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January 2009 Archives

By Hamish Johnston

…is it hype or reporting a neat idea?

Sorry for the navel gazing but I thought I would point out an interesting discussion of one of our news stories over on Chad Orzel’s Uncertain Principles blog.

The article in question is about a proposal for using ultracold atoms to make precise measurements of neutrino mass.

The question that Chad asks is whether it is appropriate for us to report as “news” what is really just an interesting idea that may or may not ever come to fruition? By doing so, are we guilty of hyping the importance of the proposal?

We decided to go with the story for two reasons — the first is that this experiment is a very clever way of using developments in one field of physics (ultracold atoms) to solve a fundamental problem in a seemingly unrelated field (particle physics).

The second reason — perhaps a bit more woolly — is that this proposal comes from a respected experimental physicist, which suggests to me that there is at least a chance that it could be realized.

Chad alludes to the idea that a blogger with expertise in the field of ultracold atoms would probably take a more cautious approach to reporting this proposal because they would have a better understanding of the technical challenges involved.

However, I’m guessing that if you asked a circa 1970 semiconductor physicist whether it would be possible to mass-produce CMOS devices with 32 nm features, you would be given a list of seemingly insurmountable technical challenges.

I suppose what I’m saying is that there’s nothing wrong with reporting on what a reputable group of physicists thinks may be possible, without getting too caught up in the nitty gritty of why it might never come to pass.

Indeed, coming up with such ideas (and having them shot down) is an important part of the scientific process, so I don’t think that we should shy away from reporting on informed speculation.

So should we have taken a more cautious approach? I don’t think so — we did after all make it clear that this was a proposal and that it would be difficult to implement.

However, I do agree with Chad that we perhaps should have toned down the headline a bit. I like one of the suggestions put forward in the comments on Chad’s blog: put a question mark at the end of the headline.

By Hamish Johnston

…and if so, is that a bad thing?

There was lots of talk this morning on various BBC outlets about whether the “elitist image” of science is putting off the public. The debate was inspired by a campaign launched today by the UK government that aims to get the public more interested in science.

The campaign seems to have chosen a rather odd group of people to argue that science is not elitist. According to the BBC they include mathematician Marcus du Sautoy (Oxford), chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (Eton, Oxford) and TV naturalist David Attenborough (Cambridge).

Granted, the programme has also enlisted the self-taught chef Heston Blumenthal and author Bill Bryson - both of whom have achieved great success (partly thanks to science) without a university degree.

But is science elitist? I suppose it is in the sense that one must study hard to become a scientist — and someone from an elite background is more likely to have the resources and parental backing to succeed academically.

Also, the practice of science is elitist in the sense that we all know who the top scientists in our fields are — and these individuals are often treated with great reverence.

But let’s not forget that whatever their background, members of the scientific elite worked hard for their success — indeed, science is one of few professions where it is very difficult to be a fraud.

That’s why I was a bit annoyed by Kathy Sykes of the University of Bristol, who declared on BBC TV this morning “You don’t have to be a genius to be a scientist”. I suppose she is technically correct, but I think her statement is rather flippant given the high degree of intellectual rigour displayed by scientists.

Do the public think science is elitist? The UK’s science minister Paul Drayson has said so. But according to a poll commissioned by one of his departments, only 3% of Britons believe scientists have “the most influence on our daily lives”. So if science is an elite, it is an impotent one.

Finally, one needs to ask if people eschew science because they perceive it as elitist? I think we only need to look at lawyers — perhaps the most elitist of professions — who as fictional characters permeate popular literature, film and television. And law schools seem to have no trouble attracting students from a wide variety of backgrounds.

So maybe elitism is not such a bad thing?

Happy Chinese New Year

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Lanterns in Kota Kinabalu, East Malaysia

by James Dacey

Last Monday was dubbed Blue Monday after “official” calculations deemed it to be the most depressing day of the year. Thankfully, this Monday, things are a lot more celebratory; the colour red takes centre stage as more than a billion people across the globe celebrate Chinese New Year.

Physics World would like to extend you all a warm welcome to the year of the Ox!

It struck me today that this year’s celebrations have fallen especially close to the Gregorian New Year. In my ignorance I’ve only just realised that the date changes each year - but how and why?

Well, if you were as in the dark as I was, check out this short video by Xinhua, a Chinese Government news agency. It gives a nice overview of key dates in the Chinese New Year Calendar.

And this year’s festivities seem to be in full flow already. According to Xinhua, Beijing last night was covered in 68 tonnes of firework debris.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday sent a message in Chinese, which read: “Happy New Year to the Chinese people and all the ethnic Chinese all over the world.”

One more slightly interesting fact for you: 2009 is the year of the Ox — the “brave leader” — and famous “oxen” include Barack Obama…

… but I’ll leave it there because this is rapidly slipping away from physics!

Astrophysicist Brian May shows how it’s done

By Hamish Johnston

…or dance or act, if they want to succeed.

If you are a British teenager aspiring to a career in physics, you could be better off at a “School of Rock” or “Fame Academy” than a school that specializes in science — at least according to a study by researchers at the University of Buckingham.

The work, which was reported today by the BBC, reveals that students who attend schools that focus on the arts do better on physics exams than those at schools that were set up to encourage the sciences.

In 2007, for example, about 24% of students at specialist science schools who wrote the “A-level” physics exam achieved an A grade. Compare this to the 36% of pupils who achieved a physics A grade at music schools.

This is a big difference — but you must keep in mind that 124 science schools were polled, whereas only seven music schools were looked at — so I’m not sure of the statistical significance of the 36% figure.

When the team looked at 34 schools that specialized in languages, they found that 26% of students bagged an A in physics. Meanwhile, aspiring physicists enrolled at specialist maths and computing schools managed 24%.

The study focussed on physics and didn’t look at other science exams such as chemistry or biology.

Why do students at music schools do better?

The Sun and Mars

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The Sun’s so-called scoop

By Matin Durrani

Scientists have a habit of complaining that there’s not enough science in the mainstream press. So I suppose they should be glad that Britain’s best-selling newspaper, The Sun, had a story on their front page last Thursday (15 January) emblazoned with the headline “Life on Mars”.

The story was refering to a paper in Science by a team of NASA scientists that reported the finding of methane in the Martian atmosphere. And as the Sun (the real one that is) destroys methane, could it be that living organsims are constantly regenerating the gas?

Turns out that the story is not the scoop it seems: scientists already had evidence for methane on Mars, so this latest research only confirms those findings.

Moreover, according to Paul Sutherland - the journalist who wrote the story - Science was not happy that The Sun had broken the embargo on the story, which was set at 7 p.m. UK time on Thursday 15 January. Indeed, he says that Science staff rang The Sun at 3 a.m. local time, demanding the story be removed from the paper’s website.

But Sutherland denies that he ever broke an embargo. As he explains on his blog, he simply put two and two together based on NASA’s original press release, along with a couple of Google searches and a chat with an astronomer friend.

Now when a newspaper or website reports on a story before an embargo deadline, what normally happens is that the organisation that imposed the deadline lifts the embargo so that other media outlets can report the story too. But Science maintained the embargo because, it said, this “unfortunate tabloid teaser” contained nothing from the research paper and was “a purely speculative narrative”.

Which says it all about The Sun’s coverage of science I guess. Still, fair play to them: they got planetary science on the front page and it seems churlish to complain.

But the final twist in the tale is that Nature, which each week sets embargoes of its own, reported the story back in October last year

What goes around comes around.

A Higgs Boson, as envisaged by The Particle Zoo

By Margaret Harris

Congratulations to Alexandra Gade of the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University for winning Physics World’s 2008 Quiz of the year, which took a lighthearted look at physics events ranging from an Indian moon mission to the discovery that some granite countertops “might heat your cheerios a little” due to their low-level radioactivity.

In addition to the everlasting glory of victory, Dr Gade will also receive a cheque for £50, which works out at around $75 at today’s exchange rate. It’s a pity about the declining pound, but sadly there’s nothing we can do about it.

If your entry didn’t win this year, better luck in 2009 - and here are the answers in case you’d like to check your memory skills.

Herschel space telescope (Courtesy: ESA)

By João Medeiros

According to Jonathan Gardner, from NASA, we are going through an unparalleled renaissance of astronomy, maybe only comparable with Galileo´s pioneering efforts. In fact, most astronomy talks today seem to start with the words “We now know…”

Speaking at the IYA opening in Paris he noted that over the past decades, we’ve discovered inflation, the universe´s flat geometry and that 95% of the mass of the universe is actually not on the periodic table.

Part of the reason for this renaissance has been the dream team of space telescopes, Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer. As this generation of the telescopes is reaching the end of its days, a new one is getting ready to launch. The space telescope Herschel will be launched in April, Hubble telescope is going to be granted a new lease of life with another serving mission May this year, and 2013 will see the launch of the James Webb telescope.

There´s also Planck, Herschel´s sister mission (like the fact that it´s a she, to balance that aforementioned gender inequality in science), planned to launch this year.
Hubble´s revamping is going to be take place in May. They are going to replace Hubble´s batteries, implant new gyroscopes, repair some of the instruments and put two new pieces of tech on the satellite: the cosmic origins spectrograph (which is going to measure the cosmic web of gas between the galaxies) and the WFC3 (wide field camera, that will look for high redshift supernovae).

The new generation of space telescopes is going to prioritize the study of star formation, exoplanets (undoubtedly THE topic of astro at the moment) and the end of the dark ages, when the first galaxies formed and ionized the interstellar medium. All in the spirit of Carl Sagan´s philosophy “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”

By João Medeiros

Bob Wilson, discoverer of the cosmic microwave background (with Arnos Penzias), Nobel laureate, is one of the big celebs here at the IYA opening. Students chase him like paparazzi. Good to know there is such a thing as science fanclubs.

I managed to scare away the students and get ten minutes with Wilson. I had to thank him for having given me a PhD topic, after all. We spoke about scientific method and the importance of science journalism.

A curious thing about the discovery of the CMB is that Wilson only truly realized the importance of his discovery when he read about it on the NY times. Being a typical postgraduate at the time (he was 29), back in 1965, he woke up at lunchtime the day after his discovery was published, and it was his father, visiting from Texas, that brought the newspaper with the news. “I didn´t really have a clue of the importance of what we had done until then, thanks to that journalist,” he said.

Wilson didn´t actually take cosmology seriously, given all the speculation back then (nothing much changed then). In fact, he was actually more philosophically inclined to believe in the steady state theory rather than a dynamic universe, partly because Hoyle had been his cosmology lecturer.

According to Wilson, his discovery made cosmology the big industry that it is today, something that we would never had imagined would happen in the slightest.

Given the serendipity of Wilson´s discovery, he says that it hadn´t been for him and Penzias, then certainly someone else would have discovered the CMB sooner or later (in fact, at the time of Wilson and Penzia´s discovery, David Wilkinson was building an antenna to specifically detect the cosmic radiation). Wilson believes in Robert Merton´s theory of multiples, that discoveries are the product of individuals, but of the times.

The NY Times episode shows that Wilson thinks science journalism plays a fundamental role to science. He still reads the New York Times and various science magazines, to keep up to date on what is going on in science. He says he much prefers it to scientific papers, which take a lot a time and effort.

Catherine Cesarsky (Courtesy: ESO)

By João Medeiros

It´s the year of deflation, the year of Obama, and the International Year of Astronomy. It started here in Paris, the City of Lights, by the Eiffel Tower, at the UNESCO HQ. The Opening Ceremony attracted more than 100 countries represented by astronomers, industrialists, diplomats, artists, a Kepler impersonator and the odd journo. We are celebrating 400 years since Galileo, the father of modern science, turned the telescope up and saw something amazing.

Catherine Cesarsky, president of the International Astronomical Union, said the vision for the International Year of Astronomy is going to be geared outwards, towards the public.
“After years of preparation, the time has come to launch this year, during which the citizens of the world will rediscover their place in the Universe, and hear of the wondrous discoveries in the making. “

Indeed, the lofty goal of the IYA 2009 is not to launch a super science program but to return astronomy to the public through a series of initiatives that will include the Dark Skies Awareness)and a reclassification of archaeoastronomy sites as UNESCO´s world heritage sites.

Speaking to Physics World, Catherine Cesarsky, expressed how much she wishes that astronomy reaches the public again, as an entry point to science and to a scientific world view, so necessary today. She said that, from her own experience, the younger generations, 10 to 14 years olds, are usually enthralled by astronomy popular lectures. However, from then on, adolescence kicks in and it becomes harder to excite the audiences — it´s difficult for a teenager to appreciate the mysteries of the universe when its hormones are playing no rules football. But it doesn´t matter much, Cesarsky believes, since the most important part of science communication is to plant the seed for the excitement for the wonders of science when they are really young.

Cesarsky also worries about the gender asymmetry in the physical sciences and about the “leaky pipeline effect”: you get a fair proportion of women at undergraduate level that somehow are all but gone in academia. The discrimination, fortunately, is not as palpable as it was back in the days when Cesarsky did her studies in Buenos Aires. Obviously a bright student, she was once complimented by her head of department in the following nuanced manner “It´s funny, I always thought physics wasn´t for women”.

The conference opened with a series of talks on Mayan and Islamic astronomy. I´ve always been fascinated by the role played by ancient astronomy in society, bridging primordial religious experience to a fundamental relevance to agriculture and economy. According to Martin Rees, also present in the ceremony, “astronomy is, if not the first, the second oldest science, after medicine”.

Throughout history, astronomy inexorably lost relevance to society. However, it still relates with the big and the meta-questions. To Cesarsky, that´s where the relevance of astronomy lies. “We have one sky, and that´s what should truly unite people. Astronomy, like other sciences, but astronomy in particular, is a peaceful, soul-searching activity that encourages a truly global culture”.

Of course, 2009, is also the year of Darwin. In the words of Martin Rees, “Both astronomy and Darwinism provide a beautiful narrative for humanity, that starts right from the beginning until the intelligent species that we are today”

By Margaret Harris

I came to physics very late by UK standards: I had already started my freshman year of college. For scheduling reasons, I therefore had to take introductory mechanics with engineers rather than physics majors. Supposedly, this meant I had roughly 300 classmates, but in practice, attendance at any given lecture hovered around 50 students - half of whom sat slumped in the back of the room, muttering “God, I hate physics”.

It seems that my experience was far from unique, and according to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, the physics department at MIT has decided to do something about it. Their new mechanics and E&M courses for undergrads employ something called Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) that does away with the traditional professor-in-front-of-blackboard lecture format in favour of students working on physics concepts in small groups at round tables. Various high-tech gizmos let the students answer questions posed by the professor, who wanders around the room with a few teaching assistants giving presentations and answering questions.

The result? Attendance at these non-lectures has shot up from less than 50% under the old format to over 80%, and the failure rate has dropped from 12% to 4%. The NY Times article quotes a number of experts who think the new system is just great - including atomic physicist Carl Wieman, who’s become deeply involved in changing physics education since winning the Nobel Prize in 2001.

There’s just one fly in this ointment: the students seem to hate it.

A new type of superfluidity?

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By James Dacey

Have you come across new research, utterly failed to realise its significance, then the penny drops shortly afterwards? Well it happened to me this week. On Monday, I stumbled across a new research paper in Nature about the behaviour of quasi-particles in a semiconductor and quickly dismissed it as niche physics. However - a little sniffing around the edges and a few phone-calls-to-experts later - I’m beginning to realise the significance this paper may hold for our understanding of Bose-Einstein condensates and superfluidity.

The research in a nutshell: a group of physicists led by Alberto Amo of Madrid’s Autonomous University have observed polaritons — quasiparticles merging photons with excitons — travelling without resistance in a semiconductor microcavity; thus behaving like a superfluid; thus potentially being the first Bose-Einstein condensate in a system out-of-equilibrium.

But I think the research still needs some historical context…

Bose-Einstein condensation was first predicted back in 1925 when Einstein — building on the work of Satyendra Nath Bose — predicted that when weakly interacting atoms are cold enough they drop into their ground state and the individual waveforms merge to create a single quantum state.

By Hamish Johnston

Thanks to blogger Chad Orzel for pointing out this story from the old country.

According to an article in the Ottawa Sun, the University of Ottawa has suspended physics professor Denis Rancourt and banned him from campus — apparently because of his attempts at changing how a physics course is taught.

Writing in 2007, Rancourt explained: “In response to twenty years of observing classes that both delivered soulless material and served mainly to prepare students to be obedient and indoctrinated employees, I felt I had to do something more than give a ‘better’ physics course.”

Things seem to have come to a head last May, when The Sun says Rancourt tried to give everyone in his Physics and the Environment class an A+. As far as I can tell, this was an act of what Rancourt calls “academic squatting…where one openly takes an existing course and does with it something different”.

You can read more about academic squatting and Rancourt’s other views on his blog.

Rancourt encourages academics to use the freedom of tenure to take hold of the courses they teach and change them.

“Tenure - use it or lose it,” he writes in a 2007 blog entry on academic squatting

It looks like this has become more than just rhetoric for Rancourt and the university brass.

One of Harriot’s maps (Courtesy: Lord Egremont)

By Hamish Johnston

Yes, at least according to the BBC, which is running a news story about Thomas Harriot, who apparently used a telescope to draw maps of the moon about four months before Galileo famously turned his own telescope skywards — making Harriot the father of modern astronomy, not Galileo.

The proof will soon be on display at the West Sussex Record Office in Chichester, where the documents are stored.

Oxford University science historian Allan Chapman told the BBC “Thomas Harriot was not only the first person ever to draw an astronomical body with a telescope on 26 July 1609, he rapidly developed to become an absolutely superb lunar cartographer”.

Astronomer Sir Patrick Moore told the BBC, “Harriot was first… and his map of the moon is better than Galileo’s.”

Harriot was a wealthy businessman who apparently did not feel the need to publicize his findings.

The good news for organizers of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 — which is celebrating the 400th anniversary of the first time a telescope was used in astronomy — is that Harriot also got started in 1609, so they still have the right year!

LHC to hit the stage

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By James Dacey

First there was the LHC rap; then the media bonanza for the big September switch-on; also playing their part were the harbingers of doom - foretelling apocalypse from Geneva’s ‘black hole machine’.

Now CERN’s (in)famous experiment is about to get even more dramatic as it provides the fictional setting for a new theatre production.

The Gentlemen’s Tea Drinking Society is produced by Ransom Theatre Company who bill it as “a fast and funny exploration of science, friendship, sexuality and the end of everything as four men face the truth on one fateful night”.

The play was written by Richard Dormer who made a name in 2003 with his internationally-acclaimed portrayal of the talented-yet-troubled snooker legend Alex “Hurricane” Higgins. It also contains an original score by Belfast born DJ David Holmes who produced the music for Ocean’s Twelve and Out of Sight.

Dormer and Co haven’t revealed much about the plot other than it centres around four men in a room, one of whom is a physicist harbouring a very big secret - he’s found the Higgs boson.

This is not the first time physics has taken to the stage. Famous examples include Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia (1993) — a look at the life of Byron which incorporated ideas from thermodynamics and chaos theory; and Michael Fryan’s Copenhagen (1998) — a play built around a 1941 conversation between Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg about the nature of the quantum world.

More recently American composer John Adams created an opera based on The Bomb and its creation at the Manhattan project. Dr Atomic premiered in 2005 and finally comes to London this February.

The Gentlemen’s Tea-Drinking Society launches on 4 February at Belfasts’s Old Museum before going on tour across Ireland until 10th March. Later in the year it will appear in Glasgow and London.

Was Einstein an atheist?

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By James Dacey

I’m still finding my feet here at Physics World so it seemed wise to try and sneak a fairly inconspicuous first post on the blog. So here’s a little story involving two rarely-discussed, uncontroversial topics: British public transport and the religious views of some bloke named Einstein.

If you’ve been in a major city in England, Scotland or Wales this week, you may have noticed a slogan with a difference on the side a bus. “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” has been printed onto 800 buses in the UK’s first ever atheist advertisement campaign.

Campaign organisers - whose financial backers include Richard Dawkins - say the campaign is, “a response to a series of evangelical Christian adverts running on buses in June 2008, which featured the URL of a website saying all non-Christians were going to hell.”

Touché. It’s a free country. What’s this got to do with physicists anyway?

Well, the campaign enters its second phase on Monday which - according to the press release - will involve quotes from “famous atheists” hitting the London underground. Included is Einstein’s quote:

“I do not believe in a personal God and have never denied this but have expressed it clearly”

By Hamish Johnston

A few days ago I mentioned an ad campaign to make the public aware of how events in the far-off cosmos affect us here on Earth. One ad points out that the some of the snowy noise on the screen of a poorly-tuned television is actually “microwave afterglow from the origin of the universe”.

It seems, however, that the universe contains more static than expected — six times more “radio noise” according to a team of astrophysicists in the US.

NASA’s Alan Kogut and colleagues launched the balloon borne ARCADE radio telescope with the hope of detecting emissions from the first stars formed after the Big Bang. Instead they found a booming signal that they couldn’t pin down to early stars or other known radio sources — a genuine mystery.

The team announced their findings at the 213th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society, going on this week in California.

The study of other types of cosmic noise has led to major breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe…so watch this space.


By Hamish Johnston

It’s the International Year of Astronomy and here at we are travelling the world (from the comfort of our desks mostly) in search of weird and wonderful astronomy events.

First stop is my hometown (sort of), where buses, subway trains and trams are adorned with advertisements illustrating the mysteries of the cosmos. As well as neutrinos, the Toronto transit ads explain how you can watch evidence of the Big Bang on an old TV and why we are all star dust.

The ads are placed by the CoolCosmos programme at the University of Toronto’s Dunlap Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics. Take a look at their website for the other ads.

Home to a famous apple tree

By Hamish Johnston

I was just speaking to Susan Haimes, who is property manager of Woolsthorpe Manor in Lincolnshire — the birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton. The Manor, which is now owned by the National Trust and open to the public, is also the place where that legendary apple fell and inspired Newton to think hard about the nature of gravity.

Susan has issued a call to physicists for help in revamping the Manor’s interactive science discovery centre, which opened in 2000 and “is in need of updating”. Work is underway to redesign it and the new centre will be opened in March 2010.

New exhibits will include interactive models that demonstrate planetary orbits, the movement of points, calculus, gravity, prisms (including lenses, refraction and the problem of chromatic aberration), forces and telescopes.

However, Haimes is also keen to hear from any physicists who may have “a brilliant idea for interpreting an aspect of Newton’s work in a way that just hadn’t occurred to us”.

Time is short, though, so if you’ve got a brilliant idea for demonstrating an aspect of Newton’s work to families, send your sketch or idea off to by Friday 16 January, with your contact details.

If your idea is chosen and used in the centre, you will be given a one-year visiting pass entitling you and your family to visit National Trust properties around the country.

Please contact Susan for more information.

And in case your wondering, the apple in question was of the variety “Flower of Kent” and according to Susan is a rather large fruit. Legend has it that the original tree died in 1820, but its roots produced a second tree that is still there today.

Blast on BBC 4

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By Margaret Harris

Last month’s blog posts included a review of a film called BLAST, which follows a group of scientists working on the Balloon-Borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope as they struggle to get their project off the ground (literally).

This week UK viewers can watch BLAST from the comfort of their living rooms: BBC 4 is showing the film as part of its Storyville documentary series at 10 pm on Wednesday 7 January. For truly dedicated (or truly sleepless) viewers, there will also be a repeat at 01:50 on 8 January.

The programme can also be viewed via the Internet using BBC’s iPlayer (available to UK-based computers until 14 January).