Category Archives: Science

The Man on The Moon

Why do we see a man in the moon? Ladies and Gentlemen Elvis has left the building and resurfaced on the New Jersey turnpike. Give us this day our daily grilled cheese. The human mind has evolved to see perceive pattern and meaning in almost anything. This tendency is known as Pareidolia.”
– Dr. Daniel J. Pierce, Perception 2×03

The concept of Pareidolia is defined as a psychological phenomenon that involves a vague or random stimulus such as an image or sound being perceived as significant. A form of Apophenia, or when we see meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data, common forms of Pareidolia include seeing shapes in clouds, seeing a face in a knot on a tree or even hearing hidden messages when music tracks are played backwards.

you're going to put that where? Sourced from Mark Tee
you’re going to put that where?
Sourced from Mark Tee

Uncovering images in locations where they don’t exist is always popping up in the media. Onformative is a German software company that will use their Google Faces program to scan the globe (several times over using different angles) to detect face-like shapes on Google Maps. US Department store JC Penney quickly sold out of a kettle that was thought to resemble Adolf Hitler after the resemblance was mentioned on reddit. A chicken nugget shaped like US President George Washington sold for 5,000 pounds on ebay in 2012. A chapati with the image of Christ had at least 20,000 Christian revellers travel to Renewal Retreat Centre in Bangalore, India to view it. With more cases occurring quite frequently, there must be some reasoning behind why see faces in quite literally nothing.

Dr. Nouchine Hadjikhani of Harvard University explains that humans are prewired to detect faces from birth, so paredolia would be due to our evolutionary heritage. Joel Voss, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University says that pareidolia is a consequence of the brain’s information processing systems. The brain is constantly sifting through random lines, shapes, surfaces and colours, so it makes sense of those images by assigning meaning to them. Meaning that comes by matching it to something stored in long-term memory. Sophie Scott of University College London says that paredolia can also be a product of people’s expectations that what we see is telling us more about what’s happening with our expectations and how we interpret the world based on those expectations rather than viewing the actual item without context. 

what do you see?
what do you see?

Though not always in the forms of clouds or deity’s in trees or on toast, this concept has been applied to Psychology and the study of a person’s mental state. A Rorschach Inkblot Test is a psychological test that involves a patient looking at an inkblot and having their perception of the image they see recorded and analysed using psychological interpretation. As the cards have been designed without any specific image in mind, this is an example of “directed pareidolia.” The test however has come under some criticism as though some may believe that you could extrapolate from an individual certain cognitive behaviours from ambiguous stimuli, it is uncertain how the response from the stimuli had occurred. Though however, some psychologists may use an “invisible correlation” to correlate the response with a diagnosis even though it may not be clear. The test also brings forth questions with reliability and validity. Though with controversy, the inkblot test is still widely taught in graduate psychology programs in the United States.

Have you ever had the situation, where after someone points out the obvious, you’re like, how could I have missed that? It was right in front of my face. A concept known as Change Blindness may have just occurred, where a change in the visual stimuli has gone unnoticed by the observer (in this case you). The reason of this may be due to a number of reasons, some of which include bstructions in the visual field, eye movements, a change of location, or a lack of attention. Watch the quick video below.

Did any of you see the bear the first time around? If you haven’t seen the video before, I would assume no. But how, he was right there the whole time. Change Blindness was first reported when film editing was introduced into movie production, and editors began to notice that the audience were not noticing the changes to the background of the film. More and more research has begun to be performed on Change Blindness, especially into eyewitness testimony. [A demonstration to test Change Blindness can be found here]

In a TEDx talk at USC in 2012, Scott Fraser, a forensic psychologist, explains the process of reconstructed memories. He says that the brain only encodes and stores bits and pieces of the events occurring in front of us, storing each piece of information in a different parts of the brain. So when we have to recall our memories from experience, the memory is incomplete. Then, without any form of motivated processing, the brain fills in information not originally stored, from inferences, speculation or even sources of information that you learn after observing the event.  [His TEDx talk can be found here]. An eyewitness testimony refers to the account provided by a bystander to a courtroom about their perceived events that had occurred during a specific incident under investigation. Though considered credible in the past, memory recall has come under attack as research shows that memories and individual perceptions are unreliable, being easily manipulated, altered, and biased. Because of this many countries are starting to alter how eyewitness testimony is presented in court.

Who Dunnit?
Who Dunnit?

With the inclusion of forensic DNA testing into court cases that exonerated 52 of the first 62 DNA cases that involved eyewitness testimony, has the shift been made from trusting eyewitness testimony whole-heartedly. This inclusion showed that eyewitnesses can fail to detect the culprit, or even convict an innocent man. Dr Neil Bewer from Flinders University has developed a new type of police-line up where eyewitnesses are asked how confident they are at identifying the perpetrator. His experiments showed that the group that was given the choice of confidence picked the correct suspects 67% of the time compared to 49% of the “yes or no” group.

Our mind is constantly playing tricks on us, fillings gaps in our knowledge or trying to make sense of what we see around us. We see faces or shapes in objects that don’t carry such profiles. We build memories in our mind based on information retrieved after the actual event, affecting what we believe we have seen. But when will the point come, where one day we are so adamant on seeing something that we may have never witnessed. In an excerpt from one of his notebooks, Leonardo Da Vinci writes about Paredolia. He says “If you look at any walls spotted with various stains or with a mixture of different kinds of stones, if you are about to invent some scene you will be able to see in it a resemblance to various different landscapes adorned with mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, wide valleys, and various groups of hills.”  

Have you ever witnessed Paredolia?
What has been the most interesting case of Paredolia you have seen in the Media?

– Written by Rakshet Sachdev
Find more of my in-cohesive ramblings on twitter @rakshet

J.K. Rowling and the Quest for Everlasting Life

“Nicolas Flamel,” she whispered dramatically, “is the only known maker of the Philosopher’s Stone” she pushed the book towards them, and Harry and Ron read: The ancient study of alchemy is concerned with making the philosopher’s stone, a legendary substance with astonishing powers. The stone will transform any metal into pure gold. It also produces the elixir of life, which will make the drinker immortal.
“A stone that makes gold and stops you ever dying!”  said Harry “No wonder Snape’s after it! Anyone would want it”
                                                                                                                      – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, pg. 237

Let me just think about that for a second. A stone that both produces the elixir of life and enough money to chase my every dream and follow my every whim. But really, how long would I expect that to last before I ultimately fulfill all my life-long ambitions and have nothing else to do.

When started to ponder immortality, it took me a while to decide what to write.  Usually when I get stuck I revert back to my inner geek, and what materialised there in front of me was a vision of J.K. Rowling and all the references to eternal life in her famed series. But it makes you wonder, if the only certainty in life is that death is inevitable, would I really want to

Nicholas Flamel (1330-1418) - That we know of... Sourced from
Nicholas Flamel (1330-1418) – That we know of…
Sourced from

prolong it? Because even Albus Dumbledore only decided to live till he was about 115. And if so, how many people could I bring along on this journey – or would it actually be a solo mission? It has been pondered that we may be living in a world, where individuals may reach the age of 200 years, or even 1000 years of age. Though we may not have found the stone that produces the exilir of life, due to scientific advancements in the way we live our lives, life expectancies have increased from around 40 years of age in the 16th century to an estimated average of 68.1 years in 2013.

This got me thinking, besides the Philosopher’s stone, what other incidents did J.K. divulge in her novel, and the next aging-related apparatus was the time-turner. Inscribed with the phrase “I mark the hours, every one, nor have I yet outrun the Sun. My use and value, unto you, are gauged by what you have to do.” Though not exactly extending an individual’s life

Sourced from
If I Could Turn Back Time…
Sourced from

span, the time-turner did allow Hermione to relive her days so she could get more done. But what if by going back and changing a moment in my day, ultimately affects how my life turns out. I strongly believe that each moment I have lived through has sculpted me into who I am today, and would I want to change any of it? It makes me wonder though, if we could go back in time, would we want to change the way we have lived on this planet? With individuals living to an older age and hence retirement ages increasing, would education systems change to teach the youth other means of finding jobs, instead of working to an already established career, create a new job in a field already existing. Or instead, put more effort into sustaining an environment where future generations may not suffer a resource restriction in the availability of biologically obtainable products.

A final instance of life-extension that I would like to briefly mention would be He Who Must Not Be Named ever pursuit to live forever, even going so far as to leaving his life essence in inanimate objects. A horcrux as described in Magick Moste Evile is the wickedest of magical inventions. In a conversation with then Tom Riddle, Horace Slughorn explains “Well, you split your soul, you see, and hide a part of it in an object outside the body. Then, even if one’s body is attacked or destroyed, one cannot die, for part of the soul remains earthbound and undamaged.” Therefore, even though an individual’s physical form may pass on, they have the possibility of still living on and impacting the way people live their lives. The idea of horcruxes does seem quite possible, with Moore’s law and the rapid advancement in computers; it may be possible in our lifetime to download our entire memory bank onto computer

Moore's Law Sourced from University Lecture Slides
Moore’s Law
Sourced from University Lecture Slides

chips, where we would theoretically then be immortal. Because, what truly is immortality except having our minds be constantly active, in one manifestation or another. If an individual may have the aging capability of a 10 year old child, no matter how old they actually are, whether it be 200 or 1000 years, the act of aging would theoretically become obsolete.

Though he who must not be named was ultimately unable to reach true immortality, he may have been onto something with his horcruxes. Ultimately, isn’t it most people’s wishes to leave something behind when they pass on. No, I don’t literally mean a piece of their soul, because from what I have read, splitting your soul can be quite difficult, but a piece of our individual left behind for future generations.

I haven’t yet made up my mind If I would like to possess the Philosopher’s stone (though an endless supply of gold would be quite handy), nor would I want to relive events in my day, if to ever change them so slightly. However, though I may not be here forever, I know that through words on a page, pictures on a wall or even through memories of loved ones, all of us do, in one way or another live forever.


– Written by Rakshet Sachdev
Find more of my in-cohesive ramblings on twitter @rakshet

Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better…

Taken from
Taken from

An image surfaced online about a week or so ago now, addressed to a Ms. Kelly from the Director of Public Information at NASA in 1962. In his letter, he commends Miss Kelly’s interest in the space program though however goes on to inform her that currently (nor not also in the foreseeable future) does NASA have programs concerning women astronauts.

This image intrigued me (especially since this image surfaced about a month after the Supreme Court’s verdict on DOMA) where I wondered what life would have been like back then, or during any period in history, where women (or any group of individuals) were denied access to fundemental rights or opportunities. As a society we are currently evolving, though it seems to me that our rights as individuals may be slowly trying to catch up.

A recent study published in PNAS in 2012 found that even in today’s generation, there is a subtle gender bias in science where male students are favoured over female students. In their study, the researchers hypothesised that the science faculty’s perceptions and treatment of students would reveal a gender bias that favoured male students over females. This would be seen in perceptions of competence and hireability, salary conferral and willingness to mentor. In their study, a sample of biology, chemistry and physics professors (127 in total) evaluated the application material of a male or female student applying for the position of laboratory manager. All students received the same material, though were randomly assigned a male or female them, therefore keeping gender the only variable between the two groups.

Figure 1 taken from PNAS Journal
Figure 1 taken from PNAS Journal

Interestingly, the results of their study revealed that both male and female professors judged female students to be less competent and less worthy of being hired than identical male students. The female student was also offered a smaller starting salary and less career mentoring. The paper also suggested that the female was less likely to be hired because she was deemed less competent, possibly due to pre-existing biases against women seen in current media.

The expressed gender biases seen from the faculty were suggested to be, not intentional or stemming from a conscious desire to impede the progress of women in science, but rather from behaviour shaped by unintended bias due to repeated exposure to pervasive cultural stereotypes. Stereotypes that portrayed women to be less competent, though still being more likeable when compared to men.

How then, do we try to combat this gender bias? A case study showed that of all the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) jobs in the United States, currently on 25% of them are women.  Also, women hold a lower share of STEM undergraduate degrees compared to men. Thirdly, a woman with a STEM degree is less likely to work in a STEM related job as compared to male counterparts, rather working in education or healthcare. No definite answer as to why this may be the case, whether due to a smaller proportion of women role models or maybe the work environment being less family-friendly.

One avenue I’d like to briefly look at is the smaller proportion of women role models in STEM fields, in specifics to the number of women Nobel Laureates. Since Nobel Prizes were first handed out in 1901, only 15 women have won the award in Physics, Chemistry and Phisology/Medicine (out of a total of 550 laureates). Though to properly confirm that statement, you would have to look at the proportion of nominations of men and women to see if the percentage of awards equates to the percent of nominations. Nobel has a system that places a fifty-year seal on information relating to Nobel nominations, but after that nominations become publicly accessible on the nominations page of the Nobel website. An analysis of the nominations database for the Nobel Prize in Medicine from 1901-1953 showed that of 5300 nominations, only 69 were of women (1.3%). Of the remaining 5186 male nominees, 62 winners show a percentage of 1.19% receiving the prize, which is comparable to the one prize for women of 1.45% (1 winner of 69 nominations). So, even though the proportion of women nobel laureates was small, it is consistent with the proportion among nominees. Therefore, it can be said that were was no evidence that female nominees in the category of Medicine/Physiology were less favoured by men in the first fifty years of the prize (no conclusion can be made about chemistry or physics or any of the years after 1953).

Though contradictory to their 1962 letter, NASA seem to be very pro-women in their work environment. On June 17th, when NASA announced their new team of eight trainee astronauts, 4 of those trainees were women, the highest proportion of astronaut candidates in NASA’s history. Slowly, more and more women are beginning to be hired in STEM related jobs, more so than ever because of the passing of TitleIX 41 years ago. TitleIX, which stated that no persons in the United States should, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. TitleIX has opened the door for women to have equal jobs and hopefully one day equal pay in careers where they are equal or even possibly more qualified than their male counterparts. 

As my girls Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle says

All the women who are independent
Throw your hands up at me
All the honeys who makin’ money
Throw your hands up at me
All the mommas who profit dollas
Throw your hands up at me
All the ladies who truly feel me
Throw your hands up at me

– Independent Woman, 2000, Destiny’s Child

– Written by Rakshet Sachdev
Find more of my in-cohesive ramblings on twitter @rakshet

Identity Theft 2.0

So awhile ago I wrote a blog for the RiAus about genetic discrimination aligned with genome sequencing and I thought I would post it up on my blog so people can read it too.

It was originally posted on [] the RiAus page on June 25th, 2013


Identity Theft 2.0 – The Next Generation In Next Gen Sequencing

Do you remember that scene in Minority Report with Tom Cruise, where after his eye transplant he walks into a Gap store? Upon entering, his eyes are scanned, and the virtual sales assistant says

“Hello Mr. Yakamoto, welcome back to the Gap. How’d those assorted tank tops work out for you?” – Minority Report, 2002

Though that may have seemed far-fetched when the movie came out in 2002, today, technology like that may be just around the corner. Though we may not be ready for personalised advertisements on subway lines or tailored shopping assistants when we enter a store, with advancements in sequencing technology, we are now able to understand more about our genetic make-up.

Data from the National Human Genome Research Institute show that sequencing a genome in January of this year cost $5,671, costing only 6 cents per megabase (megabase = 1 million DNA bases, or DNA code ‘letters’), in comparison to 9 cents per megabase (total genome $7,666) at the same time last year. If the cost continues to decrease at the same rate, sooner rather than later, the dream of a $1000 genome will be a reality.Identity Theft 2.0 – The Next Generation in Next Gen Sequencing

However, with sequencing becoming so cheap and readily accessible, what sort of consequences may arise from having your genome sequenced? Yes, it would be beneficial to know which of the drugs currently on the market would aid in the treatment of an ailment you may have, or the probability of contracting a disease. But once an individual’s genome has been sequenced, how confidential is that information?

What will happen once sequencing becomes more readily accessible? Will it be open to the entire population or will it be like “The Island” where only the rich and famous have access to the technology to protect them from harm? If it is more readily accessible, will it become universal and then who will pay for it?

It has been hypothesised that one day an individual will be able to carry their entire genetic information on a card, similar to a credit card. In fact, Howard Jacob already proudly boasts that he carries his full genome on an app on his tablet! With this information literally at our fingertips, how safe are we from identity theft or genetic persecution? Theoretically, pharmaceutical companies can use this information to skew research to the most financially beneficial drug products, focusing on creating drugs that would be used by the greatest number of individuals. But most importantly is the potential use of that information by groups such as insurers, employers, the military or adoption agencies.

In one scene from the movie Philadelphia, Tom Hanks recites a verdict from the Supreme Court that stated that the Federal Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against otherwise qualified handicapped persons who are able to perform the duties required by their employment. That got me wondering whether such legislation existed for discrimination against individuals who have undergone genetic testing. The Genetic Information Non-discrimination Act of 2008, or GINA, is a federal law that protects Americans from being treated unfairly because of differences in their DNA that may affect their health. This new law prevents discrimination from health insurers and employers, however, there are certain circumstances not covered by the law. GINA does not apply to employers fewer than 15 employees. Also it does not extend to the US military or any related health insurance, such as the TRICARE military health system, the Veterans Health Administration or the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program. Lastly, the law does not cover long-term care insurance, disability insurance or life insurance.

As a society, certain qualities should always be protected, particularly those individual and immutable qualities that are impossible or very difficult to change. Of all the qualities we share as a population, whether it be race, national origin, skin colour or even gender, what is more immutable than our genes? Outside of medical procedures, we are stuck with the genes that we have been born with. They’re not something that we have chosen for ourselves, but rather DNA that we have inherited from our parents.

Unlike the US, in Australia we do not have any specific legislation to protect us from the legal and ethical dangers of genetic testing. Instead we incorporate this protection into our existing legislation. For example, additions and modifications have been made the Disability Discrimination Act 1992 to include disabilities that “may exist in the future (including because of a genetic predisposition to that disability)”.

But as the science progresses so quickly, I’m still haunted by the possibility of a ‘Gattaca’ style world where our genetic code does decide who we can marry, what job we can hold or even where we can live. Would you want to live there?

By Rakshet Sachdev

Feature image “DNA representation” sourced from Flickr and authored by Andy Leppard


Tell me what you think.

– Written by Rakshet Sachdev
Find more of my in-cohesive ramblings on twitter @rakshet

Copyright Infringement

What’s yours is mine, and what’s mine is yours. Apparently that wasn’t true till only recently.

Sharing is Caring? Sourced from SingularityHub
Sharing is Caring?
Sourced from SingularityHub

On June 13, 2013 the Supreme Court of the United States decided on the case of the Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics. The case was challenging three different sets of claims in regards to issued patents that were owned or controlled by Myriad Genetics. Those patents covered isolated DNA sequences, methods to diagnose propensity to cancer by looking for mutated DNA sequences and thirdly methods to identify drugs using those isolated DNA sequences. 

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Myriad’s claims to isolated genes was invalid, that merely isolating a gene found in nature does not make it patentable. Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court stating that “A naturally occurring DNA segment is a product of nature and not patent eligible merely because it has been isolated, but cDNA is patent eligible because it is not naturally occurring.”

Complementary DNA Sourced from Wikipedia
Complementary DNA
Sourced from Forbes

Of the total estimated 30,000 genes in an individuals genome, it is estimated that 20% of those genes have been patented by private companies, government organisations or even individuals. Two of those genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2 were patented and owned by Myriad Genetics before the Supreme Court verdict. BRCA1 and BRCA2 are genes whose mutations are associated with an elevated risk for breast cancer. The patents argued by Myriad covered any gene that contained strands as small as 15 nucleotides long, therefore having the possibility of granting the company an effective monopoly over BRCA genes even if it contained significant mutations of interest to researchers.

Patentable? Sourced from SingularityHub
Sourced from SingularityHub

Started in 1980 with Diamond v. Chakrabarty where a GE engineer developed a bacterium capable of breaking down crude oil, filed a patent for it and was awarded said patent as the bacterium was man-made and therefore constituted as an invention. Human gene patenting worked on similar logic, that if the applicant had isolated and purified the genetic material, it constituted as an invention (well in part at least). Even if the isolated strand was identical to DNA sequences found in nature, the proponents for the patents argued that protection was essential for strong investment in genetic research and thus progress in the field.

Previously due to patents, other biotechnology companies were unable to develop competing breast cancer tests that may have potentially been more effective determine if a women is a carrier of the mutations that predispose her to breast or ovarian cancer. Also, by monopolising the market on BRCA1 and 2 testing, Myriad were able to charge upwards of $4000 for testing. Since the Supreme Court verdict, a number of different Biotechnology companies have announced new BRCA tests that cost a fraction of that by Myriad, so now women would have the opportunity of garnering second opinions before performing protective surgery. 

Though the ruling of the Supreme Court may have been right, the Science they used was not quite there. In their first paragraph, the ruling states:

The nucleotides that code for amino acids are ‘exons,’ and those that do not are ‘introns.’

The encoding process for DNA into a protein involves RNA. DNA is first copied into RNA, which then have large chunks or ‘introns’ discarded. The remaining sequence is what is known as ‘exons.’ Nucleotides that encode for amino acids are contained within the exons, and it is not uncommon for a large proportion of those nucleotides in the exon to be ignored when coding amino acids.

A 2nd (and 3rd) error found in the Courts writing refers to the synthesis of cDNA. The Court writes:

They [scientists] can also synthetically create exons-only strands of nucleotides known as composite DNA (cDNA).

cDNA contains only the exons that occur in DNA, omitting the intervening introns

Neither of those statements are scientifically correct. Firstly, cDNA stands for complementary DNA, DNA which is produced that complements the original strand. That means that each nucleotide is replaced with its complement. Therefore, cDNA has nothing to do with exons as the DNA strand would contain both introns and exons. To create cDNA of only exons, a complement of mature messenger RNA would be used.

Besides the words chosen to describe the science, questions arise directly relating to the science itself. Since cDNA only contains exons, by adding non-coding introns onto a strand of DNA, would that circumvent patents on cDNA strands? Would ruling need to then be re-issued to look at such deviations that may arise in the future?

Though the United States may have ruled against Myriad Genetics, both the European Union and Australia thought otherwise. Countries under the European Patent Organisation (under the directive  98/44/EC [the Biotech Directive]) allows for the patenting of natural biological products, including gene sequences, as long as they are “isolated from [their] natural environment or produced by means of a technical process.” 

In February 2013, Judge John Nicholas ruled in the Federal Court of Australia in favour of a Myriad Genetics patent over the BRCA1 gene. However, the ruling is being appealed to the Full Bench of the Federal Court.

Who Owns You?
Who Owns You?

In my personal opinion though, no company should have the right to patent your genes, because theoretically then each individual is committing genetic piracy and technically enslaved to corporations. If you do not own 20% of the genes in your body, that means a part of you is owned by another entity, which is in form, slavery. Theoretically as well, every cell that replicates or even if you have a child, you are performing a form of piracy as you are copying a an “item” that is owned by another individual.

I now throw it to you guys:
– Do you think the Supreme Court ruling will have an affect on the progression of genetic research?
– Do you think that leaving cDNA patentable still leaves companies able to circumvent the system?

– Written by Rakshet Sachdev

Find more of my in-cohesive ramblings on twitter @rakshet

Behind the RevolvIing Doors

Walk through the revolving doors, and enter upon a labyrinth, never ending with only one way out. This labyrinth, goes by many names and seems to have rooted itself throughout history. King Minos’s labyrinth, the Queen of Heart’s hedge maze or even the final challenge in a Tri-Wizard Cup. Though it may go by many different names, there is only one official one, Ikea.

Past the Revolving Doors...
Past the Revolving Doors…

Ok no really, I may have exaggerated that just a bit. But frankly, when have you ever been to Ikea and either got lost, took a wrong turn (even with arrows on the ground) or send I’ll just pop in and out and end up being there for hours. My favourite has to be though, “Oh, I only need 1 item” but you end up walking out with at least 5. But if you don’t think that Ikea is so large that you could say, hypothetically shoot a tv show in it without anyone knowing, oh wait, thats already been done. Ikea Heights as its called, is a comedic melodrama shot at the Ikea store in Burbank, California. And if you are ever so inclined, all seven episodes of this web series can be found here.

With 338 stores worldwide, 776 million store visits and a turnover of 27.5 billion euro, they must be doing something right. The World’s largest furniture retailer, Ikea was founded in 1943 by then, 17-year-old Ingvar Kamprad and sells ready-to-assemble furniture along with appliances and home accessories. But to become the world’s largest furniture retailer, Ikea must be doing something right? Last thursday, on a whim, my friend and I decided to go have dinner at Ikea. Though we did manage to get in and out of there in under 1.5 hrs (a feat by anyone’s standards) it got me thinking as to whether there was any ‘science’ behind the way Ikea operates.

The strategy that Ikea implores is that similar to an out-of-town retail park, where the objective is to keep customers inside for as long as they can, according to Alan Penn, director of the Virtual Reality Centre for the Built Environment at University College London. He says that ‘In Ikea’s case, you have to follow a set path past what is effectively their catalogue in physical form, with furniture placed in different settings which is meant to show you how adaptable it is… ….by the time you get to the warehouse where you can actually buy the stool or whatever’s caught your eye, you’re so impressed by how cheap it is that you end up getting it.’

Up, Down, Left, Right? From Jonathon Grapsas' Blog
Up, Down, Left, Right?
From Jonathon Grapsas’ Blog

By confusing individuals with their floorplan, someone would rather throw an item into their trolley, hence the impulse by, as you wouldn’t be able to go back to it later.

But what makes Ikea so effective? The first place one would start would be their price points. When creating the different furnishings, Ikea comes up with the price tag first. The designer of the item is told the cost and it must be the designer’s job to meet that goal, from everything to sourcing of raw materials to delivery of the final product. Speaking of delivery, the furniture comes to Ikea flat-packed which makes it much cheaper to transport. By expecting some of work to be done by the customer, Ikea can keep their prices low.

Large as each store may be, Ikea still seems to try to do its part to be more environmentally friendly and sustainable. Besides the simple concept of paying for a paper or recycled bag, recycling bins are found in the store where customers can drop off used batteries, light bulbs and even the plastic packaging the store uses. Even on a larger scale, the company tries to be more sustainable. For example, their store in Stoughton, Massachusetts, is certified green with the 37,000 square foot roof of the store covered in plants which helps regulate the store’s temperature while absorbing rainwater. Another long-term goal of Ikea is to have all their stores using renewable energy through solar and wind power wherever possible, a feat that by 2006, already covered 25% of their stores.

Courtesy of Gerard Stolk
Courtesy of Gerard Stolk

Besides being sustainable, Ikea does its part to help the community. In September 2005, Ikea Social Initiative was formed where the company’s social involvement would be managed on a global scale. Through the social initiative, Ikea has become UNICEFs largest corporate partner, with commitments exceeding 180 million dollars. This is by Ikea contributing €1 from every soft toy sold during holiday seasons, providing soft toys to children affected by disaster and donating a Sunnan solar-powered lamp for every one purchased in store. Along with that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to produce flat-pack refugee shelters. These shelters, that can be set up within just four hours, are being set up in in Ethiopia and on the borders of Syria, with 26 already in Ethiopia, 12 at the Iraqi border for Syrian refugees and 12 in Lebanon, also for Syrians. Each house, which can house five people, have a cost of approximately $8000 a piece. However, one of the main advantages of the shelters is their durability to climates found in those locations, and have also been guaranteed to last three years and may likely remain standing for longer.

Though it may not be an exact science, Ikea seems to have figured out a way to stay ahead. Multiple forms of guerilla marketing, whether it be an x-rated website that redirects you to Ikea beds, or even a comedic melodrama along with decreasing their carbon footprint and doing their part to help humanity, Ikea’s marketing methods seems to be keeping them on track.


– Written by Rakshet Sachdev
Find more of my in-cohesive ramblings on twitter @rakshet

Comic Relief: Science Edition

If you know anything about me, you’d soon come to realise that I love everything British. And to me, what is more British than the iconic panel show? So that is why, last week, when watching the latest episode of Mock the Week one segment jumped straight out at me.

So during this part of the show, a comedian gets given a random topic, chosen by the spinning of an electronic wheel, and has to talk about that topic, saying whatever comes to their mind. So when the wheel was spun and landed on science, I never thought that Chris Addison would talk about the inability of science communication.

(If issues arise watch from 11:03-12:10)

Now lets just think about that clip for a minute, what if science was so easy that it just told us exactly what we were looking for without the complicated jargon? Honestly, who wouldn’t love to pick up a box of paracetamols and see that it says number #1 cure when you feel like a smashed pain au chocolat?

My friend introduced me to a phrase recently, eschew obfuscation. Basically, its a phrase that means to avoid being unclear and support being clear. Now if all scientists were to follow that rule, wouldn’t that make communicating much easier? Why then, do we still use that complicated jargon in communicating?

With a huge number of journals out there, (more than 8000 alone categorised in the ISI Web of Knowledge) trying to find a communication method for all scientists to use seems to be becoming more and more difficult. Though English is documented as being the International Language of Science, or the lingua franca, is that enough though? But with the possibility of so many different words or phrases being used to describe the same concept, maybe tautology needs to be avoided. Is just having English as the current language enough, or does a specific Science-English subset need to be formed which would be universally used when breaking down a scientific comment to keep concurrency across media.

A piece from BBC Radio 4 in 2011 describes it best: Scientists are caught between a rock and a hard place. If we try to oversimplify a concept, does that show that we are trying to convince a reader of what we mean, but then if we don’t do they still trust what we are saying? Also then, if we try to use simple words to describe a new concept, can those words be taken out of context. Such as an example seen when Faraday tried to explain what electricity was. By using words such as current or flow, audiences may perceive it as being similar to water, and thus wondering if electricity was constantly dripping out of their sockets. By then using specialist terminology, it may sometimes result in decreased readability and the distracting of readers from the main focus of the paper. A writing guide from Duke University explains that writing should implore the use of conscious consideration on the specialised vocabulary that may be used, whether it be misleading (for example heavy metals), jargon named after individuals, excessively long jargon or even hard to pronounce jargon.

This brings me back to my heading of Comic Relief. If by somehow combining the dissemination of science information in a more light-hearted manner such as through comedy, maybe basic concepts may begin to stick. Yes the use of comedic journalism may be controversial. The main finding of the piece may be blown out of proportion, eschewed to something more comical or totally passed over. With people like Jon Stewart of Stephen Colbert being so popular with their comedic news programs, could there be the off-possibility that maybe it may actually be beneficial and individuals watching such programs may actually begin to learn something. After all, Jon Stewart was ranked 4th most admired journalist in the United States.

Maybe what we really need to do is just bring in non-science individuals who have a basic understanding of the concept and break it down for the wider public. Or we could all just keep watching panel shows like QI and Dara Ó Briain’s Science Club and see what we can learn from there, because lets face it, who doesn’t love panel shows?

– Written by Rakshet Sachdev
Find more of my in-cohesive ramblings on twitter @rakshet