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February 2010 Archives


By Hamish Johnston

Did the leftovers from experiments done by Ernest Rutherford and others contribute to the deaths of two University of Manchester academics nearly a century later?

That’s the question facing Manchester coroner Nigel Meadows, who will lead an inquest into the deaths of Arthur Reader and Tom Whiston, who both died of pancreatic cancer in 2008 and 2009 respectively.

Rutherford arrived at the University of Manchester in 1907 and spent the next 12 years experimenting with radioactive materials as well as toxic substances such as mercury. It was there that he established the existence of the atomic nucleus.

Rutherford’s lab was in the New Physical Laboratories (renamed several times before it became the Rutherford building in 2006), which continued to be used by the physics department until the late 1960s. The psychology department moved there in 1972 — but staff only discovered that something was wrong in 2001 when several rooms were sealed off because of radiation and mercury contamination.

In 2008, three psychologists and longtime occupants of the building published a 294-page report entitled Possible health risks due to ionising radiation in the Rutherford Building.

In their report, John Churcher, Don O’Boyle and Neil Todd conclude:

“There remains significant uncertainty concerning the extent to which radioactive
contamination of the Coupland 1/Rutherford building may have affected the health of
staff of the Department of Psychology who occupied part of it during the 25 years to
1999 and the health of others who occupied it earlier.

However, in 2009 the epidemiologist David Coggon of Southampton University tabled an independent report that concluded the deaths (as well as the health problems of several other occupants) were probably not linked to the contamination. You can read Coggon’s report here.

It will be interesting to see how the coroner’s findings compare to previous investigations.

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One of 10 Royal Mail stamps celebrating 350 years of the Royal Society

By Michael Banks

Physicist Ernest Rutherford - famous for his model of the atom in 1911 — once said that “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”

But for all you stamp-collecting physicists out there you can now get your hands on 10 stamps launched today by the Royal Mail to celebrate 350 years of the Royal Society.

Featuring luminaries such as Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin and Robert Boyle, the first-class stamps are apparently the first to contain a “split-stamp” design (could it be a reference to Rutherford’s “splitting the atom” experiments in 1917?) — the portraits of the 10 fellows are each paired with a colourful image representing their achievements.

Royal Mail selected the 10 pioneering scientists with the help of the Royal Society and you can get your hands on the stamps by visiting any Post Office in the UK or online at

By Hamish Johnston
Something to worry about: brown bars are the copper stabilizers

A few weeks ago Matthew Chalmers reported that Higgs-hunting particle physicists will have to wait until 2013 before the LHC reaches its maximum energy.

The nuts and bolts of why are described nicely in a new paper called Superconductivity: its role, its success and its setbacks in the Large Hadron Collider of CERN, which has just been published in Superconductor Science and Technology.

The paper — by CERN’s Lucio Rossi — includes a section called “Incident in sector 3-4” that describes in great detail the accident that took down the LHC in 2008. You can read exactly how an electrical connector failed — vaporizing a length of superconducting cable, heating the surrounding helium, which surged along the beam line wreaking havoc.

Could a similar disaster strike again? Rossi appears to say yes — “…a more subtle defect, related to a lack of continuity in the copper stabilizer, is now evident and is worrying since it is diffused around the machine”.

These copper stabilizers are part of an electrical circuit used to divert current from the superconducting cable if a fault occurs. Rossi is worried because at some connectors there is insufficient electrical contact between the cable and stabilizers — and between adjacent stabilizers. In the diagram above this trouble spot is labelled “Gaps with lack of Sn-Ag filler”.

If such a splice between cables fails — as one did in 2008 — the adjacent cable is heated and is no longer superconducting. If the cable is bare and there is a gap between stabilizers, current is forced to flow through the cable causing it to melt in a matter of seconds.

While the LHC has implemented a new system for detecting bad splices before they can cause damage, Rossi says that the gaps at the connectors could themselves be a problem. Warm helium from a minor problem elsewhere could, for example, heat the connector — triggering a similar disaster as occurred in 2008.

LHC scientists have devised a way of finding such gaps — but it works best when the LHC is warm. Half the accelerator was warmed up in 2008 for repairs and gaps were found and fixed. Most of the other half, however, was kept at 80 K and could not be thoroughly tested and repaired. As a result, Rossi believes that several gap defects could remain in the accelerator.

The upshot is that CERN will run the LHC in 2010 at the lower energy of 7 TeV, hoping that the connectors will hold. Then the accelerator will be shut down in 2012 for a year so all 10,000 connectors can be replaced. Finally, in 2013 protons in the LHC will collide at 14 TeV.

But the paper is not all bad news — it also describes how the LHC is at the pinnacle of superconducting technology. Here are a few superlatives:

- The accelerator has nearly 10,000 superconducting magnets

- The magnets are cooled by 130 tonnes of helium held at 1.9 and 4.2 K

- The accelerator contains about 15,000 MJ of magnetic energy

- 1200 tonnes of Nb-Ti superconducting cables were used to wind the magnets

- There is a 0.01% variation in field quality among the 1232 main dipole magnets

Gordon Brown has recently been accused of bullying staff members. Credit: Downing Street

By Margaret Harris

Workplace bullying has become a hot topic in the UK lately, following allegations that Prime Minister Gordon Brown bullied members of his staff at No. 10 Downing Street. Leaving aside the (substantial) politicking behind these particular claims and counterclaims, the debate seems to hinge on a question that is as relevant to career physicists as it is to career politicians: what, exactly, constitutes bullying?

The UK’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) lists several examples of bullying and harassing behaviour. Some of them seem pretty obvious. Any manager — be it a Prime Minister or a PhD supervisor — who makes unwelcome sexual advances or spreads malicious rumours about an employee is clearly bang out of order, and ought to be severely reprimanded or sacked.

But other examples are less clear. “Overbearing supervision” is on the list, as is “ridiculing or demeaning” someone. Neither of them sound like much fun, but different people react differently to criticism, and it’s at least arguable that one person’s “overbearing supervision” is another’s “making sure the job gets done right”.

There are some reasons to believe that academia is particularly prone to bullying, as one commenter on a recent BBC story suggested. The apprenticeship system for PhD students and early-career researchers gives senior academics a lot of power and influence over their junior colleagues. It also makes it difficult for victims of bullying to walk away from a bad situation, because chances are they’ll have to either start over or leave academia entirely.

But I wonder whether there’s something more subtle going on with physics in particular. The fact is that quite a few of history’s great physicists — the people many of us regard as our scientific heroes — weren’t exactly great managers. I enjoy stories about Feynman’s skirt-chasing as much as anyone, but I’d have thought twice about being his PhD student. Bohr frequently drove Heisenberg to tears. And there are plenty of horror stories out there about lesser scientists; my favourite (unconfirmed) one is of a Nobel laureate who allegedly went around urinating in other people’s experiments so that they wouldn’t work.

Can we separate these physicists’ great achievements from their personal flaws? Certainly. But perhaps we should think twice about relating these anecdotes with such gusto. After all, what was Pauli’s famous “not even wrong” jibe if not “ridiculing or demeaning” to the hapless lecturer on the receiving end?

You stay classy, San Diego

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Just north of the border

By James Dacey

Well, here at the San Diego Convention Center people are starting to dismantle things around me so looks like the AAAS conference is well and truly over for this year. It’s been a fun five days and I hope this blog has given you a reasonable flavour of the theme Bridging Science and Society.

Next year’s meeting will be in Washington D.C. where the focus will be Science Without Borders - a celebration of all things multidisciplinary. If you’re interested in taking part then they’re already taking submissions for symposia.

Right, after all the big ideas and dashing around this huge convention centre, I’m off for some much needed relaxation. I leave you with a few snapshots of the hosting city.

For those of you haven’t seen the film Anchorman, I apologize but I just can’t resist it - You stay classy, San Diego.

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San Diego Convention Center, a large host
Tribute to the US naval military
Waterfront, alongside San Diego Bay
Can anybody identify this bird?
The lively Gaslamp quarter
No flies on Stephen Schneider

By James Dacey

This great quote came on the final morning here at the AAAS conference in San Diego. Stephen Schneider, an environmental scientist at Stanford University, was lashing out at all forms of climate change denial including those physicists who make a sport of pointing out uncertainties in climate models.

Schneider’s point is that when physicists make laws and theories by studying the relationships between pairs of data, they are still modelling - just with much less data.

The main thrust of Schneider’s talk - delivered with a relish that could have garnished the Mexican burger I had last night - was that climate scientists should not shy away from entering the public debate on climate change. “Because I have a Ph.D. is not a reason to “hang up my citizenship at the door” of a public meeting—we too are entitled to personal opinions,” he said.

Schneider believes that the media’s representation of climate science is being increasingly shaped by the scientifically unqualified and “old men” who overstretch their dwindling expertise.

The CMS experiment

By James Dacey

“Of the billions who tuned in for the switch-on, I suspect that many were only interested in seeing whether or not we would be blown to smithereens.”

The words there are those of John Ellis, a senior research scientist at CERN, talking just now at the AAAS conference in San Diego about why the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was never really going to destroy the planet.

I was half expecting (rather, hoping) that the talk would be gate-crashed by a gang of doomsday mongers; or perhaps even Walter Wagner, the high-school physics teacher who filed a federal lawsuit in the US District Court in Honolulu in 2008 to prevent the LHC from starting up.

Alas, they all failed to show.

Ellis, who has worked on several LHC experiments, gave an eloquent description of how CERN responded to all the scaremongering. It was the usual stuff, but it was interesting to here of how Ellis’ colleagues had taken “months” out of their research to calculate the exact nature of the tiny black holes - the ones that almost certainly wouldn’t be produced, and even if they were, would possess the “energy of a fly”.

If you’ve never really trusted those CERN guys, or you’re just really bored, you can find extensive details of all the LHC’s safety precautions here.

Despite his sensible words, I’ve got to say I was a bit surprised by Ellis’ reply to my question over whether physicists, when talking with the media, should stop discussing doomsday scenarios in terms of statistics and just say “no - there is no chance”. “I’m a scientist,” he said. “We deal in probabilities.”

Ellis was speaking as part of a larger discussion entitled Organizer: Doomsday Versus Discovery, in which other speakers discussed how the media have reacted to the developments at CERN and the historical and philosophical issues surrounding the fear of big science.

Researchers! Join the Twitterati! Or perish!

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The Cocktail Party, 1965. Alex Katz

By James Dacey

It’s been compared to a cocktail party where multiple conversations, all taking place at once, result in that familiar cacophony of chitchat. Some people thrive in this environment, while others feel jarred, but eventually we all drag ourselves along to one because we know that’s the real place to hear the interesting stuff for our careers.

Researchers need to get themselves onto Twitter pronto because it is fast becoming the place to find out the breakthroughs in your research field. That was the take-home message from Bora Zivkovic, the online community manager of the journal PLoS ONE, who was speaking today on the penultimate morning of the AAAS conference in San Diego.

Zivkovic, who was an entertaining speaker with a nice dry sense of humour, admits that the popular microblogging site does play host to a lot of inane chitter. He insists, however, that so long as you are selective about whom you “follow”, you can build up a very helpful bunch of online colleagues. He is a bioscientist by training, and described how he uses Twitter each day to catch up on how colleagues’ research is developing and to see what key publications and events are taking place that day.

One flabbergasted member of the audience took issue with Zivkovic, saying that with “only 24 hours in a day” there is simply not enough time to uphold a professional reputation online. Zivkovic conceded that not every every social networking site is right for everyone, but he is convinced that Twitter is different, arguing that its simplicity and benefits make it worth the investment of time. “It’s just like e-mail - in 10 years you won’t remember what it was like to have lived without Twitter,” he said.

At the end of the session, entitled Science 2.0: From Tweet Through Blog to Book, you could be forgiven for thinking that Zivkovic is being paid by Twitter to say all these nice things about their site. I don’t think he is, but he’s certainly infatuated with the online cocktail party. So join him there or be square, maybe.

To Svalbard in search of little green men

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Svalbard Credit: NASA

By James Dacey

Where do we come from? Are we alone? Where are we going? They’re certainly not shying away from the big questions here at the AAAS conference in San Diego. This morning we were celebrating 50 Years of Astrobiology, which is basically the study of the origin and evolution of life on Earth and the search for signs of extraterrestrial life. The research is about as multidisciplinary as you can get drawing on expertise from astronomy, physics, biology, chemistry, geology, and the planetary sciences at the very least.

As interesting as those big questions are, however, I’m usually left frustrated by the vagueness of the actual research. The scientists seem to be staring hard at images and spectra from planets in search of signs of habitable conditions like on Earth, but they don’t really seem to know what they’re looking for. “We can’t say exactly what the conditions necessary for life are. We don’t know whether extraterrestrial life would have evolved in the same way. We don’t really know where to look,” they say.

Well this morning I was pleased to encounter one astro-scientist who seemed a lot less defeatist and was taking a much more down to Earth approach to the search for extraterrestrial life. Pamela Conrad, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, spends her days surveying desolate places on Earth in search of key indicators of habitability. In essence, she goes out into the field and assesses the large-scale physics and chemistry of a remote location before moving in to see whether the site can support life.

In her talk she described one adventure that took her to the remote archipelago of Svalbard, located between mainland Norway and the North Pole. After extensive surveying, Conrad came to conclude that a range of factors including temperatures, light, and even the steepness of slopes had an influence over which parts of the land could support life. One interesting factor is the type of underlying geology - dolerite, an igneous rock, is a good place for life on Svalbard because it can warm up easily then contain heat over time.

And this research is more than speculative because the findings could be used in NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission, which is due to launch in 2011. Once the craft has landed, a NASA rover will collect samples to see whether the planet could have supported life at some point in its history. It is important, therefore, to choose a site that at least has a fighting chance of being habitable - that is assuming we want to find those little green men!

Scientists discuss the needer for greater transparency in climate research

By James Dacey

Those scientists involved were careless and, to prevent this happening again, the research community needs to deal with the threat posed by new types of media. These were the conclusions of Harvard climate scientist James McCarthy when describing two recent climate scandals, which were both fuelled by viral activity in the blogosphere. McCarthy was talking today at the annual meeting of the American association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which is taking place in San Diego, California.

Since that email scandal broke back in November, bloggers across the globe have chipped with strong criticisms of the scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in the UK. You will remember that leaked emails revealed the researchers to have “sexed-up” certain aspects of their climate data to fit a general warming trend. Then, in January, came another blow to climate science when it came to light that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had included in their latest scientific report a near baseless claim that the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear by 2035.

McCarthy, who previously served as co-chair of an IPCC Working Group, strongly emphasized that these were two isolated incidents, with have no impact on the strong scientific consensus over climate change. However, he also recognises that the climate science community could have done more to deal with the allegations before the issues blew-up into fully-blown scandals. He feels that one way to do this is for researchers to start using social media themselves - which includes blogs, Facebook and Twitter - to disseminate research with the public. “I can tell you, a lot of groups are trying to think about creative ways of entering into the discussion,” he said.

Boy Viewing Mount Fuji, Katsushika Hokusa

By James Dacey

At their foundations, physics and art are connected by form. This was the underlying message of a talk by Jack Leibowitz, a condensed matter researcher at the Catholic University of America. He was speaking today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which I’m currently at in San Diego, California.

Leibowitz draws an unlikely comparison between the electromagnetic equations of James Clark Maxwell and the Boy Viewing Mount Fuji, a painting by Katsushika Hokusa. The Japanese artist is perhaps better known for his work The Great Wave off Kanagawa, which decorates the living room of just about every student flat in the land.

In is talk, Leibowitz gave the standard eulogy about the irresistible simplicity of Maxwell’s equations, but he compared this with the same appreciation of design that rewards the viewer of Hokusai’s great painting. “We see the powerfully rendered apposition of shapes: the peak of Mount Fuji accentuated by placement of the dark cloud right behind it, which takes the eye to the darkest dark and the lightest light,” he said.

This was certainly high-brow stuff! Actually, if I’m being completely honest, the talk fell a little bit flat on the audience here in San Diego. Leibowitz came across as a bit aloof in his presentation style, and the formality appeared to leave the non-specialist audience despondent - not a single question was asked when things were opened up to the floor. It’s a shame because it seems like a really fascinating topic, so, if interested, I would skip the talks and pick Leibowitz’s book - Hidden Harmony: The Connected worlds of Physics and Art.

Tracing nuclear dust

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Image courtesy: The American Physical Society

By James Dacey

Any human activity leaves behind dust, and, if we look closely at this dust, it will always provide a clue to the activity that produced it. This is the idea of nuclear forensic scientist, Klaus Lützenkirchen, who draws an analogy between crime scene investigation and the need to monitor global nuclear activities in a more scientific fashion. Lützenkirchen was speaking today at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the “triple A-S”), which kicked-off today in San Diego, California.

Earlier in the day, Vice President Joe Biden had addressed this same issue during a speech at the White House, and the American Physical Society (APS) has just released a report, Technical Steps to Support Nuclear Downsizing.

Lützenkirchen, who is head of the nuclear safeguards and security unit at the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC), admits that his analogy does break down somewhat as nuclear fingerprints rarely tend to be unique. He proposes, therefore, building a profile of nuclear dust (actual, not figurative, dust), focused on the analysis of chemical, morphological and isotopic qualities. In this way, scientists can collect vital clues to the origins of intercepted nuclear material.

This discussion of international nuclear activities is strongly in keeping with the theme at this year’s AAAS meeting, “Bridging Science and Society”. I’m here in sunny San Diego (yeah, life’s cruel sometimes), so watch this space for more entries from the meeting in the coming days.

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Image of stars being born in a cloud of gas and dust. Inset shows the centre of the cloud taken by NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (credit: NASA)

By Michael Banks

NASA has released the first images taken by its Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) space telescope, which launched in mid December.

The seven awe-inspiring images include a star-forming cloud teeming with gas, dust and massive newborn stars (above), a detailed picture of the Andromeda galaxy — the closest large galaxy to the Milky Way — and a comet streaking across the sky.

Costing $320m, WISE is an infrared space telescope that will probe the coolest stars in the universe and the structure of galaxies at four wavelengths between 3 - 25 micrometres. As WISE is designed to detect infra-red radiation from cool objects, the telescope and detectors are chilled to 12 K with liquid helium.

WISE will circle the Earth’s poles at an altitude of 525 km scanning the entire sky one-and-a-half times in nine months where it will also measure the diameters of more than 100 000 asteroids.

Look out for more amazing images soon.

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Image of the Andromeda galaxy taken by NASA’s WISE craft (credit: NASA)

By Michael Banks

If you asked the general public what comes to mind when you say “nuclear physics”, you might hear about “nuclear power” or “atomic bombs”. However, you might not get a reply saying how research into nuclear physics allows us to destroy cancer cells more effectively or improves security and safety by designing better methods to detect dirty bombs or radioactive waste.


To help promote the benefits of research into nuclear physics and to shake off some of the old stereotypes the subject has, the Institute of Physics today launched a new report, Nuclear Physics and Technology - Inside the Atom, outlining how basic research into nuclear physics is being used in a variety of applications from medical physics to fusion research.

The report comes at a difficult time for the subject in the UK. Nuclear physicists were up in arms after deep budget cuts to the subject were handed out in late December as the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announced the country would pull out of a number of nuclear physics projects, mostly at laboratories abroad, to help balance its budget for 2011.

Basic research into nuclear physics was firmly in the cross-hairs as the STFC announced the UK would pull out of the AGATA and PANDA experiments at the GSI heavy-ion lab in Darmstadt and also at ALICE at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The only experiment in nuclear physics that is still to be funded is NUSTAR at GSI.

Many nuclear physicists have lamented the state of the subject in the UK, which they say is now funded much less than in other countries such as Germany or Japan. Nuclear physicist Guenther Roser from the University of Glasgow called the UK’s spending on nuclear physics “appallingly low” and that “the balance is not right” compared with how much the UK spends on particle physics (mostly in subscriptions to CERN) or astronomy.

John Womersley, director of science programmes at the STFC, who spoke at the launch of the report noted that nuclear physics had been “severely affected” by the cuts but warned that physics as a whole will have to “make better arguments” in terms of its impact on society to get enough funding “just to stay still”.

I caught up with William Gelletly from the University of Surrey, who chaired the launch of the report, to ask him what could be done to reverse the trend of low funding for nuclear physics. He said that the community has to get the message across that nuclear physics underpins a lot of different areas, be it in helping to train nuclear physicists or helping medical physicist use the latest proton therapy machines.”You need nuclear physicists to teach the next batch of nuclear engineers,” says Gelletly. “At Surrey, we train over 100 MSc students in nuclear physics across four different courses, of which about half are UK students.”

So what can be done to reverse the decline? Gelletly says that making the government aware how important nuclear physics is would be a good start. He advises that a review of the subject - undertaken not by nuclear physicists but by “independent” experts - should be set up to show the government how important the subject is to the country.

The applications of nuclear physics were perhaps brought home most effectively by Gelletly’s Surrey colleague Jim Al-Khalili. In a wide-ranging talk on nuclear physics he also told the audience that his wife is currently undergoing a three week course of radiotherapy battling against breast cancer. He said that techniques in proton and carbon therapy - developed by nuclear physicists - have allowed for all the energy of the ion beam to be deposited in a very small area thus not damaging the remaining healthy tissue meaning it is more effective than chemotherapy.

Indeed, with the report mentioning that at least 1 in 6 of the UK population will require radiotherapy at some part of their lives, it is hard to think of a more powerful reason why the UK should do more to fund nuclear physics.

Crab nebula or heart-building protein?

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Heart-builder COS cells plan the heart cell architecture

By James Dacey

Although this colourful image may strongly resemble the Crab Nebula, it is in fact a type of cell called a COS cell, found in the human heart where they regulate the structure of biological tissue. The image was produced in by Joseph Dwyer at King’s College London, who stained an isolated cell using fluorescent antibodies before capturing the image with a microscope. The image was one of seven short-listed for a competition ‘Reflections of Research’, which was held of the British Heart foundation. You can see the other impressive images here.

By Matin Durrani

One of the reasons why the BBC Radio show Desert Island Discs has been on air for almost 70 years now is that it’s such a simple format.

Guests choose their favourite eight records to take to a desert island while chatting about their life and work to the presenter, currently Kirsty Young.

Jim Al-Khalili — enjoys listening to Rolf Harris

It’s also tempting to think what you might pick if you were on the show. You’d want to appear to have impeccably good taste of course, while not appearing too conventional or mainstream.

All of which left me wondering why the theoretical nuclear physicist Jim Al-Khalilli, who appears on this week’s show, decided to choose Rolf Harris’s Two Little Boys as one of his eight records.

The song, which was a surprise number one UK hit in 1969 for the Australian entertainer, describes the life of two boys who grew up to fight in the American Civil War. It’s a bit of a cheesy and mawkish song — no, actually, it’s awful — but there’s an interesting story behind why Al-Khalili picked it.

The Surrey University physicist grew up in Iraq, where his father had returned after meeting his English wife while studying engineering in Portsmouth. The family used to listen constantly to the BBC World Service radio broadcasts and his mother one day wrote in, asking for the Rolf hit to be played for Jim and his brother as a request.

It was, to their surprise, and Jim and his family’s name was read out on air.

The show’s, unfortunately, a bit light on physics. Al-Khalili, for example, begins an interesting discussion about nuclear fusion, which gets about as far as him calling it “the holy grail of energy” as it does not produce carbon dioxide or “horrible nuclear waste” before presenter Kirsty Young cuts him off with a shrill “Enough of the science!”

Jim also touches on science in the Islamic world — indeed, he is currently putting the finishing touches to a feature on the topic, which is to appear in the April issue of Physics World magazine.

His favourite book is the heavyweight The Road to Reality by Roger Penrose and his luxury is an acoustic guitar.

You can listen to the broadcast via this link

By Dens Milne

Courtesy Daresbury Laboratory

Yesterday I was at the Cockcroft Institute at the Daresbury Laboratory for the 1st Vacuum Symposium UK. This included a one-day technical programme covering a broad range of talks on vacuum science and technology. The event followed the 9th Residual Gas Analyser Users Meeting held the day before, which boasted its own day-long seminar programme organized by the RGA Users Group.

I joined more than100 delegates enjoying presentations on the many and varied applications of vacuum — covering everything from the challenges of pumping the enormous vacuum chamber at the Joint European Torus (JET) fusion experiment to the intricacies of applying coatings in the production of large-area glazing products (that’s windows to you and me).

The event (co-sponsored by the Institute of Physics’ Vacuum Group, the British Vacuum Council and the Science and Technology Facilities Council) was free to attend thanks to the support of the 26 hi-tech companies showing their wares at the associated trade exhibition. Attendees could also sign up for two training seminars taking place in parallel to the main talks or peruse the mini poster session at the back of the main auditorium highlighting research work taking place at the University of Liverpool, Nottingham University and Université de Provence. A further international feel was added by keynote speaker Dr Manfred Leisch of Graz University of Technology in Austria, who talked about his surface-science research on stainless steel, one of the most commonly used construction materials for vacuum chambers and components.

It is hoped that this will be just the first in a series of annual symposia. Judging by the reactions of both attendees and exhibitors, it looks set to become the premier event in the UK vacuum calendar.

By Matin Durrani

Most readers of this blog first got interested in physics for a variety of reasons — be it an inspiring teacher, a good popular-science book, or just a deeply held desire to get to the bottom of something really quite hard.


Sadly, not everyone has the same passion for physics as physicists themselves. People are, of course, perfectly happy to reap the benefits of physics — be it finding their way in the car using a GPS sat-nav system, downloading the latest movies over the optical fibres of the Internet, or getting treated with an MRI scanner when they’re ill.

But that does not mean non-physicists want to know anything about physics. Even worse, many people aren’t even aware of what physics can do.

Now, though, my colleagues at the Institute of Physics have published an excellent report that outlines, at a very simple level, how physics has contributed to 10 different technological developments.

Entitled Physics for an Advanced World, the glossy full-colour report can be downloaded for free here

Launched at the House of Commons earlier this week, it has 10 case studies showcasing the the social and economic benefits of physics — each with great photos, accessible text and a useful timeline. Other applications in addition to those mentioned above include holography, lasers and, of course, the Web itself.

Without which you would not be reading this blog.

By Matin Durrani, Editor, Physics World

The Royal Society — perhaps the world’s oldest and most prestigious scientific society — is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year. It was founded in 1650 by a group of 12 natural philosophers, including Robert Boyle, best known for his law describing how the pressure of a gas rises as it is compressed at constant temperature.

Over the years, the society has had plenty of links with physics — past presidents include Isaac Newton, J J Thomson, Lord Kelvin and Ernest Rutherford and the current president is the Cambridge University astrophysicist and cosmologist Martin Rees.

Speaking in an exclusive video interview with, Rees explains why he thinks the Royal Society still has an essential role to play in the modern world. After all, if scientists can communicate quickly and easily via online discussion groups, Facebook and Twitter, a society with a limited and admittedly elite membership might not be totally in tune with today’s world. For Rees, however, the society’s strengths lie in its ability to promote and disseminate science — and in the increasing amount of scientific advice it offers to politicians on topics like energy and climate change.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Rees also welcomes President Obama’s decision not to return astronauts to the Moon.

“Given the financial constraints, if I were an American taxpayer I would entirely support it,” he says. “I think it is very important we pursue science in space [but] the case for sending people into space is getting weaker all the time with every advance in robotics and miniaturization. I still believe in the long run that there is a role for people in space, but that’s just for an adventure - not for any practical purpose.”

As for what are the mostexciting developments in astronomy, Rees cites the search for Earth-like extrasolar planets, the study of the cosmic microwave background by the Planck satellite and the ability of the Herschel infrared telsecope to understand how the earliest galaxies formed.

The interview with Rees took place at the Royal Society’s “presidential flat” — a kind of up-market crash-pad at the society’s headquarters at Carlton House Terrace in central London. The flat has great views out onto the London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, where Rees — as a member of the House of Lords — had spent the morning giving evidence to a scientific committee. That was followed by a radio interview and then us.

Add in his duties as master of Trinity College Cambridge, and it’s not surprising that Rees only has time for research at weekends. But, as he explains, he is “in a style of life that is fascinating”.

By Matin Durrani

With their passion for analysing the world by breaking it down into ever-smaller pieces, most physicists are “reductionists” at heart. Whether through tradition or instinct, our natural inclination is to reduce matter first to molecules and then to atoms and on to nuclei, nucleons, quarks and beyond.

But this approach, while astonishingly successful in terms of understanding the fundamental particles and forces of nature, does not always work. In other words, the whole can often be more than the sum of the parts.

Just consider the beautiful patterns created by large flocks of birds flying in the sky, which cannot be explained by understanding in ever greater detail the physiology of those birds. It is the interactions between the birds that are the key: the patterns form if each individual simply keeps a steady gap between it and its neighbours and flies in their average direction.

The February 2010 special issue of Physics World magazine, which can be downloaded for free via this link, looks at the science of “complex systems” — a rapidly growing field that tackles any system with lots of individual elements that interact in some way, be they birds flying in formation, car drivers moving along a highway or computers linking to form the Internet.

One active area of complexity, where physicists are making much of the running, is network science. Mark Buchanan and Guido Caldarelli (p22) kick off the issue by charting the rise of the field, which involves studying any system where its properties lie not in the behaviour of the individual components of the network but in the nature and structure of the connections between them.

It is important to note that while networks are complex systems, not all complex systems are networks. A colony of ants, for example, might co-operate on building a nest, but their connections are not formalized in any way. A network of traders, computers or phones, in contrast, do have such links.

Much of the fascination of network science lies in its roots in everyday life. For example, as Vittoria Colizza and Alessandro Vespignani explain, tools from physics can be used to model how infectious diseases, such as the H1N1 swine-flu pandemic, spread in real time.

Dirk Brockmann then reveals how information garnered from the geographical movement of banknotes and the location of mobile phones can reveal patterns in how people travel.

Finally, James Crutchfield and Karoline Wiesner chart a roadmap for the future of complexity, which they think lies in applying ideas from complex systems to the social sciences. It is a brave notion — but one that may make hard-core reductionists shudder.

Download the issue via this link

TV clip about the physics of curling

By Hamish Johnston

Canadians take curling very seriously — indeed, the CBC has a website dedicated to the sport where you can catch up on the latest results.

In a few days Canada will be hosting the Winter Olympics, and to ensure a bumper crop of medals, the Canadian government has invested CDN$22 million into sports research.

Not surprisingly, some of that money has been spent on studying the physics of curling.

In this TV clip, you can watch Tom Jenkyn of the University of Western Ontario use an infrared camera to study the effect of “sweeping” on the temperature of ice.

For any non-curlers, the sport involves sliding large polished rocks along a sheet of ice and towards a target. Each rock is guided to the target by two sweepers who brush the ice in front of the rock. Sweeping makes the ice more slippery and is used to make the rock go further and to also to modify its “curl” — or its tendency to swerve off a straight line.

Jenkyn discovered that — contrary to popular belief — even the most vigorous sweeping does not melt the ice in front of the rock. Rather, it raises its temperature by about 1.5 degrees, which is enough to affect the motion of the rock.

In the video clip Jenkyn claims to have made dozens of other discoveries that could boost Canada’s curling fortunes at the Olympics — but he’s sworn to secrecy until June, well after the games and the curling season are over.

While most of his findings will only benefit serious competitors, Jenkyn has also designed a new type of broom that is to be commercialized and available to one and all.

Rockstar DJ airs Sagan and Hawking

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By James Dacey

I was listening to the dulcet tones of Jarvis Cocker hosting his radio show last night - incidentally, the perfect way to wind down after a busy weekend - when he surprised everyone with this choice.

The song, A Glorius Dawn, features Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking singing extracts from Sagan’s celebrated TV series Cosmos. It was produced by composer John Boswell who released the track back in November to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Sagan’s birth.

“I’m not very good at singing songs, but here’s a try…” says Sagan, before breaking into a beatbox intro.

You’ll still be laughing from the hilarious first verse when we reach the chorus:

“A still more glorious dawn awaits
Not a sunrise but a galaxy rise
A morning filled with 400 billion Suns
The rising of the Milky Way…”

Those of you familiar with Jarvis Cocker - who fronted the UK band Pulp before going solo in 2002 - will perhaps not be that surprised by his eclectic taste. Like Carl and Stephen, Jarvis is a fantastic communicator especially when it comes to the art of storytelling. His lyrics encompass everything from girls being into palaeontology to the rise of obeisity amongst children, and l remember him exploring his fascination with the cosmos on an early Pulp track Space, which featured the lyrics:

“Tonight … travelling at the speed of thought …
We’re going to escape into the stars…”

You can listen to a repeat of Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service here.

Physics hasn’t gone away but the students have Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By James Dacey

Just a quick question for you to ponder over the weekend: what could the UK do to improve the quality and popularity of physics in secondary education?

I ask this now because several UK newspapers have run stories this week about the decline of physics education in the UK. The headlines emerged following a meeting at the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday, the beginnings of a select committee inquiry into the teaching of science, maths and English in schools.

When it came to physics, the focus was on the decline of the A-level award, which students typically study at age 16-18, where the closest US equivalent is probably the AP higher. The two damning statistics that have been doing the rounds are:

a) More than one in four state schools are unable to offer A-level physics due to a lack of specialist teachers.

b) The number of students taking A-level physics has dropped to 29,000 from 44,000 in the 1980s.

The UK Institute of Physics (IOP) responded by pointing to six main problem areas for physics education, which included: the quality of teaching; access to learning; the nature of assessment; the ethos; and the pull of the subject.

The other category is the curriculum itself, where the Institute says that declining standards are deterring students from taking physics or leaving them woefully underprepared for a university education in physics. The Insititute believes that too much change too quickly in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] has left the curriculum piecemeal and incoherent.

“Physics should have a distinctive place in the curriculum,” reads the IOP’s statement. “The invention of a subject called science has led to a loss of identity of the sciences.”

Jacko spotted in droplet, claims physicist

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Polymer surgery Is the King of Pop in this mound?

By James Dacey

Just before Christmas, I caused a bit of a splash in the blogosphere when I spotted the face of Ringo Starr in a bouncing water droplet - an image captured by physicists at Duke University in the US.

Here is another physics experiment that contains a spooky resemblance to a human face, sent to us by David Fairhurst, a physicist at Nottingham Trent University in the UK.

The ugly-looking globular mound is a droplet of polymer solution, the kind of substance you might find in the ink cartridges of your printer. As the solution began to dry, Fairhurst noticed a number of small “spherulites” begin to crystallise on the droplet surface revealing what appears to be a tiny human face.

“I noticed it immediately and showed it to the other guys - we had a really good laugh about it,” Fairhurst told

The physicist and his group of PhD students reckon the face looks like a small girl, or possibly even the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.

I ran the image through an online face-recognition programme and the names that came out included: Rachel Carson, the American environmentalist; Marlene Dietrich the German-born actress; and (tenuously) Iggy Pop.

Oops, I think I’ve started something here!

Peer reviewers accused of nepotism

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Are reviewers looking out for their own? Credit: David Dennis, Wikimedia Commons

By James Dacey

Every researcher understands the prestige and career opportunities that can present themselves if they can just get their work published in a major academic journal. If that paper contains a genuine “world first” then a young researcher can be set up for a glorious career. How would you feel then if this process was being abused by reviewers seeking to steal glory for themselves and their mates?

This is the accusation made by 14 stem cell researchers in a letter to several major journals in their field. The researchers believe that the peer review process is being corrupted by reviewers deliberately stalling, or even stopping, the publication of new results so that they or their associates can publish the breakthrough first. They also blame the journals for not doing enough to prevent this behaviour from happening.

“It’s hard to believe except you know it’s happened to you where papers are held up for months by reviewers asking for experiments that are not really fair or relevant,” says Austin Smith, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research in Cambridge, UK.

Smith, who was speaking this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, is concerned that reviewers can no longer remain objective when there is so much at stake with these publications. “A paper in Nature or a paper in Cell is worth your next grant - it could be worth half a million pounds,” he says. Very serious allegations indeed…

You can hear the full broadcast here.