Keep your old chargers

As we discussed about the final fate of electronic waste (e-waste) produced nowadays (Do E-waste really get recycled?), a new report from the United Nations provided statistics to give us some insights.

Reported by UN’s International Telecommunication Union, in 2016 we discard 44.7 million tons of electronics in the forms of smart phones, computers, devices and cables. Only 20 percent of it is known to be recycled. The value of the whole gigantic dump is estimated to be $55 billion.

One takeaway is that 1 million of e-waste is just power adapters and chargers. Your laptops and phones ship with them, often in their own standards (Dell’s adapter may not be used with Lenovo’s laptop, for example). It emphasises the need of having a standard across the companies in order to reduce the need of producing chargers that we don’t need.

Read the whole report here.


Small World in Motion

SubIf you look hard enough, beauty exhibits everywhere in nature. Nikon’s annual photography contest of microscopic things is all about taking pretty pictures of objects that can’t be observed ordinarily. The scientists used ingenious methods to film their objects of interest, and oftentimes the end result is as breathtaking as the scientific output itself.

Just look at this:

(Crystals of lactic and salicylic acid forming during drying a drop of a medicament used for removal of common and plantar warts)

Or this:

(Perspiration on a human fingertip)

See the full list of winners here.

The One who bends them all

“You must run, my child.” His voice is weary. “There is no place for you in this place anymore.”

I stare at the floor, voiceless and silent.

The old man turns to the only window in the room. I follow his stare, seeing rows of high-rise buildings along the horizon. Ocean roars at their base, waves clashing and breaking into numerous foams. The buildings glisten under the hot sun. They look like a hand with fingers extended out of a bathtub.

I know these are government-issued dwellings to the qualified citizens in the country. No one ever understands the rules to deem if one is qualified, or questions the rules behind the selection process. No one at all until I am born.

A few drones, operated by third-world country workers imported by the constructor, zip past the view. The tropical sun starts to get unbearable, even with the full blast of the 5-Ticks air-conditioner.

“You must run. Away from this country, as far as you can.”  He repeats, with a harsher voice.

The government has painted themselves into a corner. They started 58 years ago a law to rule opposing parties out, to silence dissident voices. The artificial impositions of race, gender and height and weight have been proved to be a great barrier to anyone who dares to stand out. Now, the rulers are forced to abide their own rule and play their own game. For I am born as the Fluid.

Water does not have a rigid shape, instead it follows the shape of the container. This is called the fluid property. I heard from Grandpa that when I was picked up at the orphanage, the nurses were terrified, for they had no idea which diapers should I be assigned to. The blue male or the pink female? No one knows because my sign of gender keeps changing constantly. They could not recognize my race as well. Chinese, Caucasian or Tahitian? No features are distinct enough to make a conclusion.

The Fluid one, the ability to change gender and race…

I storm out of the door. I hear the blaring announcements of trains breaking down repeating every minute. They wanna bend the rules , and I will be the One who bends them all.

Inspired by the recent election fiasco in Singapore. Read more here.

Video games solve scientific problems

This article from Ars Technica highlights the cross-pollination of my two favourite topics: Science and Gaming.

What is a video game? It is an interactive medium which takes the input of one or more players and displays the output on a computer screen or TVs. When was the first video game born? It was in the autumn of 1958 when a physicist William Higinbotham created Tennis for Two in Brookhaven National Laboratory. A dot, representing a tennis ball, flies across a primitive CRT screen whenever the player flicks the controls. The whole setup was like a glorified oscilloscope detecting erratic voltage signals.

Tennis for Two on analog computer. Dope.

Video games have evolved since then and became one of the biggest industries in the world. According to Entertainment Software Association, the industry sold over 24.5 billion games and generated more than $34.4 billion in revenue. There is no sign of slowing down either., the world’s largest video game streaming platform, revealed its statistics in 2016: there are 2.2 million streamers (players that broadcast their gaming session online), clocking in 292 million minutes watched online. That’s roughly equal to 555 years, big data!

Nonetheless video games can show its productive value when used correctly. Apart from the educational value of video games in recent curriculum (Kerbal Space Program, MinecraftEdu), a few brilliant video games make use of the collaborative and problem-solving nature of the platform to solve scientific problems, for example Foldit (protein structure), EteRNA (RNA folding) and Phylo (NP-hard computational problem). It is a form of citizen science in which the general public solves a scientific problem together. One notable discovery was in 2011 where a group of players solved the structure of an enzyme critical in AIDS virus reproduction.

Protein prediction by the Foldit Void Crushers Group.

Game on, players!


HKU to cancel Astronomy and Maths-Physics Majors

The University of Hong Kong (HKU) is planning to cross out two majors from its list in Faculty of Science: Astronomy and Mathematics-Physics, starting from the academic year 2018/19. (Source)


One of my colleagues shared this news to me through an HK Podcast (Cantonese). As a Physics graduate, I could empathise what the students and alumni shared in the interviews. Based on what reasons should these two majors be cancelled? What would happen to the only Astronomy major offered in the whole Hong Kong?

HKU’s Dean of Science Matthew Evans explained to the students that “[they] are not choosing to enroll on these majors.” The low enrollment rate is the main reason cited. He also said that the efficient use of resources and academic time prompted the action. Such decision upset the students and alumni.

Lam Chiu-ying was one of the graduates from the HKU’s mathematics-physics major in 1971. He was also the former director of the Hong Kong Observatory. He thinks that a good university should not be chasing after fleeting trends and only focusing on subjects that brings in students. He likens such phenomenon to a supermarket – a place only offering popular items.

It kind of reflects how cut throat the competition in Hong Kong is. It is not unusual for a university to close unpopular courses, but HKU has a unique position: it is the only Hong Kong university that runs an astronomy major. According to Scival, University of Hong Kong has strong scholarly output in the field of Physics and Astronomy. The publications is increasing over the years, for example about 2,000 publications in the last 5 years. 20.6% of the works are in the top 10% most cited worldwide, and 37.0% of the publications are published in the top 10% journals worldwide as well.


We need to relook at the role of university. It is supposed to be the center of scholarly research and innovation, and at the same time the place where future generation gets advanced education. I think that HKU should put more thoughts in getting more students interested in such subjects instead of simply closing them down. By working with high schools and government authorities, the university can give more exposure to the astronomy and physics and ignite the passion among Hong Kong young generation.

Science Busking at NUS Open Day 2017

Here are my juniors at NUS Open Day this year! Hurray!

A Bucket Full of Science


Last Saturday students in our course* put up a wonderful performance during NUS Open day 2017, communicating science to public visitors in the form of busking!

Below is a short description and a mosaic of pictures to illustrate each busking activity.

Marshmallow Cannon

A marshmallow is in a hollow tube is ejected by one blowing into the tube. Participants are challenged to send the marshmallow flying as far as possible. Our science communicators then explain the physics of the moving marshmallow inside and outside the tube, and discuss the parameters affecting the distance traveled by the marshmallow (such as the dimensions of the tube and the angle of elevation).

Science of Coffee

The science behind a good cup of coffee is demonstrated by live brewing and coffee tasting. Visitors are invited to taste different samples of coffee made with different brewing parameters such as grind size and temperature, and…

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Endless energy generated by evaporating water on charcoal

No, not this way! (source)

Minor corrections: It is not endless (the generation needs constant water supply), and by charcoal I mean nano-structured carbon layers. Still, it is impressive to see how a simple physics phenomenon could give rise to an important application: producing electrical energy. A group of scientists from China published a paper on the topic in Nature Nanotechnology Letter last month.

Water molecule. (source)

Water is a molecule composed of 2 Hydrogen (H) and 1 Oxygen (O) atom, and collectively they behave slightly ionic – there are H+ and OH- ions in the system, for example a cup of water. When the water on the carbon surface evaporates, it will induce a force to pull water through the tiny channels in the carbon layers. An usual piece of carbon is hydrophobic, meaning it repels water and stops the action pretty much.

The scientists found out that by treating the carbon to heat and plasma, the surface will be a mixture of carbon and oxygen compounds, and turns into hydrophilic surface. That is, water-loving oxidised carbon. Hence, the water gets pulled through the channels and evaporates at the other end at a steady rate, provided the vapour pressures at both sides don’t change.

How does it produce electricity then? Remember we mentioned earlier: the water contains ions, and a stream of water in motion is a current, carrying minuscule but measurable electrical charge. Ta-da, we produced electricity!

The scientists further found out the voltage produced can reach up to 1 V (high enough to light up an LED), and can be turned on and off by opening and closing the box in which the experiment is contained. This cheap, controllable way of producing electricity from evaporation of water could lead to very practical uses in real life, such as power generation at rural areas or places with little sunlight.

Original Paper