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June 2010 Archives

Seven rules for a Nobel prize-winner

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Coming to Lindau could be your yearly treat if you win that Nobel gong

By Matin Durrani in Lindau, Germany

OK so you want to be a Nobel prize-winner?

Well here’s a seven-point checklist presented by Ivar Giaever at the 60th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. In case you’d forgotten or had never heard of him (surely not?), the Norwegian-born Giaever shared the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physics at the age of 44 with Brian Josephson and Leo Esaki for their work on tunnelling in solids.

So to bag that top gong and the all-expenses-paid trip for you and your other half to the Swedish capital, here are what Ivar reckons are the required attributes:

· be curious

· be competitive

· be creative

· be self-confident

· be critical

· be patient

· and above all, be lucky.

Strikes me, there are a few key things missing, like, er, being clever. And, if I was being cynical, as you’d expect me to be, then it probably doesn’t hurt to have a couple of chums on the Nobel committee who can put in a good word for you.

Moving to the US wouldn’t be a bad idea either, if past experience is anything to go by. And don’t be an astronomer or geophysicist, who have never done that well on the Nobel gong front.

He makes it all sound so easy.

Showcasing fakes at the National Gallery in London

By Michael Banks

It might seem a strange idea to have an exhibition showcasing fake works of art as well as pieces that have been significantly modified over time. But that is all part of a new exhibition at London’s National Gallery looking at how science can help to restore art as well as spot fake art pieces.

Yesterday I attended the opening of the gallery’s new exhibition Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries. The exhibition, which is free to enter, is open to the public starting today and runs until 12 September.

We were shown around the exhibition’s six rooms by Ashok Roy, the National Gallery’s director of science. Each room in the exhibition explains how science is used to establish the originality of art pieces. This could be by using X-ray or infrared radiation to discover hidden drawings beneath the layers of paint to Raman spectroscopy, which can be used to identify the make up of pigments that are used in the paint.

One of the first paintings Roy showed us was The Virgin and Child with an Angel – in the first room of the exhibition dubbed “deception and deceit” – that was created in the 15th century by the Italian painter Francesco Francia.

To give the appearance of ageing, cracks were drawn on the painting

The painting was given to the National Gallery in 1924 and thought to be an original. However, after another, smaller version of the same painting appeared at an art auction in 1954, art historians deduced that the work owned by the National Gallery was a copy.

Roy showed that the copy was actually quite elaborately done. Indeed, when researchers studied it using infrared radiation they saw a carefully drawn outline underneath the painting as if it was an original.

Roy and his team then examined it further by taking a small sample from the top right-hand corner of the painting to deduce what elements were involved in the pigments. They discovered that the painting had been covered by a material called shellac – a resin that can simulate the appearance of age.

With the help of a microscope they also noticed “cracks” in the painting that had been drawn on to give it a look of authenticity. All the evidence pointed towards a fake painting that had likely been made in the middle of the 19th century.

As well as the ability to spot copies or fakes, another interesting aspect of the exhibition is to see how paintings have been modified over time to satisfy changing tastes.

Woman at the Window before and after restoration

Woman at the Window, created by an unknown Italian artist between 1510 and 1530, shows a young brunette woman looking out from behind a curtain. When the image was carefully restored by removing a varnish and then a surface paint, it revealed that the brunette woman was actually a blonde whose expression had also been changed. As scientists deduced that all these changes were performed in the 19th century, Roy says that it was probably carried out to satisfy Victorian tastes of the day.

Another painting in this room is a portrait of Alexander Mornauer, which was finished between 1464 and 1488. The painting was acquired by the gallery in 1990 and had a blue background – a colour that was not used widely in the 15th century. Roy and his team analysed a small sample of the background to find that it contained prussian blue – a pigment only invented between 1704 and 1710.

But it is not only chemical analysis of pigments or infrared radiation that are used to test the authenticity of paintings. Roy showed a work in the “mistakes” room – A Man with a Skull – that was acquired by the National Gallery in 1845 and was supposed to be a painting by the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger.

Researchers studied what the blue pigment contained (used as the background in the top left image) in the portrait of Alexander Mornauer and removed it to reveal the original background

Rather than peering into the layers of paint on canvas with X-rays or infrared radiation, researchers instead looked at the painting’s frame. As the panel of the frame was made of oak, Roy and his team carefully measured the widths of individual tree rings on the frame to estimate the date when the tree was felled.

By comparing their measurement with a master chronology of oak tree ring growth, Roy and his team could estimate that the tree used for the frame was felled around 1560. As Holbein died in 1543, it was concluded that the painting was not by him but by the Flemish painter Michael Coxcie.

The final room in the exhibition is devoted to recovering works of art. One of the images on show is Madonna of the Pinks by Raphael. Until 1991 the whereabouts of Raphael’s original masterpiece was unknown as only copies survived. One such copy was held in Alnwick Castle in Northumberland.

The National Gallery’s director, Nicolas Penny, was surprised that the painting was held in a rather elaborate frame given that it was a copy. So the painting was sent to the National Gallery’s team of scientists who studied it with infrared radiation to reveal a very detailed drawing underneath the layers of paint. The infrared image also showed subtle changes in the costume and the background landscape in the original drawing to how it finally ended up, indicating that Raphael changed his mind as he worked – ruling out the possibility that it was a copy.

Robert Laughlin believes mankind faces two big hurdles

By Matin Durrani in Lindau, Germany

I mentioned in my previous blog from the 60th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting that after my interview with Carlo Rubbia, he headed off to a session on particle physics. In fact, the session was called “What will CERN teach us about the dark energy and dark matter of the universe” and was chaired my former colleague Matthew Chalmers, who was features editor of Physics World until 2007.

Keeping Rubbia and his fellow Nobel laureates on the panel in shape can not have been easy for Matthew, who also had heavyweights David Gross, John Mather, Gerard ‘t Hooft, George Smoot and Martinus Veltman to contend with, plus a live link to the CERN control room that conked out a couple of times.

I’m not quite sure what the conclusion of the debate was – if there was one – although most amusing was Veltman’s comment that “all this stuff about dark matter is total bullshit”. George Smoot also seems to have shaved off his trademark beard – try a Google search.

One Nobel prize-winning physicist who was not at the debate was Robert Laughlin (pictured), who shared the 1988 prize for his work on quantum fluids with fractional charges. Obviously he’s not a particle physicist and so one would not have expected him to attend, but he’s certainly ruffled a few feathers in the past with this views on fundamental physics.

Laughlin believes, for example, that while the reductionist approach to physics – so beloved of all particle physicists – works up to a point, it only goes so far. He reckons that nature is instead regulated by “powerful and general principles of organization” such as symmetry breaking and that these cannot be deduced mathematically from first principles, being “emergent” in nature.

Laughlin presented those views on emergence in a great (but sadly little known) book he published in 2005, A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics from the Bottom Down, in which showed how you cannot really understand nature by reducing it to a set of ever-smaller component particles that interact with each other according to certain laws. Just think about high-temperature superconductivity of the working of the brain.

But sitting out on the sun-drenched terrace at the conference venue on the shores of Lake Constance, while Veltman and pals were arguing inside over whether CERN would spot dark matter and supersymmetry, Laughlin revealed that he’s just finishing a new book on a very different topic to his last – what we will do when coal runs out.

Tentatively called When Coal is Gone, it presents Laughlin’s view that mankind faces two big hurdles. The first is what we will do when there is no more oil, which could be in 60 years’ time. (Answer: start turning coal into fuel for cars or planes, even though this will consume more energy than it generates.) The second is what we will do when there is no more coal. (Answer: start extracting carbon from the air or oceans.)

Apologies if that’s a grotesque and gross simplification of what are probably much more clearly thought-out and nuanced arguments but that, I think, is the gist of his book.

As far as Laughlin is concerned, nothing can really beat the energy density of carbon-based fuels and that, because we have all got so used to them, there’s no way anyone would choose to do without them in future. After all, plot national GDP against energy consumption and you have pretty much a straight line, albeit with a few outliers. (Energy, in other words, is essential to economic growth and unless we all start eating carrots from our garden and stop travelling anywhere and give up buying big new televisions, the global demand for energy will just keep on rising.)

There’s a lot more he had to say which I’ll have to turn into a more coherent article at some point. We need, for example, to separate out our thinking on energy and climate change. Nuclear power will still play a role in the future, while the need for energy will dictate the future of the global geopolitical system.

But Laughlin is great company, is well read, and has one stream of thought after another. Indeed, here’s one question he posed that got me thinking: if the Earth’s core is so hot, why are the oceans so cold?

Don’t stop me now

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The good life at Bad Schachen

By Matin Durrani in Lindau, Germany

I was tipped off before arriving here in southern Germany for the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting – motto “educate, inspire, connect” – that if you’re a member of the press and want to meet any Nobel laureates, you basically have to fix things up in advance, despite the presence of a helpful press office.

Many of the laureates are a law unto themselves and so just turning up and trying to track them down for a quiet half hour with them is not easy – particularly when there are almost 700 students swarming around the “Inselhalle”, where most of the events are taking place.

It was just as well I’d been given that advice because it meant that I was able to spend a decent hour interviewing the Nobel prize-winning Italian particle physicist Carlo Rubbia.

Unlike the students here, he wasn’t cooped up in one of the cheap-and-cheerful hotels or guest houses in Lindau itself, but had been put up – along with all the other laureates – at the suitably grand four-star Hotel Bad Schachen further up along the shores of Lake Constance, where a suite can set you back €389 a night.

Rubbia, who was CERN boss from 1989 to 1993, is now 76 but shows no signs of slowing down. He’s heavily involved in the Gran Sasso National Laboratory in Italy, which recently opened its ICARUS detector that is designed to study neutrinos fired from the CERN lab in Geneva.

Carlo Rubbia

Sitting in the hotel lobby with a glass of mineral water, Rubbia also outlined his passion for the idea of using beams of neutrons to turn long-lived radioactive waste into shorter-lived waste – so-called nuclear transmutation – and potentially even generating electricity in the process. And he has ideas about using thorium as a nuclear fuel as well.

Like most – I’d guess all – Nobel laureates, science has never been just a job for Rubbia, but his hobby and his life. Indeed, he joked that he couldn’t imagine whiling away his hours on the golf course in retirement.

Still, being wined, dined and generally feted by the organizers of the Nobel laureates meeting has got to be one of the benefits of a hugely successful career in science.

And then Rubbia was off to a round-table discussion about particle physics, of which more later. As for me, I’ll have to listen again to my recording of the interview and hopefully fashion it into a coherent article. But not right now, as I’m desperate to get out of the sweltering press tent – Lindau is in the midst of a heatwave – and cool off.

By Matin Durrani, Lindau, Germany

The harbour at Lindau

“Youth is wasted on the young” was one of the wisest sayings of the playwright Oscar Wilde.

I’m not sure it’s true though for the 675 students and postdocs who are holed up here on the shores of Lake Constance in southern Germany for the 60th Meeting of Nobel Laureates.

The young researchers, who include 198 physicists, have all been hand-picked from among 20,000 applicants to take part in this year’s shindig, which has “interdisciplinarity” as its theme.

It’s obvious that these young scientists are well aware of the value of hooking up with 59 different Nobel laureates such as Carlo Rubbia, George Smoot, Gerard ‘t Hooft, and Robert Laughlin, who are on hand giving talks, taking part in discussions, and holding court outside the main lecture hall.

The organizers claim this is the “most international Lindau meeting ever”, coming from a total of 68 different nations.

If you like, it’s the physics equivalent of a summer rock festival where hordes of students clamour to hear the best minds in their field. Either that or it’s just the world’s biggest freebie.

I’ll be blogging over the next day or two to report more on what’s going on – so stay tuned.

Jon Butterworth

By James Dacey

It’s a tactic you learn in the playground when you are being subjected to childish, baseless insults. Rather than try to engage your aggressor, defending yourself against their insults, you ridicule them by repeating what they say using a silly voice.

This is the tactic that British physicist Jon Butterworth has taken in response to a journalist’s scathing attack on science, scientists and its advocates in the media.

Butterworth was responding to an article written by Guardian columnist, Simon Jenkins, who – despite having no background in science – writes regular rants about the time and resources wasted on scientific research and its popularization in the media.

In his latest attack, published last Thursday, Jenkins attacked the astrophysicist and president of the Royal Society, Martin Rees, whom Jenkins describes as “shameless” in his pursuit of extra funds for science. Jenkins had become incensed after hearing Rees talk about all the things that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider can give back to society.

“Rees stuck to the party line that forbids him to say that £7bn and ‘thousands of scientists’ buried under a Swiss mountain might have been better employed on energy research,” he wrote. “Politicians must show a sense of ‘priorities and perspectives’, he said, but scientists do not do priorities. They just want money.”

Now, rather than pick apart Jenkins’ criticisms one by one, Butterworth – who holds a day job as a particle physicist at University College London – has retaliated by writing a spoof article, which mimics Jenkins’ style.

It opens with the following: “You know, there’s so much science on TV and in the papers these days. I mean, I share in the glory of science every bit as much as people who actually work at it. I certainly know much more than they do, after all, I used to edit the London Evening Standard.”

Buterworth explained his motives in a related opinion piece on the Guardian website. “The trouble is, Jenkins’ meanderings are such obvious nonsense that they unify the science community”.

“This is bad, because we either assume the flaws are obvious to everyone (they aren’t), or we respond with howls of outrage, which, however justified, can appear to bolster his claims that we think science should be above criticism.”

Butterworth comes to conclude that writing the spoof article was the best line of defence to show up how “vacuous” Jenkins’ attacks are.

Courtesy: US Federal Government

By James Dacey

“Carbon in its light form will seek its way out of the ground or seabed. The present situation in the Gulf of Mexico is a poignant reminder of that fact.”

These are the words of Gary Schaffer, a geophysicist who works between three academic institutions in Chile and Denmark, referring to the idea of carbon sequestration.

Large-scale sequestration projects would involve storing vast quantities of carbon dioxide beneath the ground as a way of reducing atmospheric levels of this greenhouse gas. Several types of site have been mentioned as potential carbon bunkers, including the deep ocean and depleted oil and gas reservoirs.

In fact, the idea is so popular that the European Union plans to invest billions of dollars within the next 10 years to develop large scale carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities. The US is also keen with the Department of Energy funding 12 industrial CCS projects to conduct feasibility studies, four of which will be given the go-ahead to become operational by 2015.

But despite the political enthusiasm, it is not yet clear what the long term consequences of this solution would be and the potential impacts of gas leaking back into the atmosphere.

Schaffer has addressed this issue in a new paper published in Nature Geoscience.

By modelling a number of sequestration/leakage scenarios using a well known earth system model, Schaffer reaches several firm conclusions. These include the warning that CO2 stored in the deep ocean will return to the atmosphere within little time, so it will merely delay the inevitable warming effect. He also fears that this strategy would be unacceptably damaging to deep-sea wildlife.

Schaffer also looked at CO2 stored in reservoirs on land or beneath the ocean floor, finding that this may be more effective so long as CO2 leakage is restricted to 1% or less per thousand years.

He warns against thinking we can simply bury the gas again through “resequestration” because there are various engineering challenges in monitoring the rate of leakage. He is also worried about the burden resequestration would leave on future societies, comparing it to the long-term management of nuclear waste.

“The dangers of carbon sequestration are real and the development of this technique should not be used as an argument for continued high fossil fuel emissions,” says Schaffer.

“On the contrary, we should greatly limit CO2 emissions in our time to reduce the need for massive carbon sequestration and thus reduce unwanted consequences and burdens over many future generations from the leakage of sequestered CO2.”

By Nick Thomas

John Flansburgh and John Linnell from They Might Be Giants (Courtesy: Jayme Thornton)

If you are in London or Cambridge this weekend then you might want to pay a visit to the Royal Festival Hall on Saturday or the University of Cambridge’s Babbage Lecture Theatre on Sunday to see the US alternative rock band They Might Be Giants perform to their legions of loyal UK fans.

If you pop along to the gig do not be surprised to hear a number of songs with science lyrics. The New York based band has successfully combined entertainment and science education with their latest album entitled Here Comes Science, which was released last year.

I had a listen to their latest album and talked to the band ahead of their UK visit as well as asking physicists what they thought about the rock group.

They Might Be Giants, who in 1990 released the hit song “Birdhouse in your soul” that reached the dizzy heights of number six in the UK charts, consists of duo John Flansburgh and John Linnell, who formed the band in 1982.

What makes Here Comes Science especially appealing is the use of music, rather than just lyrics, to educate about science. “We’ve been performing science and history songs for a long time and were intrigued by popular scientific ideas,” Flansburgh told

Some tracks from the new album are simply repetitious to supposedly reinforce a basic scientific principle, such as the difference between speed and velocity. “Even a cursory definition of scientific ideas can be a mouthful for kids,” says Flansburgh. “So we tried to explain them in an appealing way. In the song “Speed and velocity”, we just repeat the difference over and over, so by the end kids will know what each is.”

The song “Meet the elements” on the album is a quick tour of the periodic table, and cranks out properties for over a dozen common elements, while “Science is real” and “Put it to the test” outline what science is and how it is done.

Flansburgh says that he and Linnell sought scientific advice when composing the lyrics, and are aware that a few bloopers slipped through. But They Might Be Giants generally get things right in their songs, for example, making the correct distinction between a meteor and meteorite in “What is a shooting star?”

Walter Smith, a physicist at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, says that a few of the physics-related songs are “brilliant” and would even be appropriate for high-school or college students.

“I really appreciate their goal of getting young kids thinking and talking about science through music,” says physicist Jacob Blickenstaff of the University of Southern Mississippi.

Brian Malow, a San Francisco based stand-up comedian with a fascination for science in popular culture has enjoyed their music for years. “They have a song called ‘Solid liquid gas’ which subtly conveys the difference between the three with music,” says Malow, referring to the progressively higher vocal tones as the states of matter are introduced – analogous to their respective increasing molecular motions.

Guy Consolmagno, an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, has been following the band since the days of cassette tapes. “I first heard them when I was in Antarctica 15 years ago collecting meteorites, and several of the other members of my team had brought tapes,” says Consolmagno. “The songs on their new album are great fun, and that’s the most important message you can get across to kids: this stuff is as much fun as sports or rock-and-roll.”

Flansburgh is quite pleased with the reception the album has had. “The response has been extremely positive, especially from teachers,” he says. “The videos are on YouTube and teachers are using them in their classes. Because we’ve had so much success with our music for kids, we’ve been able to reach a larger audience than we ever could have imagined.”

So get down to London and Cambridge this weekend and see the band for yourself.

Glimpsing the birth of a distant star

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Courtesy: A Marston (ESTEC/ESA) et al., JPL, Caltech, NASA

By James Dacey

Our telescopes have delivered so many incredible snapshots of the universe that there is a danger of us becoming a bit blasé about new images.

Not so with this one. This image of a future star as it is been born out of a cloud of gas and dust reminds us of just how beautiful the universe can be.

With the rather less inspiring name of L1448-IRS2E, it is located around 800 light-years away in the Perseus star-forming region, and was captured by the Submillimeter Array in Hawaii and the Spitzer Space Telescope.

It could well be the youngest known star, though it is still too dim to be classified as a true protostar by astronomers.

The discovery and characteristics of L1448-IRS2E are described in a recent paper in the Astrophysical Journal.

Neutrino plot gets thicker

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The inside of the MiniBooNE tank (Courtesy: Fermilab Visual Media Services)

By James Dacey

Last week, I reported a result to emerge from the MINOS experiment at Fermilab, which – if confirmed – will add a fascinating new dimension to our understanding of neutrinos. The researchers were looking at a feature known as neutrino oscillation, whereby these elusive particles mysteriously switch identity between the three different flavours of neutrino.

According to all conventional models, the extent to which this process occurs should be the same for neutrinos as it is for antineutrinos. But to their great surprise, the MINOS team discovered that this is not the case. They found that the energy over which this process occurs in muon neutrinos and muon antineutrinos (converting into tau neutrinos and tau antineutrinos, respectively) is different by around 40%.

A MINOS spokesperson, Jenny Thomas of University College London, told me that the audience was “very surprised” by the result when it was presented last week at the Neutrino 2010 conference in Athens, Greece. But the 2 sigma confidence level seems to have restricted the results to causing a minor ripple, not a soaring wave, in the particle-physics community.

Crashing in behind this MINOS announcement, however, is a new result at a fellow Fermilab experiment that will surely add momentum to their findings. Researchers at the MiniBooNe experiment say that they have seen a similar discrepancy but with muon neutrinos – at a lower energy – oscillating into electron neutrinos (and the related process for muon antineutrinos). What’s more, their results are presented to a confidence of 3 sigma.

David Wark, a neutrino physicist at Imperial College, London, says that if either MINOS or MiniBooNE are correct, “it would not be a surprise but an overwhelming shock”. He points out, however, that the experiments take measurements of different oscillations and don’t directly support each other. “In both cases, we need to see more data,” he says.

Fortunately for Wark (or unfortunately, depending on how big that shock is), MINOS and MiniBooNe are both continuing to take data for at least the next couple of years. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Brazil and Spain top the table

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Ibero-America Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

By James Dacey

Academic institutions in Spain and Brazil account for nearly 70% of all scientific papers from Ibero-America published during the period 2003–2008. This political region incorporates Spain, Portugal and countries in the Americas that are former colonies of these two European nations.

The study, carried out by the SCImago Research group, found that Spain and Brazil each produced around 200,000 papers during this period, while Portugal was lagging in third place with just 50,000.

There are nearly 670 higher-education institutions within Ibero-America, with nearly 50% of these in Brazil, Colombia and Spain. Colombia’s relatively modest scientific output – just 9792 papers – is attributed to the country’s high number of small academic institutions.

The study also ranked the nations on other factors, including quality of publications (based on citations) and extent of international collaboration.

The full report (in Spanish) is available here.

NRU could be up and running soon

By Hamish Johnston

The shortage of medical isotopes caused by the year-long shutdown of Canada’s NRU reactor could soon be over.

Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL) – which operates the 53-year-old facility in Chalk River, Ontario – will appear before the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission on 28 June to ask permission to restart the reactor.

If it gets the thumbs up, AECL says that isotope production could resume by the end of July.

Over the past few years the supply of Mo-99, which is used to make the medical isotope Tc-99m, has been threatened by two safety-related shutdowns of the ageing reactor. Normally, NRU supplies North America with Tc-99m and accounts for a significant chunk of world production.

The first shutdown began in December 2007 and lasted one month. The second started in May 2009 and is ongoing.

You can read more about how AECL plans to restart NRU here .

Inside the science globe (credit: CERN)

By Michael Banks

If you live near or are travelling to the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva then you may be tempted to pay a visit to the “Universe of Particles” exhibition, which begins at the lab on 1 July.

The exhibition will be housed at CERN’s Globe of Science and Innovation and will be free to enter.

The exhibition includes four main themes including “mysterious worlds” looking at the universe and its evolution and “the Large Hadron Collider” (LHC), which is all about the world’s largest accelerator at CERN, while “detecting particles” looks at the experiments at the LHC and “science without borders” is about international scientific collaborations and the spin-offs of particle-physics research.

The four zones each contain interactive games as well as audio and video “kiosks” inside “luminous spheres” that explain research done at CERN.

At certain times during the day the whole globe will become part of the exhibition and its walls will turn into a screen on which a six minute video runs recounting the history of the Big Bang.

The exhibition will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday to Saturday, and being free there is really no excuse not to go.

By Hamish Johnston

Apologies to Colin Humphreys and Julia Goodfellow, whose names I missed when I scanned the honours list on Saturday.

Humphreys, who is director of research, Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, University of Cambridge is to become a Knight Bachelor, for his “services to science”.

Goodfellow is vice-chancellor of the University of Surrey and will become a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) for her “services to science”. Goodfellow is a biophysicist who uses computational methods to study large biologically important molecules.

By Hamish Johnston

Oldham’s answer to Carl Sagan, the particle physicist and TV presenter Brian Cox, will be made an Officer of the British Empire (OBE) by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.

Cox, who is professor of physics at Manchester University, shot to fame over the past few years as a presenter of television and radio programmes about science.

Cited for her “services to physics”, Cambridge physicist Athene Donald will become a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE). A polymer physicist, one of Donald’s lesser known achievements is getting Physics World editor Matin Durrani through his PhD.

Also named today in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list is IOP Publishing’s managing director Jerry Cowhig, who will be made Member of the British Empire (MBE).

Cowhig has been managing director of IOP Publishing for 15 years, presiding over a major expansion of the firm’s international activities.

Both Cox and Cowhig are honoured for their “services to science”.

You can see the full list of honours here.

Simulate to accumulate

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Multiphysics in action
COMSOL Multiphysics in action: Courtesy Metelli SpA (Cologne, Italy)

By Joe McEntee, group editor, in Boston

I’ve been on something of an east-coast road trip this past week – Washington DC, Philadelphia, Boston and several points inbetween.

Just outside Boston, in the high-tech corridor in and around Burlington, Massachusetts, I spent a morning at the North American headquarters of COMSOL, a firm that develops the COMSOL Multiphysics software platform for the modelling and simulation of all manner of physics-based systems.

Regular readers of will doubtless be familiar with COMSOL Multiphysics and its range of scientific applications. If you’re not, you can get up to speed easily enough by checking out COMSOL’s series of popular tutorial webinars over on the multimedia channel.

Webinars aside, COMSOL is also a player in the live-events business. Planning for the company’s sixth annual user conference in Boston (7–9 October 2010) is well advanced, according to Bernt Nilsson, COMSOL’s senior vice-president of marketing.

“The conference is a great way to create community – to get COMSOL Multiphysics users together so that they can share ideas and learn from others about the software tools used to solve physics problems,” Nilsson told me.

He described the user conference as “a smorgasbord of different applications”, spanning acoustics, computational fluid dynamics, electromagnetics, batteries and fuel cells, and many other areas of physics.

For the record, last year’s conference in Boston pulled in 300 delegates from 11 countries with a programme comprising more than 130 user presentations and a supporting schedule of Multiphysics courses and tutorial sessions.

Right now, scientists and engineers are being invited to submit abstracts describing projects in which COMSOL Multiphysics has played a key role. If your submission gets accepted, you’ll be invited to present your work at the conference and submit a paper or poster for the CD version of the proceedings (more than 100,000 of which are distributed to COMSOL’s worldwide contacts).

Full guidelines on submitting an abstract can be found on the COMSOL Conference website.

P.S. Don’t miss the next instalment in COMSOL’s webinar series, “Plasma modelling with COMSOL Multiphysics”, which is scheduled for Thursday 17 June at 10.00 a.m. BST on Click here to register.


By James Dacey

It sounds like a plot to a Dan Brown novel, but this bizarre tale is true.

The middle finger, thumb and a tooth of Galileo Galilei will go on display at the Galileo Museum in Florence, which reopens this Friday after two years of renovations.

The preserved body parts were removed from the great Italian natural philosopher, along with his second finger and a vertebra, in a special ceremony 95 years after Galileo’s death.

While the second finger and vertebra have been preserved in Florence and Padua since 1737, the other body parts went missing at the start of last century.

Then, out of the blue, they turned up last year in a case bought at an auction by a renowned art collector from Florence. Subsequent tests have confirmed that the fingers and tooth do indeed belong to Galileo, and they have now been acquired by the Galileo Museum.

The reopening of the Galileo Museum coincides with the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius – The Starry Messenger – considered by many to be the first formal text based on telescopic observations.

Brazilian wundergoal revisited

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Courtesy: Press Association

By James Dacey

In three days’ time all eyes will turn to South Africa as the first match kicks off in the 2010 FIFA World Cup, the first time the tournament has been hosted by an African nation.

Love it or loathe it, football has developed into a truly global force where fans are now interested in many different aspects of the game from the silky skills of the top players to the fashion styles of the wives and girlfriends.

One aspect that hasn’t changed over the years is the underlying physics of the game, notably the aerodynamics that governs the behaviour of the ball. Indeed back in 1998 we published a feature about this topic inspired in part by a freakish goal by the Brazilian fullback, Roberto Carlos, which appeared to defy the laws of physics.

Playing in a tournament in France, Carlos struck a free kick 30 m from his opponents’ goal. It was heading so far wide of the goal it made a ball boy, standing several metres to the right of the goal, duck his head in response. Then, once the ball had cleared the wall of defenders, it took a wicked late swerve into the top right hand side of the goal, leaving the crowd and subsequent viewers truly gobsmacked.

After scoring that spectacular goal, Carlos took every opportunity to try to repeat the trick but never quite managed it.

The Physics World feature, co-authored by sports engineer Steve Haake of Sheffield Hallam University, breaks down this legendary strike to explain the aerodynamics of the ball’s flight. It confirms something that I have suspected for a long time: that Carlos is not actually a magical free-kick taker, but that some highly unusual atmospheric conditions were in play that memorable night in Paris.

It is a fascinating read and the article also looks more generally at the aerodynamics of sports balls and the kind of research that can explore these processes.

By Matin Durrani

There are some challenges in physics that are, quite simply, harder and more important than others.

Some will argue that the number one challenge is the search for the Higgs boson, the building of a practical quantum computer or the creation of a unified theory.

But for others, the biggest deal in physics is the search for dark matter – the invisible and so far elusive substance that is believed to make up more than 80% of the mass in the universe.

And what’s particularly hard about searching for dark matter is not just that it’s invisible, but that most people looking for it spend their days hundreds of metres below ground, often in mines.

There can’t be many physicists whose job involves travelling up and down lift shafts wearing a hard hat and a day-glo jacket, before brushing the dust off, entering a clean room and then trying to coax a detector into spotting something that we’re not even sure what it might be.

But the reward for whoever makes the first definitive direct detection will be as big as it gets – a Nobel Prize for Physics is almost a nailed-on certainty.

Dark matter was first proposed in the 1930s to explain why galaxies in certain clusters move faster than should be possible if they only contained ordinary matter that we can see. Most physicists now think that this “missing mass” is some form of weakly interacting massive particle (WIMP), although its exact nature is still unknown.

Most dark-matter searches are located in deep underground laboratories because the overhead rock then shields the detectors from cosmic rays that can swamp the dark-matter signals.

But until you actually visit one of these experiments, it’s hard to appreciate the practical difficulties that are involved.

I recently travelled to the Boulby Underground Laboratory in Cleveland on the north-east coast of England for this video interview with lab manager Sean Paling from Sheffield University and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

Once you get underground, the Boulby lab – home to the ZEPLIN-III and DRIFT experiments – looks like any other. But as Sean explains in our video interview, getting the equipment down there is no mean feat.

Paling and colleagues might have a hard life, but they are lucky on one front – the lab is located in a working potash mine, which means that the UK forks out just £300,000 a year on infrastructure costs for housing its dark-matter search.

Other dark-matter searches, in contrast, are located in specially built labs. The XENON-100 and DAMA experiments, for example, are at the Gran Sasso lab deep inside the Apennines in central Italy, while the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search (CDMS) is in a disused mine. The US is even planning a giant new new Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL) that will cost the US billions of dollars.

So the UK search, which has been leading the way for nearing 20 years, is great value for money. But like many areas of UK physics, the Boulby dark-matter work is currently facing turbulent financial times after a decade of healthy funding.

Sean acknowledges that times are hard, and that much effort is needed to secure funding for the future of the Boulby experiments. Let’s hope he and colleagues succeed as the search for dark matter is really starting to hot up as we reported last month.

You can find out more about the search for dark matter in this feature about the DAMA collaboration or in this feature about Boulby.

We’ve also got a second video looking more closely at the ZEPLIN-III and DRIFT experiments.

And if that’s not enough, Physics World columnist Robert Crease invites you to join him in a unique experiment in what will constitute a “discovery” in dark matter.

‘Draw me a physicist, please’ credit: CERN

By James Dacey

Here’s my pick from a collection of artwork produced by schoolchildren in France and Switzerland who were asked to “draw me a physicist”.

The kids, who came from 20 primary school classes from the Pays de Gex and the Canton of Geneva, were given the opportunity to visit CERN and to interview some of the physicists there.

“The picture of the world of research we get from them is full of surprises,” explains Corinne Pralavorio, who handled the project on the CERN side. “It’s a mirror, allowing us to see how young people out there perceive scientists.”

There is a history dating back to the 1970s of sociologists using artwork to gauge children’s perceptions of scientists. It is thought of as a useful way to explore some of the assumptions and stereotypes that may encourage or deter pupils from opting to take a career in science.

From 12 to 23 June CERN will exhibit more than 160 drawings and definitions by children on the subject of scientific research. If you can’t make it (or can’t wait that long), then you can see a selection of the images here.

Can you tell the difference? (credit: US/LHC blog)

By Michael Banks

At first glance it looks like an average webpage from the arXiv preprint server – a website where researchers upload their papers before publishing them in a scientific journal.

But with article authors including “C H Fermi”, “S C Boltzmann”, or “L Heisenberg” you could be somewhat suspicious whether it is indeed authentic.

The website is snarXiv and has been created by David Simmons-Duffin, a PhD student in high-energy physics at Harvard University. It randomly generates titles and abstracts in high-energy physics taking into account the latest trends in the subject and presents them in an identical way as the arXiv server does.

Simmons-Duffin writes on his blog that he does not remember exactly why he decided to set up the website. However, he claims that it does serve some purpose.

For example, Simmons-Duffin notes that if you are a graduate student you can “gloomily read through the abstracts, thinking to yourself that you do not understand papers on the real arXiv any better”. And if you are a post-doc then you can keep reloading the webpage “until you find something to work on”.

Simmons-Duffin has even made a game where you have to spot the real title from the randomly generated one (the real one being a title from an arXiv paper and the random one a title from a snarXiv paper).

Try it for yourself. I managed to get 5 out of 8 correct, which ranked me rather unkindly as an “undergraduate”. (Other ranks include “better than a monkey” or “worse than a monkey” and it seems the top rank is “Nobel prizewinner”.)

Giant hole opens in Guatemala

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Courtesy: Guatemalan Government

By James Dacey

For me it is the sheer precision that is so astonishing.

This image shows a 60 m “sinkhole” that opened up on Sunday in Guatemala City, a result of the tropical storm Agatha that has been bombarding Central America.

The phenomenon is a common feature of karst landscapes, common in all continents except Antarctica. The bedrock in these zones is usually formed of carbonates such as limestone, which are highly prone to chemical weathering and dissolution. Sinkholes can result when underground cavities can no longer support the overlying sediment, and they can be triggered by even a small amount of rainfall.

The opening of this sinkhole is not reported to have killed anyone, unlike a separate hole in the same area that killed 3 people back in 2007.