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August 2009 Archives

By Hamish Johnston

Starting today and running for the rest of the week on BBC Radio 4:

“Crawford Logan reads from Thomas Levenson’s biography of Isaac Newton and his rivalry with one of 17th-century London’s most accomplished and daring criminals, William Chaloner.”

The action starts at 09:45 BST here .

Or you can listen to Newton and the Counterfeiter at your leisure using the BBCs iPlayer facility.

It’s a Hard Life for Brian May

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Guaranteed to blow your mind

By James Dacey

As the recession trundles on and the Pound slumps to unprecedented lows against the Euro, many Brits are shying away from foreign travel this year — instead heading to the once popular tourist towns of the English South coast.

If you happen to be holidaying in Devon on 5th of September, anywhere near the town of Torbay, then why not pop along to the Torbay Bookshop. Queen guitarist turned astrophysicist Brian May will be signing copies of his popular science book BANG! The Complete History of the Universe, which has just been released in paperback.

Accompanying the guitar legend will be the book’s co-authors — and regular TV presenters of things “spacey” — Sir Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott.

I can’t make it along myself, sadly, but I wonder if Brian will be chucking in a free copy of his PhD — A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud — which was published for popular audiences around this time last year

One of Galileo’s first telescopes

By Michael Banks

Today marks an important date in the calendar of the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009).

400 years ago, on 25 August 1609, the astronomer Galileo Galilei presented his first telescope to policy makers from the Venetian Republic.

Galileo ushered the lawmakers into St Mark’s Campanile - a bell tower in St Mark’s Square — in the heart of Venice to present his latest invention.

Impressed with seeing objects such as ships from a great distance, the telescope obviously left its mark as Galileo’s salary was doubled and he was also awarded life tenure at the University of Padua.

Galileo probably made a lot of cash from selling the telescope to merchants who found them useful at sea and as items of trade.

However, Galileo is, of course, best known for the mark he has left on the history of astronomy. (As always Google have their own tribute to the anniversary)

To mark the IYA2009, earlier this year we published an interesting article about how one of Galileo’s early telescopes was being rebuilt by researchers in Italy to study what Galileo may have been able to see.

Staff at the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, Italy, together with the Arcetri Observatory, also in Florence built an exact replica of the device that Galileo gave to his patron the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo II, in about 1610 that could magnify distant objects by up to a factor of about 20.

The Galileo anniversary is, however, not the only one in astronomy on this day.

Today also marks the 20th anniversary of NASA’s Voyager 2 craft coming closest to Neptune on its grand tour of the outer planets. (click here for the article we will be publishing in the September issue of Physics World about the anniversary)

The two Voyager craft — named Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 — launched on 5 September and 20 August 1977, respectively, (yes, the dates are the right way round) and completed their grand tour of the solar system 20 years ago.

Possibly one of the most successful space missions, the two craft are now on their way to the boundaries of the heliosphere - the ‘bubble’ of space blown by the solar wind into the interstellar medium.

So if you are feeling inspired by the Galileo anniversary and want to see for yourself what he could have observed 400 years ago, then you can always get your hands on your very own Galileoscope.

‘Nondiscovery’ creates media ripple

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Gravitational waves could be detected using interferometry Credit: NASA

By James Dacey

Big physics projects like the LHC that tackle some of the most fundamental questions in science are clearly a double-edged sword for journalists. On the one hand, it is relatively easy — and can be very enjoyable — to “sell” the sheer enormity of the research questions and the infrastructures involved in the projects themselves. On the other hand, it can be very difficult to pin down and explain the actual “news” when these things start to slowly churn out results.

One project that falls into this category is the search for gravitational waves that has been taking place over the past few years. Gravitational waves are vibrations of space-time predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. A number of interferometery experiments are currently trying to detect gravitational waves by measuring tiny changes in the separation of two masses that are expected to occur when the waves traverse a detector.

As gravitational waves have been able to propagate freely since the beginning of the Universe, the hope is that direct detection could yield significant information about the first 380, 000 years after the Big Bang when the Universe was opaque to electromagnetic radiation.

In this week’s edition of Nature, a cohort of researchers report the latest findings from two of the major players in this search for gravitational waves - The LIGO Scientific Collaboration located in the US and the Virgo Collaboration in France and Italy. The paper reports the latest data from these two experiments collected 2005 - 2007, and discusses the implication of these results for the standard picture of cosmology.

The bottom line with this new paper is that both collaborations are yet to find evidence for the existence of gravitational waves — although, obviously, these results provide important limits on the amplitude of the gravitational-wave background and the energy density of gravitational waves in the Universe. The wider significance to cosmology is that this data is starting to constrain models of how the early Universe evolved as well as placing limits on some of the more specific theories like the idea “cosmic superstrings”.

Coming across this paper, it seemed pretty obvious that these results will be of great importance to the gravitational wave community, but I was pleasantly surprised to see such an abstract area of science make it into one of the UK’s national papers. The Times ran an enthusiastic news analysis piece with the headline “Warp factor zero:how scientists followed Einstein back to the first minute of the Universe”.

The fact that a mainstream newspaper would choose to cover such a “nondiscovery” of this kind must have also made enjoyable reading for the press team at CERN. Following the media bonanza surrounding last September’s launch of the LHC there must have been more than a few fears of a potential backlash when the project inevitably takes a good few years before it starts churning out results.

Long live big physics!

Top 25 physics films unveiled

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CERN featured in the recent blockbuster Angels and Demons, which did not make it into a new list of top physics films, but the European physics facility will play host to an international film festival in February Credit: Sonypictures

By Matin Durrani

If you’re a film buff — and even if you’re not — you’ll no doubt be interested to learn that a website called Online Engineering Degree has posted a list of its “top 25 movies for physics geeks”.

Top of the charts for us physics geeks is October Sky. It’s a film I’ve never seen - but then my colleagues often accuse me of living under a cultural stone - but it is, apparently, a “feel-good movie about boys launching their own rockets”. Hmm, can’t say I’m desperate to watch it.

In second place is Apollo 13 — the Tom Hanks blockbuster that has that scary bit where our hero almost carks it on his way back to Earth. Now I have seen that one.

Third is Infinity, a bio about the Manhattan project, featuring Feynman et al. Now you’re talking.

There follow a couple of others I also hadn’t heard of before - Stargate and Parralel Worlds, Parallel Lives — before we reach a quartet of definite blockbusters: Deep Impact, Armageddon, Star Wars and Star Trek. The full list can be found here.

I’m not quite sure what Goldeneye is doing on the list though. The compilers, however, reckon that Brosnan’s first Bond film has “its share of physics conundrums”, such as his ability to catch up with a falling plane — by jumping off a cliff, of course.

I emailed Suzane Smith, who alerted me to the list, to ask how the films were picked — was it a mysterious cabal of physicists or just her and her chums musing one lunchtime? Sadly she has not yet got back to me so I cannot say what criteria they used, if any.

No doubt you’ll have your own view so take a look at the top 25 and let us know what you think of the list by commenting below.

Meanwhile, genuine filmmakers with a science-fiction or science documentary film in the can might be interested to know that entries are now being invited for the next Cinėglobe International Short Film Festival, which is to be held at CERN from 16-20 February 2010.

Entry is free and review copies can be sent on DVD or uploaded to the festival website. The festival rules can be downloaded here.

Usain Bolt may have crossed the line in 9.55 s at last year’s Beijing Olympics if he had kept his speed

By Michael Banks

Few would doubt that Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is now the fastest man on the planet and will probably hold that title for a long time to come.

Yesterday, he won the 100 m sprint in the record-breaking time of 9.58 s at the World Championships held in Berlin.

But, of course, we all knew that he could run that fast.

After his previous record-setting time of 9.69 s at the Beijing Olympics last year, astrophysicists at the University of Oslo in Norway worked out that Bolt could have run even faster if he had gone flat out rather than slowing down in the last 20 m of the race to celebrate his win.

And they got it pretty much spot on.

The physicists calculated that Bolt could have covered the 100 m in 9.55 s (plus or minus 0.04 s) if he had maintained his pre-celebration acceleration.

So maybe there is still some room for improvement for Bolt to beat his newest record.

By Hamish Johnston

The sorry saga of the NRU reactor and its owner Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL) continues.

The idle reactor, which normally produces about one third of the world’s supply of medical isotopes, will not be restarted until next year.

The reactor stopped running unexpectedly in May and has been down ever since — leaving the global medical community very worried.

And to make matters worse for AECL, a few weeks ago the Ontario government rejected a previously accepted bid from the firm to build two large power reactors outside Toronto. If AECL cannot win back the project, many worry that its days could be numbered.

Another threat to the Canadian reactor industry is the possibility of creating medical isotopes using an accelerator rather than a reactor. There was a nice article in the Globe and Mail earlier this week warning that the country’s reactor expertise could soon ebb away.

Hooke’s masterpiece

By Hamish Johnston

Most physicists are either theorists, who solve problems using mathematics, or experimentalists who make measurements. While the two disciplines are intertwined (except perhaps in fields such as cosmology, where measurements are difficult to make) the two tend to operate in very different ways — which can sometimes lead to tension.

When did this distinction (and occasional animosity) arise in modern science, you might wonder?

One early example is the considerable friction between the greatest theorist and experimentalist of the English Enlightenment — Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke respectively.

Newton remains a celebrity to this day. However, Hooke’s considerable contributions to science (and architecture) remain mostly unsung — with the possible exception of his spring law.

On Thursday evening BBC 4 aired a programme called Robert Hooke: Victim of Genius, which tries to set the record straight. For some reason, the BBC has not made it available for viewing online, so you will have to wait for a repeat.

I came to the conclusion that many of Hooke’s problems were related to his humble beginnings — or more precisely, the fact that Hooke began as an apprentice painter, paid his way through university working as a servant to fellow students, and then earned his living by building scientific equipment for the Royal Society.

When this lowly chap informed the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics that he had formulated the inverse square law of gravitation years before the publication of Principia, Newton is said to have flown into a rage. The two had already sparred over their optical theories, and when Newton took over as president of the Royal Society in 1703 (the year of Hooke’s death), he began erasing all traces of Hooke. Famously, he tossed the only contemporary portrait of Hooke onto a fire.

It would be disingenuous to describe Hooke as a man of modest means — he made a fortune surveying London after the Great Fire — and he was a colleague of many great scientists of the day including Robert Boyle, Edmund Halley and John Flamsteed. Who apparently made liberal use of Hooke’s intellect and experimental skills, sometimes without giving due credit.

However, Hooke was a man who got his hands dirty building wonderful machines such as vacuum pumps and telescopes. He was also a skilled artist — consider the sketches in his masterpiece Micrographia (above).

In other words he was an experimentalist, and history of physics tends to remember the theorists.

The BBC programme was presented by Oxford’s Allan Chapman, and you can read his essay
England’s Leonardo: Robert Hooke (1635-1703) and the art of experiment in Restoration England on a website dedicated to Robert Hooke that has been set up by Westminster School.

The first of many?

By Hamish Johnston

Yesterday the folks that brought us Galaxy Zoo — which harnesses people power to sort through astronomical images and classify galaxies — launched The Hunt for Supernovae.

Overnight, they may have just found their first supernova. You can follow all the excitement on their blog.

And if you decide to join in…happy hunting!

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Two agents of change

By Hamish Johnston

Cosmologist Stephen Hawking has been in the news recently for two very different reasons.

Yesterday he was awarded the US’s highest civilian honour — the Presidential Medal of Freedom — by Barack Obama.

Obama described Hawking as “an agent of change”, and someone who “saw an imperfect world and set about improving it, often overcoming great obstacles along the way”.

I believe that Hawking is only the second physicist to receive the award, the first being Edward Teller — ‘Father of the H-Bomb’ and nemesis of Robert Oppenheimer.

Teller received his award from the previous president George W Bush, so perhaps physics is enjoying a period of grace in the White House?

Although Hawking received his award at the White House, he is British born and lives in the UK…facts that seem to have escaped a commentator in the US who has written:

“People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the UK, where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless.”

I don’t want to say that this is typical of the level of debate surrounding Obama’s healthcare reforms…but you can read a corrected version of the editorial here.

Menacing vortex above Venus

By James Dacey

If you, like me, are going to miss out on tonight’s global meteor show because of cloud cover, then why not check out the planets instead — and from the comfort of your living room.

Experience the planets is an ongoing project for artists to create images of the solar system which bridge the gap between reality and fantasy.

“ETP breaks away from the fanciful notions of space and embraces the more challenging task of creating scenes informed by scientific hypothesis,” says Greg Martin, an artist and the project creator.

It’s a very slick website with the picture of the menacing spiral effect above the north pole of Venus being my personal favourite.

Be warned though — if you pay a visit to Mercury you can never leave! It looks like there’s still a couple of website navigational issues to iron out…

Do geckos always have sticky feet?

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Leopard geckos were used as a control in this study Source freedigitalphotos

By James Dacey

A few years ago, reported the first experimental evidence to explain how a gecko can scurry without fear across even the smoothest of ceilings.

The answer lies in the lizards’ hairy feet. Each toe one is covered with tiny micrometer “satae”, which branch off into even smaller “spatulae” thinner than the wavelength of visible light. Spatulae stick to walls by van der Waals forces - the weak electrostatic attractions between adjacent atoms or molecules that arise from fluctuations in the positions of their electrons. If these forces act over a relatively large area, they can build up a significant attractive force.

Now, inspired by the gecko’s sticky trick, a couple of researchers in Canada and the US have set out to investigate where and when this stickiness is switched on and off by the lizards.

Anthony Russell of the University of Calgary and his colleague Timothy Highan of Clemson University, South Carolina, began by assembling a team of 11 geckos. Six of these were Moorish geckos, T. Mauritanica, which are known to use the van der Waals gripping mechanism. The remaining five were juvenile leopard geckos, E. Macularius, used as controls because they do not have adhesive pads.

Russell and Higham set up an experiment in which all 11 geckos were made to run across a set of different surfaces over a range of different inclines. On the flat surfaces, the researchers found that all six Moorish geckos refrained from using their adhesive system. However, when the geckos were running on a 10 degree incline, three of them began to use their pads for grip, and on a 30 degree incline, all six deployed their pads.

Interestingly, the friction of a running surface seems to make no difference to whether geckos deploy their gripping mechanism or not. None of the Moorish geckos used their sticky pads on the flat planes even when they were slipping on the Plexiglas substrate and losing speed because of this. This observation led the researchers to conclude that geckos control their sticky toes by via a perception of their body’s orientation.

I caught up with Russell and he explained the findings in a little more detail. “The loading of the setae under tension is accomplished by the muscular system, and that this, in turn, is activated by reflex pathways that depend upon feedback from environmental cues, such as body orientation.”

So, it seems that the insights of this new research are more related to the application of the physics by the animal, rather than the details of the physics itself.

One thing I found interesting when reading the paper — just published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B — is the difficulty the researchers must have faced when trying to control variables in an experiment like this. It’s not like certain experiments in classic physics in which one can take thousands of measurements of an inanimate object in a vacuum.

Russell conceded himself that he cannot draw any general laws from this because there are hundreds of species of gecko and we cannot expect them all to respond in the same way. “Even small and large individuals of the same species may not respond in the same way.”

By Hamish Johnston

Yesterday we reported that the excess number of cosmic positrons seen by PAMELA and other detectors could be coming from a nearby pulsar called Geminga — rather than from annihilating dark matter.

While the pulsar explanation is significant, the direct detection of dark matter via cosmic rays could bag someone a Nobel Prize. But alas, it is looking less likely that the current generation of cosmic ray detectors are up to the prize-winning task (assuming dark matter exists, and annihilates to create cosmic rays!).

One of the physicists arguing the pulsar explanation is Todor Stanev of the University of Delaware.

Stanev has also teamed up with researchers in Germany, Sweden and the US to show that electron and positron excesses seen by PAMELA and other experiments can also be attributed to the violent acceleration of matter that is believed to occur in the polar caps of certain supernovae.

According to the team, the energy spectra of electrons and positrons emitted in such a polar cap match what has been seen by several detectors. You can read about it in Physical Review Letters .

However, unlike the pulsar result, the researchers don’t seem to link recent electron- and positron-excess measurements to a specific astronomical event.

Instead, they seem to be suggesting that these positrons and electrons are present in the general background of cosmic rays reaching Earth.

So, does this mean that it will be even more difficult to winnow a dark-matter signal?

Waiting for Ana

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The birth of Ana?

By Hamish Johnston

The east coast of Asia is being battered by typhoons and tropical storms — and sadly, the death toll is mounting.

But halfway around the world, people are beginning to wonder when the hurricanes are going to come to the North Atlantic. The 2009 season began on 1 June, but there have been no significant storms since then — just “Tropical Depression 1”, which didn’t amount to much.

Predictions for 2009 from the NOAA and other research groups had intitially called for “above average activity”, but this has since been downgraded by most groups to “below average”.

In a recent statement however, the NOAA “Cautions Public Not to Let Down Guard”, pointing out that the large number of early-season storms seen over the past 15 years is not in line with the historical average.

The agency also says that several seasons with severe hurricanes (including Andrew in 1992) began with whimpers.

Researchers had predicted above-average activity for 2009 because conditions off the west coast of Africa seemed ripe for hurricane formation. However, the development of El Niño in the Pacific has boosted westerly winds in that part of the Atlantic, blowing nascent storms apart.

If you’d like to keep abreast of developments off the coast of Africa, check out the Wunderblog by Jeff Masters. Indeed the latest entry has a nice picture of what could develop into the first storm of the year — Ana.

If you are still hopeful that Jim will soon be eating his shorts, the BBC television programme Horizon has a special programme tonight about superluminal neutrinos presented by mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. More details can be found here here.

Drifting away (credit: NASA)

By Michael Banks

The term “space junk” usually means spent rocket stages or disused satellites floating in orbit around the Earth.

But while on a routine servicing mission to the International Space Station (ISS) late last year to fix a solar panel, US astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper watched helplessly as her toolkit, containing grease guns and scrapers, floated off into space.

Fortunately, the $100 000 tool bag was moving away from the ISS, so there was no chance of it making a big dent in the station, which would have needed more than a tool bag to fix.

Instead, however, the 14 kg space satchel was circling earth getting ever closer with each orbit.

According to the website the toolbag has now burnt up in the Earth’s atmosphere - eight months after it first drifted away in orbit. Some reports say the toolkit’s demise happened at 1.16pm GMT over the Pacific Ocean.

Olga Antzoulatos in The Matter of Everything. Credit: Enrico Lappano

By Margaret Harris

This is the last in our current series of film reviews. Send us more films!

The narrator of The Matter of Everything spends most of the film looking puzzled. After all, it’s a puzzling world out there — full of particles that act like waves, matter turning into energy, and all sorts of strange things. Even empty space, it seems, is a lot more complicated than it looks. Such topics can easily ensnare experts in their conceptual knots, so any amateur willing to tackle them deserves a great deal of credit. Here, the brave newcomer is Olga Antzoulatos, a high school teacher who decides to spend some time interviewing particle physicists about their research. To this end, she travels to Fermilab and Toronto’s York University and starts asking questions.

With such a broad subject, and only 100 minutes of film to play with, it’s inevitable that some answers get short shrift. However, that’s not really the point; both Antzoulatos and filmmaker Enrico Lappano are far more interested in the sense of wonder that arises from contemplating nature on such a deep level. Sometimes their efforts pay off — like when Lappano’s camera seeks out a clutch of bird eggs amid concrete slabs at Fermilab, and one of Antzoulatos’ interviewees likens Ernest Rutherford’s experimental knack to “having a red phone to God”.

Still, there’s something missing from this film, and it isn’t a better description of quarks and gluons — it’s a better sense of why Antzoulatos chose to embark on her quest in the first place. What drew her to introduce students in her “Society: Challenge and Change” class to particle physics? How can we encourage more non-scientists to follow in her footsteps? As its title implies, The Matter of Everything is not short of ambition. It’s just a pity it didn’t ask a few more questions.

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Credit: Shutterstock

By James Dacey

As all earth scientists know, the climate is a fiendishly complex system and — whilst there is now broad agreement that anthropogenic climate change is happening — the extent and severity of its effects are still a matter of significant debate.

Now, when you toss this issue into the international policy arena you are also mixing it with all the national, economic and social issues that pervade the political decision making process. In short you have the recipe for some very messy negotiations.

So just how are climate practitioners (let alone interested citizens) supposed to make head or tail of political negotiations on the road to the UN conference on climate change taking place in Copenhagen this December?

Well a group of researchers in the US and Finland have come up with an interesting approach to this problem by framing the COP15 conference as a giant game of international poker.

In a paper released today the researchers outline the main “bargaining chips” which they say are being used by nations to negotiate a deal on climate change.

Sikina Jinnah of the American University and her colleagues’ main argument is that what some countries see as potential barriers, others see as gambling chips. For example, some developing countries may see the need for secure commitments on finance for adaptation to a low carbon society as a key barrier. However, these same countries may view mitigation actions on their part as a key bargaining chip to secure cash from developed countries on the adaptation issue.

Interestingly, this is not the first time that a gambling metaphor has been used in connection with anthropomorphic climate change. Back in March I wrote about the claim that we are playing roulette with the climate by taking a one in six chance of a “tipping event”.

For a more detailed review of this latest research then check out this article on

Does my breath smell bad in this? (credit: NASA)

By Michael Banks

Astronauts are used to undergoing rigorous training for the physical and mental challenges that travelling to space brings.

Yet Chinese astronauts hoping to be part of China’s next space crew will now have to comply with an arduous 100 item health checklist that will act to quickly whittle down the number of people capable of being a “taikonaut”.

Along with having no family history of serious illnesses, aspiring Chinese taikonauts must also not suffer from drug allergies or have any tooth cavities.

Would-be taikonauts must also not have a runny nose, body odour, bad breath or have any scars that could burst open in space.

Shi Bing Bing, an official at one of the six astronaut health screening hospitals, told Reuters that the reason for the checklist is that the bad smells from the astronauts “would affect their fellow colleagues in a narrow space”.

And, finally, if a 100 item health checklist is not demanding enough, taikonauts will get nowhere unless they have permission from their spouse.