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March 2010 Archives

And the winner is…David Singh

By Hamish Johnston

My colleague Sharice Collins has just posted a large number of photos from IOP Publishing’s glitzy reception held on 17 March at the APS March Meeting in Portland.

As I mentioned in a previous blog entry, this year’s party celebrated the twentieth anniversary of our journal Nanotechnology.

The party included a draw for an iPod Nano, which was won by David Singh of ORNL.

Thanks to Sharice for an excellent bash – and you can see in the bottom centre photo that, despite all the hard work, she still enjoyed herself.

Is there anyone out there? Paul Davies’s new book

By Matin Durrani

Whether or not we are alone in the universe is one of the great outstanding questions of existence.

But don’t take my word for it – that’s the view of Paul Davies, physicist, popular-science writer and director of BEYOND: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University in the US and author of a new book The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe.

If you enjoyed Paul’s article about why we should relaunch the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), which can be read online here, then why not tune in on 31 March for a free online lecture by Paul himself?

To register for the talk, which takes place at 4.00 p.m. British Summer Time (11.00 a.m. US east coast, 5.00 p.m. Central European Time), simply follow this link.

You can ask Paul questions too – so if you want to know why he thinks magnetic monopoles could be a sign of alien life, you’d better register now.

Oh, and if you miss the talk, or simply want to hear it again, it will be online a few days after the event.

LHC still poised for collisions at 7 TeV

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Crossing the thin black line

By James Dacey at CERN

This chart shows the first of two aborted attempts to collide two 3.5 TeV proton beams here at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN.

Today is supposed to mark the beginning of the LHC physics programme, and the world’s press is gathered here at the particle physics laboratory to experience the events as they unfold.

Look closely at the chart and you will see the thin black line – which represents beam energy – plummet just after 6 this morning. This was done intentionally by beam engineers, who noticed that bunches of protons had become unstable, and it was better to “dump” the beams in a controlled manner rather than allow them to capitulate freely, which could damage equipment.

This process occurred again at around 8.45, following a similar fault.

I have been whizzing around the LHC’s experiments on the media bus to get the reaction of CERN scientists.

“You should not be at all surprised by this – there are many things that can go wrong with the beams, but the fundamentals have been set in place over the past few weeks,” said Crispin Williams, a detector scientist at ALICE.

Another scientist, Hans-Peter Beck, at the ATLAS experiment, explained to me the difficulties of trying to collide the two proton beams.

“It is like a set of marbles slipping down a sheet of ice. We know they will get to the bottom, but it is very difficult to predict or control their trajectories.”

The next attempt is expected to take place in around an hour’s time.

Watch the CERN webcast here.

Next stop, the LHC

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An unassuming setting for such an ambitious project

By James Dacey at CERN

Early tomorrow morning, I will be leaving my roadside hotel and taking the second exit on this roundabout towards CERN where the scientists will embark on an infinitely more exciting journey – the start of the physics programme at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

This event is marked by the first particle collisions 7 TeV, which will set yet another impressive benchmark for accelerator physics.

CERN has announced within the last hour that the first attempt at collisions will take place any time from 7 a.m. Central European Summer Time.

I will be reporting from CERN during the day, but if you want to be even closer to the action you can follow events via a live webcast, which will include coverage from the control room as well as step-by-step explanations of the procedures.

Later in the day there will be a number of roundtable discussions as well as broadcasts from the LHC’s four experiments: ATLAS, ALICE, CMS and LHCb.

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Steve Jones to head BBC Trust review

By James Dacey

British biologist Steve Jones is to head a review of impartiality and accuracy in the BBC’s coverage of science, called for by the BBC Trust – the BBC’s governing body. The Trust has also published guidelines for this review, which give the scope and the timetable of activities.

The review comes as pressure has mounted on the BBC in recent years due to issues such as climate change, GM crops and stem cell research becoming increasingly politicized.

For example, in 2007 the corporation cancelled a special day of programmes that was to be devoted to climate change when senior news executives questioned the impartiality of this broadcast.

The BBC Trust will assess BBC content across all of its media outlets including the BBC World Service, over the coming months. They say that this will involve a number of public engagement activities.

“It will ask whether the BBC’s coverage of science taken as a whole, presents a partial view of the nature of science and the role science plays within society,” say the review guidelines.

Jones will scrutinize the results of these exercises before writing a final report, which is expected to be published in the first half of 2011.

“I look forward to sampling some of [the BBC’s] huge coverage of physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, geology and more to see how well it is doing its job,” says Jones, who is head of the genetics, environment and evolution department at University College London.

“Science is by nature a field full of dispute; this is how it advances. Dispute is not the same as bias, though: and a bias towards optimism or pessimism is a real danger, both in the public presentation of science, and in the beliefs of scientists themselves.”

In addition to his academic research, which focuses on the evolutionary and genetic aspects of biology, Jones is also a familiar guest in BBC programming. He has made more than 200 appearances on BBC radio and has also been a guest on a number of BBC current affairs programmes including Question Time and Newsnight.

“He was selected on the basis of his academic credentials, of his knowledge of the media and his reputation amongst the scientific community,” says the BBC Trust in a statement.

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A more sophisticated approach is needed

By Hamish Johnston

When I was a boy I remember hearing that a tray of hot water in a freezer sometimes freezes before a tray of cold water. Being an accepting child rather than a sceptical scientist, I had no problem embracing this as another example of the weirdness of nature.

Called the Mpemba effect, the curiosity was spotted in 1963 by Erasto Mpemba who was making ice cream for a school project. The Tanzanian teenager was in a hurry and put his boiled milk into the freezer before it cooled to room temperature and found that it froze before his classmate’s cooler samples.

When young Erasto asked a teacher how Newton’s law of cooling could be reconciled with his observations he was famously told, “All I can say is that is Mpemba’s physics and not the universal physics.”

Undeterred, Mpemba carried out further experiments, eventually writing a paper with a physicist at the University of Dar es Salaam. The paper was published in 1969 – the same year that Canadian physicist George Kell published an independent observation of the effect.

It turns out that Mpemba was not the first to ponder this phenomenon. The idea has been around for more than 2000 years and the 1969 papers led to a flurry of claims that the effect can be observed in everything from food preparation to frozen pipes.

The papers also spurred a debate among physicists about whether the effect is real or merely the result of bad experimental technique. Indeed, it turns out that it is incredibly difficult to define and control all the variables involved in deciding which sample freezes first.

Some physicists believe that the effect is related to supercooling – when liquid water is cooled it can remain liquid at temperatures well below zero Celsius. It could be that the smaller temperature difference between freezer and cold water encourages more supercooling, lowering the temperature at which the sample freezes.

However, some experiments suggest the opposite – that it is easier to supercool hot water!

Now, James Brownridge at the State University of New York at Binghamton has done a series of nine carefully controlled experiments to understand the conditions under which the Mpemba effect occurs.

His conclusion: “Hot water will freeze before cooler water only when the cooler water supercools, and then, only if the nucleation temperature of the cooler water is several degrees cooler than that of the hot water.” The nucleation temperature is the point at which supercooled liquid actually freezes.

He was able to create these conditions in his lab using sealed vials of water that are immersed in a freezing salt solution. He cycled the samples through 28 freeze/thaw cycles and found that the hot water froze before the cold every time.

What I don’t understand about the experiment is that Brownridge seems to have chosen his samples based on the knowledge that there is a 5.5 degree difference between their nucleation temperatures. Or, in other words, the samples are not identical.

So does this mean that the Mpemba effect doesn’t occur with identical samples, but only with samples that differ in a specific way?

You can read more about the Mpemba effect in this Physics World article: Does hot water freeze first?.

Friction in the quantum community

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At loggerheads: John Pendry (left) and Ulf Leonhardt (right)

By James Dacey

Everybody loves a good, strong disagreement between two academics at the top of their game, especially when their positions are polar opposites. Two recent papers, by John Pendry of Imperial College, London, and Ulf Leonhardt of St Andrews in Scotland, draw our attention to one such fracas that is really starting to heat up.

The issue in question is quantum friction – does it exist? In a nutshell: Pendry says, absolutely yes; while Leonhardt says, not a chance.

If such a force does prove to exist, as well as crowning a winner in this debate, it could be of great interest to engineers trying to improve the performance of ultra-small mechanical devices.

Let me give you a brief history of the issue…

Over the past few years, Pendry and a number of others have advocated the existence of quantum friction, by building on the pioneering work of Dutch physicist, Hendrick Casimir.

In the mid 20th century, Casimir worked out that two flat surfaces placed in a vacuum should be attracted to one another. This force arises from the fact that, according to quantum mechanics, the energy of an electromagnetic field in a vacuum is not zero but continuously fluctuates around a certain mean value, known as the “zero-point energy”. Casimir showed that the resulting radiation pressure outside the plates will tend to be slightly greater than that between the plates and therefore the plates will be forced together.

Pendry and others became interested in the situation where the first surface is moving relative to the second one, claiming that friction should exist between the two. Pendry, who is chair in theoretical solid-state physics at Imperial College, develops the idea in a new paper in the New Journal of Physics. He argues that fluctuations in the first surface appear to be moving with a Doppler-shifted velocity, relative to the first surface. This Doppler shift destroys the balance between fluctuations as there are now more of them travelling against the relative surface motion than there are heading in the opposite direction. This, he believes, leads to a net frictional force.

This argument, however, is strongly rejected by Leonhardt, who is chair in theoretical physics at the University of St Andrews. In a comment paper submitted to the arXiv preprint server, Leonhardt claims that Pendry has described quantum friction “qualitatively”, but not quantitatively. Leonhardt argues that, “there is no experimental evidence for or against this effect, no facts”. He criticizes Pendry’s idea of quantum friction claiming that “one could apply the same effect to extract an unlimited amount of useful energy from the quantum vacuum”.

Leonhardt contrasts Pendry’s academic efforts with his own approach to this topic, referring to a paper he co-authored last year. In this paper – developing the earlier work of Soviet physicist, Evgeny Lifshitz – Leonhardt carries out an “exact calculation” for a particular configuration of plates, which shows quantum friction to equal precisely zero.

This calculation of Leonhardt is scrutinized in Pendry’s latest paper, and the Imperial researcher is less than impressed by it. Pendry says that Leonhardt has essentially shifted the goalposts on the problem. “[Leonhardt’s team] claim that a moving surface can be replaced by a stationary one that is bianisotropic,” he told me. “Of course, this leads to zero net friction in their theory.”

So, as you can see, the issues that still need to be resolved include: what exactly constitutes a moving surface; and the conditions that could trigger what Pendry refers to as a “Doppler-induced imbalance”.

For now though, the argument rages on.

LHC poised for key milestone

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Energy record for the LHC

By James Dacey

The bars of Geneva may well be bustling with excited physicists tonight, as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is now on the brink achieving a key milestone – collisions at 7 TeV.

At 5.20 a.m. this morning, two 3.5 TeV proton beams were successfully circulated in the LHC, the highest energy yet achieved in a particle accelerator.

CERN says that the first attempt to collide these beams will follow on a date to be announced in the near future. This will mark the beginning of the full LHC research programme.

Experiments will then continue at this energy until its detectors have accumulated one “inverse femtobarn” of data – roughly 10 trillion proton–proton collisions – with the run ending after two years at the latest.

If all goes to plan, CERN will then shut the LHC down in 2012 for a year or more to prepare it to go straight to maximum-energy 14 TeV collisions in 2013.

“Getting the beams to 3.5 TeV is testimony to the soundness of the LHC’s overall design, and the improvements we’ve made since the breakdown in September 2008,” says CERN’s director for accelerators and technology, Steve Myers. “And it’s a great credit to the patience and dedication of the LHC team.”

Nanotechnology keeps on growing

By Hamish Johnston in Portland, Oregon

The hottest party in town last night was the Institute of Physics Publishing reception at the Hilton Hotel. This year we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of our journal Nanotechnology and group publisher Nina Couzin gave a nice talk on the history of the journal and plans for the future.

Late last year, a special issue was published to commemorate the 20th volume of the journal. Many of the papers are free, so make sure you have a good browse of the content.

And no mention of nanotechnology is complete without a nod to, where you will find the latest research news.

The reception is a great way to gauge what’s hot and what’s not. After three days of sessions, folks were still very keen on topological insulators. But the session that everyone was talking about was Eugenie Samuel Reich’s talk about the “Schoen affair”.

Sadly, I missed her talk because I had already read her article on the scientific fraudster, which appeared in Physics World last year – an electronic version is available to IOP members only.

The most interesting conversation I had was with a theorist who recently shifted his research interests from high-Tc superconductors to topological insulators and graphene. Why? It was the look of horror on potential graduate students’ faces when he started to explain what he did!

Nathan’s results table

By Hamish Johnston in Portland, Oregon

Although college basketball’s “March madness” is about to start, it’s the physics of baseball that people are talking about here at the APS March Meeting.

Alan Nathan of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign spoke about his analysis of data from the PITCHf/x and HITf/x systems that have been installed in all major-league ballparks by Sport Vision.

These systems track the speed and trajectory of the ball allowing, for example, digital reconstructions of plays for television viewers.

It turns out that all of these data are available to the public – and Nathan has used them to study the flight of the baseball.

One question he addressed is the widely held belief that hit balls travel further in the new Yankee Stadium in New York than in other ballparks.

Nathan defined the “carry” of a hit as the distance the ball actually travelled divided by the distance the ball would have travelled (given its velocity when hit) in a vacuum.

You can see the results above, and there is nothing special about the new Yankee Stadium – denoted “NYC-A” – indeed its carry is a little below average (the red line).

So what’s the story with Denver?

Here’s a hint – Denver’s Colorado Rockies used to play in Mile High Stadium.

Nan Haemer sings Updike

By Hamish Johnston in Portland, Oregon

My fondest memory of the 2010 APS March Meeting will be the soprano Nan Haemer’s performance of Updike’s Science – music by the physicist Brian Holmes and words by the late John Updike.

Brian is at the left of the photograph above, turning pages for Terry Nelson on the piano.

As well as being a condensed matter physicist at San Jose State University, Holmes is a professional French horn player and a composer.

Updike’s Science consists of musical settings of six poems by John Updike. Some of the poems make direct reference to science – “Cosmic gall”, for example, begins:

“Neutrinos they are very small…”

Other poems are included because they remind Holmes of science – “Lament for cocoa”, for example could be a lament for thermodynamics with the lines:

“The scum has come, My cocoa’s cold”

Holmes blowing his horn

Before the performance Holmes entertained the crowd with a lively demonstration of the physics of brass instruments.

What did I learn? Well it seems that the pitch of a trumpet with a bell is higher than a similar instrument that ends in a plain tube. Although Holmes didn’t say so, the logical conclusion is that the bigger the bell the higher the pitch – but I would have thought bigger bells result in lower pitches.

The reason, I think, is that a larger bell means that the acoustic node of the instrument is further into the trumpet – which shortens the wavelength of the sound, boosting the pitch.

Heads in the clouds

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Fluffy simulations

By Hamish Johnston in Portland, Oregon

Have you ever wondered why clouds are fluffy?

Well, it’s not an easy question – according to Yong Wang at UCLA. Wang was here at the APS March Meeting to talk about his simulations of cumulus clouds, the fluffy ones that tend to appear after about noon on a sunny day and don’t tend to spoil the rest of the day.

Wang says that these clouds are droplets supported by thermal convection, and their shapes arise because this is a “complex non-linear system” that is driven by thermal plumes.

The simulation begins with a homogeneous layer of water droplets into which small thermal plumes rise. After a while, the jostled droplets look a lot like fluffy cumulus clouds (see above).

Wang didn’t seem to think that there were any practical applications for his work – but I would have thought this could help climate physicists understand why certain clouds form.

You can read more about Wang’s simulations here.

Record breaking accelerator

By Hamish Johnston in Portland, Oregon

Here’s a question for you, what is the most powerful accelerator in the world?

No, it’s not the LHC – that holds the record for energy – the answer is the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS) at the Oak National Lab in Tennessee.

In September 2009 the facility delivered a pulsed beam of 1 GeV protons at a power of 1 MW.

The pulses are fired at a target of liquid mercury, creating copious amounts of neutrons, which can then be slowed down and used for studying solids and liquids.

This afternoon I saw a nice talk by Stuart Henderson of Oak Ridge about recent progress at the SNS. Since experiments began in 2006, the number of instruments attached to the neutron beamline has grown to 12 and he expects that 16 instruments will be running by 2012.

And of course, Oak Ridge hope to upgrade the facility between 2012–2017 – boosting the energy to 1.3 GeV and the power to 3 MW.

Rising plumes

By Hamish Johnston in Portland, Oregon

Any guesses as to what you are looking at?

The red shape is a “person” sitting in a small room. The temperature at the surface of the person is 25 degrees – the temperature of your clothes, apparently – and the temperature of the room is 20 degrees.

The image is from a huge simulation of how air circulates in a room with floor and ceiling vents that was done by John McLaughlin and colleagues at Clarkson University.

The yellow plumes are warm air rising from the sitting person – and McLaughlin looked at how tiny particles comparable to viruses or pollen behaved in the room. He found that the plumes tend to concentrate the particles over the person’s head – and then they fall down onto the poor person!

This could be bad news in a hospital, for example, where there could be lots of nasty bugs floating around.

So if your head is getting dusty, perhaps it’s because you are sitting perfectly still in a small room.

Packed house for Andre Geim
By Hamish Johnston in Portland, Oregon

I had to push my way through the crowd here at the APS March Meeting just to stand at the back of Andre Geim’s talk called “Graphene update”. It seems that there is a still a lot of interest in the wonder material – sheets of carbon just one atom thick – that promises to revolutionize electronics.

The University of Manchester-based graphene guru spoke about a half-dozen or so open questions in the field.

Is graphene ferromagnetic at room temperature, as some have claimed?

“No,” says Geim, who explained how he and his colleagues found no evidence for ferromagnetism down to a chilly 2K.

And what about the vexing question of how to create a bandgap in gapless graphene so that it can be used to create conventional semiconductor devices?

Straining graphene by up to 10% hasn’t worked – and recent calculations suggest that you would have to have to strain the stuff by as much as 25% before a gap appears.

One way forward, according to Geim, is to somehow apply just the right amount of “non-uniform” strain to the material. While this appears to work in theory, it requires the strain to vary on length scales of about a micron – which physicists can’t do today.

A gap could also be introduced by altering the chemistry of graphene. Geim and colleagues have already hydrogenated graphene to create graphane – which has a gap. However, Geim says the material is “unstable” and not suitable for making semiconductor devices.

So if hydrogen doesn’t work, why not try fluorine to create fluorographene? That’s what Geim and colleagues have done – and although the result was a semiconductor with a great deal of disorder, he said that fluorographene could be the way forward to a gap.

Perhaps the most intriguing topic touched on by Geim is the fabrication of “quantum capacitors”, which comprise one graphene plate and one metal plate. In such a device the capacitance is a function of the applied voltage, dipping to zero at zero voltage. And the capacitance oscillates if a magnetic field is applied. I’m not sure what you could do with such a device – but it’s yet another example of the wonders of graphene.

By Hamish Johnston in Portland, Oregon

I know it’s a cliché, but the quantum world gets weirder the more you learn about how it works.

Yesterday I went to a talk by Graeme Smith of IBM Research, whose talk was entitled “Surprises in the theory of quantum communications”.

The surprise that Smith focused on is that two transmission channels – both of which are too noisy or lossy to transmit quantum information individually – can somehow join forces to create a very good channel for transmitting quantum information.

A classical transmission channel fails if you put a signal in one end and get nothing (or just noise) out the other end. By contrast, a quantum channel can fail if you input quantum information but its quantum nature is lost when it gets to the other end – information is transferred, but not quantum information.

But according to Smith, it’s possible that each channel is capable of transmitting a certain subset of the quantum information – but not all of it. The trick is to have two or more channels combine their quantum strengths to overcome their weaknesses.

“The weakness of one is made up for by the strength of the other,” explained Smith.

While it sounds like a great way to build a robust transmission channel from a bunch of bad connections, Smith said that it is not currently clear how to decide which bad channels can be grouped together to create a good channel.

It’s a whopper

By Hamish Johnston in Portland, Oregon

Swinging above the heads of thousands of physicists as they rush to the next session is a very large Foucault pendulum. Indeed, Wikipedia suggests that it is the world’s largest.

It’s day two here at the APS March Meeting and I’m off to hear about how electric and magnetic fields can be synthesized for ultracold neutral atoms.

Steal a speaker’s data at your peril

By Hamish Johnston in Portland Oregon

I couldn’t resist taking a cheeky snap of this sign in a corridor of the convention centre.

Is this a response to the infamous “physics paparazzi”, who take photos of other people’s data during talks and then go off and write a paper that beats the original researchers into publication?

You may recall the scandal surrounding PAMELA data a few years ago when that very thing happened.

When I asked in the press room I was assured that reputable members of the media such as myself were free to take photos – and a press officer is looking into whether there is a ban on delegates taking photos.

As I only saw one sign in the giant convention centre, a more plausible explanation is that the sign was left over from last week’s event.

Zhang (left) next to Molenkamp
By Hamish Johnston in Portland, Oregon

There was a slight panic here in the press room over lunch when we all realized that we will soon be writing about topological insulators. We weren’t exactly sure what they were – but it’s becoming clear that topological insulators are the hot topic here at the APS March Meeting.

Fortunately we received a good introduction by some of the leading lights in the field, including Shou-Cheng Zhang of Stanford University. Zhang described topological insulators as “a new state of matter that has been predicted and discovered”. The prediction – by Zhang, I believe – occurred in 2006 and the first material was made a year later by Laurens Molenkamp at the University of Würzburg, who was also at the press conference.

Topological insulators are actually pretty good conductors (more on that later) and could lead to smaller integrated circuits that run faster and cooler. There is even the suggestion that axions and Majorana fermions could be lurking in these materials.

A simple description of a topological insulator is a material that is an insulator in the bulk, but a very good conductor on the surface.

Why? Well, it seems to have something to do with the quantum spin Hall effect – the accumulation of electrons with opposite spins on opposite sides of a conductor.

Let’s say a spin-up electron is flowing along the surface and scatters off an impurity.
The scattering process involves orbital angular momentum – and thanks to spin-orbit coupling, the spin of the electron is also rotated during the scattering.

Here’s the tricky bit that I didn’t quite understand. If the electron is scattered backwards the spin rotation introduces a phase shift of –1. If you think of this scattering as wave diffraction, destructive interference means that the electron can’t propagate in the opposite direction.

No backscattering means that the resistance of the material is very low, which is very useful if you are trying to make very tiny electronic circuits.

Sounds reasonable, but there are a few things I don’t understand. For one thing, this explanation seems to hinge on the electron only being able to scatter forwards or backwards – but not off to the side.

I’d better start reading-up on topological insulators.

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Mount Hood in the distance

By Hamish Johnston in Portland, Oregon

I arrived here in Portland on Friday evening and spent the weekend sightseeing with my brother.

Spring also arrived here in the Pacific Northwest, with the daffodils up and the cherry trees in full bloom – the sort of March we’ve come to expect in England, but not this year.

City of bridges

While it’s warm, it’s not warm enough to melt the snow on Mount Hood, which I can see from my hotel window – at least I think that is Mount Hood.

This morning I took the tram over one of Portland’s many bridges to the twin crystal towers of the convention centre for day one of the American Physical Society March Meeting – a solid week of solid-state physics.

I have sat in on two press conferences so far, one on topological insulators and the other on the physics of catastrophes. More on both later…it’s time for lunch in the pressroom.

How will science fare in the next government?

By Michael Banks

There was the banging of a fist on the table and a heated moment (albeit brief) when government science budgets were debated.

Yesterday, the science ministers for the UK’s three main parties - Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat — met at Portcullis House in Westminster to attempt to put science policy on the agenda.

Science rarely enters policy debates leading up to a general election. Indeed Phil Willis, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, who spoke before the debate, noted that some party election manifestos in the past have not even mentioned science at all.

Yet science was the only focus at the event yesterday, which was organised by the Royal Society of Chemistry and chaired by Susan Watts, science editor of the BBC programme Newsnight. It featured in the red corner, (Labour) science minister Paul Drayson, in the blue corner (Conservative) shadow science minster Adam Afriyie, and in the other corner Liberal Democrat spokesperson for science and technology Evan Harris.

“This time the parties are neck and neck [in the polls], so there is a real choice,” noted Drayson, who has been Labour science minister for the last 18 months.

There are many aspects of science policy that the three panellists seemed to agree on. All three agreed science is an important issue that should be at the heart of government, a point that was reiterated a few times by Drayson.

They also thought a long-term ring-fence of the science budget was right. This means that the treasury cannot dip into the science budget to take any money out after it has been allocated in a comprehensive spending review.

In the two hour debate, the parties also agreed to try and get a chief scientific advisor into the treasury (every other government department supposedly has one) and that they stand by the Haldane principle, in which scientists decide where research money goes rather than politicians, as well the need to get more women into science.

All very good and noble, but what are the differences in science policy for the three main parties?

Even though the three parties support the ring-fence, there are some differences in what happens for the science budget immediately after the election, which is expected to be in early May.

Drayson says that Labour will protect the ring-fence completely, while Afriyie noted that in the long term the Conservatives are committed to a “multi-year science ring-fence”, but says that the “economy has to be first fixed before we can ring fence any budget in the short term”.

So what could this mean? The Conservatives are likely to run an emergency budget if they get elected and although Afriyie didn’t prejudge the outcome, Drayson claims that the Conservatives would make “harsh, deep cuts” in this year’s science budget if they are elected. (The banging of the fist came as Afriyie asked why the government had not yet carried out a comprehensive spending review.)

Harris, meanwhile, says the Liberal Democrats would “not raid the science budget”, and would not cut the science budget this year.

The biggest difference of the night came with higher education policy. Harris said that the Liberal Democrats would scrap tuition fees amounting to £3225 a year that university undergraduates have to pay.

Afriyie says the Conservatives will repay the loans for high performing maths and science students, but Drayson was more guarded about policy saying that Labour will look at the outcome of the a review into higher education spending currently being carried out by Lord Brown. The Brown review will report after the general election.

A few differences, but it might not be such a bad thing. In the event of a hung parliament the three may well have to work together to make sure science is firmly in the government spotlight.

By Michael Banks

Chris Calwell (left) and Jonathan Koomey (right) present Arthur Rosenfeld (centre) with an award for his contribution to energy efficiency (the award has a 100 picorosenfeld piece of coal inside) credit: Adam Gottlieb.

When PhysicsWorld readers were asked to supply their favourite units last year we were inundated with mentions of “barns”, “sheds” and even “Ox-days”, which measures the amount of land a farmer can plough using an ox.

Now say hello to another unit — the Rosenfeld.

The unit is named after Arthur Rosenfeld, a former particle physicist who moved into energy efficiency research.

Physicists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University have proposed the unit as a measure of carbon reduction and energy saving.

It is defined as the energy saved over a year from not operating an average 500 MW coal plant running at 70% capacity, or saving three billion kilowatt-hours per year, which is equivalent to saving three million metric tons of carbon-dioxide per year.

The researchers, who have published their results in Environmental Research Letters, say it is easier for people to “visualize” the number of power plants that don’t need to be built through efficiency savings rather than just the number of kilowatt-hours saved.

The proposal for the Rosenfeld will be launched today in a symposium on the next generation of energy efficiency, which is being held at the Robert and Margrit Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts.

Romantic science on the London Underground

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A tube speeding into a station Photograph: Transport for London

By James Dacey

It may be convenient, but the London Underground can be a dark, uninspiring place at times. That is why we should welcome this new project by the Royal Society that is decorating London tubes with poetry inspired by scientific discovery and the changes it has brought to our society. The project is part of the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society, and is one of a number of projects and events taking place this year.

Works by William Blake and Alfred Lord Tennyson feature in a collection of six poems that appear in tube carriages across all London Underground lines. The collection also contains more modern pieces including, my personal favourite, a poem called Out There by Jamie McKendrick. The 20th century British poet manages to bring a sense of humour to the, often cold, images evoked by human space travel:

Nostalgia for the earth and its atmosphere
weakens the flesh and bones of cosmonauts.
One woke to find his crewmate in a space suit
and asked where he was going. For a walk.

The project is the brainchild of American writer, Judith Chernaik, who launched the original Poems on the Underground back in 1986. I caught up with her to see what inspired the selection of this particular set of poetry.

“I was looking for poems and poets that crossed boundaries. Tennyson was an obvious choice as he writes so much about the romance of discovery, as did many others during the Victorian period,” she told me.

With more than 3 million people using the London Underground every day, the project will certainly expose scientific discovery to a very diverse audience.

These 6 poems will remain on the tubes until the end of March.

Mayor - cern females.jpg
Taken from an official CERN poster

By Louise Mayor

When an e-mail popped into my inbox about CERN celebrating International Women’s Day (today), my first reaction was to barely suppress a groan. Just that morning I had been grumbling to colleagues about how patronizing I find it when women in physics are given special recognition, the entry requirement being that you are female and the reward being a pat on the head to say, “WELL DONE… you managed all this and you don’t have balls.”

Thankfully, my gut reaction was soon eased upon further reading. The emphasis that CERN are putting on this day impressed me: their objective is “to send a clear message to any young women interested in science and engineering that this is a field for them”. No pats on the head, no patronizing, just an example to inspire young women who might otherwise be deterred from this career by the popular and largely true perception that men dominate science and engineering.

Today, CERN has put more women on shifts in the control rooms than usual and you can see some of them live at work, here. It is refreshing to hear, as well, that half of the engineers who operate the Large Hadron Collider are women anyway.

On the same web page you can also watch video interviews, including one featuring graduate student, Laura Jeanty, who works at the ATLAS detector. Jeanty explains why she is supporting International Women’s Day and why she thinks that more women are needed in the particle physics community.

gr poster.jpg

By Hamish Johnston

If you happen to be in Jerusalem over the next two weeks you might want to contact Rivka Gabriel at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities to arrange a guided tour that includes a viewing of the original manuscript of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Written in 1916, the 46 page document was donated by Einstein to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1925 — but had never been exhibited to the public. The work is on show along with explanatory notes until 25 March to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

The exhibition poster describes Einstein’s theory as “a revolution in how we think about space, time and gravity”.

The poster goes on to say the theory “led to a new understanding of the structure and development of the universe and predicted the existence of black holes. But its significance is not only theoretical: It instigated technological developments of tremendous importance, including our capabilities to determine a position anywhere on the planet by means of a GPS device and to track the movements of distant spaceships.”

The tours last about an hour and you can telephone Rivka Gabriel on 02-5676222.

I want to break animals free

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Don’t Stop Me Now May is concerned that the UK hunting ban could lift under a new government

By James Dacey

First he was a physicist, then he turned rock star, then he penned some popular science books, so what next for Brian May?

Well, according to the Independent, Queen’s legendary guitarist is in the process of refiguring himself as an animal rights activist.

The newspaper report today that May has been lobbying the Conservatives, the UK’s main opposition party, over the issue of hunting. The Conservative leader, David Cameron, has allegedly said that he will repeal the Hunting Act of 2004 if his party win this year’s General Election.

“I’ve decided to take on a lot of work with animals this year,” May told the Independent.

May would not be the first rock star to speak out over animal rights. The particularly vocal include: Chrissie Hynde, lead vocalist in The Pretenders, and Morrissey of The Smiths.

In the world of professional science, clearly, animal rights issues are more relevant to the medical and bioscience communities, but I have done some digging around to see if any celebrated physicists have ever spoken out on the topic. All I could find is that, according to the Animal Liberation Front, Newton, Einstein and Edison all supported the idea of veganism.

Draw your own conclusions with that, but it would be interesting to know if any physicists have ever encountered these issues in their work.

The best site for Europe’s superscope?

By Michael Banks

It has a dome that will be about the size of a football stadium, it will be around 80 m high and have a diameter at its base of about 100 m.

These are the dimensions of the €1bn European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) that will be the largest optical/near-infrared telescope once it is completed at the end of the decade.

Today, the leading site emerged to host the E-ELT, which is a project by the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

Five sites were under review including La Palma in Spain and four sites in Chile: Armazones, Ventarrones, Tolonchar and Vizcachasand.

The E-ELT’s site selection advisory committee chose Cerro Armazones, near Paranal as its preferred site. The site was selected, the committee says, because it has the “best balance of sky quality across all aspects and it can be operated in an integrated fashion with the existing ESO Paranal Observatory.”

E-ELT will aim to study the earliest stars and galaxies, and track down Earth-like planets in habitable zones around other stars using its 42 m in diameter primary mirror, which is made from 984 smaller segments that are each 1.45 m wide. It will also try to probe their atmospheres using low resolution spectroscopy.

ESO’s council will now make a decision on the E-ELT site, which will take into account the recommendations of the committee.

If Cerro Armazones is chosen, then the E-ELT will join ESO’s Very Large Telescope, which contains four separate 8.2 m telescopes.

Obeying the laws of physics?

By Michael Banks

Imagine being able to watch movies for your undergraduate studies. I certainly wouldn’t have minded it. But this is what students at Boston University are doing as part of a cinema-physica course.

Every week students watch movies such as Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense, and Armageddon, and use class discussions and experiments to examine the basic physics behind some of the scenes in the movie.

The course is run by physicist Andrew Cohen who says that it is meant to give humanities students a better (sixth?) sense of what science is about.

“What I want them to understand is how a scientific analysis works,” says Cohen.

So what can students expect on the cinema-physica course?

Cohen runs a clip from Speed 2 showing a cruise ship ploughing into a harbour. In true Hollywood style, people are then thrown out of the ship’s windows as it crashes through the dock.

In the lecture, Cohen and the class calculate that before the ship comes to rest it would have been decelerating at 0.1 metre per second squared. As Cohen says this is a “gentle breeze - no one would be spilling their drinks,” rather than being violently ejected from the ship.

So does it really matter if the science is accurate, and does Hollywood need a lesson in physics?

“Well, no I don’t think so,” says Cohen. “But that doesn’t mean I think they get their all their physics right, but why should they?”


By Hamish Johnston

On 31 March, the physicist and popular author Paul Davies will give an online lecture on entitled The Eerie Silence: Are We Alone in the Universe?. To watch the event, register for free here.

Davies will examine the 50-year search for messages from an alien civilization, and consider several ways in which alien technology might have left subtle footprints in the universe.

Exactly where such civilizations could live is the subject of intense scientific activity as astronomers search the heavens for exoplanets — planets that orbit stars other than the sun.

About 430 exoplanets have been discovered so far, but none of these can really be described as an Earth-like planet in the “habitable zone” — a place where life could emerge and flourish.

This doesn’t mean that habitable planets are rare, it’s just that the techniques currently used to find exoplanets are biased towards Jupiter-sized bodies that are relatively close to their parent stars.

This is set to change with the next generation of telescopes, which will be much better equipped for looking for small rocky planets like Earth.

You can read all about the hunt for exoplanets in Exoplanets: The search for planets beyond our solar system, and eight-page report published by the Institute of Physics (which also publishes

The report does a nice job of describing the various techniques now being used to find exoplanets — and looks forward to new missions that look set to find lots of Earth-like planets. There is, however, a strong bias towards projects that involve UK researchers — that’s because the bulk of IOP members are in the UK.

And if the report doesn’t whet your appetite for Davies’s lecture, why not read his article The eerie silence, which we have just published.

0.0000000000000001 helladollars?

By Michael Banks

“Yotta”, “zeta”, “exa” and “peta” could now be joined by a new number prefix, the “hella”, if a physics student from University of California, Davis, gets his way.

Austin Sendek has started a petition on the social networking site Facebook to establish a new, scientifically accepted prefix for 1027(that is 1 followed by 27 zeroes, or 1000000000000000000000000000).

Yotta (1024), which was established in 2001, is currently the largest number established in the International System of Units (SI) - the world’s most widely used system of measurement — with zeta (1021), exa (1018) and peta (1015) following close behind.

“Hella” comes from Californian slang for “very” or “a lot of”. Sendek says that by accepting the term the SI system can “not only rectify their failing prefix system but also honor the scientific progress of Northern California.”

The petition is gaining ground fast with over 20 0000 signatures (or “fans” on the Facebook page) - or 0.0000000000000000000002 hellafans.

So what could you use the hella for? Sendek claims it could be applied in many “crucial calculations”, including the wattage of the Sun (0.3 hellawatts), or the number of atoms in a large sample (6.02 hellaatoms in 120 kg of carbon-12).

Sendek has not said what he would like to call the number for 10-27 (10-24 is the yocto). So readers, any suggestions?