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November 2009 Archives

Nearly there…

By Hamish Johnston

Early this morning the Large Hadron Collider passed yet another milestone as both beams reached 1.18 TeV — smashing the previous record of 980 GeV held by the Tevatron at Fermilab.

“We are still coming to terms with just how smoothly the LHC commissioning is going,” said CERN Director General Rolf Heuer.

So far, the accelerator has been run with a low intensity pilot beam — but now LHC beam jockeys will try to boost the intensity so the collider’s experiments can be further calibrated by gathering collision data before Christmas.

This intensity ramp-up is expected to take a week, and then it’s time for collisions.

The first physics experiments are scheduled for the first quarter of 2010, at a collision energy of 7 TeV (3.5 TeV per beam).

It’s going to be another exciting week at CERN!

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Stephen Hawking by Tai-Shan Schierenberg (Courtesy: Royal Society)

By Hamish Johnston

Stephen Hawking was in London yesterday to unveil this portrait of himself at the Royal Society.

The painting is by the English artist Tai-Shan Schierenberg, who also has four works just down the road in the National Portrait Gallery.

If you happen to visit the Royal Society, make sure you make time for organization’s fantastic collection of portraits. You can admire likenesses of John Flamsteed, who founded the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, the great Victorian scientist Michael Faraday — and even the mathematician Gottfried Leibniz, who was famously vilified by Isaac Newton and the Royal Society.

And apparently, there is a portrait of Newton but I haven’t managed to come across it.

By Hamish Johnston

If you are in the US you are probably looking forward to two things this Thanksgiving Day: turkey and football.

And from the safety of your couch, you might just wonder about the forces involved in a big hit out on the field.

In the video above, you can watch physicist Dan Dahlberg calculating that a particularly hard tackle can accelerate a player at 10 G.

To put that into perspective, heavy braking of a top range sports car will deliver about 1 G and if you drive that car into a brick wall at 30 MPH you would experience 40–50 G.

The player in question is the University of Minnesota’s Eric Decker who was launched into the end zone by an opposing player, but managed to hold on to the ball to score a touchdown.

Although slightly shaken, Decker was back in the game, which was played earlier this year.

Dahlberg – who is normally found in his spintronics lab at the University of Minnesota – is not the first to work out that football players are subject to massive accelerations.

Last month the New Yorker ran an article by Malcolm Gladwell about the potential harm that such hits can cause to the brains of players.

All spaced out

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By Michael Banks

With raps about the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva and Fermilab in the US, I should have suspected it would only be a matter of time before hearing a song about the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), which is taking place this year.

So here it is. Taking over a year to make, astronomy enthusiast Michael Davis has created a music video about astronomy entitled “Spaced Out”.

Lasting four and half minutes, the video shows astronomers at a park in Patoka Lake, Southern Indiana, US, along with their various telescopes (some quite impressive) getting ready for a night of star-gazing.

The film also features more bizarre, and less well put together, clips such as a woman ice-skating on Saturn’s rings or someone riding a comet. “Put a saddle on a comet, joy-ride ‘til you pull on the reins,” Davis sings.

The main fun of science songs is, of course, the lyrics. The song does have a few catchy lines such as “refraction, reflection, telescopic connection,” and “the universe is yours, to discover, go observe, go uncover”.

However, the chorus is perhaps a bit cheesy (and maybe a little on the unimaginative side): “International Year of Astronomy two thousand nine, International Year of Astronomy two thousand nine” — the repeat and fade out on the ‘nine’ adding an extra layer of cheese. (But if you really like it then you can just speed to the end of the song where it is repeated quite often.)

“The IYA2009 team loved it,” Davis told “They then wanted a link to the video on the main IYA2009 website.

The International Year of Astronomy medley is not Davis’s first song about science. He made a music video about the insect world, entitled “I’m Not a Bug Squasher”. So perhaps he could use that video to promote the International Year of Biodiveristy, which is taking place next year.

The cover of Graham Farmelo’s biography of Paul Dirac

By Matin Durrani

“Moving, funny, sad and intensely readable, this is a fascinating insight into the psychology of genius.”

No, not a description of this blog entry, but what the judges of the Costa Book Awards had to say about Graham Farmelo’s biography of Paul Dirac, published earlier this year.

The judges have shortlisted his book, entitled The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius, for the 2009 Costa Biography Award.

As physicists, we’re biased, of course, and so are hoping Graham beats off the other contenders.

(For the record, they are a description by the late playwright Simon Gray of his battle with cancer, a biography by the author William Fiennes of his brother Richard, and a biography of Lucie de la Tour du Pin. No I’ve not heard of her either, but she lived in France at the turn of the 19th century and was, apparently, “the Pepys of her generation”.)

Graham’s shortlisting — announced last night on the BBC Radio 4 show Front Row — is a great opportunity for me to give you a final reminder that he is presenting the inaugural webinar in the online lecture series tomorrow, Thursday 26 November 2009, at 4p.m. UK time. Graham will be describing Dirac’s life story and outlining his key scientific contributions.

(Profuse apologies again to anyone in the US for the clash with Thanksgiving, but we’re hoping you can log on while popping the turkey in the oven.)

The webinar is free and you can register for the event via this link

Graham was pretty chuffed about the shortlisting. “I’m thrilled,” he e-mailed me today. “I always wanted the book to be read not only by physicists but by people who enjoy biographies. The wonderful thing about prizes like this is that they bring books to new audiences.”

Let’s hope he wins.

One I made earlier (left) and the real thing

By Hamish Johnston

Galaxy Zoo first hit screens in July 2007, then came Galaxy Zoo 2 followed by Galaxy Zoo: The Hunt for Supernovae.

Today trilogy becomes tetralogy with the release of Galaxy Zoo Mergers.

Star Wars meets Wall Street on the silver screen?

No, it’s even more exciting than that — a website that invites ‘citizen scientists’ to help astronomers compare telescope images of colliding galaxies with computer simulations.

A Java application shows you a silhouette of the telescope image along with eight computer simulations. If you think there is a resemblance you click on the simulation and save it for future reference. You can look at another eight and so on.

When your eyes get a bit too bleary, you can start playing with individual saved simulations — adjusting various parameters to try to make the simulation look more like the real thing (see picture above).

The final step is to evaluate how successful you feel you were in reproducing the image.

The fruits of your labour can be logged and fed back to the researchers to help them improve their merger simulations.

The founders of Galaxy Zoo wrote a feature article for us last year, you can read all about the project here.

Happy simulating!

First collisions at the LHC

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ATLAS event

By James Dacey

After all the lunchtime excitement surrounding the first circulation of two proton beams, the scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will have enjoyed lavish dinners yesterday after their machine had recorded its first collisions by mid afternoon.

Just after noon (Central European Time), CERN confirmed the acceleration of separate beams of protons in opposing directions around the LHC’s 27 km ring.

Announcing the success via a web broadcast, a bunch of CERN officials suggested that the first low energy collisions would be made within the next two weeks.

However, by the late afternoon the partlcle physics laboratory had issued another public announcement that the beams were made to cross at two places around the ring.

What you can see in this picture is an image produced by the ATLAS detector, which recorded its first candidate for collisions at 14.22 in the afternoon.

“The tracks we are seeing are beautiful,” said LHCb spokesperson Andrei Golutvin, “we’re all ready for serious data taking in a few days’ time”.

Simultaneous circulation at the LHC!

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LHC Still on track to rewrite the textbooks

By James Dacey

CERN has confirmed that it is circulating two beams simultaneously around the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

The advance took place just over one hour ago and was announced at a press conference at the particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland.

“We are at the end of 20 years of effort from the international scientific community,” said Fabiola Gianotti, the Italian particle physicist in charge of the ATLAS experiment.

“This is the beginning of a fantastic new era of physics, which we hope will change the physics textbooks.”

More to come shortly in news.

Good luck at the LHC!

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By Hamish Johnston

I know I’m not alone in wishing physicists at CERN good luck tonight as they try to get a beam all the way round the Large Hadron Collider — for the first time since the LHC failed spectacularly last year.

“The LHC is a much better understood machine than it was a year ago, and we can look forward with confidence to a smooth transition into physics,” said CERN director general Rolf-Dieter Heuer earlier today.

“By the time you come into work next week, I hope we’ll have beams circulating in the LHC,” he added.

Just what did Galileo believe?

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Galileo returns to the Catholic Church

By James Dacey

Last week I found myself travelling through Rome, when I stumbled across a remider that science and religion are still battling it out in some quarters. A new exhibition at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli celebrates Galileo Galilei’s unerring faith in the Catholic Church, despite the ongoing debate surrounding this issue.

“According to dominant atheist culture, Galileo pretended to be a believer but he was really a convinced atheist. Galileo was convinced that Divine Providence could not miss nor disregard anything to do with the government of human affairs,” read one of the info boards.

It was in Rome in 1633 that Galileo was forced to stand trial and found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, mainly for his support of the heliocentric view of the universe. By publicly renouncing his opinion, Galileo managed to avoid the death penalty but was forced to spend the rest of his life under house arrest. Despite all of this, by official accounts, Galileo remained a committed Catholic right through to his death in 1642.

Whilst Catholics often refer to Galileo’s unerring faith, many atheists point out that it was very difficult to be anything but Catholic in 17th Century Italy. Their basic argument is that had Galileo not feared for his life, then he would more than likely have been an atheist.

Seeking to debunk this idea, the exhibition in the Basilica presents evidence of Catholic belief from a selection of Galileo’s personal writings. The displays draw from a recent book Galilei, Divine Uomo, written by Antonino Zichichi, Italian nuclear physicist and president of president of the World Federation of Scientists.

One of the displays referred to Galileo’s private reaction to Kepler’s study of the planetary orbits. “Galileo died convinced that Kepler’s discovery of the elliptical orbits of the Sun’s satellites was mistaken. This is the final testimony of his faith that Galileo left to us and to our descendents in the millennia to come”.

Perhaps the translation from Italian into English has added some aggression to writings, such as the greeting board which read, “The aim of this Exhibition is to make everybody understand that science means to decode the logic of He who created the world”.

In fairness, it is not just the outspoken religious camp that has tried to claim one of the great physicists as one of their own. Back in January, arch religion-basher Richard Dawkins was amongst the funders of a campaign to promote atheism through posters on London public transport. One of the posters included the quote of Einstein included is Einstein’s quote: “I do not believe in a personal God and have never denied this but have expressed it clearly”.

So, whilst direct threats of violence have been replaced with rhetoric, it seems that this battle of ideals still wages on.

Alan Guth at the Institute of Physics

By Hamish Johnston

Have you ever wondered what went on in the universe when it was just 10-35 s old — and how this could be related to our special pocket in the multiverse?

If so, you might want to watch a video of the 2009 Newton lecture, which is now available on the Institute of Physics (IOP) website.

The lecture was given in London on 14 October by Alan Guth, who was in town to receive the IOP’s Isaac Newton Medal for his pioneering work on cosmic inflation — a theory that changed the way we think of the early universe.

Entitled “Inflationary Cosmology: Is Our Universe Part of a Multiverse?”, Guth’s talk lasts about one hour. He starts with an explanation of how inflation provides a “simple and natural” explanation for how the universe became what it is today.

He then moves on to dark energy and explains how its discovery has further improved our understanding of the evolution of the universe — but brings with it the “nightmare” of a vacuum energy that is much smaller than that predicted by quantum mechanics.

But inflation offers a way of avoiding this nightmare in a scenario that involves a multiverse of pocket universes, string theory and the anthropic principle…but you’ll have to watch the lecture to find out how!

Quantum poetics in NYC

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Unravelling physics fusing science with art

By James Dacey

“A mash-up of laboratory theatre and laboratory science”. This is how a group of New York thespians are describing their attempt to take theoretical physics to the stage.

Quantum Poetics is seeking to transform recent advances in theoretical physics and neuroscience into performance art, and it’s the latest project of NYC’s Stolen Chair Theatre Company.

A cast of 12, including clowns, stuntmen and musicians will create a “gravity and genre-defying world, which marvels at the complexity and beauty of how the universe’s massive and minuscule forces allow humans to build meaning”.

When I caught up with Liza Green, the theatre company’s spokesperson, she said they hope the performance will “expose audiences to what is beautiful and exciting about mathematical exploration and scientific thought.”

Admitting that the directors still have a lot of homework to do, she says they are determined to avoid “fake science” or “pop math”, citing the film Pi as an example of a production that, whilst name-checking maths and science, doesn’t really engage with academic content.

Of course, this is not the first time that playwrights have looked to theoretical physics for creative inspiration. British writer Tom Stoppard incorporated ideas from thermodynamics and chaos theory in his highly acclaimed play Arcadia (1993), which looked at the life and times of Lord Byron.

In Copenhagen (1998), another British dramatist Michael Frayn built an entire play around the famous 1941 conversation between Neils Bohr and his former protégé Werner Heisenberg in the Nazi-occupied Danish capital.

Earlier this year, the Ransom Theatre Company in Northern Ireland produced the Gentlemen’s Tea Drinking Society — a black comedy centred four alcoholic graduates from Cambridge one of whom has secretly discovered the Higgs boson.

Quantum Poetics will open its pilot season on November 22, which will build towards a full stage production scheduled for the Autumn of 2010.

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John Mather has called for open access

By Hamish Johnston

It’s a debate that’s been around as long as the Internet — should academic research papers be free to read by one and all (open access) or should university libraries pay for journal subscriptions?

41 Nobel laureates are backing open access, and have written to members of the US Congress to ask them to support a bill calling for the Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA). The group includes four physicists — Sheldon Glashow, John Mather, Douglas Osheroff and David Politzer.

I’m not a lawyer, but I believe the the act would require that the results of all federally funded research be freely available online.

But are we well down that road already?

Over the past few years you may have noticed that more and more papers published in prestigious journals such as Nature and Science appear on the open access arXiv preprint server immediately after being published. I don’t know if this is done with the publisher’s blessing, but I’m guessing that it is tolerated in the hope of avoiding the sort of legislation that the US laureates are calling for.

So what about our journals here at IOP Publishing?


We have an open access journal called the New Journal of Physics, which fits the bill as far as the laureates are concerned. Physicists pay to publish their papers, and if the entire industry went this way, funding would have to be diverted from libraries to the researchers themselves.

Access to most of our other journals is restricted to subscribers — but most articles are open access for 30 days after publication. And I’m told that IOP Publishing is happy for authors to post the text of accepted papers on arXiv, but not the final version that appears in the journal.

So it looks to me like open access publishing is possible already — just make sure you pop your accepted manuscript onto arXiv and the Feds will be happy.

But is this sustainable — if the accepted versions of papers are freely available, why would a scientist pay to publish or a university library bother to subscribe?

In other words, who is going to pay for managing the peer-review process that many scientists believe is essential?

An idealist might argue that scientists themselves could manage peer review — but does a busy physicist really want to be chasing her colleagues for overdue referee reports or field telephone calls from an irate colleague whose paper has been rejected? Who is going to copy edit papers written by authors whose first language is not English? And who is going to ensure that the journal keeps up with the latest advances in information technology?

That brings us back to the New Journal of Physics author pays model…is this the way of the future?

Sorry for all the question marks…and what do you think?

Inspecting the mirror of the Herschel telescope (Courtesy: ESA).

By Hamish Johnston

At 11.00 am GMT today BBC Radio 4 is running the first in a two part series about the Herschel space telescope, which was launched earlier this year.

If you are not in the UK, you should be able to listen online — or listen later to an archived version.

Here’s what the Beeb says about the series:

“Following the engineers and astronomers who are working on the biggest telescope ever sent to space, in one of the most important missions in the history of European spaceflight. Jonathon Amos joins Professor Matt Griffin of Cardiff University and his international team as they aim to peer through the areas in space that are invisible to other telescopes. This is the story of how the team is aiming to solve the mystery of galaxy and star formation, and how these processes eventually gave rise to life-bearing planets like Earth.

“In this episode, the team approach the biggest milestone in their 20-year project - the launch of their work on a rocket from a spaceport in French Guiana. Will it all go safely?

There’s no mention of the Planck microwave observatory, which was launched at the same time as Herschel — but hopefully Amos will touch on its mission to study the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation - a remnant of the Big Bang

Eric Goff testing ball trajectories

By Matin Durrani

Qualification for next summer’s football World Cup in South Africa reaches its climax tomorrow — highlights include France’s return play-off with Ireland and Egypt squaring off against arch-rivals Algeria on the same day.

But some teams, like England, have already secured their passage to the world’s greatest sports tournament and will no doubt be already be dreaming of lifting the famous trophy.

England’s players have a night off tomorrow but if star midfielder David Beckham is feeling a bit bored, he might want to read a new paper in the American Journal of Physics by John Eric Goff of Lynchburg College, Virginia, and Matt Carré of the University of Sheffield in the UK.

Goff and Carré carried out a series of experiments in which soccer balls were launched from a machine while two high-speed cameras recorded portions of their trajectory. The equipment allowed the researchers to vary the balls’ launch speed and spin — balls could be fired either with no spin, topspin, backspin, sidespin or any combination.

From the resulting data, the two physicists then calculated the “lift” drag coefficient on the ball and the “sideways” drag coefficient, CS. If the ball has pure topspin or pure backspin then CS is zero, but if the ball has any other spin, the value of CS is not zero.

All lovely stuff, of course, but where does Beckham come in? Well, Goff and Carré then examined Beckham’s famous 90th-minute free kick taken against Greece in October 2001 that secured England’s qualification for the 2002 World Cup in France. His carefully taken kick bent around the wall before landing plum in the back of the Greek net and secured England a dramatic last-minute equalizer in the 2—2 draw.

Using TV footage of the famous match, the two physicists calculated that the ball left Beckham’s foot at a speed of 36 m/s at which point its “Reynolds number” (air speed times ball diameter, divided by kinematic viscosity) was of 5.1 × 105. The ball had an average rotational velocity of 63 radians per second, rose above the height of the crossbar during the flight and moved about 3 m sideways, before slowing down to about 19 m/s as it dipped into the corner of the goal.

Goff and Carré then did a back-of-the-envelope calculation to estimate a value for CS, which was found to be about 0.2 for the famous shot.

And the punchline? Sorry folks, there isn’t one. But maybe the paper will persuade Becks, who’s currently on loan from LA Galaxy at AC Milan, to swot up on a bit of simple physics before next summer’s tournament. Assuming he makes the team, that is.

By Margaret Harris

As the person who (with editor Matin Durrani) compiles letters and web comments for the “Feedback” section of Physics World, I’ve been paying close attention to the flood of comments on’s various climate-change articles.

A majority of the comments have been negative, as many readers will have noticed, and the same has been true for feedback in the form of letters and emails. On the face of it, this is pretty typical, even for a good magazine: angry readers write letters, while happy readers, by and large, do not.

But I have to wonder what else might be going on that is specific to the issue of climate change. Most people who make negative comments have not read an enormous number of peer-reviewed publications on the subject; at best, they seem to have read an enormous number of websites set up by avowed climate-change sceptics. However, neither do they appear to be in the pay of the fossil-fuel industry, as some environmentalists have charged. So why is there such a huge amount of vitriol out there against the idea that the climate is changing, and humans are (at least partly) responsible?

The answer, it seems, may be partly down to human psychology — at least according to a report from the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED) at Columbia University. Liz Kalaugher, editor of (one of’s sister websites within the Institute of Physics Publishing) has written a very good summary of the report here . Alternatively, you can download a guide to the CRED report here.

Now where did I put my sandwich? (credit: CERN)

By Michael Banks

The mystery surrounding the electrical fault last week at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN has taken a new twist today.

Last week, a piece of baguette was found to be lying on an electrical connection in one of the eight above-ground cryoplants - used to cool the LHC to 1.9 K - that caused two of the eight sectors around the LHC’s 27 km ring to heat up to 10 K.

But in the latest issue of the CERN Bulletin, James Gillies, head of communication at CERN, claims that a bird carrying a baguette did not stall the world’s most powerful particle-physics experiment from starting up on schedule.

“Of course, no such thing happened,” says Gillies. But he did admit that engineers at CERN do not fully understand how the heating occurred in the two sectors. “To this day, we do not know what caused the power cut,” he says.

However, Gillies, who was not at CERN when the incident happened, says it is true that “feathers and bread” were actually found at the site of the mystery electrical fault.

Could it be that someone intent on sabotaging the LHC has cleverly laid a decoy of feathers and bread?

Whatever the reason, Gillies is keen for the media to now focus on the LHC and the science it will produce once low-energy collisions begin early next month.

“Soon, the headlines should be turning from birds to b-quarks, and from baguettes to bosons,” he says. Well there is hope.

Artist’s impression of a giant exoplanet. (Courtesy: Spitzer Space Telescope).

By Hamish Johnston

About a month ago we reported that astronomers might be able find Earth-like exoplanets by studying the chemical signatures of distant stars.

The idea is that the formation of rocky planets such as Earth and Mars leave their companion stars deficient in heavy elements such as aluminium, iron and nickel. The team came to this conclusion after finding that the Sun seems to have about a 15% deficit in these elements compared to similar stars.

Now another group of astronomers has looked at the lithium content of Sun-like stars, and discovered that stars with exoplanets have less lithium than those with no exoplanets. It is already well known that the Sun has 140 times less lithium on its surface than predicted by models of solar evolution.

I spoke to one of the group — Garik Israelian of the Institute of Astrophysicists in the Canary Islands — and he told me that there are two mechanisms by which planet formation could lead to low levels of lithium.

The first is related to “giant migration”, whereby the orbits of Jupiter-like planets change over time. The resulting transfer of angular momentum can leave the lithium-rich outer atmosphere of the star spinning faster relative to the core of the star. This leads to turbulence, which sends some of the lithium deeper into the star where it is hot enough for it to burn via nuclear fusion.

The second is related to the fact that much of the angular momentum in a solar system is tied up in the planets — which means that the core of a star with planets is probably rotating much slower than a similar star with no planets. However, the atmosphere of such a star still rotates rapidly, leading to turbulence and lithium burning.

Indeed, both of these effects could act in succession on the same star - really setting its lithium ablaze.

Israelian believes that exoplanets could be behind the ‘lithium problem’ — the puzzling observation that stars of the same temperature, age and metallicity have very different levels of lithium.

The discovery could also help to further accelerate the discovery of exoplanets — about 400 have been found so far — by narrowing down the field of stellar candidates.

The research is reported in Nature 462 189.

If you want to know more about exoplanets, check out this article by Alan Boss.

By Joe McEntee

Think small, win big. That’s the headline message coming across loud and clear in our latest video feature exploring the biomedical applications of magnetic nanoparticles, a multidisciplinary field of endeavour that’s witnessed rapid growth over the past five years.

Just press “Play” on the video Q&A with Kevin O’Grady, professor of physics at the University of York, UK, for an engaging overview that covers the fundamental science of magnetic nanoparticles as well as looking ahead to the delivery of real-world diagnostic and therapeutic nanoparticle technologies.

Right now, magnetic nanoparticles are the focus of fast-moving R&D efforts in areas like targeted drug delivery, gene therapy, heat treatment of cancerous tumours (hyperthermia) and magnetic-particle imaging.

Tailoring magnetic properties
When it comes to the science, a recurring theme is the ability to tailor the magnetic properties of nanomaterials by reducing the length scale of certain critical dimensions - for example, particle diameter, separation distance and thickness.

Equally important is the creation of cross-disciplinary research teams. “It’s absolutely critical,” notes O’Grady. “You not only need to make the particles and to understand the physics of their magnetic properties. Then you need chemistry - because you need to separate the particles so that they can act individually to provide the functionality that you’re trying to achieve.”

To add a further level of complexity, scientists must tailor the performance of the nanoparticle, so that it does exactly what it’s intended to do in vivo or in vitro.

Functionalized nanoparticles
“[For example], you possibly want the particle to attach to one type of cell but not to another,” explains O’Grady. “Therefore you need to ‘functionalize’ the nanoparticle and that takes you immediately into the realm of biochemistry.”

He concludes: “In this area, as in many areas of biomedical technology, you need the full complement of skills. There can’t be any boundaries in this kind of science.”

If you want to find out more about this field of research, Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics has just published a cluster of three review articles on the biomedical applications of magnetic nanoparticles. The reviews are free to download until November 2010.

By Hamish Johnston

There was more stimulating discussion about the history of physics on BBC Radio 4 this morning.

Melvyn Bragg was joined by physicists Jim Al-Khalili and Frank Close, and historian Frank James for a lively chat about the history of electromagnetic radiation.

The team began with a discussion of Newton’s particle theory of light and moved swiftly on to the early 19th century and Thomas Young’s double slit experiment – which established the wave nature of light…

…but that’s when I bumped into a colleague who was also walking to work and stopped listening!

According to the BBC website – where you can listen to the discussion on line – the trio then traced the histroy of electromagnetic radiation through the work of Michael Faraday, Henri Becquerel, Max Planck, Ernest Rutherford and others.

And if your are wondering if you can listen to other radio programmes about physics on Radio 4, just click here for a choice of 20.

By Michael Banks

German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses delegates at the Falling Walls conference

“The fall of the Wall changed my life, but it didn’t put a dampener on my passion for science,” said German chancellor Angela Merkel at yesterday’s Falling Walls conference held in Berlin.

I was in Berlin to attend the one-day event, which was organized by the Einstein Foundation. It was held in a former water pumping station in the east of the city to celebrate 20 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989.

Top researchers from different backgrounds gave 15 minute talks about what they believe are modern walls in their disciplines.

Rolf-Dieter Heuer discusses walls of the hidden universe

Merkel, a former physicist, delighted scientists by attending the conference to talk to researchers about her background and about breaking the walls of the 21st century.

Speaking for 25 minutes, Merkel outlined tackling climate change as a wall that needs to be overcome. She said this was a challenge that cannot be done alone and needs international cooperation — something that scientists excel at and could teach politicians a lesson or two about.

The list of speakers was quite impressive from Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus from the Yunus Centre, who talked about how to break the wall of introducing “social business” into today’s corporate giants to Alain Aspect from the Écoles Polytechnique who talked about breaking down the wall of quantum weirdness and his experiments on single photon diffraction.

Using the desert to power the world

In the third session, entitled “walls around our universe”, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, director-general of the CERN particle-physics lab, told the 500 strong audience about the Large Hadron Collider and how it could break the wall of the hidden universe by possibly explaining what makes up dark matter and gives particles their mass.

Also speaking was Norbert Holtkamp, deputy director general of the ITER fusion experiment, who talked about breaking the wall of limitless energy via fusion.

Perhaps the most amusing part of the conference was provided by an actor, who, when the speaker went over the 15 minute allowance, came on stage to do an act like pretending to sweep the floor or starting to blow balloons up.

Perhaps Gerhard Knies from the Desertec foundation, which is planning to build large solar energy plant in North Africa, gave members of the audience most food for thought when he talked about breaking the wall of the fossil age. “The whole desert gets in six hours what mankind needs for a year,” he said.

Splashing out at the LHC

By Hamish Johnston

Slowly but surely the Large Hadron Collider is coming back to life at CERN in Geneva. Over the weekend the beam was sent halfway round the 27 km ring for the first time since the collider failed last year.

The low-energy beam was then dumped in a collimator just upstream of the CMS cavern and the experiment’s calorimeters and the muon chambers saw the above “splash event”.

Just another 13.5 km (and a few TeV) to go!

Crusty problems for the LHC

By Michael Banks

Oh crumbs.

After talk of the Higgs boson travelling back in time and sabotaging the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN particle-physics lab, a more mundane object temporarily stopped the machine from operating on Tuesday night.

According to a note posted today on the CERN users’ pages, a piece of baguette placed in a cooling station caused a sector in the LHC to heat up by a few degrees to the bemusement of engineers.

The 27 km circumference LHC has eight sectors, each 3.3 km long. Each sector has a cooling station, or “cryoplant”, which helps the machine get down to the chilly temperature of 4.2 K.

The crusty piece of bread was found in one of the cryoplants and happened to be lying on a busbar — an electrical connection made of copper that are generally wide and flat to allow heat to dissipate more easily.

The well placed baguette then caused a short circuit in the cryogenic equipment that heated one of the sectors to around 10 K.

“The best guess is that it was dropped by a bird, either that or it was thrown out of a passing aeroplane,” a spokeswoman from CERN told the Times.

But it seems the best guess was right after all. The note on the CERN users page said that the culprit was a “bird carrying a baguette bread” and that the “bird escaped unharmed but lost its bread”.

The statement read: “The standard failsafe systems came into operation and after the cause was identified, re-cooling of the machine began and the sectors were back at operating temperature last night. The incident was similar in effect to a standard power cut, for which the machine protection systems are very well prepared.”

At least the note didn’t say that it was a bird travelling back in time with a piece of bread hellbent on sabotaging the LHC from finding the Higgs.

By Hamish Johnston

There’s a fascinating obituary in the Daily Telegraph of Robert Rines — the American physicist, lawyer, inventor, award-winning composer and hunter of the Loch Ness monster.

The Boston-born polymath studied physics at MIT and worked on radar imaging technology at the institute’s famous radiation laboratory. This technology has since been used in a wide range of applications from missile guidance to medical imaging — and monster hunting.

Rines then went on to become a lawyer specializing in intellectual property and spent much of his working life in this profession.

But Rines did find time to write several Broadway productions — winning an Emmy award along the way — and dedicated much of his spare time to searching for the Loch Ness Monster.

His interest in the mythical — or perhaps elusive! — creature began in 1972, and his sonar and photographic images of objects resembling Nessie were the subject of great scientific debate.

It’s hard to believe today, but some images were even published in a 1975 news story in Nature.

The article is entitled Nessiteras skeptyx, perhaps a “scientific” name for the monster! Amazingly it wasn’t the 1 April issue of the journal!

I tried to read the article online but I could seem to access it via my subscription, maybe you will have better luck.

Rines died on 1 November at the age of 87.

Double-act Richard Dawkins and his wife give life to the evolutionist’s new book

By James Dacey

We are like detectives who have arrived on the scene after the crime has been committed; we find traces of evidence everywhere including DNA footprints.

A good scientific theory is one that is vulnerable to being proven wrong but has not yet been disproved.

Historically, religion has attempted to dispel confusion but science does this too and it does it better!

These were just three sound bites that stuck in my mind after going along to see Richard Dawkins as he delivered another dogged defence of the theory of evolution in Bristol yesterday.

Speaking at the city’s Festival of Ideas, Dawkins was accompanied on stage by his wife Lalla Ward, an English actress best known for appearing in the BBC science fiction series Dr Who where she played the part of Romana in the late 1970s.

According to Dawkins, the couple have been giving talks as a double act for the past few years — ever since Lalla stepped in when Dawkins lost his voice on a tour of the US.

The couple used the first section of the event to read extracts from Dawkins’ new book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. “This is not another anti-religious book - I’ve done that and got the T-shirt. Evolution is now a fact and this book will finally lay out all the evidence,” he said.

The thing that immediately struck me was that, despite all the sharp put-downs, Dawkins is actually incredibly mild-mannered in person. After reading his last book The God Delusion, I had assumed that the man they call “Darwin’s pit bull” had by now fully-militarised his atheist campaign and would appear slavering at the mouth.

Indeed, one of Physics World’s correspondents had his own recent brush with Dawkins when the evolutionary biologist refused to get involved with his research project. Dawkins’ reason being that the project was funded by the Templeton Foundation - an organization that purports to fuse the ideals of science and religion but which Dawkins views as a “subversion of science”.

But the way Dawkins delivered his readings, equipped with a few funny voices, was more like a polished actor bringing to life a children’s book.

And according to Dawkins, he is not actually an atheist but agnostic. However, this is only because “technically we all have to be” as there is no such thing as an immutable fact. He said that a Christian God is “no more likely than Yahweh, leprechauns, or the flying spaghetti monster”.

Hmm, clearly he’s has not lost his sense of mischief.

Ringo Starr spotted in bouncing water droplet

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The Starkey Effect Ringo keeps psychedelia alive

By James Dacey


I realize this is supposed to be a hard-hitting news site reporting physics breakthroughs, but I just couldn’t resist flagging this up.

It was whilst writing a story this afternoon about water-repellency in lotus leaves that I noticed something very strange. Bizarrely, everybody’s favourite mop-topped Liverpudlian seems to reveal himself in the high-speed photo images of water-droplets being ejected from the leaf surface.

Well, it made me laugh anyway…

Vitaly Ginzburg in Stockholm in 2003

By Matin Durrani

Vitaly Ginzburg, who turned 93 last month, is without doubt one of the leading Russian theorists of the 20th century, who shared the 2003 Nobel Prize for Physics with Alexei Abrikosov and Tony Leggett for their work on the theory of superconductors and superfluids.

He’s a long-standing admirer of Physics World magazine — having first written for us back in 1997 — and when the opportunity arose to interview him, I jumped at the chance.

Ginzburg gave answers to our questions in Russian, which were then translated into English by Vitaly Kisin, a former colleauge of mine here at Institute of Physics Publishing. I must also thank Maria Aksenteva, who is the managing editor of the journal Uspekhi Fizicheskikh Nauk, which Ginzburg has edited for the last 11 years. She is very much his “eyes and ears”.

In the interview, which you can read by following this link, Ginzburg talks about how his interest in physics developed, why he distrusts the Church’s growing role in Russian society, and how his role in developing a hydrogen bomb for the Soviet Union was what saved his life.:

The interview is in the opinion section of’s In-depth channel which currently contains a couple other great articles worth checking out.

In How to publish a scientific comment Rick Trebino relives the time he tried - and failed - to have a comment published in a scientific journal. You couldn’t make the story up.

Then as Imperial College London counts down to a debate on the pros and cons of human space flight on 12 November, the two panellists write exclusively for us, presenting their arguments for and against manned or robotic space missions in the article Human spaceflight: science or spectacle? Championing robotic missions is David Clements, a lecturer in astrophysics from Imperial. Making the case for human space flight is Ian Crawford, a reader in planetary science and astrobiology from Birkbeck College, London.

Finally, Robert P Crease probes arguments made by US energy secretary Steven Chu that the next generation of synchrotron sources are an essential tool for meeting the energy challenge — check out his article “The Lure of Synchrotrons” by following this link