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Physics on film

physicsworld.com's multimedia channel features exclusive video interviews with leading figures in the physics community.

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July 2009 Archives

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Image of the European Very Large Telescope credit ESO/Y Beletsky

If the telescope had never been invented, the known universe would consist of six planets, one moon, and a few thousand stars. It’s therefore fitting that one of the “official” products of the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009) should be a film history of this astoundingly important device.

Unfortunately, Eyes on the Skies is not so much a film as an hour-long public relations special, with the sheer weight of official approval — it’s a joint production of IYA2009, the International Astronomical Union, the European Space Agency, and the European Southern Observatory — tending to smother its occasional flashes of character. True, there are a few exceptions, particularly in the first two chapters, which cover the telescope’s history from Galileo’s sketches to the 5 m Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar in California. We learn, for example, that legal disputes prevented anyone from earning a patent on the telescope, and that William Herschel’s biggest scope required four servants to operate its complicated system of ropes and pulleys. A little later, presenter Joe Liske of the European Southern Observatory — known here, rather cringe-makingly, as “Dr J” — does a fine job of explaining in simple terms why reflecting telescopes can be bigger than refractors.

Once we reach the modern era, however, the slick artists’ impressions take over. At this point, Eyes on the Skies becomes a visually-stunning laundry list of ambitious projects, and its determination not to leave any of them out detracts from the overall story. The film’s website suggests that it could be shown at “public events carried out by educators, science centres, planetariums, amateur astronomers etc.”, but even with this audience in mind, one suspects that its producers might have been better off just sticking microphones in front of a handful of astronomers and asking them about their work. Indeed, the diverse group of bloggers over at IYA2009’s own Cosmic Diary website would have been a good place to start. In their case, “official” status has not lessened their passion or creativity, and they are far better ambassadors for astronomy than this beautiful but bland production.

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Peak time

By Michael Banks

When submitting an article to the arXiv preprint server you might not think it matters when in the day you do it.

But according to new analysis by the server’s founder Paul Ginsparg and Asif-ul Haque from Cornell University, it does, and it could affect how many citations the paper will receive.

They looked at arXiv paper submissions between 2002 and 2004 in three categories: astrophysics (astro-ph), high energy physics - theory (hep-th) and high energy physics - phenomenology (hep-ph).

They found that papers appearing at the top of the list each day generated more citations than papers lower down.

Researchers can submit articles to arXiv at any time of the day. However, there is a cut-off point at 4pm eastern time (EST) for papers to appear on the server on the same day, which are then published at 8pm.

Articles submitted just after 4pm EST will be published the next day. The first paper to be submitted in a certain category after this cut-off time will then be top of the following day’s list.

Interestingly enough, Haque and Ginsparg see a spike in submissions to the server just after 4pm EST (see above chart for submissions to hep-ph) as physicists jostle for top position on the next day.

Physicists’ instincts for trying to land top spot are now backed up by evidence.

Haque and Ginsparg find that papers appearing in the number one position in the astrophysics category, overall, received a median number of citations 83% higher than other papers on that day.

Articles in hep-ph taking the top four places received a median number of citations 100% higher than those published in positions 5-15. For articles in hep-th it was 50% higher.

They also found that the position of the article on arXiv also affected how many full text downloads it had.

Articles taking the daily number one spot in astro-ph, hep-th and hep-ph received a median number of downloads 82%, 61% and 58% higher than that for lower positioned articles, respectively.

This means that it is good news if you are a researcher in the US itching to get the number one spot.

However, researchers in the UK would have to wait until midnight to get a chance of being top, while researchers in Japan would have to get into the office bright and early just after 8am to secure top spot.

So when you submit your next paper to the arXiv remember to keep an eye on the time.

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By James Dacey

What is the most important research question in Earth system research that needs answering in the next decade? Why?

These two questions have been posed by the International Council for Science (ICSU) in cooperation with the International Social Science Council in a new online survey.

Responses are being encouraged from scientists but the “Earth System Visioning” project is billed as an open, moderated process where absolutely anyone can chip in. What’s more you can suggest as many questions as you like just as long as you don’t repeat previous suggestions.

If you’re interested in posting a question you’ll have to get in before midnight on August 15th. You can also comment on the questions posed by others and this feedback will be analysed at a workshop in September, which will feed into a draft research strategy. A second meeting will take place in May 2010 to take on board feedback and then a finalized research strategy will be presented later that year.

So who are the ICSU and what do they hope to achieve with this document?

Well, unless you’ve been trapped in a time warp, it’s pretty obvious by now that environmental research programmes - and those related to climate change in particular - tend to be formed at a confluence between natural science, politics, and economics.

Amongst the ICSU’s funders are UNESCO and the US National Science Foundation and a lot of the science that went into the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007) came ICSU-funded programmes.

The idea with their latest web consultation process is to help shape the environmental research agenda for the next 10 years, whilst encouraging the social sciences to play a more active role.

Is it a good idea?

Well, I saw the Age of Stupid yesterday - a new film about the imminent and severe threat of climate change - and if its gloomy forecasts are right then I really hope this ICSU survey is well thought out.

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Like this

By Hamish Johnston

I am one of the lucky few in the western world who can walk to work. It’s a five-mile (8 km) round trip and I have been doing it most days for over a decade.

Sadly, I’m getting to that age where I can feel the effects of all that walking — an occasional sharp pain in my left foot that has thus far defied a medical explanation.

So I was very interested to read this piece on the Guardian website about the role of arm swinging in walking.

According to researchers in the Netherlands, swinging arms exert a succession of alternating torques on the body, which counteract the torques created by the swinging of the legs.

In a normal gait you swing your right arm forward as your left leg swings backwards and vice versa. However, if you walk with your hands behind your back, you use 12% more energy — and if you swing your right arm and right leg in the same direction etc, you use an astonishing 26% more energy.

I had a quick try at all these gaits and I have convinced myself that I can feel the effect of the unbalanced torques.

If you are a bit more self-conscious, you can watch a video of all three gaits on the Guardian website.

It’s amazing how “natural” the walker looks when he uses the normal swing — whereas when arms and legs move in the same direction it looks like something out of a Monty Python sketch.

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Scaffolding on the LHC’s ATLAS detector during construction. Credit: CERN

It may seem odd to think of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) as a “time machine”. After all, in its usual science-fiction sense, the phrase refers to a telephone-booth-sized device you climb into before zooming off to explore the future, like the hero of H G Wells’ novel. Yet as filmmaker Yariv Friedman points out in The Time Machine, the LHC should allow physicists to study what happened in the instant after the Big Bang — thereby transporting them, in some sense, through 13.7 billion years of cosmic history.

Friedman’s documentary on this real-life time machine follows a multilingual team of scientists through the final stages of the collider’s construction, where footage taken inside the ATLAS detector offers ample proof of its complexity. Here, even the scaffolding looks complicated, like a giant adventure playground crawling with hard-hatted engineers and physicists. Interviews with scientists offer glimpses of the non-technical challenges; one team leader describes his task as “management by coffee…you have to drink a lot of coffee with a lot of different people to get to the end product”.

The most telling comments, however, come in the run-up to the collider’s gala opening in September 2008. ATLAS’ technical coordinator declares that the LHC will work because “behind every nut or bolt is someone who cares”, while another scientist confesses that he cried when he saw the first particle traces. After this initial success, the shutdown nine days later, “felt like a kick in the teeth,” admits project manager Lyn Evans. Like the project it chronicles, The Time Machine doesn’t quite get off the ground within its hourlong running time, but there’s some great material in this near-miss.

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How salaries stack up. Credit: PayScale

By Margaret Harris

Here’s a rare bit of economic good news: people with physics degrees earn more, on average, than their fellow graduates in all but a handful of disciplines.

According to this study by the US website PayScale, physicists are the sixth-highest-earning group of graduates, with a median salary of $98,800 (just under £60k) after at least 10 years in the workforce. Indeed, physics was one of only three non-engineering majors to crack the top ten, along with computer science and economics. Starting salaries for physicists aren’t bad either: $51,100, or a respectable 14th on the same list of 75 different subjects.

In addition to looking at degree subject, the study also ranked 320 US colleges and universities according to their graduates’ salaries. Readers familiar with the US educational system will find some fascinating results in the list; for example, graduates of Loma Linda University, a religious college in southern California, have the highest median starting salary, while Dartmouth College grads earn the most at mid-career.

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Caught speeding on camera?

By Hamish Johnston

The renowned Victorian physicist Lord Kelvin spent a good deal of his life at sea and had a great interest in all things maritime. So it’s not surprising that the wedge-like pattern that follows in the wake of a slow moving ship is named in his honour.

Kelvin worked out that the pattern arises because of the interference of two distinct types of waves that are created when an object moves through the water. One type of wave diverges away from the ship, while the other follows the ship.

These two waves sum to create a distinctive wedge-shape wake, outside of which there are no significant waves created by the ship.

Apparently, these “Kelvin wedges” can be easily seen in Google Earth images and two physicists in Brazil claim that the images can be analysed to give velocity of the ship.

The paper is very brief and I’m no wave expert — but it seems to me that the trick is to spot evanescent waves, which do manage to propagate a little way beyond the Kelvin wedge before petering out.

The wavelength and direction of these waves can be extracted from the satellite image and a simple equation can be used to give the speed of the ship.

The team tested their theory on an image of a ferry boat that is known to cruise at 33 km/h — and clocked it at 31 km/h.

You can read a preprint of their paper here.

The paper is less than three pages long so I’m guessing that their analysis is highly-simplified (the aim of the paper is to encourage students to analyse boats operating near to their school). I would have guessed, for example that the shape of the boat would have some effect on the wake?

Dark energy and the balance of blogging

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Credit: NASA/WMAP Science Team

By James Dacey

In my view, the real beauty of blogging is that it allows for a more free-flowing form of journalism in which the reporter brings him / her self into the story. If done well, a good blogger should be able to convey not only the news but also their experience of the news as it is happening.

Academic presentations are a favourite subject of science bloggers but what happens if one of the “protagonists” feels that the blogger has not quite grasped all the subtleties of their argument? Should the blogger go back and add more layers to their post or does this defeat the whole point of blogging - removing the personal touch and converting it into a more polished article all in one editorial concession?

Last Tuesday I went to Imperial College, London to watch a highly entertaining public debate on the small topic of “The Fate of the Universe”. On the train journey home my head was still spinning with some of the huge ideas so I decided to rattle off a blog about the event and my experience of attending of it.

Since publishing this blog I have been contacted by one of the speakers Subir Sarkar of Oxford University who enjoyed reading the blog BUT felt that it didn’t quite portray the full depth of his argument. Therefore, to keep in the spirit of blogging whilst doing full justice to Sarkar’s debate-winning presentation, we have agreed that the best solution is to publish these clarifications as a new blog post. And here it is:

Dear James,

I hope you don’t mind my pointing this out (it is your blog!) but the technical points you report are slightly different from what I actually said in two important respects.

Firstly, the large cosmological constant (aka vacuum energy) is predicted not by quantum mechanics but by quantum field theory (the union of qm and special relativity) when coupled to gravity as described by Einstein’s general relativity. Clearly something must give - either Einstein’s theory must be modified and/or there must be a mechanism that cancels the huge vacuum energy. No one has been able to figure out how … but Nature must know the trick otherwise we would not be here talking about it! Until we figure it out we ought to be wary of naively invoking (a relatively tiny) vacuum energy to explain cosmological observations.

Secondly, the observations may well be right but the inference of a cosmological constant (in terms of the present - probably oversimplified - cosmological model) may be wrong. No one has actually seen acceleration - this is inferred from the observation that distant supernovae are slightly fainter than would be expected for a decelerating universe. But this inference is based on the assumption of homogeneity - what if we are in a void that is expanding faster than the average rate so that distant supernovae are in a slower Hubble flow relative to the local ones and this creates the illusion of acceleration?

Also the 10122 number was quoted by Andrew, while I said 1060 since this is the expectation from the Standard Model of particle physics - our most successful quantum field theory - which has been verified to work very well up to energies of ~103 GeV. If QFT holds all the way up to the Planck scale of 1019 GeV then we would get the extra (1016)4 ~ 1064 factor (of course all these numbers are so huge that it does not really matter). My point was that Nature must have somehow solved this problem, otherwise the universe would have never got bigger than a mm (before becoming vacuum energy dominated). Interestingly enough, Wolfgang Pauli had apparently estimated that the universe “could not even reach to the moon” from a similar argument by taking the ‘cut-off energy’ to be the electron mass - this calculation was reproduced recently by Prof Norbert Straumann of Zurich. So Pauli concluded that vacuum energy does not gravitate (“as is evident from experience”) - but he did not explain why!

I am glad you liked Rachel Thomas’s article in Plus Magazine - I thought she did a great job of communicating the essential puzzles about the cosmological constant problem.

Best - Subir

Moonrockin’ the Science Museum

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Universal hit: Apollo astronauts took country music into space Credit: Nasa

By James Dacey

Question: What do David Bowie, U2, Coldplay and London’s Science Museum have in common?

Answer: They’ve all been given the “Eno treatment”.

Since quitting the art-rock group Roxy Music in the early 1970s the English musician / musical theorist / political commentator has become one of the most revered names in pop music, collaborating with some of the biggest names in the business. Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno — as his extended name goes — is well-known for consistently pushing the boundaries of music. Many of his albums are fused with the concepts and ideals of minimalist art and his name has become a by-word for pretty much any interesting electronic music.

In 1980 Eno worked with his brother Roger and Canadian guitarist Daniel Lanois to create the ambient album Apollo. Inspired by hearing that some of the astronauts on the Apollo missions had taken recordings of country music with them into space, Eno set out to record a concept album of “zero-gravity country music”. My own ears have never been treated to this ambient delight but my muso colleague describes it as “alien noise that perfectly captures the spirit of the Apollo missions”.

Now, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, Eno has collaborated with South Korean composer Jun Lee to perform a special arrangement of the album at the London Science Museum. The shows took place on Monday and Tuesday and the music was accompanied by original footage of the Moon landings assembled by director Al Reinert projected onto the giant screen of the Science Museum IMAX cinema.

It’s not yet clear if Eno will be repeating this show in any other venues but I will keep my ears to the ground for any ambient murmurings and let you know…

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A typical horseshoe bat (left) and Bourett’s horshoe bat

By Hamish Johnston

Most biologists believe that the giraffe’s long neck evolved to allow the creature to munch on leaves not accessible to other grazing animals. But are such extreme biological features always “optimal adaptations” to specific environmental conditions? In other words, is the giraffe’s neck simply the best possible solution for reaching those tasty treetop morsels? Or did its design come about from a complicated array of evolutionary factors, some of which had nothing to do with finding dinner?

This is an important question for evolutionary biology because the study of extreme features that are true optimal adaptations could help scientists to better understand the forces that drive evolution.

Now a physicist, biologist and mechanical engineer have joined forces to show that the unusually long nose of the Bourett’s horshoe bat is the optimal size for focusing a beam of ultrasound — which the bat uses to navigate.

Native to the rain forests of south east Asia, the bat has a nose that’s about 9 mm long — which is about twice the length of a typical horseshoe bat.

The team used a computer model to calculate the acoustic properties of the “noseleaf” — a structure that protrudes from the bat’s nose and is made of made of folded skin called “sella”

You can read their paper in Physical Review Letters.

They looked at a number of different nose lengths and “By predicting the width of the ultrasonic beam for each of these nose lengths with a computational method, we found that the natural nose length has a special value”, explained team-leader Rolf Mueller of Virginia Tech. in the US.

“All shortened noses provided less focus of the ultrasonic beam, whereas artificially elongated noses provided only negligible additional benefits. Hence, this unusual case of a biological shape can be predicted accurately from its physical function alone.”

So that’s how Bourett’s horshoe bat got its big nose.

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The CFHT dome at night. Credit: Jean-Charles Cuillandre

By Margaret Harris

We’ve received several more physics-related films in the months since the film review series that appeared on physicsworld.com earlier this year, so we’ve decided to run a new batch of reviews over the next couple of weeks. First up: Hawaiian Starlight by Jean-Charles Cuillandre.

With its sweeping panoramas of galaxies, nebula and the cluster of telescopes perched atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano, Hawaiian Starlight is the ultimate astronomy screen-saver. At least, that’s how it comes across if you watch it on a computer screen in a brightly-lit office. On a big screen in a dark room — perhaps with a drink, and the right group of friends — I suspect it would be a near-spiritual experience. Throughout the film’s 43-minute running time, images of interstellar objects alternate with time-lapse footage of the telescopes that took them. And that’s it. There is no voice-over, no gesturing science “personality” to ram home the significance of what you’re watching, nor even much text. It is just you, the stars, the scopes, and a curiously hypnotic soundtrack borrowed from the Halo video game series. It’s marvellous.

Part of the marvel is the sheer dedication of filmmaker Jean-Charles Cuillandre, an astronomer at the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope who spent seven years collecting footage of telescopes and the Mauna Kea landscape. The resulting time-lapse movies make up the bulk of the film, and range from simply beautiful to delightfully whimsical. At 1000 times normal speed, a telescope dome opening and closing bears a striking resemblance to Pac-Man, and “cute” is really the only word for a sequence in which three sub-millimetre telescopes twitch in time with the music.

But for the most part, this film inspires wonder rather than giggles. We all know the official reasons for placing telescopes on remote mountaintops: clear skies, thin atmosphere, and low light pollution make for better images. Watching Hawaiian Starlight, however, one wonders whether more subtle factors could play a role: the awesome environment of Mauna Kea’s summit must surely encourage its scientific visitors to think deeply about the universe.

Asking the big questions in London

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Trivial matters: Subir Sarkar sets up for his dark energy demolition job

By James Dacey

People often ask me - usually in bewildered tones - what is was that could possibly have appealed to me about physics, let alone convinced me it was a good idea to go study this baffling subject at university.

So it goes… I normally find myself agreeing with them that school physics could be intensely dull, inaccessible, and completely disconnected from everyday life. “But”, I tell them, it was the big ideas that got me in the end - the sense that I was grappling with some of the most profound questions we could ever ask. More recently, I have developed an interest in some of the more “mundane” areas of the subject - particularly the pursuit of sustainable energy innovations - but it is still the bigger picture stuff that really feeds my passion.

I was reminded of all this last night when I popped along to Imperial College in the heart of London town to attend a public debate on “The Fate of the Universe”. The two speakers tackling this small topic were Imperial’s own Andrew Jaffe - an astrophysicist who you may know through his blog Leaves on the Line; and Subir Sarkar - a theoretical physicist from the Rudolf Peierls Centre at Oxford.

Jaffe was up first and he introduced the idea of dark energy. He is a firm believer in the stuff and pitched the model as a means of explaining why the rate of expansion of the universe is speeding up when really it should be slowing down under the attractive force of gravity. The American physicist argued that, whilst not perfect, dark energy is the best model we have to fit the data.

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By Hamish Johnston

Is it cold and rainy where you are?

Then why not pack your bags for Hanford, Washington, where the forecast calls for blazing sunshine and temperatures in the mid-30s (90s in old money) for the rest of the week.

While in town you could take a guided tour of the famous “B Reactor” at Hanford, where much of the plutonium for the Manhattan project was made. Some of this material ended up in the “Fat Boy” bomb that detonated over Nagasaki.

After fuelling many a cold-war weapon, Hanford B was shut-down in 1968 — but instead of being “entombed” like its neighbours, the reactor was designated a National Historic Landmark last year.

The plan is to turn the reactor into a museum and the Department of Energy is gearing up by offering occasional guided tours of the site — and the BBC’s Rajesh Mirchandani boarded the tour bus for what was a front line in the Cold War. You can watch his report here.

But don’t bring the kids — tourists must be at least 18 — and wear sensible shoes.

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Hanford guide Michelle Gerber

Remaining tours for this year are on July 25, August 8, 15, 22, and 29
and September 5, 12, 19, and 26. Hanford’s online booking system says the tours are fully booked, but suggests you check back occasionally in case anyone has dropped out.

And if Hanford B is like most defunct reactors worldwide, it will be there for a very, very long time — so you’ll get your chance to see it eventually!

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Martin Schwarzschild being interviewed in 1977

By Hamish Johnston

If you’d like to listen to Werner Heisenberg compare the physics prowess of Arnold Sommerfeld, Max Born, and Niels Bohr , just click here and you will be taken to the new online Oral Histories section at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives.

The American Institute of Physics — which runs the library — has unveiled a vast online archive of interviews with some of the 20th century’s most prominent physicists.

The archive includes pioneers of quantum theory such as Heisenberg and Max Born, Paul Dirac, Niels Bohr and Eugene Wigner.

The list of histories reads like a Who’s Who of physics. The earliest interviews were done in the 60s and the latest — including NASA’s James Hansen were done quite recently.

Most of the histories are available as written transcripts, but a few voice clips are also available — including Heisenberg, Hans Bethe, George Gamov and Steven Weinberg.

A word of warning about the site: I found that many of the links didn’t work — and I could not actually listen to Heisenberg and company (this could be a problem with my browser). But it’s worth persevering.

Is this the ‘Article of the Future’?

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I can’t believe they used to print these things out!

By James Dacey

Do you relish the challenge of ploughing through online abstracts in search of the article’s “bottom line”?
Do you still print out all your papers before going at them with the fluorescent pen?
Do you still love the arcane language and the classic layout: intro - method - results - images - discussion?

Well, your habits could be about to change with the launch of a new initiative by a leading scientific publisher. The Article of the Future project by Elsevier has set out with a modest aim to “redefine how a scientific article is presented online”.

One of the key features of the new format is a kind of web-based filing system in which different aspects of the research - i.e. intro, images, discussion - can be “taken out” and viewed separately.

Intros are different - including a bulleted article highlights section and a graphical abstract. Multimedia is present throughout such as interviews with the authors. If interested, you can see a couple of prototypes of the new format here.

Elsevier say the project is intended to promote interdisciplinary scholarship and help readers identify more quickly which papers are most relevant to their interests.

So how will this new format go down in the physics community?

I reckon pretty well, though I’m sure some purists - especially the theoreticians - will argue that you can’t always reduce the subtlety of their arguments to a few bullet points.

What’s more, if this does catch on with other publishers, it will be interesting to see how the bloggers respond. Because it seems to me that a large aspect of their job at present is to trawl through the piles of paper and pick out the highlights from their field. But if the journal publishers have already done this… what then?

One outcome is that they become more critical. The bloggers will - once and for all - move away from just cheerleading for their chosen specialism. We might see a new form of blogging in which the key players start championing / laying into research with a new-found vigour.

Well, whatever happens I reckon this is another key development in an interesting transitionary period for both the publishing and media sectors.

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Catching up on the latest physics

By Michael Banks

Sorry, not at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva or Fermilab’s Tevatron in Batavia, Illinois, but at our office here in Bristol.

This morning, Physics World’s postbag contained our very own Higgs boson plush toy sent from Julie Peasley at Particle Zoo.

Particle Zoo, based in Los Angeles, makes plush toys of all your favourite particles including the neutron, electron as well as particles that have not yet been discovered such as the graviton.

Recently, Particle Zoo even branched out from just making particles to produce a plush toy of the cosmic microwave background and higher-dimensional “branes”.

Physics World can confirm that the mass of the Higgs is surprisingly large and that it is currently taking pride of place in the office next to the latest issue of the magazine.

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Apollo 11 photograph: too good to be true? (NASA).

By Hamish Johnston

Today is the 40th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s stroll on the Moon so it’s not surprising that conspiracy theorists are one again arguing that the Apollo programme was a hoax.

This morning Marcus Allen, UK publisher of Nexus Magazine — which specializes in conspiracy theories — was interviewed on BBC radio.

He thinks the Apollo landings were hoaxes, partly because of the “high-quality” of the photos taken by crews on the moon. In particular, he claimed that it would be impossible to take such nice photos under the extreme conditions on the Moon — and even if you could, the film would be fogged by the ambient radiation experienced by the mission.

Martin Ward, Head of physics at Durham University, was on hand to debunk the debunker. He explained that the extreme temperatures are a red herring because the lack of atmosphere on the Moon means that the camera and film would take a long time to heat up or cool down once outside the lunar module. As for the effects of radiation, Ward pointed out that lots of other photos have since been taken in space and have not been fogged.

You can listen to their exchange here.

Although I have no doubt that the Apollo missions were real — it’s interesting to ask the following question:

“Would it have been much easier (and much cheaper) to fake the Apollo programme and cover it up for 40 years, than to actually put people on the Moon?”

If you apply Occam’s razor to this question, you may find yourself siding with Marcus Allen…which is what makes the the Apollo missions all the more amazing!

By Hamish Johnston

There have been several small slippages lately in the restart date for the LHC.

We haven’t been reporting them because they tend to be on the order of a week or so, which isn’t much in the overall scheme of things.

But they do seem to be adding up.

Peter Woit has been documenting them on his blog and you read about the latest here.

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Gates and Feynman

By Hamish Johnston

In case you haven’t heard, Bill Gates has bought the rights to seven lectures by the late Richard Feynman, which were filmed by the BBC in 1964 — a year before Feynman shared the Nobel Prize in Physics.

You can watch them for free here — all you need to do is download and install a bit of software from Microsoft (which took me a minute or two).

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The first lecture (it gets better).

Feynman had a reputation as an entertaining speaker, who could convey complex physical concepts to the general public.

The Messenger Series of lectures is also available as a book entitled The Character of Physical Law

By Hamish Johnston

If you visit rural North America in the winter you might be surprised by how many homes are heated by burning wood in sophisticated “dual-fuel” central heating systems.

But is this good for the environment?

Yes — as long as the wood comes from sustainably managed woodlots, according to Paul Grogan at Queen’s University in Canada.

Writing in the Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education, Grogan and colleagues claim that a woodlot 3.5 hectares in size would provide an average household with carbon-neutral heating in perpetuity.

The reason, of course, it that carbon given off by woodburning is offset by new growth in the woodlot.

The usual objection to such biofuels is that they are derived from nasty monocultures that displace food crops. Not so in Grogan’s calculation, which is based on a woodlot of native species — so it’s good for the local ecosystem.

And in many parts of North America — particularly in the East — the amount of native woodland is actually increasing as unproductive farmland is taken out of production. So food crops are not being displaced…

…or are they?

I’m guessing that some of this farmland is going out of production because it is cheaper to grow food in say Mexico and then truck it across North America — than it is to grow the same crop 50 miles from New York City.

So, should we ‘split wood, not atoms’ as that old hippy bumper sticker says?

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Courtesy: WPCA

By Hamish Johnston

…what do they have in common?

The answer can be found it the latest issue of Physical Review Letters.

In 1831* Michael Faraday published a paper in the Journal of the Royal Institute of Chemistry about what has come to be called “the wagon wheel effect”. The most familiar example is the illusion that a spoked wheel rotates in the wrong direction as a wagon moves across the screen in a motion picture.

This effect can usually described as a simple function of the angular frequency of the wheel and the frame rate of the film. However, under certain conditions the illusion defies this simple explanation — suggesting that part of the effect is related to how our nervous system and/or brain processes flickering images.

Writing in PRL three physiologists at McGill University argue that the flickering images picked up by the eyes amount to a periodic forcing of nonlinear neural oscillations. These oscillations occur naturally in the nervous system at frequencies of 1-100Hz, whereas a movie projector usually operates at 24 frames per second — so there might be something to it.

1831 was a busy year for Faraday. He also published a paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society that introduced “Faraday heaps” to the world. When a tray of sand is shaken up and down, a number of small heaps are formed. These combine into larger heaps and eventually the tray contains jut one large heap.

While physicists understand why the single heap is the most stable configuration — a mathematical description of the merging process had remained elusive….until now.

Writing in the same issue of PRL and international team filmed the evolution of Faraday heaps in the lab and used these data to derive a set of differential equations that describe the process.

So that’s two 178 year old mysteries solved…

*According to PRL Faraday’s wagon wheel paper was published in 1831 — but according to the Royal Society of Chemistry website, this journal only began in 1841. Another mystery to ponder!

By Hamish Johnston

How do you decide if one academic physicist is “better” than another — a tricky question that has perplexed funding agencies and hiring committees for years.

You could simply tote up how many times he/she is cited in papers by other researchers to give a measure of how an individual is contributing to the collective development of scientific knowledge.

Sounds easy enough, but the tricky bit is assessing the quality of those citations. Being name-checked by a Nobel-prize winner is presumably better than being cited by an obscure researcher, for example

It’s pretty complex stuff — so it’s not surprising that four physicists in the emerging field of complexity science have tackled the problem using “ranking algorithms developed in the context of the World Wide Web”. These are clever programs similar to those Google uses to rank a website in terms of how many other highly-ranked websites link to it.

You can read all about it in a preprint entitled Diffusion of scientific credits and the ranking of scientists by Filippo Radicchi, Santo Fortunato, Benjamin Markines and Alessandro Vespignani in Italy and Indiana.

The researchers looked at the entire Physical Review publication archive from 1893-2006 — that’s more than 400,000 papers and nearly 4 million references to other Physical Review papers.

They began by creating a “paper citation network” by looking at how one paper (call it a) cites one or more papers ( b and c say).

The team then broke the links down in terms of authors. If a has one author ( a1 ) and b has two authors( b1 and b2), then b1 and b2 would each get half a link from a1. The result is a “weighted citation network between authors” or WACN.

In order to get a measure of the impact of an individual physicist, the team devised the “science author rank algorithm” or SARA. Each author of a paper is given a “credit”, which is divided amongst all the other authors he/she has cited. These credits “diffuse” back in time — this is where the equations get a bit hairy — and the impact of an individual physicist is related to how many credits diffuse to him or her.

The team then used SARA to rate physicists. When they looked at the period 1967-1973, seven out of the top ten were Nobel laureates. The top five (Gell-Mann, Weinberg, Schwinger, Feyman and Lee) are mostly known for their work in particle physics. Philip Anderson in sixth place, is the highest condensed matter physicist in the ranking.

Fast-forward to 2003-2004 and there are only two Nobel winners in the top ten (three if you count Walter Kohn who bagged a chemistry prize in 1998). Philip Anderson took first place and Steve Weinberg is the only particle physicist in the top five — the rest are condensed matter researchers.

If you look a little further down the list you see leading lights in quantum information — Ignacio Cirac at sixth place and Peter Zoller in twelfth — a portent of things to come perhaps.

So can we conclude that leading condensed matter physicists are better than they were twenty years ago? Probably not. Remember that this study only looks at Physical Review journals, and maybe particle physicists aren’t publishing there anymore? Or maybe the citation cultures of particle and condensed matter physics have changed over the past twenty years.

Oh, and if your are wondering how SARA ranks you or your friends, just type your name in here.

By Hamish Johnston

More embargo-related cheek from a prestigious journal…

There is an editorial in today’s Nature about the effect that science bloggers and digital camera owners are having on the discussion of preliminary results at conferences.

You may recall the physics paparazzi incident in which conference attendees photographed slides of preliminary data from an experiment and then posted their analyses on the arXiv.

The editorial asks if it is desirable — or even practical — to stop conference goers from publicizing someone else’s preliminary results?

Nature has made the case that blogging by researchers is good. Critical discussion of worthy results should not in principle be restricted to walls of a conference hall or even the pages of a journal”, says the editor.

But wait a minute, isn’t this the same journal that places embargoes on its papers, forbidding scientists from speaking to the public — and presumably blogging — about their work until the paper is published?

Indeed it is, and the editorial concludes that in some situations it is appropriate to ban blogging from conferences. The argument being that such closed shops would encourage the free exchange of controversial scientific ideas.

The same can’t be said about the journal’s embargo policy.

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The new arXiv?

By Hamish Johnston

Is the love affair with the arXiv preprint server on the wane?

In case you have never heard of it, the arXiv is a vast online repository of physics papers, most of which are uploaded before they have passed muster by peer review. It is seen by many as a shining example of how the Internet can be used to accelerate the dissemination of knowlege — and some see it as a key step in the evolution away from the traditional journal publishing model.

But not everyone is a fan of the Cornell University-based service.

Maverick blogger Tommaso Dorigo is leading a campaign to expose the alleged “blacklisting” of certain researchers, who claim that their papers are not being uploaded to the server — or being relegated to “graveyard” categories.

Oxford University’s Marni Sheppeard — who believes she may be on such a blacklist — has posted a link to an alternative to arXiv called viXra.org.

viXra has just been launched by Phil Gibbs (who I think is an independent physicist) and contains one paper — an essay entitled This Time - What a Strange Turn of Events! by Phil Gibbs.

Elsewhere in the blogosphere, David Bacon calls for more transparency in the arXiv’s editorial policies.

So, are Tommaso, Marni, Phil and David just a few dissenting voices in an otherwise happy physics community, or is the love affair with arXiv waning?

I’m sure this is a completely unrelated incident — but Bacon also asks has the arXiv been hacked?.

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The target station at the Material Life-Science Facility

By Michael Banks

The paint has yet to dry here at the J-PARC experimental complex in Tokai, Japan.

Today I visited the Material Life-Science Facility (MLF), which produces neutrons and muons that are used in a variety of experiments in materials science to biology.

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under wraps…for now

At J-PARC, a 3 GeV synchrotron feeds the MLF with a intense beam of protons that are then smashed into a 20 tonne mercury target to produce neutrons.

Theses neutrons are then cooled using a water moderator before being sent to a maximum of 23 experimental stations.

If you like your research equipment brand new, then you have come to the right place. I could not find a single piece of kit that looked used. Even the box containing spanners looked like it had just been opened that morning.

So far 15 instruments at the MLF have been funded by the Japanese government and eight have already been built at a total cost of around $70m.

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A crystal diffrotometer – the ‘cage’ – for biological samples

The MLF has been operational since May 2008 when it produced its first neutron beam. At the moment, however, the beam has a power of 18 kW, which when fully operational is expected to reach 1 MW (the ISIS neutron source in Oxfordshire, for example, operates at 160 kW).

According to Masatoshi Arai, deputy director of the MLF, training the beam to full power will take around five years to complete.

The MLF has already had its first users. From the 100 proposals submitted last September for beamtime, 10% were from scientists based abroad, 10% from industry and the rest from scientists in Japan.

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Inside the target chamber

Interestingly, Aria told me that the Japanese government would only fund the MLF if it gave 25% of its beamtime to industry users – a decision that was reached at a meeting in 2000 that lasted until 5am in the morning after a full night of negotiations.

It was not only a great opportunity to walk around the facility and squeeze into all the sample rooms, but I also had the chance to see inside the mercury target chamber.

Once a high-powered beam has been used at the facility, access to the target chamber is strictly off limits due to the increase in radiation levels. Indeed, 1m deep perspex ‘windows’ are used to look into the target chamber.

Aria has spent the last nine years fully focused on getting the facility finished and is now looking forward to returning to his research into superconductivity.

Yet he isn’t quite finished thinking about the next steps for the MLF. “It is early days, but we already have plans for a second target station and then even more experiments,” says Aria.

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Last week science journalists flocked to London from all corners of the globe

By Matin Durrani

My colleague James Dacey has already blogged twice (here and here) about last week’s World
Conference of Science Journalists in London, but I thought I’d give my take on the meeting.

I chaired a session entitled “Blogs, big physics and breaking news”, which examined the challenges that physics bloggers pose to journalists and looked at the merits and downsides of such blogs.

The session was inspired in part by the incident a couple of years ago, when Tommaso Dorigo — a member of the 600-strong CDF collaboration at Fermilab — discussed on his blog A Quantum Diaries Survivor possible sightings of the Higgs boson in the decay of a Z-boson to a pair of tau leptons.

Although Dorigo — and other bloggers who discussed the data at the time — emphasized the uncertainty inherent in their results, his blog entry was picked up by journalists, who reported the story around the world. (Physics World gave a full account shortly afterwards of what happenned, which you can read here ).

That all seems fine on the surface — journalists dug out a story on particle physics that might otherwise have not seen the light of day.

Even better for journalists was the fact that Fermilab was not exactly chuffed that the discussion was out in the open — new results in particle physics are usually only made public after being “blessed” by the collaboration and published in a scientific paper.

But Dorigo was unhappy at the way his analysis was reported, which he claimed did not underline the uncertainty in the data. What’s more, it raises the question of the whole point of science journalism: if someone is really interested in Dorigo’s analysis, why bother with possibly inaccurate science stories in the media? Why not go straight to the blogosphere instead for the “real” story?

Admirably, Dorigo agreed to speak in London, braving an audience of about 100 of the world’s science journalists in the Edwardian-style Methodist Central Hall. On the stage alongside him were former Physics World features editor (and particle physicist) Matthew Chalmers, and CERN communication chief (and particle physicist) James Gillies

What followed was an entertaining debate, which saw this issue — and others — aired in a friendly and open manner.

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Shoji Nagamiya, director of J-PARC, outlines the accelerator complex

By Michael Banks

Imagine having a world-leading neutron and muon source, a particle accelerator capable of boosting protons to 50 GeV, and a neutrino facility all on one site.

Well, you don’t have to any longer, as this is exactly what the $1.5bn J-PARC accelerator complex in Tokai, 100 km north of Tokyo, has to offer.

Today, physicists from around the world, myself included, met in Tokyo to celebrate the opening of the J-PARC accelerator complex after 12 years of construction.

The main aspects of J-PARC revolve around its 3 and 50 GeV synchrotrons. The 3 GeV synchrotron ramps up a beam of protons to smash them into a mercury target producing copious amounts of neutrons and muons that are then used in a range of experiments in biology to condensed-matter physics.

Meanwhile, the 50 GeV synchrotron, which is currently only operating at 30 GeV, accelerates protons before smashing them into a graphite target to produce kaons and neutrinos.

The inauguration held at the Kudan Kaikan centre in central Tokyo was attended by around 1000 scientists.

First to speak was Shoji Nagamiya, director of J-PARC, who has been with the project since its inception in 1999.

Unfortunately, during my few days in Tokyo I haven’t yet picked up the language, so I didn’t understand most of his or the other talks as they were given in Japanese.

After Nagamiya came a roster of dignitaries to the stage to offer their congratulations for the completion of J-PARC. These included the Japanese science minister, Ryu Shionoya, as well as Akito Arima, the former Japanese education minister and Masaru Hashimoto, governor of the Ibaraki prefecture, where J-PARC is based.

Next up was Makoto Kobayashi from the KEK lab, who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize with Yoichiro Nambu from the University of Chicago and Toshihide Maskawa from Kyoto University. Kobayashi gave a brief lecture about the new science that J-PARC hopes to unveil.

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Steve Koonin gives a recorded message of congratulations

Steve Koonin, under secretary for science at the US Department of Energy also give a brief recorded message (in English) of congratulations saying that J-PARC represented “another great venture in Japanese science”.

After the talks had finished, scientists from other countries who helped to build J-PARC were named and invited to the stage.

Then Nagamiya flashed a slide up saying that any foreigner in attendance should come to the stage.

I couldn’t really hide away and was duly encouraged to go on the stage along with some other members from the audience.

I felt somewhat embarrassed to be applauded by over 500 Japanese scientists, but it was a nice touch to the event.

However, it was not all about talks and being red-faced on stage and after the talks a lavish banquet was put on with sushi and sashimi.

After the inauguration I caught up with Nagamiya, who said it was not always easy to build such a big lab that was a partnership between the KEK lab and the Japan Atomic Energy Agency. “Now I feel confident about the project,” says Nagamiya, “but when I started I was less confident. What is especially pleasing is that the world is leaning towards new neutron and neutrino facilities, so we are setting the trends.”

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The Cheomseongdae observatory

By Michael Banks

Being the International Year of Astronomy, what better time than to go and see Asia’s oldest surviving observatory.

The Cheomseongdae (star-gazing tower) observatory in Gyeongyu, South Korea, dates back to the seventh century and was built during the reign of Queen Seondoek of Silla.

The Silla dynasty began in 57 BC and reigned for almost 1000 years. It was one of the three kingdoms that ruled in Korea, but by 660 AD it had occupied the other two kingdoms - Baekje and Goguryeo — to rule most of the Korean peninsula.

The observatory is around 9m high and is built by 356 stones representing each day in the year. Seemingly everything about the construction of the observatory has some meaning. The observatory has 27 layers of stones as it is thought that Queen Seondoek was Silla’s 27th ruler. Then, above and below the opening is 12 layers of stone for every month in the year.

The Queen’s astronomer would climb to the top of the observatory every day to take a view the sky. Using a ladder, he would clamber through the opening in the observatory and then climb to the top. There he would give information to the Queen about weather patterns and the timings of any solar eclipse.

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The Pohang Accelerator Laboratory

By Michael Banks

The number of synchrotrons in the world seems to be increasing with every month that passes by. Indeed, only a few months ago the Shanghai Synchrotron Radiation Facility China started experiments, closely followed by the PETRA III light source in Hamburg, Germany - adding to the 50 or so light sources operational worldwide.

Synchrotrons are used by researchers for a range of experiments in everything from condensed-matter physics to biomedicine by providing radiation from the infra-red to hard X-rays that can be used to solve protein structures and study quantum dots.

I visited South Korea’s only synchrotron, the $270m Pohang Accelerator Laboratory (PAL), which is on the Pohang Univeristy of Science and Technology (POSTECH) campus located in the South East of the country.

Opened in 1995, PAL is a 2.5 GeV light source that can house up to 27 beamlines around its 200m circumference.

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A public-private initiative. On the left is POSTECH’s first president, Hogil Kim, and on the right is the former chairman of POSCO, Tae-Joon Park.

Interestingly, I learned that PAL was built with both public and private funding. A local company, POSCO, which is now the world’s second largest steel manufacturer, funded the synchrotron with $190m, with the remainder coming from the Korean government.

PAL is open to scientists from other countries, but most of the experiments are carried out by scientists in Korea. Research carried out at the synchrotron now leads to over 8000 published papers every year with around 60% of them in international journals.

Researchers at POSTECH, which operates and owns PAL, are now hoping to upgrade the synchrotron to increase the number of beamlines as well as increasing its energy to 3 GeV. If the Korean government funds the upgrade it will begin construction late next year

South Korea also has other ambitious plans for an X-ray free electron laser facility — so-called fourth generation light source — that is only just in the proposal phase. If it is built then it would be situated next to PAL on the POSTECH campus making Pohang a leading centre for research in East Asia.

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Highclere: they don’t build them like they used too
By Hamish Johnston

If you ask a British physicist to name a successful university spin-out, chances are they will say Oxford Instruments.

The company was founded 50 years ago by Martin and Audrey Wood — and has become a “household name” in physics labs throughout the world.

Yesterday I was invited to a series of lectures in celebration of the firm’s golden anniversary at the magnificent (and I don’t use that word lightly) Highclere Castle near Newbury.

Highclere is home to the Earl of Carnarvon, whose great-grandfather — along with Howard Carter — discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen. Under the house is a small museum dedicated to King Tut, and we were given a personal tour of the collection by the present Earl. Upstairs in the grand rooms one can also admire several family portraits by Joshua Reynolds.

But enough about Highclere…I was there to learn how a firm founded around a kitchen table in 1959 — and used a garden shed as its first manufacturing facility — has grown to employ over 1500 people in 25 offices worldwide.

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Sir Martin Wood

As its name suggests, the firm had its origins at Oxford University’s physics department, where Martin Wood’s day job involved designing and building lab equipment — including high-field magnets, which the Woods realized that they could make and sell.

According to Audrey Wood, who is also the firm’s historian, the early success of the company can be traced back to the 4th of November, 1961 and a decision made on a New York subway train. The Woods were in town for a physics conference and became convinced that they should wind magnets using superconducting wire.

Although superconducting magnets are more expensive than their copper counterparts, they can deliver extremely high magnetic fields without the need for large and very expensive power supplies.

At the time there were only about 10 facilities worldwide that had the need for — and could afford running — Oxford’s high-field magnets. By switching to superconducting magnets, the Woods figured this would rise to 10,000 potential users.

They were right…and soon the magnets were so popular that the users were struggling to buy enough liquid helium to cool them. This led to another crucial decision by the Woods — to buy a helium liquefier in order to supply its customers. This signalled the beginning of a cryogenics business group that became famous for its commercial dilution refrigerators — which can cool samples to below 2 mK.

But the biggest boost to the company’s fortunes came in the 1980s with the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems for medical use. In order to keep pace with the demand for MRI magnets, the company was floated on the London stock exchange in 1983.

Martin Wood was knighted in 1986 for his services to science. At Highclere he described how being treated shabbily at his first job — making farm machinery at the the age of 15 — left him wanting to start a company that would thrive by treating its employees with respect. He certainly seems to have done that.

Science fiction on science journalism

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He loves a good metaphor

By James Dacey

Science reporting should make more use of metaphors in order to explain difficult technical concepts. That is the opinion of Geoff Ryman, an award-winning science fiction writer, voiced at the World Conference of Science Journalists in London yesterday.

Ryman, who is also a lecturer at the University of Manchester, subscribes to the “mundane” school of sci-fi - rejecting “sexy” ideas like flying saucers and tentacled aliens in favour of more down-to-Earth, preferably “human” concepts. In 2006 he won the Arthur C. Clarke award for Air, a novel based on the idea of a successor to the internet which connects people’s brains via an invisible substance… known as Air.

Ryman’s line of argument - and it’s a well-trodden one - is that the general public only tend to engage in science and technology writing when it is presented to them in everyday concepts. “The best science writing tells a human story,” he said and, as a science fiction writer, he places himself amongst the “lay readers” drawing inspiration from ideas that touch him on an emotional rather than an abstract level.

According to the author, science journalism need not be any different from his approach, other than the fact that it’s obviously “limited” by scientific truths.

Sitting there yesterday, I thought Ryman did make some good points and he certainly delivered them in an eloquent way. But it also seems to me that he holds a very narrow view of science and scientists, painting them as abstract entities, disconnected from the rest of everyday life. This is simply not true.

I reckon that the distinction between good science and good fiction is a lot muddier than this because clear communication is absolutely integral to both. Many of the great scientific ideas have been presented with a devastating clarity through striking metaphors. Take Darwin’s Tree of Life, take String Theory, take the Big Bang… and I’m sure there’s plenty more. Anyway, the survival of these ideas has - in my opinion - been aided by their ability to reduce the complexity of nature into simpler, everyday concepts… just like a work of great fiction.

Let me know what you think…

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Countdown to Copenhagen

By James Dacey

Canada and Japan pose a serious threat to achieving a planet-saving deal in Copenhagen this December, warned Sir David King, former Chief Science Advisor to the UK government, speaking yesterday at the World Conference of Science Journalists that is taking place in London this week.

He was, of course, referring to the UN Climate Change Conference, which is set to thrash out a successor to the Kyoto protocol when it reaches the end of its first stage in 2012.

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that global greenhouse-gas emissions will need to be cut by 80% of 1990 levels by 2050 if we are to ensure that global temperatures do not rise more than 2 degrees by the end of the century.

Over the course of two weeks in the Danish capital, officials from 192 nations will gather to address four main objectives:

1) Legally-binding targets - on carbon emissions;
2) Clarity on how developing countries should be expected to act;
3) Financing - how we going to cover the economic cost of maintaining acceptable living standards in low carbon societies; and
4) Governance structure - how the international community will work together to take the deal forward.

Yesterday in the UK capital, Sir David King urged the developed nations to “show their cards” now so we they can begin to formulate mitigation and adaptation plans in the lead up to December. “The debate has moved on - it is no longer a question of whether man-made climate change is happening but what to do about it”.

The former professor of physical chemistry at Cambridge University then went on to warn of a worrying shift in the positions of the Japanese and Canadian governments. King accused these nations of waning interest in tackling climate change, and attributed this to the recent scrapping of the role of chief scientist in both nations.

But when asked about the viability of mitigating climate change through large-scale geoengineering projects, King played his own cards surprisingly close to his chest:
“I am yet to be convinced that any of the existing options would be worth investing in, but I would like to see more research in this area.”

However, when pressed for his course of action in the event of an unsatisfactory result in Copenhagen, King did reveal a couple of back-up plans:

Plan B look for legal avenues that could stall the protocol from being implenented
Plan C lobby for a strong bilateral agreement between China and the US that could have the international clout to bring about a revision of the agreement.

“Obviously, I am a bit reluctant to discuss these options because it will appear that I am losing faith in plan A - which is by far the most desirable option,” he said.

By Hamish Johnston

Not exactly, but they are near the top of the league table when it comes to publishing the same paper in two different journals — according to a preprint from sociologists Vincent Lariviere and Yves Gingras at the University of Quebec in Montreal.

The pair combed millions of papers published between 1980-2007 looking for articles with the exactly the same title, first author and number of references. They found nearly 5000 papers that had been published twice — or about 0.05%.

They then compared the abstracts of the duplicate pairs (when available) and found that more than 52% were identical — and the remaining 48% very similar.

So how did physicists make out?

Nearly 0.08% of papers were duplicates, putting physics in second place after “engineering and technology” with over 0.11%.

Lariviere and Gingras point out that the high number in engineering and technology could be related to the large numbers of conference proceedings published in this field. Interestingly, I had a chat about this with a few journals editors here at IOP Publishing and they told me that publishing a paper in a conference proceedings and then a journal seemed to be a common practice for engineers.

Does this duplication matter?

It does if hiring committees or funding bodies simply tote up a candidate’s publications. However, if it’s quality they are looking for, then duplicate papers appear to be rather poor — Lariviere and Gingras show that the average “impact factor” and number of citations of the duplicates is about 65% of the average value for a physics paper.

Are there legitimate reasons for publishing the same thing twice?

I suppose your could make a case if the research cuts across two different disciplines that rarely read each other’s journals.

But in an age when peer-reviewed publications are the currency of success, it does seem like counterfeiting.