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May 2009 Archives

By Michael Banks

This month was undoubtedly a good time to be an astronomer. The European Space Agency launched the Herschel and Planck satellites that will map the geometry of the universe and study the formation of the earliest galaxies.

While NASA astronauts upgraded and repaired the Hubble Space Telescope to extend the mission’s life until 2014 and giving it increased resolving power to image galaxies in even more detail.

One would think that these missions, in conjunction with the International Year of Astronomy, would help astronomy grow in the public’s imagination. So this year is perhaps a good time as any to take stock and improve how astronomers are perceived by the public.

Michael West, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), has documented some examples of how astronomers in the past have been revered, reviled and also ridiculed as well as offering some ideas about how astronomers can improve their public image.

But why do astronomers care about their image? Well, according to West most developed countries spending on astronomy “is usually equivalent to the cost of one or two cups of coffee per resident” so during times of economic difficulty astronomy could be a tempting subject to cut.

Indeed, astronomers in the UK might concur with West as the UK recently cancelled funding for the Clover telescope, which would have searched for the signatures of gravitational waves in the Comic Microwave Background.

So as astronomy is funded by the taxpayer and also needs the support of politicians to get funding, West points out that the image of astronomy matters greatly.

West documents a number of examples when astronomers had enjoyed favourable public opinion or even elite status including a time as far back as 840 AD when an imperial edict issued by the Tang dynasty said that Chinese astronomers “are on no account to mix with civil servants and common people.”

More recently, West points to a poll in the New York Times in 2005 where the public voted the fifth most prestigious occupation as being an astronomer or physicist.

But perceptions have not always been so rosy. According to West, the recent debacle when the International Astronomical Union stripped Pluto of its planet status was a “public relations disaster” causing the public to express their outrage about the decision.

West points to a review of the fiasco by astronomers David Jewitt at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy and Jane Luu at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They conclude that the public perception of astronomers has been damaged as a result and that “millions of people now think of astronomers as having too much time on their hands and are unable to articulate the most basic definitions.”

So what are his solutions? Not surprisingly, West says that astronomers must learn to communicate with the public and points to a programme run at ESO that gives astronomers media training and helps them become better science communicators.

West also says that astronomers should join the social networking bandwagon and use websites such as Twitter and Facebook as well as writing blogs to communicate their results to the public.

Indeed, the astronomer Edward Bigelow noted in a letter to the magazine Popular Astronomy that “the greatest present need of astronomy, is not more big telescopes and big observatories, but a more favourable public opinion.” That was not in 2009, but 1916. Almost 100 years later, West sees these sentiments just as relevant today.

How your research makes the headlines

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By James Dacey

I wrote last week about Ben Goldacre, the impassioned medical doctor cum journalist who is waging war against the crackpots and media institutions who churn out sensational headlines based on Bad Science.

For a lighter take on the science news cycle check out this comic by Jorge Cham, originally posted on his website

Like all good observational humour it is devilishly witty whilst capturing the essence of an everyday activity. With a liberal sprinkling of hyperbole!

Some of the keener researchers out there may be familiar with Cham from his talks on the conference circuit.

Cham began producing comics about life in academia whilst studying for his PhD in mechanical engineering at Stanford.

Since realising where his talents and passion lie he has been working full time on his comic strip Piled Higher and Deeper.

And yes I do see the irony in posting a blog about “churnalism” based on the content of someone else’s website…

By Hamish Johnston

The US Secretary of Energy told the BBC this morning that there is “considerable opposition” to cutting greenhouse gas emissions amongst the nation’s lawmakers. As a result, he believes it will not be possible to achieve President Obama’s goals on reducing the country’s carbon footprint.

On a bright note, the Nobel-Prize winning physicist said that the US was blessed with an abundance of sunlight — and a significant portion of its energy needs could be delivered by photovoltaic arrays in its south-western deserts.

However, he admitted that much work needs to be done before the technology is available.

You can hear the interview here, just scroll down to 0716.

By Hamish Johnston

Over the past few years, scientists have discovered more and more evidence that liquid water has shaped the surface of Mars.

However, there is also evidence that the average global temperature on the red planet has been well below the freezing point of water.

So how were those features formed?

Well, anyone who lives in a cold climate knows that adding salt to ice will cause it to melt at a lower temperature than pure water.

Now, an international team of scientists are saying that the same effect could be at work on Mars.

The researchers modelled the freezing and evaporation of Martian water, assuming that it contains the same minerals that had been detected by Martian landers.

They concluded that liquid could indeed flow on Mars at temperatures well below zero Celsius.

The study has just been published in Nature.

By Hamish Johnston

“A chance to celebrate measurement and precision”, that’s how the BBC’s Sarah Montague introduced an interview this morning with the National Physical Laboratory’s chief scientist John Pethica about World Metrology Day.

On this day in 1875 the “Metre Convention” was signed in Paris by 17 nations. It provides the basis for the international agreement on units of measurement that exists to this day.

While Pethica did his best to explain why we need to agree on standard units, Montague asked him if “people who like pounds and ounces should be sad today?”.

I thought it was rather silly to try to whip up controversy on World Metrology Day — and Pethica didn’t rise to the bait.

Instead he pointed out that regardless of what units are used locally, there should be a universal system of measurement.

That reminded me of the amazing Gimli Glider incident in 1983, when an Air Canada Boeing 767 ran out of fuel in mid-flight. Why? Someone forgot that the airline had just switched from measuring fuel in gallons to litres - yikes!

The crew decided to make an emergency landing on an abandoned airstrip in Manitoba. What they didn’t know is that had been converted into a dragstrip — and there was a race going on.

Amazingly no-one was seriously hurt — but now airlines take fuel metrology very seriously!

And what is NPL doing to mark World Metrology Day? It’s the formal opening of the National Measurement Office at NPL which is putting togehter a “coherent plan” for all measurements.

You can listen to the interview here — you’ll have to scroll down a bit to 0744.

The perfect formula for a talk

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Impassioned defender of scientific integrity Credit:

By James Dacey

“Exhilarated but strangely depressed… without meaning to take anything from any of the previous speakers, I feel that was the best talk we’ve ever had at this Festival.”
These were the sentiments of last night’s host following Ben Goldacre’s presentation at Bristol’s Festival of Ideas.

Medical doctor by day, Goldacre is perhaps best known for his weekly Bad Science column in the Guardian in which he ridicules the mass media’s coverage of science, attacks quackery and debunks pseudoscience. Being a science reporter, I could have found certain aspects of Ben’s 70 minute tirade mildly uncomfortable, but I found myself completely agreeing with the host… it was a pitch perfect rant!

Amongst Goldacre’s many targets were the “churnalists” who simply rehash press material without checking the facts. His pet hate are the “mathematical formula” stories, which are invariably pumped out by corporate giants and invariably contain little or no scientific basis. “News editors love them” he said irreverently. Named and shamed were “the worst day of the year” sponsored by Sky Travel, and the “best day of the year”: an early summer’s day, it turns out, sponsored by Wall’s ice cream.

Had Goldacre curtailed the evening there, he may have come across as a bit of a killjoy for attacking something that is only really a bit of fun after all. However, this background provided a platform for the doctor to expose what sees as more sinister dealings, like those of a European pharmaceutical company who are currently suing Goldacre, The Guardian, and (astonishingly) Medecins Sans Frontiers, for accusations made against them.

“You know you’ve gone wrong somewhere when you wake up and realize you’re suing Meds Sans Frontiers,” Goldacre quipped.

An exceptional rant. This has really raised the bar for Michio Kaku, Freeman and George Dyson, the well-known physicists, who will be coming to Bristol to speak at the festival next week.

NRU is not getting any younger

By Hamish Johnston

In December 2007, medical physicists in North America were starting to worry about the dwindling supply of molybdenum-99 — from which the medical isotope technetium-99 is made.

The problem was that the NRU reactor in Chalk River, Ontario had been shut-down by Canada’s nuclear regulator over safety concerns — and the reactor was (and probably still is) the continent’s sole supplier of molybdenum-99.

The reactor was restarted after about a month when the Canadian government over ruled its own officials and production resumed.

But now, the reactor has stopped again thanks to a heavy water leak that was discovered on Friday. Atomic Energy of Canada, which owns the facility, is repairing the leak but says that NRU will be out of commission for more than one month.

The company also said that it will stop shipping medical isotopes from NRU on 23 May — and molybdenum-99 has a half-life of just 66 hours.

NRU produces isotopes for MDS Nordion — I just looked at their website and there is no mention of any possible shortages.

Recently, Nordion joined forces with the TRIUMF lab in Vancouver to explore the possibility of making molybdenum-99 using an accelerator.

If this scheme works, I think NRU deserves a dignified retirement after 52 years of service to physics — including supplying neutrons to the winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Indeed, even I worked briefly at NRU in the late 1980s — the reactor seemed ancient even back then and its shut-down seemed imminent!

Far too much antimatter — and her hair looks too thick and shiny to be believable

By Hamish Johnston

No, not about the Austrian pull-out — Angels and Demons of course.

The BBC sent a reporter to Geneva for a special screening last night of the film Angels and Demons for CERN physicists.

The film — based on a book by Dan Brown — involves a plot to destroy the Vatican using anti-matter produced at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

The LHC does produce antimatter, but one CERN physicist told the BBC it would take ten times the age of the universe to accumulate enough antimatter to do the dastardly deed.

The Vatican is of course in the Eternal City, so perhaps the plotters have time on their side.

What did the physicists think of the rest of the film? You can listen to their comments here

By the way, 13,381 folks have signed the online petition to keep Austria at CERN.

Sexy physicists and a plot to destroy the Vatican

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CERN at Hollywood Credit: Sony Pictures

By James Dacey

Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own. He stared up in terror at the dark figure looming over him.
‘What do you want!’
La Chiave” the raspy voice replied. ‘The password.’

For those of you not familiar with Dan Brown’s flamboyant writing style, these are the opening words of his novel Angels and Demons - a no-holds-barred thriller involving a sexy Harvard physicist, crafty assassins, and a plan to obliterate the Vatican with antimatter stolen from CERN.

Tom Hanks and Ewan McGregor star in a film adaptation, which in on general release in the US this week.

I must confess I haven’t actually read the book (the prequel to the Da Vinci Code), but my friend told me about an event called Angels and Demons - the Science explained and I was sufficiently intrigued to pop along. There was some free wine and snacks too… but that had no bearing ;-)

The idea of the evening was to come meet some CERN physicists based at the University of Bristol and ask them absolutely anything at all about particles, the universe and everything.

I was at a table with James Jackson, a Z boson specialist who was certainly made to work for his free Chardonnay and peanuts. For over an hour he was grilled with “ok, this might sound silly but what if…” type questions, which invariably strayed into the realms of the metaphysical.

The event was organized by the Centre for Public Engagement at the University and is part of their twilight talks series.

Meanwhile yesterday at the real CERN, a very real drama was unfolding in the aftermath of Austria’s proposed withdrawal from the facility. They will be only the second existing country to do so since CERN was created as an act of European solidarity in the Post War years (Spain left in 1969 but then rejoined in 1983). In the past 24 hours alone, over 4000 people have added their names to an online petition against the proposal.

Naively assuming that all physicists would have heard this news, I found myself delivering a Dan Brown style page-turner when I mentioned it. The Bristol researchers seemed a lot more shocked than I would have expected.

“Austria may only be minor financial contributor but there is a danger this will set a precedent,” said Nick Brook, head of High Energy Particle Physics Group at Bristol.

By Hamish Johnston

After a buzz of activity in 2004-2008, it looked like it was going to be a quiet year for supersolid enthusiasts — until about two weeks ago, when two papers appeared in Science on that mysterious state of matter that may (or may not) exist.

One of the papers (by Seamus Davis and crew at Cornell) suggested that supersolids may in fact be “superglasses”.

Now, supersolid pioneer Moses Chan and colleagues at the Pennsylvania State University have published a paper in Physical Review Letters that seems to back-up the superglass theory.

The first evidence for a supersolid was seen in 2004 by Chan and Eun-Seong Kim, who noticed that around 1% of the atoms in a sample of solid helium seemed to “decouple” and flow effortlessly through the rest of the mass like a superfluid.

While this effect has been reproduced in several other labs — the relative size of the decoupling has varied from 0.02% to 20% in different samples.

One common thread through these experiments seems to be the amount of disorder in the solid helium — with nearly-perfect crystals showing relatively small amounts of supersolidity and disordered solids showing lots.

Another thing is that the solids with the highest decoupling are very thin. Indeed, the 20% figure was seen by John Reppy and Sophie Rittner at Cornell in a film just 150 μm thick. This seemed to suggest that there is an ideal surface-to-volume ratio for supersolidity.

In their latest work, Chan and team also looked at a 150 μm thick film of solid helium — and saw a decoupling of about 1%.

So what was different?

Because of their experimental set-up, Reppy and Rittner froze their helium in about one minute, whereas Chan’s samples took at least 4 hours to solidify. Chan believes that the rapid cooling of the Reppy/Rittner film could leave it in a (highly disordered) glassy state , which seems to boost supersolidity.

Things are heating up again for supersolids!

Weird stuff: a model of the Wendelstein 7-X outer magnet

By Matin Durrani

It’s amazing who you can meet at a conference.

At a sumptuous four-course dinner at Prague’s Kaiserstenjsky Palac last night - held as part of Europe’s Research Connection conference — I sat next to an Italian architect called Pietro Laureano, who researches the ancient tradition of digging tunnels in the Saraha desert.

Sounds a bit mad, but as he explained to me through mouthfuls of “saffron risotto with smoked salmon and red parmesan pancakes”, the water condenses underground, creating pools from which you can drink or use to irrigate crops. He’s funded by UNESCO and has written a book all about it.

On my right was another Italian architect and anthropologist, who has written, among other things, a book on the history of pasta. He reckons that pasta was never a tradiational Italian dish but has only became so after being eaten by Italians who left for new lives in other countries. Pasta came to embody what it meant to be Italian, apparently.

Anyway, back to physics.

Out in the exhibition at the conference, I caught up with physicists from a couple of projects we’ve been following on Physics World over the last few years. One is ASPERA - a European group seeking to improve the continent’s work in astroparticle physics.

As Thomas Berghöfer from the DESY lab in Hamburg explained, they’ve been funded through cash from the European Commission to form what is known in the jargon as a European Research Area Network (ERA-NET). With seven big new facilities on the drawing board, it’s a concrete example of what the European Research Area is all about - enhancing Europe’s strengths in science through co-ordinated action.

Meanwhile, Patrizio Antici was on hand to talk about Europe’s plans for a European Light Infrastructure - a planned exawatt laser that would be a thousand times more powerful than Megajoule in France or the National Ignition Facility in the US. (Memo to Physics World’s news editor: this is something we need to keep readers updated on.)

I also bumped into Chris Ibbott, a mechanical engineer who, working closely with physicists, helped to design one part of the ITER fusion reactor that’s currently being built in France. In front of a scale-model of the experiment, he explained just how complex this facility will be, not least trying to keep the plasma stable.

That’s why the Wendelstein 7-X reactor in Greifswald, Germany, is interesting: it can keep a plasma stable without needing a central solenoid. The snag is it’s got an outer magnet bent into a really weird shape, as the model in the photo above shows.

Like digging water-gathering tunnels in the Sahara or trying to get 27 separate European nations to collaborate, the Wendelstein 7-X reactor seems weird, but it might just work.

Revolutionary thinker: Jeremy Rifkin (right) with European research commission Janez Potocnik

By Matin Durrani

I can’t say I was hugely inspired by the opening address here in Prague at the Research Connection conference by European Commission science and research commissioner Janez Potocnik.

There was lots of hot air about “synergy leading to new quality”, “capacity building”, “structural and cohesion funds” and “community instruments”. I almost fell asleep.

To be fair to the Slovenian former economist, he admitted that while the conference features some top speakers, he wasn’t sure “it is polite to include myself in this category”. Refreshing honesty from a politician.

Much more interesting was the main plenary address on sustainable energy by Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and advisor to the European Union. He’s also head of a group of 100 industrial bosses committed to “address the triple challenge of global economic recovery, energy security and climate change”.

So clearly a guy with fairly small ambitions.

In a doom-laden first half of his talk, Rifkin warned how too many politicians have completely underestimated how bad climate change will be — his talk was of anything up to 70% of species going extinct, oil supplies peaking within the next decade, and plenty of floods, storms and disaster.

Thankfully Rifkin has a solution — distributed energy.

Just as the computing Grid can carry out massive calculations by farming out chunks of processing to individual computers around the world, so distributed energy would involve individual houses and factories generating electricity using solar panels and wind turbines.

It’s revolutionary stuff — gone would be big, centralized oil-, gas-, or nuclear-powered stations. In would be small scale production, distributed around the world.

Better still, if it works, the idea is that people would sell unused energy to other people connected to the Grid.

It’s what Rifkin calls the “third industrial revolution”.

I was interested that Rifkin reckons the European Union is at the forefront of this idea — he hopes the EU will champion it at this year’s Copenhagen climate-change conference — whereas the US is still more resistant to it.

But as he pointed out at a later press conference, Obama has twigged what he’s on about and once the US sets itself a challenge, it could end up implementing distributed energy much faster than Europe’s fragmented nation states could.

Rifkin’s a polished performer and a man for the soundbite. Potocnik - take note. It might get you noticed.

Right, where’s that solar cell…

Fusion followers: the COMPASS reactor in Prague with delegates to the Research Connection conference

By Matin Durrani

When they reach retirement age, physicists in many countries are simply told to pack their bags and go.

Not so for Jan Stoeckel, former head of tokamaks at the Insitutute for Plasma Physics in Prague. When he turned 65, he simply stepped down from the hotseat, found a successor in Radomir Panek, and carried on working.

At least that’s what he told me yesterday on a fascinating guided tour of the institute’s COMPASS reactor, organized as part of the European Commission’s massive 2009 Research Connection conference Connection conference here in Prague.

In a sort of parallel with Stoeckel’s career, the COMPASS reactor, which used to be based at the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s based in Culham, was all set to be mothballed until the IPP stepped in with an offer to rebuild it in Prague.

As Stoeckel explained to me as he took me round the brand new building in which COMPASS is housed, the reactor was originally built in the late 1980s, but was sold to the IPP for one pound in 2007, shipped to Prague and rebuilt over the last 18 months.

What makes COMPASS still useful is it that it is essentially a scaled down, one-tenth version of the ITER fusion reactor being built in Cadarache in southern France.

Although COMPASS initially won’t actually fuse nuclei together - deuterium-tritium reactions can be dangerous and expensive - the reactor will still be useful to study turbulence in hydrogen plasmas. And because it’s basically a tiny version of ITER, that work should give invaluable insights into how to keep ITER’s plasma stable.

No expense spared: the Janacek Chamber Orchestra

By Matin Durrani

To adapt the immortal words of the singer Billy Bragg, if you’ve got a gravy train, I want to be on it.

It was in that spirit — and the quest for journalistic truth of course — that I accepted an offer from the European Commission for Physics World to go on an all-expenses trip to its 2009 Research Connection conference in Prague in the Czech Republic. The country currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union.

The offer looked too good to refuse with over 1500 European researchers convening on the Prague Congress Centre for an event designed to showcase the best of European research funded by the Commission’s massive €50bn, seven-year Seventh Framework research programme.

Two nights in the luxury Corinthia Towers hotel didn’t sound too bad either.

Clearly the Commission is not short of cash - it has invited about 100 other journalists from across Europe to attend as well - and laid on a concert by the Janacek Chamber Orchestra at Prague’s Municipal House last night, followed by a lavish “cocktail dinner”, which was a kind of topnotch buffet.

I was taken to the venue by the very kind physicist Jan Stoeckel, former head of the Institute of Plasma Physics at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. He had shown me round the COMPASS fusion reactor earlier in the day, which I’ll say more about in my next posting.

The Fermi space telescope

By Hamish Johnston

“…2009 promises to be an illuminating year for dark matter”.

So wrote this sage of physics, just before Christmas.

It turns out that my crystal ball got one thing right — we will learn something important about dark matter this year, and that is we are going to have to look even harder for direct evidence of the elusive stuff.

Two papers published earlier this week provide pretty convincing evidence that ‘direct evidence’ is not going to be forthcoming from current measurements of how many high-energy electrons and positrons are whizzing around our little patch of the universe. One paper is from the Fermi telescope group and the other is from the HESS collaboration.

The papers offer strong evidence that these fluxes can be explained without the need of dark matter — and in particular the annihilation of dark-matter particles in the halo of our galaxy.

The excitement began last summer when ‘physics paparazzi’ photographed a slide of data from the PAMELA detector showing what appeared to be an excess of high-energy positrons. This lead to a flurry of activity as some physicists analysed the unpublished results and pointed to DM annihilation.

Then in November physicists working on the ATIC experiment published results suggesting an excess of high-energy electrons — which they suggested could come from DM annihilation.

However, a few weeks earlier the PAMELA team posted a paper that should have dampened my spirits — but I foolishly ignored it, something that at least one reader has since pointed out to me.

PAMELA should have also seen a bump in the ratio of anti-protons/protons in the cosmic ray flux caused by dark matter annihilating to create anti-protons. But the bump wasn’t there.

Now, data from two new detectors — Fermi and HESS — have been analysed and there seems to be no evidence of dark matter annihilation.

If you are interested in the nitty gritty, Tommas Dorigo has a data-point-by-data-point commentary on data from both detectors on his blog.

Anaconda prototype in action

By Hamish Johnston

Last year we told you about the Anaconda — a giant rubber tube that could generate about a megawatt of electricity from ocean waves.

The mouth of the beast faces the wave front, which creates a bulge in the tube that grows as it propagates to the tail. There, it is converted to electricity by a conventional turbine.

This morning on BBC Radio 4 I heard an interview with Paul Auston of the UK-based company Checkmate Seaenergy — which has been testing an 8-metre-long prototype in a wave tank owned by the defence technology company Qinetiq.

Auston told the BBC that tests prove the device works and the firm is now looking for more cash so it can build full-sized Anacondas — 200 metres long — for testing in the ocean.

Apparently, an Anaconda can provide electricity for about 1000 homes.

In the spirit of David MacKay, I reckon 6000 kilometres of tubing would be required to supply all homes in the UK with electricity.

That’s a lot of rubber — and Auston seemed to suggest that the tubes would be made from natural rubber (he didn’t say if it would be organic).

About 10 million tonnes of natural rubber is produced every year — a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that this is more than enough to make all that tubing.

So, it looks possible!

You can read a print version of the interview here

If you want to listen to the interview, it’s in the first hour of today’s programme. Unfortunately the BBC does not create snippets of first-hour interviews so you will have to listen until it comes up.

Two Cultures: 50 years down the line

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CP Snow saw a dangerous void in culture

By James Dacey

Fifty years ago this month, academics filed into a packed lecture theatre at Cambridge University to hear the English physicist and novelist CP Snow deliver his now famous talk about “The Two Cultures”, which was later published as a book.

Snow’s central argument was that there exists a dangerous gulf in the modern world between top level “scientists” and the “literary intellectuals” of the humanities.

In the main, Snow blamed this on the snobbery of literary intellectuals who unfairly characterized scientists as uncouth and lacking in culture.

As an anecdote Snow described his experience of dinner parties where literary intellectuals were quick to scoff at a scientist who could not recall Shakespeare but bristled at the suggestion that they should be acquainted with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.

Snow warned that this lack of cohesion between science and the humanities was leaving society ill-equipped to tackle some of the complex problems the world was facing, including the widening gulf between the rich north and the poor south, driven by industrialization.

Over the past fifty years, Snow’s lecture has received as much criticism as praise, mainly for its informality, stereotyping and vague definition of culture. However, the fact that the Two Cultures debate still resonates in 21st Century academia, is probably testament to Snow’s great insight.

Tonight, in London, the Royal Society is hosting a public debate to revisit the Two Cultures argument and to discuss how it applies to our situation today.

The event will be hosted by the nation’s favourite polymath Melvyn Bragg, and panellists will include John Denham, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and Marcus du Sautoy, the Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science.

For a more detailed look at Snow’s lecture and its impact over the past 50 years, take a look at Robert Crease’s article in the latest print edition of Physics World.

Daily Show correspondent John Oliver at CERN (credit: Matthew Searle)

By Michael Banks

One of my favourite political satire shows is the US programme The Daily Show starring Jon Stewart.

So when Daily Show correspondent John Oliver went to the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva to do a piece on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), I couldn’t wait to see their take on it.

The six minute piece aired on the 30 April edition of the show (you can watch it here), and it didn’t disappoint.

The first person Oliver met was “the pioneering particle physicist” John Ellis, who, according to Oliver, was “clearly an evil genius up to something.”

“Nobody with expertise in physics or astrophysics thinks there is the slightest risk of any danger,” says Ellis, after Oliver asks him what is the likelihood that the LHC will destroy the world.

Cue Walter Wagner, a high-school physics teacher, who infamously filed a federal lawsuit in the US District Court in Honolulu last year to prevent the LHC from starting up. He told Oliver there is a one in two chance that the LHC will destroy the world.

The funniest part is when Oliver asks Wagner to give more details about the “50/50” chance of survival.

“Well, if you have something that can happen and something that won’t necessarily happen, it’s going to either happen or it’s not going to happen, and… so the best guess is 1 or 2,” says Wagner. To which Oliver says to a slightly bemused looking Wagner, “I am not sure that’s how probability works Walter.”

Richard Breedon, a particle physicist at CERN, falls into a similar trap laid by Oliver. As they stand in the CMS cavern Oliver asks how safe is the collider.

“This place is perfectly safe,” says Breedon confidently. “So why are we wearing hard hats,” Oliver quips. The taken aback Breedon stumbles and then answers, “it is safe for safety” - “checkmate”, says a voiceover from Oliver.

The segment ends with Wagner and Oliver in a bunker where Oliver says they may as well try and breed if the world is about to end and they are the only two people left. “It’s worth a shot”, says Oliver, “there is a 50% chance it might work.”

Is Googlespeak killing creativity?

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Stephen Wolfram: creator of much-discussed new web tool

By James Dacey

Ludwig Wittgenstein, the mathematician, philosopher and infamous black swan of 20th century academia, argued that words - in themselves - are meaningless. Words, according to Wittgenstein, only pick up significance from their use in “language games” - the rules of which are governed by culture.

Fast-forward to 2009 and the way language is used is changing at an ever-increasing pace. Undoubtedly, one of the key drivers of this change is the Internet, which has brought about a revolution in the way knowledge is stored and communicated.

Now, British-born physicist Stephen Wolfram - of Mathematica fame - is about to alter the way knowledge is shared even further. He has created the world’s first “web-based question answering system”, which he says will remove the “linguistic fluff” of other search engines and “make expert knowledge accessible to anyone, anywhere, any time”.

Basically, it will enable you to instantly attain facts using an economy of words. For example, type: “proton mass” and immediately receive your answer in MeV and kg.

Wolfram Alpha will launch this month and, according to a BBC news report, some industry experts are saying it will become as important as Google.

In other news yesterday, the UK Government announced large reforms to the education system that will drag the internet right into the heart of schooling. One of the implications is that web tools, like Wolfram Alpha, could start to replace dusty old text books in the classroom - from physics to history classes.

Already, the proposals have sparked some criticism. Writing in The Times today, John Sutherland, Emeritus Professor of Modern English at UCL, argues that the increasing use of computers in the curriculum is leading to a lexical poverty amongst students.

“Many skills have been enhanced by the computer but vocabulary, I suspect has been shrunk, rigidified and deadened,” he writes.

So what are we to make of all this - is the internet squeezing out creativity from education?

It seems quite reasonable for Sutherland to warn against losing the creativity that the ebb and flow of language can inspire in students.

However, whilst the English professor’s sentiment is important, it’s all a bit predictable from someone in his position.

Of course, the other side of the argument is that by removing the “dust and fluff” of stayed educational materials, we can free up pupils to develop a creative, varied approach to learning that will prepare them well for the 21st century workplace.

As always, I’m sure the solution will be a compromise between the two positions.

One thing has become crystal clear though. Like it or not Internet culture is moving ever deeper into the heart of education and tools, like Wolfram Alpha, will start to take a more active role in the language games that take place there.