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Physics on film

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January 2010 Archives

By Matin Durrani

Skimming through the latest issue of CavMag – a glossy newsletter about the latest developments at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge – I at first thought I had misread an article that stated: “In 1930, when I gratefully accepted a research studentship from Girton College…”

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Marie Constable visiting the Cavendish Laboratory with director of development Malcolm Longair (right) and Geoffrey Constable (right)

In fact, it was not a misprint but part of a wonderful article by Marie Constable, a 101-year-old physicist who had done her PhD at the Cavendish back in the early 1930s.

Constable, who was writing all about her visit to the Cavendish in September last year to attend its Alumni Open Day, gave some marvellous insights into several legendary figures from physics.

Lord Rutherford, she writes, was “a big, bluff and hearty New Zealander”, who was “friendly and helplful”. He would, apparently, make random visits around the lab to his research students, knocking loudly on their door before asking if they needed any help. It was Rutherford, she says, who also instituted the practice of the Cavendish afternoon tea break, serving tea and buns every Wednesday in the library.

James Chadwick, who discovered the neutron and was Rutherford’s effective second-in-command, is described as being “friendly and kind” although he had a reputation for not tolerating silly mistakes and could sometimes “get cross”.

Meanwhile, Constable recalls Patrick Blackett, another Nobel laureate who had served in the Royal Navy, as being “tall, handsome and helpful” and “a remarkable addition to the Cavendish staff”.

Marie also once attended a lecture by Niels Bohr although, perhaps not surprisingly given his taciturnity, she says little about Paul Dirac, other than he “was often seen in the Cavendish and regularly attended the Wednesday afternoon tea-break”.

As for life at the Cavendish, it was apparently “serene and decent” and the atmosphere was “collaborative rather than adverserial”.

But despite being the only female graduate student at the Cavendish at the time, Constable says she did not encounter much discrimination. However, she admits that when she was an undergraduate, women had to sit at the front of the lecture room – “for fear their attention might be distracted by too much male proximity”. And she was later prevented from attending a workshop course for research students, forced to enrol instead at a local technical college instead.

Luckily that worshop experience proved handy and Marie carved out a career as a safety expert.

It’s a great little story and marvellous to see there are still living links with the glory days of Cambridge physics. The full article can be read at CavMag, which will be put online at this link shortly

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Light show at Photonics West

By Margaret Harris

The last time I saw a laser light show, I was six years old. Judging from last night’s “Cirque du Laisaire” event at the Photonics West conference (sponsored by the professional optics society, SPIE), the technology has moved on considerably since then.

Unfortunately, this photo doesn’t really do it justice. Lasers are hard to photograph at the best of times, and on this occasion I think my camera had been drinking too many of the event’s signature drink: the “Laser Martini”.

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Fancy a laser martini?

This violently blue concoction is made from (so the barmaid informed me) vodka, blue curacao, white cranberry juice and triple sec, with a twist of lemon. And, since another part of the evening’s entertainment was a clip from the James Bond film Goldfinger (you know, the bit where the villain tries to cut Agent 007 in half with a giant laser), it was of course served shaken, not stirred.

The highlight of the evening was the laser magic show, in which a magician called Latimer appeared to pick up a laser beam and spin it around his head. The trick didn’t get much applause, but there’s a reason for that; as the man next to me commented, “Right now, 400 physicists in this room are too busy trying to work out how the hell he did that.” You can watch a version of the show here”.

50 years of the laser

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View of the Moscone convention centre and San Francisco Bay

By Margaret Harris

Fifty years ago, lasers were “a solution looking for a problem”. Today there seems to be no limit to their reach. There are lasers in space and lasers underground; lasers in the lab, factory, hospital and office; lasers that could scarcely singe a fly and lasers that cut through metal as if it were butter. Scientists use lasers in precision measurements of systems that range from atoms to planets. Medical doctors use them to perform delicate surgery. Nearly everyone uses them to listen to music or read other kinds of data. For astronomers, lasers can be a tool for making an artificial star in the sky; for fusion physicists, they may someday be the key to creating a very different kind of artificial star, this time down here on Earth.

Oh, and they look cool, too.

Dreaming of Northern Lights

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Aurora Borealis over Tromsø, Norway photo: Bjørn Jørgensen

By James Dacey

There are occasions during my reporting when I come across jobs that make me really quite envious…

Siobhan Logan, a writer in the UK, was given the opportunity to travel to northern Norway where she meet a group of auroral scientists and local reindeer herders, before documenting her adventures in writing and film.

Her work will feature as part of an upcoming show at the National Space Centre in Leicester that will feature poetry, physics and film inspired by Aurora Borealis, or the Northern Lights.

“For a writer, it was such an inspiring place. I was interested in the myths indigenous Arctic people have created about the Northern Lights but also what the scientists can tell us about the aurora. I came back with my head full of the creatures, characters and stories of the north,” says Logan of her experience.

The spectacular natural light displays of Aurora Borealis have always been a regular feature in the myth and folklore of northern peoples, like the Cree groups of northern America who describe this phenomenon as the “dance of the spirits”.

In recent years, the popular author Philip Pullman has brought the magic of auroras to a new generation of children through the His Dark Materials trilogy - a fantasy series tracking the adventures of bright young girl Lyra Belacqua as she passes through the aurora into a parallel universe.

Logan’s trip was made possible by sponsorship from the University of Leicester, which has strong links with a research base in Tromsø. This facility is owned by EISCAT - a project designed to study the interaction between the Sun and the Earth as revealed by disturbances in the magnetosphere and the ionised parts of the atmosphere.

Stan Cowley of the Radio & Space Plasma Physics Group at the University describes why he is excited by the project. “Science may tell us of the mechanisms of the auroras, but another language is required to express our reaction to the sight of flickering lights over frozen landscapes.”

The performance at the National Space Centre will takes place on February 23 at 7.30 pm - tickets are free but you need to book in advance.

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Home to a famous apple tree

By Hamish Johnston

In 1666 a young Isaac Newton was waiting out the plague in his mother’s garden in Lincolnshire when an apple fell from a tree. Newton wondered why such bodies always moved downwards, rather than sideways or upwards – and the theory of universal gravitation was born.

Or so goes the most famous anecdote in the history of physics…a story that Newton himself appears to have repeated often in later life, but never wrote down.

Now you can read the earliest known account of this tale, written by William Stukeley who was a friend of the great physicist.

Stukeley’s Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life is available on the Royal Society’s Turning the Pages gallery of manuscripts – created to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the society. Both Newton and Stukeley were Fellows of the Royal Society.

The site offers the manuscript in three different formats but I was only able to view the most basic version – if you have the same luck, just left-click on a page for large and very readable version. The apple story can be found on pages 42–43 of the work.

By Margaret Harris

Congratulations to Dr Cristina Lazzeroni of Birmingham University for winning Physics World’s 2009 Quiz of the year, which — as per tradition — looked back on a year of celebrations, retractions, notable discoveries and quotable personalities in the world of physics.

In addition to the everlasting glory of victory, Dr Lazzeroni will also receive a cheque for £50, which I suspect will just about cover a slap-up dinner in the UK’s second-largest city.

If you missed out on the quiz this year, it’s partly my fault: I got caught up in the end-of-the-year rush and forgot to get it posted online. I’ll try to rectify that soon, but please be advised that the prize itself is now closed to new entries.

If you’ve already tried the quiz, you can check your answers below:

By Hamish Johnston

I know that times are tough in California, but I’m very surprised that the “Governator” is supplementing his income by doing voiceovers about ionizing radiation.

Kidding aside, the Swedish company KSU has put together a nice set of educational videos about ionizing radiation – you can watch the first one right here.

The videos are available in both Swedish and English – and the English narrator sounds a lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Is the BBC objective when reporting science?

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BBC logo

By James Dacey

The impartiality of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)’s science coverage is set to be investigated by the BBC Trust. I caught up with a member of that trust who tells me the review comes as scientific issues are becoming increasingly controversial.

As well as being the largest broadcasting corporation in the world, the BBC is also a public service, funded principally by the licence fee paid by UK households. Given its cultural authority, people often refer to the corporation jokingly as “Auntie”, from the old-fashioned expression “Auntie knows best”. The British public expect high quality, objective broadcasts from the BBC that educate as well as entertain.

To help maintain standards, the BBC Trust was created to draw up company strategy as well as to guard the BBC from undue political or commercial pressure. In the case of certain controversial issues, the trust will carry out an independent review of coverage across its all its media outlets including the BBC World Service.

For this latest review, “science” is defined to include all the natural sciences, as well as those aspects of technology, medicine and the environment that entail scientific statements, research findings or other claims made by scientists.

It is not yet clear who will chair the review, but the process will involve consulatation with a range of stakeholders including members of the scientific community. “We are always open to feedback from working scientists, as it is vital that we get everything correct especially when it involves controversial issues like climate science,” says a spokesperson for the BBC Trust.

The spokesperson told physicsworld.com that the review is not a response to specific complaints but a realization that science is becoming increasingly intertwined with other issues that affect people’s everyday lives.

The Trust will reveal further details about the process of the review within the next couple of months and the findings will be published in 2011.

Previous areas of BBC coverage that have been reviewed by the BBC Trust include business coverage (2007) and the political coverage of the four nations in the UK - England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland (2008).

By Hamish Johnston

Last Friday the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA2009) came to an end in a ceremony in Padua, Italy.

Organized by the International Astronomy Union (IAU) and UNESCO, IYA2009 marked the 400th anniversary of “modern astronomy” — 1609 was year that Galileo first peered into the heavens using a telescope.

According to the IAU, the year was celebrated in 148 countries by millions of people who did everything from building country-sized models of the Solar System to having their own “Galileo moment” by peering through a telescope for the first time.

Here at physicsworld.com we did our bit by hosting the Cosmic Diary blog and boosting our coverage of all things astronomical. We also published a special astronomy issue of Physics World magazine in March, which you can download here

Speaking in Padua, IYA2009 chair Catherine Cesarsky said, “Over the past 12 months we have seen astronomy enter the public’s imagination and inspire people to ask the grandest questions. The International Year of Astronomy 2009 has been an unforgettable journey and I am pleased to see that many of the projects will continue.”

You can read more about the legacy of IYA2009 here.

Spotting fake paintings with stats

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Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1565)

By James Dacey

I wrote recently about a new technique for identifying the literary fingerprint of famous authors based on statistical patterns in their writing styles. Quantifying artistic style in painting, however, is a more difficult challenge as the constituent “words” are unknown, and whilst different artistic styles involve different brush strokes this variation is not enough to identify a well-produced fake. Now a trio of researchers in the US may have cracked the code by developing a model that can define the “spatial structure” of celebrated works of art.

Dan Rockmore of Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and his colleagues have been inspired by vision science, which explores the way the human eye makes sense of the world. The human brain has evolved to recognize patterns in nature, but the researchers also realize that the world has been kind to us in possessing regular statistical patters - “neighbouring point tend to be correlated,” says Rockmore.

In their method, Rockmore’s team first take a painting, unaware if it is genuine or fake then apply random functions until they can successfully reconstruct a given section of that painting. Next, they apply the same set of functions or “filter” to both a genuine painting by the same artist and a known fake of this same picture. If the filter performs worse at reconstructing the genuine image, then they conclude that they have another fake on their hands.

The researchers apply their model to the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the famous Dutch Renaissance painter, where they successfully distinguish authentic drawings from a set of well-known Bruegel imitations. “It turns out that such tests succeed the vast majority of the time, confirming that we have indeed chosen a ‘representation’ that picks out the visual elements that distinguish Bruegel from his imitators,” says Rockmore.

The Dartmouth researcher tells physicsworld.com that his team intend to develop their research by attempting to incorporate colour variations into their models. “We are planning to apply sparse coding to a number of other problems in art history,” he says. In particular, the team are keen to focus on the perennial challenge of differentiating works by Rembrant from those of his students.

This research is published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Britain ‘on the cold side of a meander’

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Redcliffe, Bristol

By James Dacey

Perhaps it’s the fear of appearing irresponsible, but why is it that the majority of the media always focuses on the negative aspects of snowfall? It’s always the walker stranded on a hill, the traffic standstills, the council’s failure to grit the roads; even the snow itself becomes personified with adjectives like “biting”, “terrible” or “vicious”. Fortunately, it seems that many of Bristol’s commuters were not put off by last night’s gloomy broadcasts, as there were many of us out there in the white stuff this morning snapping photos of our transformed city.

Britain is experiencing its most prolonged period of freezing conditions since 1981 – why is this? Well, the simple answer is that a zone of high pressure is sitting between Greenland and the UK, which is causing the warm, wet, westerly winds over the Atlantic to be deflected southward towards the Mediterranean. As a result, Britain is being blasted with the colder, dryer winds from Scandinavia, with up to 16 inches of snow falling last night alone over southern Britain. Many regions in northern England and Scotland have been coated in snow for the past three weeks.

But what has triggered and sustained this zone of high pressure?

Well, this is where it gets a bit more complicated but the answer, according to meteorologist Philip Eden, lies with the Atlantic jet stream – the well-defined core of strong wind that flows from northern Canada across northern Europe. These winds can exceed 400 kilometres per hour and they usually snake around to strike Britain from the south-west. At the moment, however, the jet stream has been disturbed and this is causing the winds to slow and change direction. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Eden says that the jet stream now resembles a “sluggish river that meanders.”

Britain has unfortunately (or fortunately depending on situation or personality) found itself “on the cold side of a meander”, says Eden, meaning that a high pressure region from the polar region has been allowed to drift southward. You can see how this process is occurring at the website of the UK Met office.

So, I realize that by writing this post I am living up to the British stereotype of being way too fascinated by the weather, but I hope that these matters of meteorology are of some interest.

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Award winning biographer

By Hamish Johnston

It was our book of the year and now Graham Farmelo’s The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius has taken the 2009 Costa Biography Award.

The judges had this to say about the book: “The extraordinary mind and achievements of Britain’s Einstein are rendered here in the most compelling biography of the year.”

Last year Farmelo gave the inaugural Physics World online lecture about the life of Paul Dirac — you can watch it here.

This morning Farmelo was interviewed about his award on BBC Radio 4 — you can listen to the interview here — just scroll down to “0720”.

And if you’re interested in a physicist’s opinion of the book, you can read John Enderby’s review, which we published in April, 2009.

Farmelo — along with 2009 Costa winners in fiction, poetry and children’s literature — is now in the running for the Costa Book of the Year, which will be announced later this month.

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Melvyn Bragg (Courtesy: BBC)

By Hamish Johnston

BBC Radio’s Melvyn Bragg has embarked on a four-part series on the history of the Royal Society and its impact on British science and society.

2010 marks the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society, which was founded by a dozen or so academics in Oxford as “a Colledge for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematicall Experimentall Learning”. The society was granted a royal charter two years later.

In the first episode “Melvyn travels to Wadham College, Oxford, where under the shadow of the English Civil War, the young Christopher Wren and friends experimented in the garden of their inspirational college warden, John Wilkins”.

You can listen to that episode here.

The next installment will be broadcast later this evening.

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Stars of the show From left to right, Raj, Howard, Leonard and Sheldon build a robot to enter a fighting-robot competition (credit: Warner Bros Television Entertainment)

By Michael Banks

You may have heard of, or possibly seen, the hit TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory, which features two brilliant postdoc physicists, Leonard and Sheldon, who are totally absorbed by science but fail to fit in with their 20-something non-academic contemporaries.

Now in its third season on the CBS network in the US and with a fourth commissioned, the show has over 13 million US viewers. The sitcom also airs in the UK on Channel 4 and last month E4, Channel 4’s digital network, started showing the third season.

In the January edition of Physics World, Nick Thomas from Auburn University at Montgomery, talks exclusively to the show’s stars and creators about why the series, which has a dialogue peppered with references to physics and mathematics, is such a roaring success with viewers.

Click here to read the full story.

Newton tribute helps ward off New Year blues

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Newton celebrated in the latest “Google doodle”

By James Dacey

Welcome back to physicsworld.com for what will hopefully be another exciting year of research breakthroughs and technological innovations. That said, if you’re returning to work after a Christmas break of festivity and overindulgence, the first few days back can be more than a little gloomy. At least the folks at Google are doing their bit to try to lift the spirits of down-in-the-dumps physicists.

Attentive users of the popular internet search engine will have already noticed its tribute to Isaac Newton, the great English physicist who would be celebrating his 366th birthday were he still alive today. The iconic Google logo has been draped with the branch of an apple tree, which drops a fruit when you hover your cursor over it – a tribute, of course, to the incident that allegedly inspired Newton’s theory of gravitation and his Principia Mathematica first published in 1687.

Newton’s much anticipated follow-up Opticks, released to the public 17 years later, also has great resonance this year, as 2010 marks the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser. physicsworld.com will be joining the celebrations with a series of video interviews with leading laser physicists and engineers, and there will also be a laser special for the May print issue of Physics World magazine.

So whether you’re returning to the office, to the lab, or anywhere else in between, try to ride out those New Year blues, as the celebrations and exciting breakthoughs are just around the corner!