as the overall grand prize winner. The winners will be announced on April 1, 2018.
What posts, or podcasts, or videos, are eligible?
Any post, podcast episode, or video that was first published between January 1, 2017 and January 1, 2018 are eligible for the ScienceSeeker Awards. The post can be from anywhere, be it a personal blog, an institutional website, or a large media organisation. If you’re entering and are not already in our bundles, why not submit your site here?
Podcasts should only be entered in the podcast category. Infographics and sci-art should enter in the general science and graphics category. Videos and text posts can enter in whichever subject category is most applicable.
Feel free to leave a comment on this post, use the contact form, or tweet us @SciSeeker. For more detailed questions only, email us at sciseekers at gmail dot com.
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