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March 2009 Archives

By Hamish Johnston

Will Orion visit the Moon or even Mars?

…or maybe Mars?

My earliest childhood memory is of being called inside by my mother on a warm summer day to watch Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong walk on the Moon. I’m not sure if it was a live or recorded programme I saw 40 years ago — I suppose it doesn’t really matter, but I would like to think that I watched history unfold.

Then, three years later, Eugene Cernan stepped back into his Apollo 17 lander and no-one has set foot on the Moon since.

This morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today news magazine, there was a discussion about NASA’s Orion Spacecraft — a full-sized replica of which has just gone on display in the Mall in Washington DC.

Orion is expected to carry humans to the International Space Station in 2015 and to the Moon in 2020. Further in the future, Orion could carry astronauts to Mars.

You can listen to the discussion here . Unfortunately the BBC has not posted this piece as an excerpt so you will have to listen to about the first 50 minutes of the show — unless you can work out a way to fast-forward to about 06:53.

I’m guessing that many at NASA are looking forward to Orion with a mix of anticipation and dread. What will happen to the US space programme if the nation fails to revisit the Moon, let alone Mars? Failure could come from a lack of money — or more ominously, a lack of collective will to overcome what remains a significant technological challenge.

Will Eugene Cernan be the last person to walk on the Moon in my lifetime? Or will I live to see someone take their first steps on Mars? — which is the hope of Louis Friedman, president of the Planetary Society .

Friedman told Today that using Orion to travel to the Moon but not Mars is a 20th century goal wasted on a 21st century spacecraft.

A little later on Today, the historian, Richard Dunn is interviewed about his book The Telescope - A Short History. The interview takes place at the The Royal Observatory Greenwich and the Today reporter takes a peek through a reproduction of one of Galileo’s telescopes — and manages to spy a traffic light. You can listen to the excerpt here — just scroll down to 0740.

By Hamish Johnston

This week BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime is presenting five short stories by James Lasdun — an Englishman who lives in upstate New York.

Last night’s story Cranley Meadows was about two physicists (or maybe astronomers) who are married and about to become parents for the first time. You can listen to it here

Although the characters are rife with stereotypes — she was his student; he is a fifty-something Russian emigre and refusenik; and the college where he had taught has been forced to trim its academic offering — I suspect the stereotypes would only be obvious to physicists and academics.

The story is set in an observatory on a cold autumn evening and looks at his struggle to find a new academic job, her apprehensions about becoming a mother, and the chasm that has opened between their respective expectations.

And like the other stories I heard this week, the ending is a corker. Indeed, from what I have heard so far, Lasdun’s writing evokes Alice Munro and John Cheever — not bad company.

The stories come from his latest collection It’s Beginning To Hurt , which is published next week.

Saved by the gong

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Make yourself heard

By James Dacey

If I were trapped down a mineshaft on the point of imminent collapse, I’m not sure my first instinct would be to thwack the wall with a giant sledgehammer. However, the act of doing this might just save my life…

Scientists at the University of Utah have devised a clever new system in which trapped miners can inform rescuers of their whereabouts through pounding an iron plate on the wall of the mine. Seismic echoes generated by this impact will travel through the mine before being detected by geophones at the surface.

“This is not rocket science; its rock science,” said Gerard Schuster, one of the author’s of a study describing this technique, published in this month’s issue of The Leading Edge, a journal of the society of Exploration Geophysics.

The researchers, from the University of Utah, trialled their system at two different locations. One test was in a utility tunnel beneath the University campus, and the other was in the deeper tunnels of an abandoned copper mine in Arizona.

Both volunteers were safely retrieved, as the researchers report “100 percent accuracy”.

The next step is to test the method in deeper mines, such as coal mines, which can be a few thousand feet deep.

Schuster and his collaborators have a vision that all mines of the future should have their walls lined with sledgehammers and iron plates at regular intervals. Then, should a miner find them self in trouble, they can summon help via the iron gong.

Athene Donald, as not seen on a desert island (Credit: University of Cambridge)

By Matin Durrani

Sadly I missed the appearance of my former PhD supervisor Athene Donald on the legendary BBC radio programme Desert Island Discs last Sunday.

The show, which has been running for over 65 years, features a celebrity or noted figure who picks their eight top records that they’d like to take with them as a castaway on a desert island. They also get to pick a luxury and a book.

The show’s website lists Athene’s choices, which unfortunately do not include any physics-related material that I could have made an amusingly weak comment about.

So there is nothing by astrophysicist-turned-rock-legend Brian May from Queen or by the former D:REAM keyboardist Brian Cox, who is now a particle physicst at Manchester University.

Donald, a polymer physicist at Cambridge University in the UK, also didn’t pick anything by Canadian band The Nylons or new Glasgow indie outfit We Are the Physics. Nor was there anything from Olivia Newton-John, whose grandfather was Max Born.

What she did pick though are pieces by mainstream composers like Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and Vaughan-Williams, with three left-field choices from Irving Berlin, Enrique Grandos and Paul Hindemith (no I’d never heard of him either).

The closest I can get to a physics pun is that the Irving Berlin piece she picked was “Blue Skies”, which perhaps reflects the kind of basic research she does.

You can catch up with a repeat of the show on Friday 27 March at 9.00-9.45 a.m. GMT.

Webcasting physics

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Teachers discuss dark matter at the Institute

We all know the stereotype of a physics lecture - a bearded befuddlement of equations and geeks.

Today the Institute of Physics has been doing its bit to blow this image out of the water by webcasting lectures given by two eminent physicists at the Institute’s headquarters in London.

First up was Damian Pope - of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada - discussing the latest findings and debates in the world of dark matter. Then Richard B Jackman of University College London talked about nanoscience and its potential applications across fields from healthcare to aerospace to jewellery-making. He also addressed some of the fears of nanotech purported by the mainstream media.

If you missed the webcasts then don’t fret - they can still be accessed from this link.

I spoke with Joe Winters, senior press officer at the Institute, which publishes Physics World. He told me that both speakers had been carefully selected; Damian Pope has a long history of public engagement projects and Jackman is a highly regarded interdisciplinary researcher.

The lectures themselves were attended by teachers of A Level physics classes, which, typically comprise 16-18 year olds. “Many of the teachers present are the only physics teachers in their school and days like this give them an opportunity to meet physics counterparts from other schools,” said Winters.

“Through webcasting the talk, we hope that we can help physics teachers from all over the UK and not just those in London,” he added.

Metal letters defy gravity as Jocelyn Bell Burnell addresses the crowd

The world-famous IOP Publishing journals reception was held last night here in Pittsburgh — and this year revellers were toasting 20 years of the Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter.

The history of the journal can actually be traced back a further two decades to 1968, when the Journal of Physics C: Solid State Physics was born. This publication merged with Journal of Physics F: Metal Physics (launched in 1971) to create JPCM in 1989.

The Institute of Physics chief executive Robert Kirby-Harris was on hand to introduce the Institute’s president Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (above) — who addressed the throng of journal board members and other friends of IOP Publishing.

One person who wasn’t there was Richard Palmer , who recently retired from IOP Publishing. Richard worked on the journal and its predecessors for 37 years — and was awarded an MBE in 2006 for his services to scientific publishing.

And yes, there was a cake but sadly it was cut before I had a chance to snap a picture. I hope someone saved a piece for Richard!

The 2004 tsunami strikes Thailand: was the wave focussed by underwater features? (Courtesy: David Rydevik)

By Hamish Johnston

One terrifying thing about the Asian Tsunami of 2004 is that some coastlines were devastated, while others had much less damage inflicted on them.

That got Bristol’s own Michael Berry thinking about whether such massive waves could be focussed by underwater features towards unfortunate places.

In an invited talk at the APS March Meeting here in Pittsburgh, Berry took us through the mathematics of how an underwater island could focus a tsumani at a region where it would unleash ten times more energy than had it not been focussed. The effect occurs because the change in depth associated with the island affects the wave much like a change in refractive index at the surface of a lens.

The intitial conditions — island size; distance to the source of the tsunami; and the size of the source — affect the degree of focussing. Berry found that in some cases the island scatters the tsumani and reduces the energy in the region directly in front of it.

Berry described this effect as “very significant and something that should be taken into account” by those investigating the possible effects of such waves.

He left us with the scary thought that a wave created by a well-placed manmade explosion at sea could in principle be focussed at unlucky coastal dwellers. Let’s hope that never happens.

George Herold and Teach Spin’s spectroscopy experiment — note the wooden coil holders and the detail in the optical table’s wooden feet.

I was strolling though the exhibition here at the March Meeting when my eyes were drawn to a collection of beautifully-crafted lab equipment.

Housed in polished wooden cabinets and sporting retro dials and script — the equipment is made by Teach Spin of Buffalo New York.

Now when I was an undergraduate I thought that all that wooden kit was ancient (even back then) but it turns out that at least one company is lovingly building the stuff.

The company’s research physicist George Herold gave me a demonstration of a spectroscopy experiment (above) and a torsion pendulum (right). You can read all about the latter in the compay’s latest newsletter

According to Herold, the company has its own carpenter — how many scientific equipment companies can say that?

Below are a few more photos from Teach Spin’s stand.


Is there anything that carbon nanotubes can’t do?

I know I’ve asked that question before — but I can’t stop being amazed at the fantastic properties of the tiny tubes.

This morning I heard Olgica Bakajin of Lawrence Livermore National Lab describe how she made a water filter using carbon nanotubes.

She did this by growing a forest of nanotubes on a silicon substrate and then filling in the gaps between the tubes with a nitride material.

After removing the silicon substrate, her team were left with a thin film that is permeated by nanotubes with an average diameter of about 1.6 nm — each of which turns out to be an excellent conductor of water.

Indeed, experiments showed that water flows through the nanotubes about four times faster than what would be expected from simple pipes.

The reason, according to Bakajin, is two fold. Firstly the walls of the nanotubes are hydrophobic — water molecules avoid the walls — which reduces drag. Also, the nanotubes are exceptionally smooth, again reducing drag.

And if that wasn’t good enough, the team found that the nanotube filters are very good at removing ions from water as it passes through. Bakajin thinks that the broken bonds at either end of the tubes attract the ions.

As a result, the filters could play an important role in the desalination of seawater — Bakajin’s filters were able to remove 40% of the chloride ions at a relatively high flow rate. This means that they already outperform commercial nanofilters.

The filters could be improved significantly by increasing the density of nanotubes in the filter; and optimizing the ends of the nanotubes for removing salt.

All of could mean highly-permeable filters that would reduce the amount of energy required in a desalination facility — perhaps making it economically viable.

How to cool polar molecules

By Hamish Johnston

Talks at the APS are very hit and miss — especially for someone like me who wants a gentle introduction to a field rather than a full-on blitz of data and equations.

However, some talks are pure gold…it was definitely worth getting up early to hear Silke Ospelkaus’s 8 am lecture on how to create a gas of ultracold polar molecules.

Physicists have already perfected cooling atomic gases to very low temperatures using lasers — leading to a renaissance in the study of quantum systems.

Polar molecules are attractive because unlike ultracold atoms, they interact via long-range forces and thefore could be used to investigate a broader range of quantum phenomenon.

But molecules pose an additional challenge because they have rotational and vibrational energy, which must also be removed.

Although one could try to cool the atoms directly — or cool individual atoms and then combine them to make molecules — but both of these approaches have their problems.

According to Ospelkaus — who is at JILA in Boulder, Colorado — there is a better way. Her team began with “Feshbach molecules” which are made by taking ultracold potassium rubidium atoms and binding pairs together very weakly by applying an external magnetic field.

Although the molecules are ultracold, the separation between atoms is great, which means that they have a tiny dipole moment.

The next step is to gently coax the Feshbach molecules into the ground state of potassium-rubidium, which has a much higher dipole moment. This is tricky because there is very little overlap between the states. To get around this problem, Ospelkaus and crew shunted the Feshbach molecules into a third state that overlaps the two.

Easy right? Except that transition requires a 125 THz laser — and such things don’t exist!

Undaunted, Ospelkaus used the “beating” of two lasers to obtain light at the right frequency.

So after all that, did they manage to create a “quantum degenerate” gas?

Not quite, the team managed to get the molecules as cold as 400nK, whereas the onset of degeneracy is at about 100nK.

But now that they have a nearly degenerate gas of polar molecules Ospelkaus believes that it could be cooled further by applying electric fields.

…who said this sort of work was complicated?

Once a treasure trove of pollutants

By Hamish Johnston

Earlier today I caught a few talks in a session called “The Greening of Pittsburgh”.

One talk could have been called “The Cleaning of the Cathedral of Learning” because it focused on how that building’s limestone facade was first blackened by smoke and then blasted clean by the rain.

The study of the Pittsburgh landmark was done by Cliff Davidson and colleagues at Carnergie Mellon University, who looked at historical photos of the building; took samples of the material staining the building; studied how the building is affected by driving rain; and did computer simulations of the wind patterns around the building.

They found that just a few years after the cream-coloured building was completed in 1930 it was completely blackened by smoke. But around 1945 the city began to enforce anti-smoke rules and by 1950 erosion caused by driving rain was beginning to clean the 42-storey building.

The team using wind and rain measurements and simulations the team were able to understand why some sides of the building were getting cleaner, while others remained relatively sooty — because they were exposed to pollutants from a nearby steel works. This was confirmed by studying the chemical composition of the staining, some of which was iron-based.

Sadly, the study came to an abrupt end a few years when the University of Pittsburgh had the entire building sand-blasted clean.

In a different study, Davidson and colleagues discovered that about 75% of particulate-matter pollution in Pittsburgh today comes from outside the city — mostly from coal-fired generators in the Midwest as far away as Iowa.

So if you have a bad air day it Pittsburgh — or anywhere else in Eastern North America — it’s probably because millions of people to the west of you are turning up their air conditioners.

Adam Kollin shows off R9

By Hamish Johnston

If you are struggling to get your experiment to work, you might want to pop into a local manufacturing plant or hospital for a few tips.

That’s the impression I was left with after a fascinating conversation with Adam Kollin — the founder and president of RHK Technology.

The company makes atomic force microscopes. But it is probably most famous for its control units — ultraprecise electronics that allow AFMs to resolve single atoms on a surface.

An AFM works by positioning a tiny tip with great precision near the surface of a sample. The tip is designed to vibrate at a certain frequency, and properties of this vibration change depending on the structure of the nearby surface.

An image is taken by moving the tip from one place to another — but this also affects the vibrations — so its important to let the tip settle down for a while before making a measurement. The key to making a rapid scan is to wait long enough to achieve the desired resolution, but not too long or the scan will take forever.

Physicsts that use AFM had worked out a way to deal with this problem, but according to Kollin they had it all wrong. He knows this because he happened to be talking to an engineer with a background in automated manufacturing.

It turns out that robots used in manufacturing suffer from the same problem — their arms move quickly from one place to another and then settle down to perform a very precise function. And the engineers who design manufacturing lines have devoted alot of time to understanding the best way to do this.

According to Kollin, RHK Technology has embraced this knowledge to improve its products — as well a borrowing ideas from medical imaging and particle physics.


By Hamish Johnston

Many important biological processes involve the packing and unpacking of long stringy molecules such as DNA into very dense structures.

One of the most amazing aspects of this little-understood process is that the stringy molecules don’t get all tied up into a mess of knots.

According to Alexander Grosberg of New York University — who was speaking about this knotty issue this morning — collapsing proteins are thought to form 19 distinct types of knots. Compare this to simple chains of the same length, which can get knotted up in about 3000 different ways.

“Evolution avoids or supresses knots in proteins”, he declared.

Grosberg argues that physicists need a new model for describing how biomolecules collapse. The key features, he says are the process being driven by pressure from the outside — and a mathematical way of avoiding knots.

One approach he has taken is to model proteins as rings instead of single strands. Why this seems to work was beyond me, but Grosberg seems to have made some progress in describing the collapse mathematically.

And what does this have do do with diapers? Well it seems that the water-hungry material in nappies undergoes a similar collapse — but as the photo above suggests, the actual process of compaction is unknown.

Climate roulette

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Is the climate gun already loaded?

By James Dacey

Mankind is playing a Russian roulette with the climate, according to a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Elmar Kriegler of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and his colleagues sought to find out what leading scientists really think will happen to the climate.

So Kriegler surveyed 43 scientists to gauge the impact of rising temperatures on five major components of the global climate system.

They calculate a one in six chance that a “tipping event” will occur if the temperature increases by two to four degrees in the next two hundred years.

The five systems concerned are:

Major changes in the North Atlantic Ocean circulation
The Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets
The Amazon rainforests and El Nino.

They define a tipping point as “the event of initiating the transition, or making its future initiation inevitable”. Essentially they are saying that beyond these points the climate will reach a kind of elastic limit - beyond which, we will feel the wrath of the climate and there’ll be nothing we can do about it.

Realising that previous surveys have been met with a fair degree of apathy they used “imprecise probabilities” - a part of Bayesian statistics.

This new mathematics has been controversial but advocates say it can weigh up a given hypothesis in a more rounded way than classical statistics.

Developed in the 1980s and 1990s Bayesian statistics seem to have gained most traction in the field of operations research and economic decision making.

“The currently discussed long-term targets of 50% reduction globally by 2050 (and 80% reduction for the industrial countries), with a continuing reduction after 2050 is an important step in this direction, but does not guarantee the reaching of the 2 degree target,” Kriegler told

This may sound like a very gloomy forecast but Kriegler was a bit more pragmatic about taking co-ordinated international action:

“Nevertheless, these [targeted reductions] are a useful benchmark to focus the minds of politicians and society. Reaching this goal requires at least the following - in the order of importance:

1) A massive decarbonisation of the energy system, starting in the electricity sector;
2) A strong increase in energy efficiency;
3) A stop to tropical deforestation, and an increase of the forest area in the tropics in the long run;
4) A massive reduction of CH4 and N2O emissions from the agricultural sector.”


By Hamish Johnston

I came across this fantasic poster this afternoon. It tells how Vihar Mohanty and Vikas Berry went about wrapping a live bacterium in a sheet of graphene.

The point of the work, which was done at Kansas State University, is to explore ways of combining manmade nanodevices with naturally occuring ones such as bacteria. This could lead to “bio batteries” in which biochemical processes within bacteria could be tapped as a source of energy for tiny devices — allowing such devices to operate within the body for example.

A big challenge in this kind of bionics is getting the nanostructure to stick to the bacteria. What Mohanty and Berry did was use graphene oxide — a sheet of carbon and oxygen just one atom thick — which has has an affinity for certain molecules found on the surface of bacteria. By mixing the bacteria and graphene oxide in a solution they found that some of the bacteria were completely wrapped up.

If you look at the poster above (sorry for the poor photo) you can see a fully wrapped bacterium at the bottom of the third column.

Around the convention centre

By Hamish Johnston

Pittsburgh is the birthplace of Andy Warhol and Heinz Ketchup — and the two come together nicely in these pieces hanging on the convention centre wall.

The paintings are by the Pittsburgh-born artist Burton Morris and evoke Warhol and other 20th century American artists.

I don’t think Warhol did ketchup bottles — although I think he gave us his take on the cardboard boxes that held the bottles.

By the way, the folks under the pictures are real physicists, not life-sized artworks!

As close as I could get

By Hamish Johnston

Despite legging it across the convention centre, I left it a bit late to get anywhere near Hideo Hosono’s talk on “Materials and Physics in Pnictide Superconductors”. It looks like the pnictides — which burst on the scene during the last March Meeting — are a contender for this year’s hot topic.

You might recall that these materials comprise a completely new family of high-temperature superconductors. They could help physicists understand just exactly why some materials are superconducting at relatively high temperatures — something that has been a genuine mystery for over 20 years.

Of course, they might just add to the confusion by giving physicists more materials that they don’t understand.

But if the crowd at Hosono’s talk is any indication, there won’t be a lack of trying.

By Hamish Johnston

Here’s a question for you: how many physicists graduate each year from US universities?

The answer is about 4000 — a number that has been steady for about 40 years, which is why the APS and the AIP want to more than double this to 10,000 per annum.

But does the nation need more physicists? To try to answer that question, there is a session at the March Meeting called “Why do we need 10,000 physics majors”.

I got a preview of the issues at a press conference with two of the speakers — Theodore Hodapp of the APS and Roman Czujko of the AIP.

Hodapp explained one beneficiary of more physicists would be high school students because more of them would be taught physics by physicists. Indeed, today American universities produce just a third of the required physics teachers — and amongst those who teach physics, just a third have physics degrees.

And according to Hodapp, the current crisis in the shortage of physicists could be solved in one stroke if every teaching college in the US graduated just one extra physicist per year.

Hodapp places some of the blame on physics departments, who for years have set curricula with a focus on getting their undergraduates into graduate school — rather than into jobs like teaching.

This, according to Czujko is changing, with physics departments trying to improve how they prepare their graduates for lives outside of academia. Indeed, he thinks they should even tailor their programmes to deal with the economic realities facing graduates — in other words recognizing that physicists that graduate in a recession may need different skills that leave in boom times.

And just to stir things up a bit, Czujko pointed out that when it comes to pay, physics graduates do fair to middling — better than biology grads, but worse than engineers. So is the market lukewarm on physicists. Indeed, if you look a bit closer it seems that physics grads get paid more than others because many of them end up doing engineering jobs — whereas biologists do not.

So, does the US need 10,000 new physicists every year?

Marc Baldo shines light on phycobilisomes

By Hamish Johnston

It’s a dull morning here in Pittsburgh — and the view out the press room window is of a rusting railway viaduct, grey pavement, hills covered in leafless brown trees and a leaden sky.

However in a couple of months it will be hot and hazy here as the city basks under a Mediterranean-strength Sun. You might think this would make Pittsburgh a perfect place to deploy solar panels (at least in the summer) — but there is a problem, all that haze makes it difficult to focus sunlight onto high-performance photovoltaics.

This focussing is necessary because it is very difficult to make large-area photovoltaics from semiconductors. The materials and processing are expensive and it is tricky to make large devices without defects, which reduce their efficiency.

One solution is to simply use an optical system of lenses and/or reflectors to concentrate the light at a photovoltaic. The problem is that such systems must track the Sun precisely — which is tough to do when it is lurking in the haze.

A better way would be to take a hint from nature and capture diffuse light and then concentrate it on an efficient photovoltaic. However like most biomimicry, this is easier said than done.

This morning MIT’s Marc Baldo talked us through a number of approaches that he was taking in his lab. The most successful one, it seems, is using glass plates containing fluorescent dye. Sunlight enters the plate via the broadside and causes the dye to emit light. This light then travels along the plate to one edge, where it can enter a photovoltaic.

The advantage is that much of the light captured by the large broadside of the plate is re-emitted as light that leaves the plate via the much smaller edges — concentrating it where it can be converted to electricity by a relatively small photovoltaic.

However, Baldo and team had to cleverly engineer the energy levels in the dye to ensure that the light destined for the phovoltaic is not reabsorbed and ultimately scattered out of the plate.

This is done using a molecules called phycobilisomes — proteins that are involved in photosynthesis.

Hopefully this will allow Baldo’s devices to be a bit more like plants — not solid chunks of semiconductor — by separating the functions of light absorbtion ad charge production.

The Cathedral of Learning

By Hamish Johnston

This year’s APS March Meeting is in Pittsburgh — a city with a history that is intertwined with the solid-state of matter, just like the conference itself.

This is Steeltown and home to the Steelers. And even though the region’s steel industry is a shadow of what it once was, the city is full of reminders of the vast fortunes that were made from digging rock from the ground and forging it into the engines of industry.

The best place to catch a glimpse of this wealth is the neighbourhood of Oakland, home the the University of Pittsburgh’s glorious Cathedral of Learning — a gothic revival skyscraper that was built in the 1920s. Sadly, I don’t think the physics department can be found there.

Just down the road from the Cathedral is the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, which rather fittingly houses a fantastic collection of minerals. Many of these are housed in glass cases in a mirrored room — and the light reflecting from all the polished surfaces is dazzling.

I can’t think of a better place to appreciate the solid state of matter.

Crystals in the Carnegie Museum
Longer casting thanks to F1

By Hamish Johnston

If you happen to be in London you might want to check out a new exhibit at the Science Museum about how Formula 1 motor racing has spun-out technologies used by furniture designers, paramedics and even fly fishing enthusiasts.

The exhibit is called Fast Forward: 20 Ways F1 is changing the world .

There’s no need to hurry because the free exhibit runs until April 5, 2010.

As for myself, I’m off to Pittsburgh tomorrow for the APS March Meeting …one week of condensed-matter physics madness, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world!

The map of science (click to see full-sized image)

By Michael Banks

Do you know that when you access a research paper via a “web portal” such as Elsevier’s Science Direct your every “click” is being recorded?

Although this monitoring might at first seem a little scary and possibly unnecessary,
Johan Bollen and colleagues from Los Alamos National Laboratory have put the data to good use.

They have created a “map of science” using over a billion so-called “click-throughs” - produced when going from the web portal to the actual full text paper or the abstract on the journal’s website. The data was taken from 2007 to 2008.

After crunching the data through a so-called “clickstream model” they produced a map (see image above) with each circle representing a journal and the lines reflecting the navigation of users from one journal to another.

Maps showing the connectivity of science subjects have been made before, but they have often used citation data produced using the references in research papers. As it takes years for a new paper to generate lots of citations, the new method promises a more up-to-date map of science. This, the researchers say, can then point more quickly to emerging relationships between difference branches of science.

The researchers also created a table of the most interdisciplinary journals, produced by how many connections it has with other areas of science, which placed Science top followed by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in second place and Environmental Health Perspectives in third.

But don’t worry, as confidentiality agreements prevent any information that could show the identity of the browser being used by a third party, your privacy is protected.

Ig Nobel stars roll into town

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Cutting edge science

Ever levitated a frog?
How about, organized an athletics contest between the fleas of a dog and the fleas of a cat?
Thought not.
Ever observed homosexual ducks commit necrophilia?
Ok, I think I need to explain…

These scientific “feats” were amongst the wacky studies presented last night on the latest stop of the Ig Nobel awards tour, in Bristol.

I went along to see if the show lives up to its claim to “first make people laugh, and then make them think”.

Jovial compere Marc Abrahams opened the proceedings telling each speaker they had “5 minutes and NOT A SECOND MORE!”

In the physics category, Sir Michael Berry of Bristol University described how he won the prize in 2000 for explaining how frogs can be levitated with magnets. “Of Flying Frogs and Levitrons” was published in the European Journal of Physics.

Surely the weirdest talk was from 2003 winner for biology Kees Moeliker who talked about homosexual ducks committing necrophilia. So the story goes… he had been sitting in his office when he heard the loud bang of a duck crashing into his window. Rushing out to see if it was ok he was shocked to witness the duck - dead, with a second, live duck, forcing itself upon the corpse. Later observations revealed both ducks to be male and the study was published in the Annual of the Natural History Museum Rotterdam.

A slightly tamer ornithological study addressed the question of “why woodpeckers don’t get headaches?” Apparently it’s because of a millisecond delay between the bird’s beak hitting the tree and its head moving forwards. I caught up with study’s presenter Julian Vincent and his wife after the show. She said he’s “always been full of ideas”.

My favourite act was Dan Meyer - a sword swallower from Tennessee. He eloquently talked us through his 2007 prize-winning paper “Sword Swallowing and Its Side Effects,” before ramming a 17 inch blade down his throat.

A scared looking young girl near the front asked the question everyone was thinking “does it hurt?” To which he replied “a little”

So did the evening make me laugh and then think afterwards?
Well, putting the ancient art of sword-swallowing to one side - I have to say that I found the whole thing a little bit “zany” for my taste.

Having said that, when I looked around the conference room, people were certainly laughing and there was plenty of scientific interest in the after show Q&A session. So perhaps it’s just me becoming an old fuddy-duddy before my time…

Sour grapes in the Big Apple

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Letting off steam in NYC

What do the president of the Czech Republic and the last living man to walk on the moon have in common?

Answer: they both have a thing about climate change “alarmists”

Both angry men are giving speeches at what’s being billed as the world’s largest ever meeting of climate change sceptics, in New York City.

Organised by the Heartland Institute - a US public policy think tank dedicated to free market solutions - the conference will centre around the question: “Global Warming: Was it Ever Really a Crisis?”

One of the pre-event adverts led with the statement:

Tens of thousands of scientists now say the media and environmental advocacy groups have it all wrong, that global warming is not a crisis. They point to a cooling trend in global temperatures since 2000, past warming and cooling cycles that were not man-made, and new evidence that carbon dioxide is not a very powerful greenhouse gas.

You can also watch a couple of the Institute’s short promos here.

Amongst the keynote speakers is Vaclav Klaus, President of the Czech Republic which currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

Klaus, who has an academic background in economics, is giving a talk this morning (Tuesday) entitled “We Should Not Make Big Changes over Climate Change”.

Other notable presenters include: Jack Schmitt, the last living astronaut to walk on the moon; Roy Spencer, the principal research scientist on NASA’s Aqua satellite; and Richard Lindzen of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the world’s leading experts in dynamic meteorology.

Meanwhile, over in Copenhagen this week more than 2000 climate scientists will be discussing their latest research ahead of the UN Conference on Climate Change that will take place in the city in December.

I’m guessing the outlook at that event will be rather different.

Signing the memorandum

By Hamish Johnston

Yesterday was a great day for scientists in the US.

Barack Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum on Scientific Integrity to US government agencies. The following excerpt says it all…

“The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions. If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public. To the extent permitted by law, there should be transparency in the preparation, identification, and use of scientific and technological information in policymaking. The selection of scientists and technology professionals for positions in the executive branch should be based on their scientific and technological knowledge, credentials, experience, and integrity.

While these are noble words (you can read the rest of them here) government can never be done by peer review. It remains to be seen how Obama can follow the advice of climate scientists, while dealing with many American’s desire to own a large air-conditioned house in the suburbs with two or more vehicles in the driveway.

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Science studies - blending traditional disciplines

By James Dacey

I’m a big fan of The Guardian’s Digested Read in which John Crace reviews new books by condensing them into short narratives. They’re always informative and often satirical. So borrowing his style, I’ve reviewed a new paper by the eminent sociologist Harry Collins, which looks at the changing face of “science studies” since its birth in the post war years. Hope you enjoy…

Back in the Fifties, social scientists were confident in science; in part because of the success of physicists during Second World War. My predecessors developed the naïve view that science works under democratic ideals with scientists interested in nothing but scientific truths. Socio-political realities — like the ongoing debate surrounding Eddington’s ‘clear-cut’ proof of Relativity — were simply ignored.

So hooray for the swinging Sixties! Everything from sex to ideology started to loosen up and even academics wanted in on the action. Sociologists finally realized that even science is underpinned by people power — despite what that stuffy Merton chap had said before.

Sadly though, the party was short-lived as by the late sixties / early seventies, a new scepticism was taking its grip. Terribly inconvenient eco groups were pointing out environmental damage, and after all the post war hype, society was disappointed with science and all its groupies.

At this time, a new way of thinking was sweeping through the humanities. We called it postmodernism and it passionately rejected the ontological hierarchies of modernism. Extremists proposed that all forms of knowledge are shaped equally by faith and politics. Science — previously hailed as the ultimate form of knowledge — became an obvious target and during the Seventies and Eighties we launched a series of attacks.

Victory in Idaho!

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By Hamish Johnston

It looks the the University of Idaho is not going to close its physics department after all — according to an article in the university’s student paper.

Instead of vanishing the department looks set to boost the number of undergraduate students from 28 this year to 100 in a few years time — said Wei Jiang Yeh, chair of the physics department.

You may recall that the university had placed physics on a list of departments that could be axed.

Common sense has prevailed.

By Hamish Johnston

This morning on BBC Radio 4, the mathematician Roger Penrose, physicist Basil Hiley, and philosopher Simon Saunders had a lively discussion about the “measurement problem in physics” with broadcaster Melvyn Bragg.

You can listen to it here

I got to thinking that the growing interest in building quantum computers and other information systems has put a practical spin on the measurement problem.

The “problem” the open question of how (or even if) a measurement transforms an entity such as an electron from being a ghostly combination of quantum states to being very definitely in just one state.

Many physicists believe that the clever manipulation of such ghostly combinations could be done in quantum computers, allowing such machines to outperform conventional computers on some tasks.

Such quantum computers would rely on making the right measurements — and avoiding the wrong measurements — so what had been mostly a philosophical/mathematical debate about measurement has a growing technological relevance.

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Peter Higgs with his portrait (credit: Callum Bennetts/Maverick Photo Agency)

By Michael Banks

As the old cliché goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. For Peter Higgs, a sighting of the Higgs boson, the sub-atomic particle he predicted over 40 years ago that is thought to give particles their intrinsic masses, would be worth more than a few words of congratulations - possibly a Nobel Prize.

But until the Large Hadron Collider starts up again later this year — or the Tevatron fails to spot the Higgs first — he will just have to make do with the picture.

A portrait of the 79-year-old physicist was unveiled on Tuesday at the University of Edinburgh showing a younger, slightly more rounded Higgs looking at the remnants of a particle collision.

The oil-painting, commissioned by the University of Edinburgh and painted by Scottish based artist Ken Currie, shows Higgs holding a pair of glasses and looking both towards the unseen artist and - as seen in the mirror behind - to the debris of colliding particles.

Speaking at the launch of the portrait at the university, Higgs said he was quite relieved the artist didn’t make him hold difficult poses for the portrait.

“It is a great surprise to me that the university wanted to paint my portrait,” Higgs said. “I would not have predicted it 30 years ago.” Indeed, he was rather busy predicting other things.


By Michael Banks

“Science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence.”

That is the definition of ‘science’ according to Britain’s Science Council, an organisation representing over 30 learned and professional bodies in the UK ranging from the Royal Astronomical Society to the Association of Clinical Biochemistry.

Apparently the council has spent a whole year deciding on this new meaning to provide a distinction between genuine science and psuedoscience.

So let us look at the alternatives. According to my Chambers dictionary, ‘science’ means the “knowledge ascertained by observation and experiment, critically tested, systematised and brought under general principles, esp in relation to the physical world.”

One notices in the council’s definition that science is the ‘pursuit’ of knowledge rather than that ‘ascertained’, as well as the inclusion of the ‘social’ world.

So Physics World readers, what do you think of the definition? Can you do any better? But please don’t take one year to decide!

By Hamish Johnston

The US is famous for its quirky local laws and the state of Illinois is no exception. In the town of Zion, it is apparently Illegal for anyone to give lighted cigars to dogs, cats, and other domesticated animals.

Now lawmakers in that state have turned their attentions to the status of Pluto, which was discovered in 1930 by Illinoisian Clyde Tombaugh — but then downgraded to “dwarf planet” status by the International Astronomical Union in 2006.

So the next time you’re in the Land of Lincoln, don’t refer to the ninth planet as a dwarf or you could be singing the blues in the Joliet Correctional Center for running afoul of the following…

“RESOLVED, BY THE SENATE OF THE NINETY-SIXTH GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, that as Pluto passes overhead through Illinois’ night skies, that it be reestablished with full planetary status, and that March 13, 2009 be declared “Pluto Day” in the State of Illinois in honor of the date its discovery was announced in 1930.

You can read the entire resolution here

I think the Senate’s next task should be to declare a better name for its citizens than Illinoisians — something along the lines of “Buckeyes” or “Hoosiers”.