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June 2009 Archives

What did Phoenix see?

By Hamish Johnston

In September 2008, planetary scientists told the world that the Phoenix Mars Lander had made several interesting discoveries on Mars — you can read all about it here on the NASA website.

This was duly reported by the BBC and other popular news outlets.

The scientists also wrote several scientific papers about their findings and submitted them to a prestigious journal — which now has the cheek to “embargo” the story until the papers are published!

That means that if I report on the papers before they are published I could lose my access to the journal’s embargoed preprints. Also, if a scientist had spoken to me about their paper while it was being peer-reviewed — and I had written about it — the paper could have been be dropped by the prestigious journal. Which is bad news for the researchers.

But I won’t be reporting on it because you already know what Phoenix saw on Mars!

So what is the point of the embargo? Is the journal simply going through the motions of its embargo policy — or is this a cynical ploy to get this story back into the news?

I’m not the only one wondering about the point of embargo policies — Julianne over at Cosmic Variance started a good discussion earlier this month — and of course our very own Jon Cartwright looked into the practice last year.

I suppose I’m particularly ticked-off about embargoes because last week I came across two papers on the arXiv preprint server that would have made for a fantastic news story. I spent an hour or so doing background research and then asked a freelance journalist to cover the papers. He invested more time…but guess what, both papers had been submitted to prestigious journals and the authors wouldn’t talk.

So instead of being rewarded with a scoop for my daily scouring of the arXiv, our story will be published at the same time as those who simply waited for the press release.

It’s soul destroying!

So, what do you think?

By Margaret Harris

How do you dramatize the obscure process of funding scientific research for a public audience? If you’re a general-interest publication like The New York Times, one answer is to use cancer as an example.

A thought-provoking article published at the weekend describes how the tendency to dole out grant monies to projects that are limited in scope — and therefore quite likely to succeed within their allotted few-year period — is hurting cancer research. “Playing It Safe in Cancer Research” cites as examples a study of whether people who really like food have trouble following diets (funded), and research that led to the development of herceptin, a ground-breaking treatment for certain types of breast cancer (rejected by mainstream agencies, funded by a special grant from a cosmetics firm).

It occurred to me while I was reading the article that these issues are far from unique to cancer research. Scientists in all disciplines have long complained about how the process of applying for and receiving grants seems to reward “incrementalist” research, and “You have to say what you’ll find before they’ll pay you to look for it” is a common refrain.

It seems I wasn’t alone in thinking the problem could be relevant to physics. Today’s letters section in the NY Times includes one from Lee Smolin of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, in which he suggests a “scientific venture capital” fund that would support high-risk, high-reward research using 10 percent of the existing US science budget. Another writer, neurologist Michael Rogawski, suggests funding researchers based on what they’ve already done, not what they’re proposing to do.

What do readers think of these ideas? Any other suggestions for how we should be rewarding risk-taking research?

By Hamish Johnston

…and how do we build one?

That’s the title of a paper posted by Carlos Perez-Delgado and Pieter Kok on arXiv.

The two physicists — based at the University of Sheffield — have proposed an updated version of David Di Vincenzo’s checklist for what makes a system suitable for quantum computing.

According to Di Vincenzo it must:

1. Be a scalable physical system with well-defined qubits
2. Be initializable to a simple fiducial state such as |000…>
3. Have decoherence times much longer than gate operation times
4. Have a universal set of quantum gates
5. Permit high quantum efficiency, qubit-specific measurements
6. Have the ability to interconvert stationary and flying qubits
7. Have the ability to faithfully transmit flying qubits between specific locations

The first five were proposed in 1996 and then updated in 2000 to include the distinction between stationary and “flying” qubits — the latter referring to a photon or other such particle that can transfer quantum information.

In their paper, Perez-Delgado and Kok argue that the above criteria are not general enough to evaluate the various “paradigms” for quantum computing that have emerged since 2000.

They suggest the following criteria that must be met to create a “scalable and fault-tolerant quantum computer”.

1. Any quantum computer must have a quantum memory.
2. Any quantum computer must facilitate a controlled quantum evolution of the quantum memory.
3. Any quantum computer must include a method for cooling the quantum memory.
4. Any quantum computer must provide a readout mechanism for (non-empty) subsets of the quantum memory.

1, 2 and 4 seem reasonable — but what do they mean by “cooling”?

By cooling they mean the removal of entropy (or randomness) in the context of information theory.

Entropy will leak into a quantum memory as the memory interacts in unwanted and uncontrollable ways with its surroundings. Also, entropy is generated when a quantum memory is “erased” so that the next computation can begin.

Although this cooling could be split into “error correction” and “initialization” respectively, they argue that there is a certain “fuzziness” between the two processes. I believe this is because initialization can often be a multi-step process that must involve error correction.

I’m not a quantum-computing expert, but I’m guessing that criterion 3 will be the most difficult to satisfy…

By Edwin Cartlidge in Rome

Whether string theory can tell us anything about reality is a moot point. In the last two or three years this purported “theory of everything” - in principle unifying gravity with the three other forces in nature - has been given a kicking by certain scientists who see it as a kind of intellectual play thing that makes no testable predictions. See What Gina says.. for a taste of that debate.

Certainly the names of some of the talks at the world’s leading string-theory conference, Strings 2009, held in Rome this past week, were on the abstract side. “Holography and the S-Matrix”, “Superconducting black holes”, and “Stringy instantons and duality” give some flavour of the discussions held among the roughly 500 participants at the five-day conference. The fact that the meeting was held at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas only seemed to reinforce its other-worldliness.

But help was on hand for outsiders wanting to try and understand what on Earth this all means. Earlier today, particle physicist grandee Nicola Cabibbo introduced the curious of Rome to two of the big names of string theory - Edward Witten and Brian Greene. Witten, widely regarded as the leading figure in string theory, introduced himself with a few words of Italian and then told the audience what physicists hope to discover when they finally, hopefully, switch on the Large Hadron Collider at the CERN laboratory in Geneva this autumn.

In addition to the expected Higgs boson, the endower of all mass, Witten said that within the debris of particle collisions at the LHC might also be evidence of dark matter and of supersymmetry, which says that a whole slew of new fundamental particles must exist for there to be balance in the subatomic world. And one of the intriguing things about supersymmetry is that it could provide some kind of evidence for string theory.

It was at this point that Witten handed the baton to Greene. Greene is well known for his popularization of science, and with good reason. With some snazzy graphics and his flair for performing, he told us why it is so hard to come up with a theory of quantum gravity, explaining that the smooth variation of space-time as described by general relativity “runs headlong” into the turbulent, chaotic world of quantum mechanics. Postulating that the ultimate constituents of matter are tiny lengths of string, whose different modes of vibration correspond to different fundamental particles, is one way of resolving this problem, he went on, because such strings are like spread-out points that smooth the wild undulations at the smallest scale.

This model, however, has some very odd implications. Greene pointed out that string theory requires an extra 6 (or 7) dimensions of space in addition to the three that we are aware of. Helpfully, these dimensions are so small that we can’t see them, but unhelpfully there are rather a lot of ways of curling these extra dimensions up - some 10500 different ways as it turns out. And we would have to study all 10500 if we want to find out whether or not string theory describes the real world.

For Greene, all is not lost, however. He pointed out that 10500 is somewhat bigger than 10120, and that’s a measure of how much we don’t understand dark energy. In a nutshell he argued that if we happen to live in one of the few of the 10500 universes where conditions are just right for us to exist then there’s a damn good chance that we could have such an apparently statistically unlikely dark energy. For Greene, this suggests we might be on the right lines with string theory. Others may be less convinced.

angels 4.jpg

By Hamish Johnston

When the film Angels and Demons was released last month, physicists around the world were inspired to give lectures about the “science” behind the film.

Now, someone has gathered a selection of videos and slides of these lectures in one place for your viewing pleasure.

My favourite title is The Science Behind ‘Angels and Demons’ is No Laughing Antimatter by Rolf Heuer, Boris Kayser and Leon Lederman.

Grab some popcorn and enjoy!


By Hamish Johnston

“Gina is very curious about science blogs”, writes Gil Kalai in his book Gina Says: Adventures in the Blogsphere String War .

“Can they be useful for learning about, or discussing science? What happens in these blogs and who participates in them?

Kalai, who is a mathematician at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, tried to answer these questions by entering the fray of the “String Wars” — a sometimes heated online debate about the scientific merits of string theory that kicked off in 2006.

His first post as the fictional “Gina” was on Not Even Wrong — the blog of Peter Woit, an outspoken critic of string theory who has written a book with the same title.

“Peter, is it possible to state the main points for the case against string theory — with 4-5 sentences on each? This will be very helpful. Please consider doing it…”

50 days and many postings later, Gina was “expelled” from the discussion for apparently contributing to the “noise” on Woit’s blog. Fair dues, you might think, because she wasn’t exactly up front about her intentions. However, I couldn’t help feeling sorry for Gina as she tried to ingratiate herself back into the conversation.

Gina also conversed online with Lee Smolin — who, like Woit, had just published a book highly critical of string theory. She asked Smolin to address 16 specific objections to his book The Trouble With Physics and the ensuing discussion accounts for a large chunk of the book.

String theorists Clifford Johnson (Gina’s favourite blogger) and Jacques Distler also put in appearances via their respective blogs

So what did Kalai learn from his undercover adventure? He told me that he was disappointed by what he thought was the low scientific content of the debate — he believes that it quickly turned into a political argument. “90% of the issues discussed had nothing to do with string theory”, he said.

And what about the bloggers — are they upset to discover the real identity of Gina? Peter Woit seemed rather pleased, you can read his comments here.

By Michael Banks

What do street house numbers, death rates and election results have in common?

They all follow a law, devised by physicist Frank Benford in 1938, which states that in a list of numbers from real-life data there are more entries that start with the digit “1” than any other number.

According to Benford’s law, numbers that begin with “1” occur almost 30% of the time in a list of numbers that are distributed logarithmically, such as house numbers. The higher the number the less it occurs, to the point where numbers that begin with “9” occur less than 5% of the time.

This law also turns out to be useful for checking fraudulent behaviour, for example, finding out if people have made up number on their tax return forms.

Now, however, cosmologist Boudewijn Roukema, from the Nicolas Copernicus University in Poland, has used this law to test the results from the recent Iranian election.

On 12 June it was announced that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the current Iranian president, had won the election beating main rival Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Protests then broke out in Iran disputing the results.

Then on 14 June the Iranian Ministry of the Interior released the results of the 2009 Iranian election for 366 voting areas giving Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over 24 million votes and Mir-Hossein Mousavi around 13 million votes.

Roukema noticed a strange anomaly in the votes for Mehdi Karroubi from the National Trust Party, who came in third place. He found that the number seven occurs as a first digit more often than would be expected by Benford’s law.

He found that this anomaly occurs in three of the six largest voting areas and, moreover, that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had a greater proportion of votes in these three areas than the others.

Roukema concludes that this could suggest an error in the official count of around one million votes.

However, he says that applying Benford’s law may not be able to find every “anomaly” in the election results - meaning the difference could be more significant.

“The fact that use of the first digit detected a significant anomaly in this particular case only indicates that this anomaly somehow failed to be hidden,” says Roukema. “It certainly doesn’t guarantee it’s the only anomaly.”

Meanwhile, Elham Kashefi and Vincent Danos from Edinburgh University have started collecting signatures for an appeal to call for fresh elections and to oppose violence against protesters.

german ace2.jpg
German aces Credit: Bernie Hengst

By James Dacey

How does one compare the achievements of Nobel Prize winning physicists?

Well, a couple of researchers at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) believe it can be done - look a physicist’s cyber-presence.

Mikhail Simkin and Vwani Roychowdhury open their arXiv paper by dismissing the two “standard” measures of scientific achievement:

Number of published papers - journals publish all sorts of nonsense.
Number of citations - “multiplicate by mere copying”.

They go on to propose a third way based on a previous study of theirs…

Back in 2006, these two electrical engineers published a paper demonstrating that fame of German World War I fighter pilots (measured as number of Google hits) grows exponentially with their achievement (number of victories).

In this latest arXiv paper Simkin and Roychowdhury have turned their method on its head by measuring scientific ‘achievement’ by the number of Google hits a physicist receives.

They ran Google searches for all 45 pre-WWII Nobel Laureates in Physics, and translated this into achievement using a simple logarithm.

Unsurprisingly, Einstein is the biggest cyber celeb - his 22,700,000 Google hits give him an achievement score of “1 Einstein”. Second was Max Planck whose 10,600,000 rate his achievement as 0.911 Einsteins. Third was Marie Curie scoring 0.850 Einsteins.

Just missing out on the top ten is the UK’s Paul Dirac whose 255,000 hits give him a web presence just 1% that of Einstein’s but this rates his achievement as 0.48 Einsteins.

To round things up, Simkin and Raychowbury argue that their findings are backed up by the “recent attention given to studies where very many non-expert opinions lead to estimates agreeing with reality as good or better than expert opinions”.

Hmmm… that’s a little bit vague isn’t it! And aren’t they assuming that there is an absolute measure of scientific achievement?

So, readers of, a question for you to ponder:

Can you think of a better / fairer / more useful way of comparing physicists’ achievements?

By Michael Banks

One of my favourite news stories last year was in the Sun newspaper just before the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN started up on 10 September.

“Boffins in ‘Doomsday’ rap” ran the Sun headline, which featured a grainy image of two people dressed in lab coats and hard hats in an underground lab.

The story began with “The team behind an experiment which boffins fear could destroy the world have worried sceptics further - by posting a RAP SONG about the procedure on YouTube.”

Of course, that was the “Large Hadron Rap” written by science writer Kate McAlpine, who together with a few colleagues, rapped about the LHC at CERN and what it hopes to find.

Now, however, McAlpine and her crew have released their second rap video — not about particle physics this time but nuclear physics.

The video is shot at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) at Michigan State University, which produces high intensity beams of rare isotopes.

These isotopes are only known to exist in exploding supernovae and could provide insights into the forces between protons and neutrons in nuclei.

The song, with lyrics such as “and to put your nucleus on the nuclear map,
you’ll then measure it in a detector or trap”, is unfortunately not as catchy as the original LHC rap.

However, there are a lot of nice graphics — and corresponding rap — explaining the operation of NSCL’s new $550m Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB).

The video is even shot in high definition, so no need for any grainy images this time in the Sun.

Are we alone?

| | TrackBacks (0)

By Hamish Johnston

Last week I had aliens on my mind as I looked at whether it would be possible for next-generation telescopes to spy signs of life on distant exoplanets.

The answer — at least according to — Enric Pallé and colleagues — is yes.

But what should astrobiologists be looking for?

An international team of scientists has addressed that very question in a paper to be published in Astrobiology. You can read a preprint here.

Instead of focussing on planet-star systems like the Earth and Sun — which would be difficult to study, even with next-generation telescopes — the paper suggests we should look at “super-Earths”. These are planets up to ten-times the mass of Earth and therefore easier to find and study.

These super-Earths should be in the “habitable zone” — orbiting neither too near to, nor too far from, their stars. The limitations of next-generation instruments narrows this further to super-Earths orbiting relatively close to dim stars, rather than far from brighter stars.

Once a candidate has been lined up, scientists could try to look at visible and infrared light that has passed through the planet’s atmosphere for signs of chemicals associated with life. More precisely, this involves looking for combinations of chemical species that wouldn’t be expected to coexist without the help of life — oxygen, water and carbon dioxide (or methane) for example.

Astronomers will also have to work out the temperature of the super-Earth to understand chemical processes on the exoplanet. Its radius is another crucial parameter because this is related to plate tectonics and the existence of continents.

If we have a particularly good view of the exoplanet, we might even see spectral features associated with plant life. The existence of seas, continents or ice sheets could be revealed in differences in emitted light as the planet rotates.

So, when will astrobiologists spot the first signs of life on a habitable exoplanet? Many are confident that it will happen sometime after 2014, when NASA’s James Webb Telescope is up and running.

That is, if alien life doesn’t find us first!

Form an orderly queue here: The Gemini South Telescope on Cerro Pachón in Chile (Courtesy: Gemini Observatory)

Hamish Johnston

Faced with the daunting task of spending a week evaluating a “bulging file of 113 telescope applications”, Michael Merrifield did what any sane person would do — he procrastinated.

But instead of tidying the tearoom down the hall from his office at the University of Nottingham, or putting all his textbooks in reverse alphabetical order, Merrifield joined forces with Donald Saari at the University of California Irvine to propose a distributed approach to peer review.

It seems that there is nowhere near enough telescope time to go around and as a result a small fraction of the astronomy community is burdened with deciding which proposals get the go ahead.

While most astronomers serve their time on such panels — Merrifield and Saari point out that others manage to avoid service. The pair also argue that one person cannot give a pile of one hundred or more applications the attention they deserve.

Their solution goes like this…if you want your telescope application to be considered, then you must chip-in and assess a few proposals yourself. The results would then be pooled to create a global priority list for a telescope.

The most controversial part of the Merrifield-Saari proposal is that the rankings submitted by individual astronomers will be compared to the global ranking — and those whose individual lists are in approximately the same order as the global list would be bumped up a place or two in the ranking.

Why? To “reward good refereeing” — the idea being that it would encourage astronomers to score proposals in line with “how the community would rank them, not her personal preferences”.

But is there a danger that this would make it even more difficult for more radical proposals to get telescope time?

By Hamish Johnston

If you are wondering what physicists know (and don’t know) about the recently-discovered pnictide superconductors you are in luck — because several leading lights in the field have just published on that very subject.

Over on arXiv Hideo Hosono and colleagues have posted a Progress Report on our understanding of pnictide superconductors.

Meanwhile, Igor Mazin and David Parker have a paper in PRL with a nice description of the “order parameter symmetry mystery” that researchers are currently struggling with — the paper also proposes several Josephson interferometry tests that could clear things up.

Lunar breakdown manual

By Michael Banks

If your car has ever broken down late at night, then the first port of call is, of course, the breakdown services. Failing that, then you can get your hands dirty and turn to the help of the trusted car manual.

One company famous for its owners’ manuals is Haynes who produce them for seemingly every make and model of cars, motorcycles and trucks.

But the publishing firm may now have gone one small step too far. The company has brought out an owners’ manual for the Apollo 11 mission to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong becoming the first man on the Moon on 20 July 1969.

The manual contains technical illustrations and photographs of the 1969 Apollo 11 model including descriptions of the Saturn V booster rockets as well as the CM-107 command module, the SM-107 service module and the LM-5 lunar module, which took the astronauts to the surface of the Moon and back.

The manual also contains “how it works” and “how you fly it” guides, that give insights into launch procedures, flying and landing the lunar module and even a guide to walking on the Moon.

So if one of the landing legs is a bit stuck or the lunar module hatch is jammed then who needs the 400 000 people who helped build Apollo 11, just get your hands on the Haynes manual for only £17.99.

By Michael Banks

If you have ever discovered something such as a new theory or particle then maybe the most fun part would be giving it a name.

So this is exactly what Sigurd Hofmann and his group at the Centre for Heavy Ion Research (GSI) in Darmstadt, Germany, are doing now as they rack their brains for a name for the newly discovered element 112.

Hofmann already created one atom of the element, which has 112 protons in the nucleus, in 1996 while at GSI. The element was then temporarily given the catchy name of Ununbium, after “ununbi” which is latin for “one one two”.

However, the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC), which develops standards for naming new elements and compounds, stated that the production of any new element must be independently verified at another lab first before it can be officially recognised.

The difficulty was that, at the time, there was no other laboratory in the world that could reproduce the results, meaning a long waiting game for Hofmann.

Then eight years later, in 2004, scientists at the RIKEN Discovery Research Institute near Toyko produced two more atoms of element 112. This finally convinced the IUPAC, but due to other claims on the discovery of element 112 it took the union another five years to investigate and decide who did actually discover it.

In May 2009, an IUPAC report stated that Hofmann’s group did fulfil all the criteria for creating the new element and so Hofmann can now submit a name for the element to the IUPAC.

Once the IUPAC have received the name, they will then publish it on their website for six months giving scientists and the public more than enough time to scrutinise and comment on the new name.

“Our group is presently discussing a name and we hope to present it within the next two or three weeks,” Hofmann told “However, this discussion is top secret.”

The GSI lab is getting a lot of practice naming elements as it has already found elements 107 to 111. These are Bohrium (107), Hassium (108), Meitnerium (109), Darmstadtium (110) and Roentgenium (111).

So readers have you any suggestions what they should name element 112?

By Matin Durrani

All eyes are on the great Italian thinker Galileo Galilei in 2009, in what has been dubbed the International Year of Astronomy.

It is, as you must surely have noticed, exactly 400 years ago since Galileo first turned his telescope to the heavens. As part of our contribution to the IYA, Physics World published a special issue on astronomy in March, which can still be downloaded for free here in case you missed it.

I’ve just come back from holiday in Italy and, although I sadly was not able to make a meeting held in Florence re-examining the ramifications of Galileo’s tiff with the Catholic Church, I did manage to fit in an afternoon in pursuit of that other great Italian polymath — Leonardo da Vinci.

I hadn’t realised that the “Vinci” in his name refers to the place where the great Leonardo was born — a small town in the Tuscan hills roughly equidistant between Florence and Pisa.

The medieval old town contains a fascinating museum, in which some of da Vinci’s famous sketches — including a cycle, an olive-press and a spring-powered cart — have been turned into real objects.

Sadly photography was not permitted inside the building, but you can get some idea of what’s on show by visiting the museum’s website .

What I found perhaps most interesting were some of da Vinci’s ideas for scientific instruments, including a device for measuring the humidity of air. It consisted of a balance with a candle on one side and a ball of cotton wool on the other. As the ball absorbs moisture, it tips the balance in proportion to the amount of water absorbed.

A few miles out of town lies the house where, it is believed, da Vinci was born and where, as a boy, he used to sit and sketch the rolling Tuscan countryside.

Galileo, of course, was born not far off in Pisa in 1564, some 45 years after da Vinci died. What was it about those Tuscan hills that led to two such great minds?

Star gazing (Credit: Louis Vuitton/Annie Leibovitz)

By Michael Banks

It is probably not what astronauts would use as their tool bag when in space, but the fashion house Louis Vuitton has launched an ad campaign for its famous handbags featuring former astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell and Sally Ride.

Buzz Aldrin flew on Apollo 11 and became the second man to set foot on the Moon in 1969. Jim Lovell was the commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission in 1970, who guided his crew safely back to Earth while physicist Sally Ride became the first American woman to go into space in 1983 on the space shuttle Challenger.

The ad is launched to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the lunar landings in July 1969 and is the latest instalment of the French luxury brand’s “journeys” campaign that has previously featured ads featuring the actor Sean Connery and the film director Francis Coppola.

The image of the astronauts was taken in the Californian desert and shows them sitting on and standing next to an old pickup truck while looking at the stars. They are not alone as a $1500 Louis Vuitton “Icare” travel bag sits with them on the pickup’s bonnet.

The ad is due to be in magazines in July, but the website today will start showing videos of the astronauts talking about their trips to the Moon and space and how it has changed their lives.

More than a cardboard cut-out (credit: DESY)

By Michael Banks

The ATLAS experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is going on tour. Not the real one of course, but a 150 kg wooden replica of the cathedral-sized detector.

Technicians at the DESY particle-physics lab in Hamburg were commissioned last year by DESY physicist Thomas Naumann to build a model of CERN’s huge detector at 1/25th of the actual size.

Taking over seven months to build, the model is made entirely from wood with only aluminium tubes used for the six magnet coils that surround the detector. The wooden replica is almost two metres in length and one meter wide.

The model was first on show as part of the Weltmaschine exhibition that ran in a subway station in Berlin from October to November last year.

175 Modell Atlas-Detektor.jpg
(credit: DESY)

“The model helps to explain the function of the different detector components - the tracker, the calorimeters, the muon system and the large toroidal magnets,” says Naumann, who uses the model to explain the detector to DESY visitors and members of the public.

Due to popular demand the exhibition has now gone on tour. If anyone missed the opening show at the Hamburg harbour festival on 8 May, then the next tour dates are 13 June at Hamburg University, 19 June at the long night of science in Dresden and 5 July at DESY with further shows planned in Göttingen and Heidelberg later in the year.

Once the tour has finished the ATLAS replica will go back to DESY. “The model will be in the DESY foyer where it is a nice object welcoming visitors,” says Naumann.

By Michael Banks

Everyone hears the big stories of fraud in science. Indeed, a feature in last month’s Physics World (May 2009 pp24–29) documented the rise and fall of Jan Hendrik Schön who published a number of papers in prestigious journals such as Nature and Science that have since been shown to include fabricated data.

But how common are the smaller cases of misconduct? It is not easy to get accurate data about how common misconduct is within the research community. One could, for example, look at the number of paper retractions in journals, but these only include cases that have been discovered, and possibly not all retractions are based on fraudulent work.

So who better to ask than the researchers themselves if they have ever fabricated of falsified data? Well, Daniele Fanelli from the University of Edinburgh in the UK has analysed over 20 surveys in which scientists were asked a number of questions about scientific misconduct including if they had ever made up data points or distorted their results.

Fanelli found that, on average, 2% of scientists admitted to fabricating, falsifying or have modified data at least once during their careers. While over a third of researchers said they have published papers with “questionable research practises” such as not including data in a publication that may counter their conclusions or dropping data points from analysis because they were deemed “inaccurate”.

Fanelli also analysed surveys that asked researchers about the practises of their colleagues. He found that 14% said they knew someone who had fabricated data, while a massive 72% said they knew someone who has published papers with “questionable research practises”.

As Fanelli points out, it is sometimes difficult to interpret what researchers may term as misconduct, “the fuzzy boundary between removing noise from results and biasing them towards a desired outcome might be unknowingly crossed by many researchers”.