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February 2009 Archives

Hail the academic intellectuals!

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Rooting theoretical physics in pop culture

By James Dacey

There are three breeds of academic who can inspire popular audiences. There are the academic luminaries whose brilliant insights have undoubtedly shaped their discipline - their mere existence is enough to inspire. There are those at or near the top of their chosen fields who take the time to “dumb down” their work for popular audiences - let’s call these the public engagers. Then there is a third kind - perhaps a dying breed in the 21st century - the academic intellectuals, who seem to exist on a different plane, up above the boundaries of traditional subject boundaries.

Having laid the foundations of their own fields, these academic intellectuals have a consciousness that enables them to look around and see how their work slots in with other pillars of academia. What’s more, they’ve also a strong grasp of how academia can appear to an “outsider”. Add to this, a great sense of humour and you may find an academic who has an audience hanging on every word.

Last night in his public lecture “Darwin and the Cosmic Landscape”, Leonard Susskind proved that he is firmly an academic of this third kind. As my colleague Matin Durrani described in the previous blog post, he was speaking as part of the University of Bristol’s centenary celebrations and the city’s Festival of Ideas. The central tenet of Susskind’s talk was that string theorists should look to Darwin because he “set the standard for what an explanation should be like”.

With his long white beard, “Noo Yawk” accent and hyper awareness of the “big questions” in physics, I saw Susskind as the perfect fusion of Charles Darwin and Woody Allen.

So often - and I have been guilty of this myself - physicists dismiss biology as “imprecise” or “stamp collecting”, but Susskind managed to illuminate the metascience of physics and biology to show they are both part of the same noble inquiry.

And hearing Susskind got me thinking about a frustrating fact of modern physics. That is: as physics becomes increasingly split into sub disciplines, the questions become increasingly broad, like “how can we unify gravity and quantum mechanics?” or “does life exist on other planets?” Given this, how can we possibly expect physicists to get a handle on the bigger pictures, let alone on “contemporary physics”?

So if we accept the difficulty facing physicists then intellectual academics like Susskind should be hailed and celebrated. Last night Susskind managed to firmly ground string theory and multi-verses in popular culture, illustrating his points with references to Bill Clinton’s adultery and Rube Goldberg the American cartoonist. In fact, it all reminded me of a particular favourite Woody Allen quote:

“What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists? In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.”

Father figure

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Leonard Susskind: a Darwinian physicist

By Matin Durrani

He probably won’t like me for saying this, but Leonard Susskind of Stanford University looks a bit like Charles Darwin.

The reason I know is that Susskind - one of the father figures of string theory - flashed up a slide of the great man (Darwin that is) during a public lecture last night held as part of the University of Bristol’s centenary celebrations and the city’s Festival of Ideas.

It was uncanny: Susskind’s grey beard and thinning hair make him a dead ringer for Darwin, who was born 200 years ago this year. I wonder if anyone’s told him of the likeness before?

Attended by nearly 700 people packed into the university’s neo-gothic Wills Memorial Building, Susskind’s lecture was entitled “Darwin and the cosmic landscape”, in which he examined Darwin’s influence on physics.

Susskind’s thesis is that by putting forward the then radical idea of a natural explanation of the origins of life, Darwin “set the standard for what an explanation should be like”. In other words, as Susskind eloquently explained, by rejecting the idea that life was too improbable too have arrived by accident and that there must be some sort of grand designer, Darwin instead sought a scientific explanation for the existence of life.

As Susskind pointed out, there are four different base pairs on a DNA molecule (A, G, C and T) and with each molecule having typically 108 base pairs, there must be 4 to the power 108 different ways of arranging those base pairs. Genetic mutations allow different arrangements, which - eventually - leads to the “tree of life”.

But what’s all this got to do with physics? Well, string theory permits the existence of a “landscape” of about 10500 different universes. We live on one of these universes - the one that permits the existence of life. It’s essentially an anthropic argument - the world is fine-tuned so we’re here to observe it.

I won’t go into the details here, but you can find all you need to know about this subject in an article by former Physics World features editor Matthew Chalmers, who also rolled up at last night’s lecture and was one of several people to pop Susskind a question.

By Hamish Johnston

I have just heard what has to be the longest string of physics jokes ever uttered on the radio.

I was listening to the BBC Radio 4 programme “Old Harry’s Game”, in which the comedian Andy Hamilton plays Satan and is set in hell.

Early in the episode we learn that Einstein is detained at Old Harry’s pleasure — indeed all deceased scientists are there it seems.

What follows is a string of gags on everything from Schroedinger’s Cat to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle — and a joke of dubious taste about Stephen Hawking’s ability to play table tennis.

You can listen to it here — the physics jokes start about ten minutes in.

CULTURAL WARNING: Like most early-evening broadcasts on Radio 4 this programme could be a bit too “jolly-hockeysticks” for the non-British listener.

Chasing the Green Comet

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Comet Lulin photographed on 31 January, 2009. Courtesy Joseph Brimacombe, Cairns, Australia

By Hamish Johnston

If you are blessed with clear skies tonight you might want to look to the heavens and see if you can spot the Green Comet — aka Lulin.

Today, the comet will be the nearest it gets to Earth and if you are very lucky you could see it with the naked eye. And if you use binoculars, you have an even better chance of spotting the object — at least according to Sky & Telescope magazine, which has a helpful page on its website that points you in the right direction.

Happy comet spotting…

UK media meet astronomy

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Greenwich Meridian - longitude zero since 1851

Last night, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich became a melting pot of science and journalism as it played host to the UK media launch of the International Year of Astronomy.

Key speakers included cosmologist and Royal Society President, Martin Rees; Observatory Director, Kevin Fewster, and the UK Chair of IYA2009, Ian Robson.

I arrived in early, while it was still daylight, to get the obligatory snap of me straddling the Greenwich Meridian, the prime meridian of the World (Longitude 0º) since the late 19th Century.

Highlights of the evening included an impressive tour in and around the solar system via the Peter Harrison Planetarium - Europe’s first digital laser planetarium projector; a Q&A session with the Public Astronomer, Marek Kukula; and astronomically themed music performed by students from the neighbouring college of music.

Unfortunately, the planned live link up with the Liverpool Telescope - confusingly housed in the Canary Islands - didn’t quite work out. Apparently, humidity in the Spanish archipelago was at 90 % so nothing could be seen through the veil of mist.

Star of the show was undoubtedly Rees, who delivered a pitch perfect history of astronomy and its cultural force over the past 400 years since Galileo first pointed his telescope to the skies.

The nice thing about his speech was its optimism. So often, in these times of environmental and economic turmoil, keynote speeches by eminent scientists can be doom laden with very few flickers of hope. While Rees checked the climate change box, he didn’t pitch the need for Government action as an end in itself; he waxed lyrical on the incentives for protecting the planet, in particular the sense of awe inspired by astronomy and how this can put global issues in perspective. Referring to the campaign for “dark skies” he said:

“It’s not just astronomers who care about this, just as its not just keen ornithologists who would feel deprived if song-birds disappeared from our parks and gardens”.

One particularly notable project in the UK IYA2009 programme is the Telescopes for Schools project which will see 1000 UK schools receive a free telescope over the next year. Picking up the bill is a combination of the Society for Popular Astronomy, the Royal Astronomical Society and the UK science-research funding body STFC.

I caught up with the project leader Helen Walker of the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and she told me she had been putting the finishing touches to the accompanying DVD over Christmas and the telescopes are ready to be rolled out to schools over the next few months:

“The kids should get some great views of the Moon, with plenty of crater detail and they can hopefully get some sightings Jupiter and Saturn. We’re hoping schools will include telescopes in science lessons but also set up after school clubs to get the great views the darkness will bring.”

White paper for little green men

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exoplanet, courtesy NASA

By James Dacey

One of the many questionable aspects of reported encounters with extraterrestrial beings is that - despite their big deformed heads and stretchy green skin - the aliens always seem to resemble the human form.

Well according to a group of US scientists, the search for habitable planets is also suffering from “little green man” syndrome and we need to re-evaluate the necessities for life in the universe.

Ask any scientist with a passing interest in SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence) and they’ll tell you, scouring the universe for Hollywood’s aliens is a ridiculously blinkered approach. After all, the number of environmental factors that influence which genes combine, and which combinations prosper, is simply unimaginable. That is assuming the aliens would even possess genes as we understand them.

Up until now over 330 planets observed orbiting stars other than our Sun and, after next month, this total may start to increase rapidly as NASA launches its Kepler telescope to search for more “exoplanets”. So far, most exoplanets have been gas giants like Jupiter, but one of Kepler’s goals is to find Earth-sized planets at a “habitable” distance from their parent stars.

The question is, once astrophysicists start to see these Earth-like planets, how will we know if they are harbouring life?

Courtesy: NASA/Space Telescope Science Institute

By Hamish Johnston

Are you bored and sitting in front of a computer — then why not spare a few minutes for astronomers in need?

The people that brought you the Galaxy Zoo online project — which uses members of the public to help astronomers classify galaxies — have launched a new project called Galaxy Zoo 2.

The original Zoo began 18 months ago by astronomers who realized that they had discovered far more galaxies than they knew what to do with. So they asked the public to decide whether a galaxy is spiral or elliptical and which way it is rotating. So far, more than 150,000 “armchair astronomers” have make 80 million classifications of 1 million different objects, say the Zoo’s keepers.

Scientific results include the discovery of over 3000 merging galaxies, some of which are being investigated further by astronomers.

Now Galaxy Zoo 2 is asking folks to “delve deeper into 250,000 of the brightest and best to search for the strange and unusual”. This is done, for example, by pitting objects against each other in “galaxy wars” to decide which one is more “spirally”.

You can read all about the original Zoo in this article in Physics World written by two of its founders.

Federico Capasso

By Hamish Johnston

“Advances in quantum-mechanically designed materials have led to fundamentally new high-power semiconductor lasers that are suitable for a broad range of applications,” is how Federico Capasso and colleagues began a June 1999 article in Physics World about the quantum cascade laser.

Ten years later, Capasso — a co-inventor of the QCL — tells Marie Freebody at about the challenges of commercializing the technology.

You can read the full interview with the Harvard University physicist here .

An “energy-saving” Rube Goldberg house.

By Margaret Harris

For the past two days the conference exhibit hall has been full of both regular conference-goers and also parents and children attending “Family Science Days”. I wasn’t able to catch the full show at the “Physics Van” yesterday, and I’m not even sure what the giant inflatable shark near the hall entrance was supposed to do, but I did happen to pitch up at this energy-saving house just in time to watch it in action.

The house was built by members of the Glenbrook South High School science club, and it’s designed to show people just how “easy” it is to switch from incandescent bulbs to LED lights — by making the switch in the most complicated way possible. I grew up calling such things Rube Goldberg machines, but I’m told that the British term is “Heath Robinson contraptions”. Great minds think alike, or something.

Whatever the name, the result was impressive: there were trains running down slopes, propellers spinning into things, bowling balls lumbering along tracks and fizzy-drink cans catapulting through the air — and yes, the LED light came on at the end of it. Club leader Dan Uhler and team members Max Frotheringham and Liam Ennis talked me through its operation afterwards, and Uhler told me they’d been generating ideas for the house since Christmas. All in all, it was a fine demonstration of physics in action — and although everyone on the team told me they want to study engineering, I guess there’s still time for them to change their minds.

By Hamish Johnston

When it comes to putting the latest technologies to work, you can’t beat the mobile-phone industry. Just think of all the R&D that went into evolving those “bricks” of just twenty years ago into the sleek little cellphone in your pocket today.

It is strange therefore that the industry seems to have shunned electromagnetic metamaterials — which many physicists (and admittedly claim could boost cellphone performance.

Metamaterials are arrays of tiny components — each of which is designed to have a specific response to microwaves. By carefully selecting and arranging the components, a metamaterial antenna could be made much smaller than a conventional antenna — but offer similar performance.

In a paper posted on the arXiv preprint server, Nokia’s Pekka Ikonen gives five reasons why metamaterials have not been embraced — ranging from practical engineering and cost challenges to shortcomings in how developers “market” their new antennas to handset designers.

Ikonen also suggests a few ways forward, notably creating performance benchmarks for comparing metamaterial-based antennas to more conventional devices.

He also points out that those designing handsets seem to have forgotten that there is a long tradition of using metamaterials elsewhere in microwave engineering.

Image from Barbara Jacak’s talk. Credit:

By Margaret Harris

Skeptics find much to complain about in string theory, but perhaps their most stinging criticism has been its inability to be falsified by experiment. A few years ago, one string theorist even told me that a particle accelerator big enough to “see” a string would be so large that its opposite ends would be causally disconnected. So this is not a problem we’ll be solving any time soon.

Yet even if we’ll never see a string in the lab, it turns out that string theory does make a few predictions about how matter should behave at the quantum level — and now physicists from the apparently unrelated disciplines of heavy-ion collisions and cold fermions are coming tantalizingly close to testing them.

Cool stuff from the AAAS exhibit hall.

By Margaret Harris

Human beings may have originated in Africa, but the best freebies on offer in the AAAS exhibit hall have a distinctly colder origin: Canada. Not only does the silver luggage tag (bottom left) from the Canadian Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council look classy, their knit cap really scores on the usefulness front — it’s a bit chilly in Chicago this week! And as for the maple sugar candies…well, I’m planning to bring this one back for editor (and native Canadian) Hamish Johnston, but there’s a chance it might get lost in transit.

The prize for most frustrating freebie, on the other hand, goes to the yellow rubber ball from ITER. It’s got a mechanism inside — probably piezoelectrical — that theoretically ought to make it light up when you bounce it. However, it only seems to work when I don’t want it to — like in a seminar when they’ve just dimmed the lights.

I’m sure there’s an experimental fusion metaphor in there somewhere, but at the moment I’m more worried about getting it past airport security. If they had to confiscate my contact solution because the bottle was 18 mL too big, who knows what they’ll make of a mysteriously flashing yellow ball with “fusion” written all over it?

By Margaret Harris

Are you a T-shaped scientist? No? What about I-shaped? Or pi-shaped?

According to Rita Colwell of the US National Research Council, a T-shaped scientist is one with a broad, shallow background in a lot of scientific topics (the top of the T), plus deep expertise in a single area (the base). This, she argues, is the kind of scientist that many technical and managerial jobs require, but that traditional science postgraduate courses usually fail to produce.

Colwell’s solution is a relatively recent innovation in science education: the professional science master’s (PSM) degree. She described the PSM as a two-year programme that gives students some research experience beyond undergraduate level whilst also providing training in topics like leadership, dealing with government regulations and patent applications, and communication. There are now 135 such programmes in place at more than 60 US universities, said Elizabeth Friedman of the National Professional Science Master’s Assosciation, and that number is growing every year.

Unlike their counterparts in fields like business and public health, master’s degrees in science have often been seen as “consolation prizes” for students who can’t hack a PhD. But in many cases, Friedman said, graduates with only a bachelor’s degree lack the technical knowledge needed to lead a team of scientists in industry. And not everyone wants to spend five or even two years as an apprentice academic — effectively the situation for students doing PhDs or research masters degrees. So in principle, the PSM sounds like a nice middle route, and Friedman said it’s already proving extremely popular with students in biotech fields.

Yet there are drawbacks as well. Colwell noted in passing that universities love the programme because it’s a real “cash cow” for them; PSM students or their industry sponsors pay stiff tuition fees, and some universities rely heavily on cheaper adjunct professors to supply the non-academic part of students’ training (a practice Colwell deplored as short-sighted).

I asked Colwell whether PSM students have any problems fitting in with their home departments, curious as to whether their fee-paying status and industry focus would set them apart. Colwell said that she’d seen no evidence for such divisions within her field of public health, but I’m not sure that would be the case for physics.

Perhaps physicists are more U-shaped…

A mole of Earths

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Artist’s impression of extrasolar planets. Credit: NASA

By Margaret Harris

Alan Boss is the kind of astronomer who sees the glass as not only full, but overflowing. Boss, of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, US, told an AAAS audience that there could be up to 1022 Earthlike planets in the universe. Moreover, he argued that finding life on them is almost as inevitable as finding slime mould in a packed refrigerator left unplugged for two months. Maybe these extrasolar Earths don’t harbour life with two legs and a face, Boss said, but they should certainly be teeming with microbes and other simple organisms.

Avogadro’s number, 6.02 × 1023, is best known as the number of atoms in a mole, but in a fuzzier sense, it’s also a gold standard for mind-bogglingly large numbers. So 1022 Earthlike planets is really up there — and, as Boss noted, among astronomers an extra order of magnitude is nothing.

Perhaps I’m suffering from imagination failure, but a mole of Earths is hard for me to to get my head round. Judging from the mob of journalists who surrounded Boss after his talk, I wasn’t alone, and unfortunately someone from the New York Times led him away before I could do more than say hello.

However, if you’re interested in hearing more about Boss’ “crowded universe” hypothesis, fear not: he’s written a feature for next month’s print edition of Physics World on the same subject. In it, he talks about the search for extrasolar planets, and how new space telescopes will provide data to distinguish between a universe that is half full, half empty, or maybe even overflowing. So if you find the idea of 1022 extrasolar Earths intriguing, you know where to look.

Dan Meyer won an Ig Nobel prize for publishing a paper on the side effects of sword swallowing.

By Margaret Harris

It’s not all doom and climate-change gloom here in conferenceland, however. Many readers will already be familiar with the Ig Nobel prizes, which are given annually in honour of science that makes you laugh, and then makes you think. But it’s not every day that you get to see a proud Ig Nobelist in the flesh — and it’s even rarer to watch one of them swallow 12 inches of solid steel, as Dan Meyer is doing in this photo (he swallowed an even bigger blade — 24 inches, long enough to reach the base of his stomach — at the press party later that night).

Meyer is president of the Sword Swallowers Association International, and he won the Ig Nobel for medicine in 2007 for co-authoring a paper in the British Medical Journal on “Swordswallowing and Its Side Effects”. These side effects include - unsurprisingly - both sore throats and, erm, death. Fortunately, nothing so drastic occurred tonight, and if Meyer did get a sore throat afterwards, I’m sure plenty of people would have bought him a drink to help soothe it.

Al Gore.jpg
Al Gore

By Margaret Harris

As we were waiting for tonight’s keynote address by former US vice president and Nobel laureate Al Gore, the man next to me commented that the International Year of Astronomy hasn’t received nearly as much press attention as the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species. Perhaps people can only absorb one celebration at a time, he suggested, and Darwin pipped Galileo to the post.

If it’s true that the public has a limited appetite for scientific anniversaries, then Gore’s speech must have left its audience very full indeed. The beginning of the talk incorporated not only Darwin and Galileo — whose evidence for a heliocentric universe Gore called “the original inconvenient truth” in reference to his 2006 film — but also Sir John Tyndall, who discovered 150 years ago that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs radiation from the sun.

The remainder of Gore’s address was essentially a statistics-rich tour of climate change and its potentially catastrophic effects on human life. Having seen it, I can understand how “An Inconvenient Truth” struck such a chord with viewers. As a politician, Gore was often lampooned for being humourless and wooden, but his calm, deadpan manner suits his subject matter perfectly: the facts are so striking that they speak for themselves, with no need for histrionics or overt emotion.

Gore now calls himself a “recovering politician” — he’s on Step 9 of the programme, he joked — and he claimed he didn’t want to make a political speech tonight. Yet one of the most optimistic things he had to say was also among the most political. After calling the search for green energy the greatest scientific challenge of our age, he claimed that we nonetheless have everything we need to solve it “except possibly political will — and the United States has just demonstrated that political will is a renewable resource.” If the situation is as dire as Gore’s data indicate, let’s hope he’s right.

By Margaret Harris

I’d thought that the economic crisis might be the elephant in the conference room here at AAAS, but it turns out I was only half right: it’s an elephant-sized issue, true enough, but presenters aren’t avoiding it.

Jose Manuel Silva Rodriguez, the director-general of the European Commission for Research, seemed optimistic about prospects for science research in a recession despite looming budget cuts in EU member countries. Most of their projects, he said, are funded well in advance, and should be safe through 2012. But one speaker at a career forum for women and minorities was less sure: she claimed that 50% of jobs in her subject — field biology — were canceled this year in the teeth of previous funding promises.

Brooke Allen of trading group Maple Security took a middle route. He’d changed the title of his seminar from “Finding Hidden Values in the Job Market” to the more downbeat “Finding Work and Finding Jobs in Hard Times,” but he also maintained that recessions were the best time to find work, because “greedy people who won’t work except for lots of compensation drop out of the market”.

There’s just one catch: “work” and “jobs” are not synonymous, so there may be plenty of work to be done, but not enough paid jobs available for people to do them. His advice for securing a paid job boiled down to an exhortation to do more networking — not in itself a terribly original suggestion, but Allen did have an interesting way of illustrating this old cliché.

He’s an advocate of what he calls “promiscuous networking,” which means that he views literally everyone he’s ever met (2500 people and counting) as part of his network. To illustrate how this works, he got everyone in his audience to list three things they wanted, three things they could offer, and then mill about the room comparing notes and exchanging email addresses.

I decided to offer help with reviewing books, living in the UK, and finding good places to go hiking, while asking for help on articles about careers, finding funny physicists to write Lateral Thoughts columns, and improving my Spanish. At the end of the session, I had collected names of four people who wanted my help, and four who thought they might be able to help me. Not bad.

So does this promiscuous networking thing work? The jury’s still out for me, but for those of you seeking jobs in this difficult climate, it could be worth a try.

cloud gate.jpg
“Cloud Gate” sculpture in Chicago’s Millennium Park

By Margaret Harris

Is this a strangely shiny cosmic singularity? An artist’s impression of life inside a tokamak reactor? An alien spaceship?

All good guesses, but actually it’s the underside of a sculpture called “Cloud Gate” that sits in a public park on Chicago’s Lake Michigan shore. From the outside, it looks like a giant mirror-clad coffee bean, and it does a nice job of reflecting a slightly warped version of the city’s skyline — plus a few camera-happy journalists who wander past in search of lunch.

I’ll leave figuring out the bean’s optical properties as an exercise for the reader, because I’m on to bigger things: specifically “Our planet and its life: origins and futures,” which is the rather grandiose theme of the 2009 AAAS meeting. In practical terms, this means that most of the scheduled talks seem to fall into one (or more) of three categories: astronomy, environmental science, and evolution.

I plumped for the first and last category this afternoon by attending a briefing on “The Cosmic Cradle of Life.” During the session, Tony Remijan of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Charlottesville, Virginia spoke about how observers have found more than 150 different types of molecules — including ethylene glycol, or antifreeze — suspended in the interstellar medium. These discoveries have provided support for the idea that life on Earth (and potentially elsewhere) might not have required a complex homegrown chemical soup to get started — the key ingredients could have come from space instead.

Maybe they got there inside a giant mirrored bean…

Could the Earth be breathing?

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By James Dacey

Ever since green issues crossed over to the mainstream in the 1980s, James Lovelock’s Gaia metaphor has always felt a little bit passé. Now it may be allowed to flourish once again in the 21st century as a bunch of environmental scientists report that the rocky Earth is “breathing”.

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases produced in the soil get trapped in crevices, before being exhaled as temperatures drop, say the researchers at universities in Israel and the US.

During the summer they expect at least 8 hours of “breathing” each day and in winter up to 20 hour’s worth.

Apparently this convection is taking place in cracks right across the earth’s surface but climate modellers have so far failed to spot it.

Historically, gas exchange models consider diffusion alone, but factoring in “geo-respiration” could increase vapour flux by 50 %

Particularly cracked parts of the earth’s face, where this effect is most pronounced, include permafrost zones, agricultural settings and desert playas.

I contacted Maria Dragila, one of the researchers at Oregon State University and she told me:

“Our next step is to encourage the scientific community to consider this mechanism and quantify the effectiveness of this breathing in different environments by direct field

Full details of this research can be found in Geophysical Research Letters.

Computer-generated images of objects in orbit around the Earth. These are objects, not shown to scale, that are large enough (at least 5 cm across) to be tracked by the US Space Surveillance Network. Some 95% are junk, i.e. not functioning satellites, with most occupying a low Earth orbit up to an altitude of 2000 km (left). Those items of junk in a geostationary orbit some 36 000 km high (right) form a clear ring, since they are located directly over the equator and have the same orbital period as the Earth. (Courtesy:NASA)

By Hamish Johnston

It’s finally happened — a very expensive telecommunications satellite has been destroyed by a piece of space junk. On Tuesday, one of 66 satellites that cover the Earth for the phone company Iridium was taken out by a defunct Russian satellite.

Although space is a big place, humans have managed to put lots of junk up there since the first satellite was launched in 1957 — as you can see in the illustrations above.

The pictures come from an article by Edwin Cartlidge — “Our orbiting junk-yard” — that appeared in the October 2007 issue of Physics World. I’m afraid that the full article is not available on, but if your library subscribes to the Physics World Archive, you can read Edwin’s article here

Members of the Institute of Physics can read an online version of the Physics World. Simply login here and follow the Physics World link.

Visiting Fermilab

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Fermilab's Wilson Hall.jpg
Fermilab’s Wilson Hall

By Margaret Harris

“I know it’s kind of a busman’s holiday for you, but do you want to visit Fermilab?”

The AAAS conference doesn’t officially kick off until tomorrow, so I was supposed to spend today de-jet-lagging myself while visiting my uncle west of Chicago. Now, a rainy February day in the Chicago suburbs is not everyone’s idea of great holiday material, but one of those suburbs happens to host the world’s biggest operational particle accelerator…and several of its scientists have prominent slots on the conference schedule…so…

Fermilab’s striking Wilson Hall atrium is open to the public from dawn to dusk most days, and you can hike in the surrounding prairies, too (just watch out for the resident bison herd — now down to 20 head due to budget cuts). But on Wednesday and Saturday mornings they also run guided tours, so my uncle and I joined the small group of curious local residents following science historian (and UK native - between that and the mist, I felt right at home) Yvonne Twomey around the linear accelerator building.

The ongoing Higgs boson hunt means that the Tevatron is nearly always running, so there’s a limit to what you can see at Fermilab on a public tour. But we poked our heads into the auditorium, peered through glass at the giant Cockcroft-Walton generator and the first few feet of the linear accelerator beam line, and learned a little about the great astrophysicist office-space takeover (they used to be confined to the third floor, but as the lab’s particle physics mission winds down, other sub-disciplines have picked up territory) before going back to the high-rise’s 15th floor to gaze out at the lab’s other buildings. And the mist. And the bison.

And, of course, to the distant skyline of Chicago proper, where I’ll be reporting on the conference from tomorrow on. Until then…

By Hamish Johnston

Paul Dirac famously said “A physical theory must possess mathematical beauty”.

This morning Radio 4’s Today programme asked Dirac’s biographer Graham Farmelo “How can a theory of physics possess beauty?”.

Farmelo was joined on-air by Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics at the University of Surrey, and together they discussed if aesthetics and logical thinking can go together.

You can listen to the conversation here — scroll right down to the last item of the programme. The audio clip will be available for about one week.

Although Al-Khalili and Farmelo did their best to explain, Radio 4’s normally razor-sharp John Humphrys seemed humbled by the concept.

The piece ended with Humphrys asking Al-Khalili for a concrete example of how the beauty of mathematics led Dirac to ground-breaking physics.

Al-Khalili recounted how Dirac used mathematics to predict the existence of antimatter several years before the stuff was actually seen in an experiment.

“…and antimatter is?”, replied Humphrys.

By Hamish Johnston

UPDATE 11 February: Things have moved on in Washington and according to ScienceDebate2008 the US Senate has restored $3.1 billion in proposed cuts to science-related spending in the president’s stimulus package. You can see a comparison of the Senate’s proposal and the House of Representatives’ spending plans for science here.

I just received an email from the folks at ScienceDebate2008, claiming that a US senate committee has suggested significant cuts to Barack Obama’s $825bn economic stimulus package.

And it doesn’t look good for science — with all the extra money for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy Office of Science included in the cuts.

ScienceDebate2008 (they really need to update their name) says the cuts are as follows, the percentage referring to the amount first proposed by the president.

NASA exploration $750,000,000 = 50%
NSF $1,402,000,000 = 100%
NOAA $427,000,000 = 34.94%
NIST $218,000,000 = 37.91%
DOE energy efficiency & renewable energy $1,000,000,000 = 38%
DOE office of science $100,000,000 = 100%

The political website Talking Points Memo has posted a detailed list of all the proposed cuts here; apparently they total $77.9bn.

Weird analogy of the week

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The supercomputer

by James Dacey

Ever wondered how many “men with calculators” it takes to match a day’s worth of IBM supercomputing?

According to The Times newspaper, it’s 120 billion of them, working for 50 years.


Well, it all began yesterday at a press conference in San Francisco…

IBM revealed plans to build a supercomputer twenty times more powerful than today’s record.

The software company’s new baby is called Sequoia will be ready for action by 2012 when it takes up residence at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California.

Building and running costs will be covered by the US Department of Energy who are employing Sequoia to model the decay of the US nuclear weapons arsenal.

So what is this thing?

IBM’s geekspeak tells us that Sequoia will run at 20 petaflops: “peta” being the prefix for a quadrillion (1015) and FLOP standing for floating point operations per second.

The company will use their “Blue Gene” chip to make it different from a lot of other supercomputers which work by stacking up a whole load of servers.

Now, I’m no supercomputer aficionado but this computer seems substantially larger than previous computers, and, for that reason, worth reporting. The British mainstream press also thought so as the story appears on web pages of The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Times, along with a host of smaller sites.

Science journalists are always looking for “world-firsts” and “coo-wow” factor when it comes to new technologies, so it’s no real surprise that this humungous lump of American computer has received this widespread coverage.

And journalists are also committed to presenting facts in understandable, every-day terms. So it was interesting to see how the national papers would describe Sequoia’s processing power.

The Guardian, they went straight for the coo-wow, describing it as “the equivalent of more than 2m laptops.”

The Telegraph were a bit more conservative, focussing on the specific new development - “one order of magnitude quicker than its predecessor”

And then there’s The Times. Their description is - quite frankly - bizarre:

“Given an entire day, the Sequoia could match the output that 120 billion men with calculators might achieve in 50 years.”


Who are these men?
What are they calculating?
What type of calculator are they using?
Are they allowed bathroom breaks??

Ok, I’m being a little bit silly, but is a weird analogy. Quite creepy too, when you really think about it. And more than a little bit arbitrary.

So, creative readers, I throw this out to you - how would you describe the computing power of IBM’s new monster machine?

By Hamish Johnston

‘Three-particle distribution function’ (2007/2009) by Frédérique Swist An artistic interpretation of a distribution function of a third particle around two fixed particles in a two-dimensional colloidal liquid. This image refers to a mathematical model, used theoretically to calculate the probability of each of the three particles existing in a certain spatial position.

If you happen to be in Bristol over the next few weeks why not pop into Cafe-At-Bristol at the Harbourside to see an exhibition of art inspired by the often beautiful forms that are created when scientific data are visualized.

The artist is IOP Publishing’s very own Frédérique Swist, and her show starts today and runs until 27 February.

Fred is Senior Graphic Designer here at Dirac House and she tells me that much of the inspiration for her art comes from her work designing brochures and other literature for IOP Publishing and the Institute of Physics.

She says that her work can be divided into three categories. The first includes images in which she has maintained the core scientific meaning of data, usually used in promotional materials for specific physics journals.

The second includes pieces in which she has made significant changes to the original data, usually used in more general corporate literature. ‘Three-particle distribution function’ is an example of such a work and it appeared on our 2008 Christmas card.

Finally, there are the pieces that are inspired by physics, but have been created artistically by Fred. An example is ‘Split-ring resonator’ — a work in which many physicists will recognize the iconic split rings used to make metamaterials, and others will appreciate for its artistic merit.

Indeed, Fred sums up her work: “Each piece can be appreciated on different levels; from pure abstraction to material inspired by the most advanced physics research, it provides viewers with the opportunity to form their own interpretations, and to choose ways to engage visually and/or intellectually with the imagery.”

fred 2.jpg

Science in Colour
Tuesday 3 - Friday 27 February 2009
Café-At-Bristol, Anchor Road, Harbourside, Bristol BS1 5DB
Opening time: 10am to 5pm daily

By Hamish Johnston

If you’re not a regular reader of the University of Idaho Argonaut student newspaper, you may have missed this article about the possibility that the university’s undergraduate physics programme may be axed.

It seems that physics is one of 41 programmes identified for a possible chop by the university’s Program Prioritization Process (PPP) — which was initiated in 2005 to “increase the overall financial and academic efficiency of the university”, according to the Argonaut.

Bizarrely, the article suggests that the PPP plan involves getting rid of undergraduate physics in order to strengthen the graduate physics offering. I’m guessing that this is a way of trying to hold on to physics faculty members once the axe has fallen on undergraduates.

The Argonaut quotes physics undergraduate Alex Natale as saying “I don’t know how they could cut physics from the College of Science and still be the College of Science”.

I don’t know either…ironically, the University of Idaho’s sports teams are called the Vandals — and they are not the only ones causing damage in Idaho it seems.